At its deepest level,
music becomes many things: a lifeboat, an oasis, a source of hope, a well of
joy. In tumultuous times, music can serve as a beacon of light to guide us
through the darkness. To experience the otherworldly musical genius of Jacob Collier is, in the words of a
friend, “like staring into the sun.”
image by Greg Gorman
|The "One-Man Live Show Creature"|
image by Betsy Newman
Joe’s Pub last September, I witnessed the jaw-dropping spectacle of Jacob’s
“One-Man Live Show Creature”, in which he uses a combination of musical and
technological wizardry to deliver a full-on “band” concert. A singer/songwriter friend, 8X8’s Lane Steinberg, was also
in the audience, and emailed me the following day to share his thoughts.
Reading them, I was blown away by the way they mirrored not only my own
experience but, no doubt, that of everyone who has ever attended a Jacob
Collier concert. I knew I had to share them with Jacob when we talked.
Eight days into the New Year, Jacob spoke with me via transatlantic telephone from the warm, familiar atmosphere of his now-famous music room. Relaxing at home during the month of January with family and friends, he’s using the precious time off to recharge after an incredibly busy 2016, while preparing for a short American tour that opens on February 7 at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
RA: At what age did you first start composing?
RA: And this process has been very organic; you’ve had no formal training, as I understand.
JC: No. The only thing I learned formally was to sing classically. As a boy treble, I had some experience singing in operatic productions. I sang the role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw which was written by Benjamin Britten, an incredible composer from England. The harmony he was getting into … I’m still unpacking it right now! I originally heard that at age 13, being one of those boy treble singers that had that pure, high voice. That was my first performing experience, actually. I wasn’t being Jacob then, I was being the character I was playing. I learned how to sing so I could project and things like that. That ended around age 13. The learning which I kind of crafted for myself (grew), being given a double bass for my 14th birthday, then I saved up loads of money for an electric bass, transferred that knowledge over there. A guitar, at some point, made its way into the family, so the guitar was similar to the bass in some ways, and I found out how to transfer some of my knowledge onto that, and when the mandolin came along, that was a different system of strings, understanding the use of fifths instead of fourths, so I began to play melodies on that. I guess that’s how I learned. I just started to make stuff, and the more stuff I made, the more it made sense to refine and reconsider. I’ve been listening to music my whole life, so I guess that has been my fuel rather than having been spoon-fed by a teacher, and I’ve had teachers in this point in my life, musically, but I’ve always considered myself more of a self-teacher (in that) I could pick and choose the bits that I really find connect with me, and run with those. That’s something that goes wrong sometimes with formal education. The teacher transfers their own frame of understanding onto the students. I had a massive investment in my own imagination, I suppose. That was the first thing that I always considered. It wasn’t what other people thought about it, it was how I felt about it. That was instilled in me at an early age. That was my learning process, and continues to be.
RA: In a recent interview, you spoke about playing the bass, and how before even picking up the instrument, you had internalized so much from watching other people that, upon picking up the instrument, your hands seemed to fit around it naturally, right out of the box. Did it already feel somewhat familiar to you?
JC: That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say that my hands grabbed the bass and suddenly I knew all the licks. I think that I’d been familiar with bass players for lots of my life in terms of listening to them. I’d been singing a bass line; I had to play a bass note on a piano. I had an understanding of how it felt to be a bass player, so when I got a bass, the only thing that really had to catch up was my hands! It wasn’t my ear, because my ear had an understanding for who the bass player was in the band, or what the role was. It was supporting the harmony … I knew I could understand it, but I didn’t know I could do it. And I think, for me, I always think that it’s my Technicolor (brain) and my hands … it’s (a process of) constantly catching up with my brain, which seems to be always ahead of the game. I find that I can always understand more than I can do. So, what this means is that as long as I have a process, I will be learning, because my mind and my ear is stretching in one direction and my hands don’t have a choice but to catch up, because that’s what I want to be doing. And so I felt that, a lot of the time, some of my most accelerated learning has come from when I understand; I want to play something [scats] but I can’t play that until I work it out, so I work it out … and [chuckles] that’s how I learn a new lick on the bass! I think that, to kind of romanticize the thing: “Here’s your new double bass, Jacob!” …. and then (start) playing concertos … that’s a slightly unrealistic (image) to present. But I do think people always know more than they think they do. I really uncovered a whole bulk of bass-related knowledge once I was introduced to the bass. Through singing, really, it was just going, literally [scats a walking bass lick] and suddenly, all I had to do was work out where those notes were, and there it is! (Other people) need to think to form a language of things to actually play before they know what to play; I kind of knew what I wanted to do with it; I just didn’t have the skill, and the skill is something which still, to this day, is growing and catching up with my awareness of what bass means.
