Jacob Collier is not like us. Speaking to him is like speaking to an alien, and I mean that in the very best way — an alien in the sense that he talks about human life as if he stands apart from it, not above it but just outside of it, peering in over its walls like a curious child. I don’t think Jacob would object to being called an alien, either, albeit a very loving, charming and startlingly cunning one; the sheer genius, immensity and complexity of his musicality at the least renders him as exceptionally, well, different from any other 21-year-old you know.
A multi-faceted musical arsenal, Jacob uploaded his first YouTube video in 2011 at 16, and his subsequent videos — covers of classic songs by Stevie Wonder, The Carpenters and Michael Jackson featuring Jacob playing every instrument from the upright bass to the clavinova, intricately layered with his own staggering vocal harmonies and filmed in his room at home — launched him into the spotlight as one of the most potentially groundbreaking musicians of our generation, all before 21. Since, Jacob signed with Quincy Jones’s management team (he counts Q as someone good to “chill with”), collaborated on multiple gigs with Snarky Puppy, and, most telling of all, spent the last year working with the MIT Media Lab on an unprecedented vocal harmonizer machine built specifically for him and his one-man-show, which he broke in last year by opening for Herbie Hancock and Chick Correa at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
I had met him a few times in person before our Skype session last week, but this recent conversation only reminded me of what I already knew — Jacob can only be described as Jacob. He’ll exude boundless, rapid excitement talking about pentatonic chord changes and suddenly pause, collect, and unleash an eloquent anecdote about his poetry, all the while beaming like a proud child basking in the applause of his first piano recital. His debut album, aptly titled In My Room (and taken from the classic Beach Boys track), coming out July 1 and streaming early on NPR, is that first piano recital brought to life.
The record is unabashedly Jacob in every way: dense, layered instrumentation, intricate harmonies, feel-good covers (including the Flintstone’s theme) and an awe-inspiring range of musical wonder. His taste hasn’t changed much since his YouTube days; In My Room is the same soulful and electric blend of jazz, a cappella, funk, classical music, gospel and neo-soul (his curated Spotify playlist contains tracks from Beck, J Dilla, Nick Drake, Stravinsky and D’Angelo) and finds Jacob singing his own lyrics for the first time. Simply put, there’s nobody like him. More than anything, though, despite the famous advocates and fancy equipment, In My Room situates Jacob as undoubtedly independent; he is staunchly in control of his own creativity, career and life, and, getting to know Jacob, I’m positive he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Speaking to me with fierce intensity and obvious joy while pacing around a hotel lobby during a trip to New York doing press for the album and fresh off a performance in Central Park with Kamasi Washington, Jacob and I discussed a wide-range of topics, including how In My Room came together, Quincy Jones’s role in his career, the vapidity of pop music and the joy of making music only for himself, his experience writing organized lyrics for the first time, the integration of his life and his art, and his place in the world as a public figure, a musician and a 21-year-old.
How long has the album been in the works? Was there a distinct vision behind it, a somewhat distinguishable thematic or musical path you followed?
I wanted to crystalize how it felt to be Jacob at 21. That was kind of the main thing I wanted to do, but I’ve also got this way of making music in this room in my house which is a very vivid environment, a very creative world, and I wanted to do that justice. So at least for this first album, I wanted to do everything in the room, on my own, so I did every sound, every bit of production….my own world. There wasn’t too much of an agenda behind it, other than those things. I just planted some seeds and grew them over a course of three months. And I think without a deadline I wouldn’t have finished it.
Right, I imagine that helped. Was that self-imposed or coming from the label?
Well, I actually don’t have a label behind me.
Oh, I was going to ask….I clearly didn’t do my research well enough.
It’s all kind of confusing but everything comes from me. I’ve signed to give the album to an independent label called Membran (for distribution), utterly independent, there’s no major label involved. I own the rights to all the songs, I have control, and [the label] are simply distributing the album. Every deadline and every boundary is something I have created on my own, which is the way it should be.
Absolutely. Well, okay, under that model, because I clearly didn’t have it down before, what’s Quincy Jones’s involvement in all this?
Quincy has a management company, based in Los Angeles, who I’ve been working with for a couple of years, to realize some of my crazy ideas; I’ve got a lot of crazy ideas, lots I’m trying to achieve. They are such a wonderful group of people. Quincy is just such a phenomenal human being, and being one of the most beloved people in the whole industry, it’s super awesome to have him just on my side, to open any doors if need be, introduce me to people, a whole number of different things. As far as the music is concerned, that’s my ship — Quincy helps by being a presence in my life.
