Interview: Jacob Collier

‘I constantly want to push myself, challenge myself. I constantly want to outgrow where I was yesterday.’ Says PRS for Music Gold Award winner Jacob Collier.

Jacob was presented with the prestigious gong last night (Tuesday) at the Jazz FM Awards in London, and at 24-years-old is the youngest ever recipient of the award.

After he was presented with the award, he received a personal video message from his mentor Quincy Jones.

The young self-taught musician caught the attention of the jazz legend via his homemade YouTube videos that featured cover versions of Stevie Wonder, and has since gone on to win two Grammys.

Jacob has subsequently built a reputation for his pioneering use of technology and complex arrangements, and is currently embarking on an ambitious four-part work Djesse, which will be released throughout 2019.

We caught up with the multi-instrumentalist fresh from his win to get his reaction on this latest recognition, his thoughts on the future of jazz, and his creative process…

Congratulations on receiving the PRS for Music Gold Award at the Jazz FM Awards, what does the win mean to you?

It’s really unexpected to be honest. I didn’t even know they gave this award until I looked it up. It’s amazing, it’s crazy to be recognised in this way.

And you’re the youngest person to receive it.

Yeah, I guess so. It’s wild. I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. It’s nice to be at home in London as well. Being with these guys, the audience, is like being with family, the home crowd.

How was it performing here?

I always feel like it’s a really neutral place for me to be, on stage performing. Talking about an award is always a bit of a contrived thing to do. It was nice to be able to play and sing for everyone.

And how did it feel to get the video message form Quincy Jones?

It was amazing, so nice. They must have planned that well in advance because I know how busy he is. It was a crazy thing to sit on stage and hear those words. Lovely.

Jazz appears to be in rude health currently, how do you see the genre progressing in the future?

I think the question to ask is, what is the jazz sensibility? For me jazz is always about freedom, freedom of expression. Jazz is musician being free with every type of music. Taking things form rock and roll, or folk music, or classical music, electronic music, pop music, all sorts of things.

I’m imagining that jazz will always be on the right side of every line because jazzers are the ones that think about music. It’s something Quincy often says to me, that “jazz is the classical music of pop,” in the sense that every great song comes from an understanding of chords, and if you want to seek a great understanding of rhythm and harmony then you always study jazz.

So, I’m so excited to see where the young musicians and old musicians will go with the language because it’s evolving so fast. In my estimation genres will keep on overlapping, people will continue being fearless and as long as at the centre of the whole thing is the kind of values that jazz really stands for – that sense of freedom, that richness of culture – it will live forever. Nothing touches that emotional space.

From your very first YouTube videos you’ve embraced technology, could you talk a little bit about how it feeds into your creative process?

Technology can be very distracting in many ways, and all of us our quite addicted to it, but if you use it in the right way it can be such an extraordinary tool kit for getting your ideas out fast and collaborating and communicating with the world.

I grew up in the YouTube generation – YouTube was founded when I was 10 – and within a few years that was the place to go and check people out. Obviously, those rabbit holes that are possible to enjoy when you’re a teenager are so crucial.

I already loved the freedom it gave me to listen. All I had to do was invert that process and I had the freedom to create at any time with no rules whatsoever. I could set my own boundaries.

That shows a change in the wind because I didn’t have to prove anything to get started. I didn’t have to wait for someone to come and validate what I was doing. I didn’t have to have a great big budget for a studio, I did it all in my little childhood music room at home, and I made that album In My Room.

To have something like the Grammys come along after that album was extraordinary, but really exciting because it proves that if you have an idea that’s strong enough and you have time, and you give energy into creating it, then there’s nothing that can hold a creative person back. Only maybe themselves.

You co-developed a vocal harmoniser so you could perform multi-voice harmonies in real time. Is there any yet-to-be-invented tech you’d like to see become a reality?

Absolutely. I have Google Docs full of unmade technology. There are all kinds of things we aren’t close to developing yet.

The idea of harmonic intelligence. If a computer watched somebody harmonise for a length of time, it might be possible to distil the process. You could control parameters and control harmony, without being a musician. I think that’s a really interesting thing for someone to experiment with. Playing with musical language without being a musician. So that’s something I’m thinking about doing.

But there is all manner of things to do when it comes to the stage that are yet to be done, whether it’s crazy video ideas or holograms or generative audio visual stuff or musical instruments I want to build. All sorts of stuff, so I’m working on it.

Your work has always had a strong visual element, how important is that to you?

I think it’s crucial nowadays. Everything is visual. Everything is about visual stimulation. I wouldn’t say that it has greater importance than the music, but I would say that it’s very important to consider it and I love visualising things in my head.

I feel lucky to have been brought up in a world where I had those tools. There was iMovie on the laptop, I started there, and then I got Final Cut Express, and slowly but surely you work out that’s how you make things lighter, that’s how you make things darker, that was my whole learning process, I didn’t have teachers.

It was the same with music, I learnt music by listening and experimenting. I think the real fortunate thing that happened to me as a young person is that I was able to take charge of my own learning. Even five years before I don’t think it would have been the same. I was able to not only create what I wanted to do, but learn and lean into musician, research them and just fall in love with all these different styles of music.

What would your advice be to young songwriters starting out?

I would say surround yourself with people who trust you. It’s easy to be caught up in somebody else’s idea of who you need to be and what you need to be doing.

I would say take your time to do the things that you want to do. Don’t compromise on anything creative. If it comes down to, it can be done fast, it can be done quickly, or it can be done in a way that people like it, stay with the idea until you know it’s correct. You have a sound that represents what you love.

Give yourself a chance to love stuff, especially if you’re young. I remember when I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music for a couple of years as a jazz pianist, every day on the bus I would listen to a whole album, every day on the way out I’d listen to an album. I listened to thousands of albums. I’d have mental notes about what I liked and didn’t like, and now when I sit down to create, I draw on that rich body of work. I sipped at it. So, I would say, it’s all out there, it’s all free, go listen to it. Then give back.

What sparked your early experimentation with complex arrangements and reharmonization?

I don’t know. I just love it, I love harmony, I love weird notes and chords. I love putting as many notes as possible to every chord, and I did it obsessively as a teenager. I would listen to an album, singing along, adding all the notes I wanted to hear.

I constantly want to push myself, challenge myself. I constantly want to outgrow where I was yesterday. There are two different axes of growth, there’s growing forward, where you’re gathering things, and then there’s growing down, where you’re consolidating what you know.

For me, there have been different phases of my creative life where sometimes I’ll just want to try everything out and sometimes, I want to sit on some things and live with them for a while. As a result of those two forces moving, I’ve ended up with these arrangements that are filled with my own learning. You can smell it when you listen to it, well at least I can.

Now making this 50-song album, it’s like, let’s get it all out, all that I’ve learnt.

jacobcollier.com