RA: How did you develop your video production techniques?
JC: [Laughs] It was way later in the process. I never think of myself as a video editor; I’ve come to represent video editing as an individual, but I think it was around at the end of high school, so when I was about 16 or 17, that was when I got my first laptop, on which was iMovie that was extremely limited. I was frustrated, because I wanted to try find a way to visualize ….I guess I’ve always been interested in visualizing things I’ve heard, but I never did it until that age, and—I think right now, you probably can do split-screen on iMovie, but when I was 16, you couldn’t. At my school, they had a copy of Final Cut Express; it’s not the easiest thing to use; I know that Final Cut Pro is good, but Express is kind of strange. I remember having a conversation with one of my teacher and just saying, “I’d love to just have a go at this at home. I don’t have it, but I wonder, is there any way I could take home a school computer, or something like that?” A couple of days later, I went into the room, and this wonderful teacher laid a CD down on the table and said, “Well, I’m really sorry, Jacob. We can’t give you the software. You’re going to have to go and buy it yourself.” He walked away, and I obviously took the CD home [laughs] and on it was Final Cut Express, which was just wonderful! I then began to explore the whole concept of it, the whole concept of layering and layering, which is obviously an idea I’d been used to and was expanding at that age a lot. Doing lots of different layers, and bass and drums, (and vocal chords)… guitars and percussion, things like that. I had this idea, at one point, (that) it would be really fun to try and visualize all the things you can hear, because it would be an enjoyable experience to kind of look around and see—well, there’s that going on, there’s that going on—I’ve always loved symmetry and things being very balanced and stuff like that, so I guess it was transferring that process, which I’d been used to in music, into the software. Within two years, I bought Adobe Premiere Pro, which I’d heard from a friend was slightly better. I saved up lots of money and got myself a copy of that, which is the program I still use for video editing. And yet, it’s simple; I don’t try to do things that are too clever, partly because I’m not capable of doing it. I mean, really, the basic thing I want to do is to show people what’s going on. I think that the moment you try to make things sort of spark and zoom and have a bit of (magic) of their own, it can detract from what’s going on with what you’re hearing because actually, there’s often enough going on with what you’re hearing to satisfy the amount of attention that people are going to give it. When I did “P.Y.T”, that was a bit of a tour de force for me, and I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I actually deleted the whole video session by accident, so I don’t have it anymore, which is a shame. But I learned how to do things like automate movements with video tracks and flip things upside down and add lightning and all these kinds of weird effects that I uncovered, so that was a bit of a video experimentation time for me, but it always comes second, It’s always music first. With the In My Room singles, I sought to clamber out of that way of doing things that I’d gotten into, which was kind of compartmentalizing everything into boxes, and so that’s why “Hideaway” which is actually one great comp that I did, with lots of different Jacobs in one room; there are no lines between them—there are actually multiple Jacobs in that one room. With “Saviour” we did lot of different projectors and for “Hajanga” we used a 360⁰ camera, and stuff like that.