A lot of my connections have been initiated independently from Quincy — Ben Bloomberg, who put together my whole one-man show vehicle and built the vocal harmonizer instrument, he reached out to me independently on Facebook, so my whole connection to MIT is my own one. Quincy and his team help to coordinate that connection, and put a lot of energy into making things possible logistically. Quincy’s connections in the industry are truly extraordinary – he gave me the chance to open for Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea at the Montreux Jazz Festival last summer, for example. That said, Quincy is primarily a friend to me, and it’s a true pleasure to have him as a person to hang out with, to chill with.
Yeah, that was the first gig that I had ever really done with this one-man show, the first time I ever ran it! Quincy is kind of the king of Montreux, because he co-founded the festival… it’s a really an incredible thing to have him on board for those kind of things. As far as those kinds of connections go, he’s kind of unparalleled. I am so lucky to have him on board. As far as creative things go: the album, ideas, campaigns, approaches to music…those things all come from me. And I think that’s the way 2016 should feel as a young artist – that’s the best place you can be.
At heart, you have a lot of jazz influence, and a lot of your music features complex musical arrangements, lots of theory, experimentation…the shit that music nerds like me love but music that maybe isn’t accessible for a bigger audience. Do you feel like pop music today is missing a lot of musicality? Is one of your goals to bring more complex — if you want to go there — “real” music back into the forefront?
I think pop music always is what it is. I think the thing I find frustrating about pop music is that people aren’t able to be very vulnerable, because the level at which you need to have things overproduced and over-compressed, you leave so little room for just humanity and imperfection and movement and self-development and risk-taking and all these things that are so valuable to human life and to a musical career.
My problem with pop music is that it’s not real. Any music that someone does with a lot of life behind it and a lot of knowledge, they’ve worked hard on their craft, they’ve understood what they’re doing, they have something valid they want to say — if someone wants to say something, there’s nothing you can say that’s bad about it because that’s music when it’s at its best….(In pop music) it’s ended up being that the production squeezes all the life out of the music, and the attention spans, with the internet, everything is so small, so tight; people aren’t patient enough to unwrap music. One of the biggest joys for me, and I’m sure for you as well, is to unwrap some music; when you have a song, you listen to it again and again and you get different nuances of it.
You realize a song can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but I find a lot of pop music — not all pop music, but many songs one hears on the radio — is difficult to experience on a multitude of levels. That’s something that, as an artist, is important for me to try to explore as much as possible, mainly just because I don’t make music for anyone else! I don’t make music because I want other people to love it and to hear it, I make music because it’s the thing I love to do and that’s the one thing I’ve always invested in. A world of making music which is on my own terms. And that’s what I’m afraid a lot of young musicians who are in the pop world don’t realize should be at the center of making music. The center of making music shouldn’t be “man, one day I want to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, I want to be rich, I want to be famous.” I think that’s a real Los Angeles pull that people become really obsessed with.
Yeah, that’s definitely accurate.
And the weird thing is that it’s not real. There’s no end of the road; when you’re trying to be famous, you never get there, you never get as famous as you want because your threshold keeps rising. So the only thing you can really do is invest in the way you are and what you’re doing and I guess that’s really what I’ve tried to do. Just because I know that making music is what gives me the most life of anything I do in my life.
I think it’s really mature and also really healthy that your number one standard is yourself, you know? It makes total sense. Every single person I admire, in whatever industry, tends to share that standard.
That’s great. And some people say, “oh, you should make music for other people, you should make music that other people love and enjoy”; that’s true, you should think about sharing your music with people….it’s just an interesting paradigm where if you listen to yourself first, then the music is going to be way more real and other people will feel that. It’s something that you can feel when someone is authentic and doing the thing they want to do and doing it to the fullest of their capacity. It’s never going to get more “relatable” and that’s something the record labels don’t understand…[the major label approach] can work well for some people, but for anyone with a sense of artistic integrity, a vision, a self motivating thing, it’s way more important to figure out what you want to do first.
Yeah. I could never see you in that type of model. It makes me really relieved, actually, that you weren’t signed to a label. Moving on, a lot of your early videos were covers, but on this album, it’s all original content with lyrics. Was writing lyrics a challenge for you, considering that you’ve had more experience as a musician? How was it developing this aspect of the project?
That’s a really good question. Funny enough, I’ve always written words. All the time. I have a book of thoughts that I’ve written in since I was thirteen or fourteen, and I write a lot about everything…I find it so interesting to compound images, different imagery together, in the same way that harmony works…I think language is really similar to music, I’ve always explored it. Lyric writing is different because it’s something that the music needs to uphold and affirm without getting in the way of it. What I realized fairly quickly having been such an intricate writer of words in the past, with vivid language — which is exactly how my music is — is that you can’t do both at the same time; you can’t do really vivid music and really vivid words, otherwise you have too many things to think about. What I decided to do was to really try and write words that, at their essence, are very simple but contained a lot of capricious space for people to interpret as they will and make relevant to their own lives, otherwise there’s no point writing songs, really.
I really thought about writing lyrics in terms of not making them very complicated because the music is not crazy, crazy, crazy, complex but it’s often very intricate and very full. And I think that it’s important when you write a song and there are words in the song that you allow the words to sing as the most important thing in the front of the song without the musical side of things taking over. And the process of that changes with the song. There’s one song where I started with a poem that I wrote and then I went on to essentially find a context for that poem. And then there were other songs where I had a funky groove and I wanted to find the words that fit in. But I’ve really enjoyed it; these are the first songs I’ve basically ever written.
That’s what I thought. I want to discuss a few specific songs — first, the Flintstones cover. I feel like that track kind of demonstrates this play between simplicity and complexity; you took this song that’s a staple, that’s known by the entire populous, and turned it into something incredibly rich, incredibly unpredictable and totally refreshing.
Yeah, I loved it, I freaked the fuck out when I first heard it. Why did you pick that song?
I thought about arranging the Flintstones for the last five years, it’s kind of a silly tune and one of my favorite TV themes I’ve ever heard. And it’s super simple, and that’s the [key to] arranging something, often you need to start with something that has simplicity in it. Sings theme. It’s a pentatonic melody, and then on the bridge there’s a rhythm change. It’s repetitive, interactive, memorable, strong…I’m going to mess the fuck up, I’m going to completely destroy it, so it’s about it having enough substance and repetition to survive. So that was just a tune I always really enjoyed, and the fact that it’s repetitious and harmonically quite simple, quite stagnant….the thing about a rhythm change in sequence is that you’re essentially in one key and kind of going around and playing with different parts, and then the bridge goes off and comes back. So for me that’s a great thing to work with, because you have a point to be at home in, and then the game is how to depart in all these different ways so you can return and set this big old paradise, this thing you’ve built up.
Totally. Going back to the lyrics thing again, a song like “Saviour” feels like it has very personal lyrics, or at at least contains something from your own experience. How much of the album, besides capturing what it means to be Jacob at 21, is experiential? How vulnerable were you willing to be?
I think vulnerability is a different point from talking about your own life. I’m always slightly cautious about writing about certain people, because your life always changes and people change in your life and also….I really have my own space in my life and it’s nice to have a space that is mine, which is kept for me. So I’m not going to write a song about my mom or about my girlfriend, in other words, I think that might be kind of strange, but having had experiences in all these places, it’s nice to use the things I’ve learned and these things I enjoy describing, these people and these places….there’s one song, have you heard the album?
Not yet, just the singles. Waiting for you to hook it up.
Well there’s one song called “In the Real Early Morning,” that’s the one I wrote the poem about, and the poem is a mixture of every female character in your life that you’ve ever encountered. It’s almost a dream-like encounter where you meet this person who is no longer with you for some reason or another and it’s this woman or this person, and this person represents your mother or your daughter or your lover, and you have his conversation not really about anything, just this interaction. And you kind of affirm each other and then you part again. And it’s not a very literal thing, it’s very easy to interpret it in different ways. That’s a very special song to me, and I would say that there is a lot of vulnerability in there, but not in the sense that I’m going to put my private life into a song. Because that’s not necessarily vulnerable…that’s just a decision you make I guess.
For me it’s increasingly important in a crazy world of traveling and representing Jacob Collier that I (still) have Jacob. So for that reason it’s nice to have a sense of my life which is my life and then taking parts of it and describing them. A song like “Saviour,” it wasn’t really an experience, it’s really like a celebration of independence. I encounter a lot of people — and I kind of enjoy not taking them seriously — who say “hey man, I’m going to make you a star, come this way, I’ll help you.” And these people often mean well but it can be quite a frustrating thing; these people sort of invade you a bit. So it’s a celebration…the lyrics and the chorus, I’m like, “you say that I’m lost and you can help me find, but I don’t wanna be your saviour” and then it’s, “I wish you could tell me something, change my mind, but you don’t want to be my saviour” so the idea is sort of a double bluff. It’s essentially saying that I would be saving you if I allow you to “save” me. Someone says, “I want to save you I want to help make you a star” or “I want to be somebody in your life that’s important” and essentially what the song is saying is that someone who thinks they need to save somebody else needs saving themselves.
Right. It’s a selfish pursuit, is what you’re getting at.
Well not necessarily selfish. Like I said, a lot of people who feel like they need to save someone often need saving. It’s more about understanding…that the person needs to provide his own energy. And so that song is saying, “I don’t want to be your saviour by allowing you to help me.” A person’s only possible saviour is himself. Which is nice…that’s a thing to celebrate. And that’s not to say that you can’t interact with people…
Of course. But the song is just synthesizing one hypothetical.
Yes. It’s nice to live on your own terms.
I’m only a few months older than you, but we’re on very different trajectories to say the least. I wanted to know, what’s it like being 21 years old, on the road, separated from friends and family for stretches of time? What’re your friends from home up to? Do you ever feel some disconnect from your generation or age just because of what you’re doing professionally?
In some ways…I’ve found it easier to relate to people who are older than I am, who are working. And people who are my own age, I’ve never felt a massive kinship with. But I’m very close to a lot of my mates from school and stuff like that, and those guys are just finishing college. It’s a different world, and it’s really, really awesome to spend time with them, because it brings me back to earth. The trouble with travel is that…I have to represent myself a lot of the time. I have to live as Jacob Collier, being Jacob Collier. Which is super wonderful, super fun; it’s also very important to have times in your life and people who you are with for whom you aren’t Jacob Collier, you’re just Jacob. That’s another reason why it’s wonderful to live at home — my family doesn’t see me as Jacob Collier; I’m just Jacob. And it’s the same with my friends from high school.
It’s interesting to speak to people who are doing all these other things and I think that one thing I’ve seemed to have realized is that there are lots of times where, if a person is successful in a certain field, then people often forget that they’re a real person…I find it increasingly important to have real people interactions. Whenever I meet somebody, like after a gig or if they’re saying thanks or I’m teaching, I try to get it so that we are on equal terms, because then we can have a valid, human connection. Otherwise we can’t.
Right. Even playing field.
So I guess to go back to my age group thing, my dearest friends are my age, I suppose. But I’ve always had a certain affinity for older people, because they have this wisdom, and they feed my really, really thirsty mind, which always seeks to learn new stuff and experience new languages and go and be immersed. And that’s something that, being on the road and being on tour, it’s really awesome to meet so many people and to make human connections with these people…it’s hugely awesome and in many ways I’ve landed myself in the deep end of the world, which is cool because I’ve had to grow almost at an accelerated rate. And then on the other side I’m still absolutely 21. I don’t know how to make a good meal, can’t use the washing machine…
Yeah I still can’t cook for shit.
But it’s just nice to be able to taste all these different parts of the world and seeing all these different ways of living. It’s very important for me to still be 21, and I can’t really not be 21. I guess it’s this thing of having grown up in certain ways. A lot of self growing-up — being aware of my own mind and how it works, and being a really good friend to myself, that’s something I’ve had to learn quite fast….so I’m kind of this skewed learner, I always have been a little bit, but it’s awesome, it’s so exciting.
Absolutely, and just hearing you talk, it’s so true because at the end of the day it’s just you. Regardless of who you’re meeting or even your family or traveling to all these places…
I guess this makes sense now, talking to you and knowing your music — you just piece together all these different things you’re experiencing into one, cohesive experience, whether that’s in music or your lyrics. I don’t know. It’s just good to see that people our age are still curating individuality, still creating a sense of self.
It’s a really important thing to promote. And it’s not so much that I want people to make solo albums as much as I think people should do things on their own terms. I think they should continue pushing themselves. A big one that I think education doesn’t really provide is this whole idea of being…kind of like you were saying, this idea of being vulnerable. I think people are a bit afraid to embrace their own lives, and embracing your own life doesn’t have to be “I’m going to write a song about Katie, the love of my life!”
But I understand the value of [important] experiences in life. Say for example you lean your elbow on a girl’s shoulder and you feel her soften. That’s such a vivid feeling! I might say that to you — you know exactly what I mean. Or if you’ve hosted a party, and everyone else has left and you’re clearing up the plates on your own — that’s a really vivid feeling. These are experiences in our lives and if you can associate your musical language with those kind of emotional connections, then you have a really, really powerful vehicle of how to express… things that you feel. I don’t have to write a song about clearing up after a party but, just in the way that I phrase something or leave out a note in a chord or emphasize a little thing, it’s kind of like saying, “what do you long for?” Play the things that you that you long for. I think Wayne Shorter once said that to me: “Play what you wish for.”
It’s the sort of thing like, often when I’m on the road I’m tired and whatever, and when I play a song on the piano in the shows, and if I’m going to play a song I’m going to play the home I’m wishing to be at. Or if I’m on the road and I’m really stoked, [I’m] playing the energy I’m being surrounded by. And it’s that [ideal] of just connecting your life to your music. With education and stuff like that a lot of the time you learn the theory really separately from how you learn the emotional part of life, because learning the emotional parts of your life is just living it and being aware and having the courage to look around and see yourself as you are. The technicality thing, a lot of people at our age can get quite competitive…there’s enough of that in the world; there isn’t people who are taking [life] as a language and being really honest with it. For me, lots of the time that isn’t being really simple, it’s actually really chaotic, really intricate.
I can imagine.
Because that’s kind of what I’m like. When you make an album like this, it’s like getting to know yourself: “actually, I’m not the calm, simple person. I’m like an energetic, chaotic, crazy person.” And it’s nice to understand that in its fullest capacity.
Jackson Howard is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Not Mad. He still sleeps with a miniature Winnie the Pooh.