JC: [Chuckles] Well, I released the video of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” which was the one that kind of went crazy overnight. I woke up in the morning with lots of crazy emails and one of them was from Quincy. And it was an unbelievable thing; I couldn’t comprehend the distance that video travelled in those few hours. It’s crazy! It’s still mind-bending to me, just how huge the Internet is and how many people are tuned into it at all times. I met Quincy; at first, we just hung out, and Quincy had mentioned that he had this management company, who might be able to help me organize some of my crazy ideas, because I do have a lot of those. And so I ended up hanging out with those guys, who were just wonderful, and over the next year or so, I began to have more and more different ideas, and I began to draw upon that resource, without ever really signing a contract, to be one of the official clients, it was more of … I needed to fly here to do this with this person … actually, those guys helped me make that happen and it was quite wonderful. I always had the idea that I wanted to record my first album in the room, because I thought it would best represent my process. It’s a very, very vivid world, working in here, sitting on that chair and kind of crafting things … that’s the primary source of creation for me, for my whole life. So I wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it completely on my own … that wasn’t going to change. So I guess it was about a year after meeting Quincy, which I guess was summer of 2014, until summer of 2015, which was actually the first gig that we ever did with the one-man show … which was opening for Herbie (Hancock) and Chick (Corea) at the Montreux Jazz Festival on that great big stage, and that was something Quincy made happen. [Note: critical accolades such as “Jazz music’s new messiah” and “The Future of Music” appeared around this time.] And I will be forever grateful for that one, because that was quite something! It’s a miracle that show kind of worked out, because we’d never really run it through. We had an extremely rushed rehearsal period, about one rehearsal, but everything worked out fine, which was a bit of a miracle! We then began to tour that album more and more internationally. Following that period was when I did In My Room. It was recorded at the end of 2015 into the beginning of 2016 which is now last year, and that was three months of me in this room with nobody else here, just organizing my thoughts and planting seeds and growing these things and really writing the first songs I’ve ever written. I guess by the end of it I had a selection of songs that I was really excited to share with the world. I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of some of the ways in which music can be made.
RA: I recently listened to a streamed event you did in Cambridge, MA, when you were there for the performance at MIT. So many fascinating stories and one really stood out to me: The story of the blue marble which appears on the track “In My Room”, when you spoke about your love for “granular” sound. What about these sources – from saucepans to slapping your knee—why are they so rarely used despite being ubiquitous?
JC: Yeah! I don’t understand why people don’t do it more, to be honest, because obviously if you record your life, then it sounds like your life, and it has meaning to you. For some reason, I thought, I’d like to have a marble rolling from one ear to the other. I can’t remember why that occurred, but it did, and I thought, well, I have to use the blue marble, because that’s the marble of all marbles! I’m sure I could have achieved a similar sound with some kind of Omnisphere plug-in, but I’ve always been drawn to using what’s around me to make stuff. I didn’t wait till I was in a recording studio with proper microphones or had an engineer or had a producer or had any other musicians. As a child, I was creating with what I had; what I started off with was really rather little. I had an SM58, which I got when I was about twelve, and I think until I was about 19, that was really the only microphone I possessed, so I used it for everything; on top of the drum kit, on guitar, on piano, on anything; that was the microphone – to me, it’s a very special one. It’s a quite ordinary microphone; it’s not particularly extraordinarily good. I had a few instruments around, so I used those, and I’ve also enjoyed that kind of woody, homemade sound that you find with certain kinds of things. For example, in the song “Hideaway” the kick sound [vocally demonstrates]; I’m sure I could have gotten a really decent kick sample, or recorded my kick drum, but actually what I did was I hit the back of my double bass with my fist, and I slowed that audio file down by I think two octaves. That sound, to me, had all this depth; somehow, it had meaning! I feel like meaning adds depth to things, which is a bit of a philosophical thing to get into: does that fact that it has meaning to me really, really come through when you hear the recording? I enjoy looking around the room, as I am doing right now, and thinking, “There’s that funny little tin that I found when I was in Budapest, or there’s this strange little box, and this funny little thing came in it, and it makes this funny sound, which is quite high-pitched. I feel like those sounds are obviously immediately unique, but that’s probably not the reason why I record them; it’s more that they have a certain kind of life to them—an acoustic life—which I feel is a very profound (thing). To me, it’s a very important and extremely enjoyable part of the process. Obviously, it’s very annoying for my family members who find (that) something’s gone missing and they realize Jacob’s taken it into the room to record it! There are certain sounds that you will never find looking in a …… I’ve also think that I’ve had some people say to me, it’s easy to see why you can make such good music; that’s because you have so many instruments in that room, and that’s what makes it work. And I think the reason …. There was such a period of my life where I didn’t draw upon musical instruments at all. I drew upon the voice and the human body with strange items to get these strange recipes of sound. I think that is a far more interesting and profound way of making music and I hope that other people will do the same … just because nobody’s life is going to sound like yours, and you may as well put yours into a recording; otherwise, it’s not going to sound like anything! I really enjoyed the unpacking of things and I always make a point of using things which are special to me when I record things and get secret recipes of how to achieve certain sounds.
RA: I spoke
Crosby last month, and boy, did he have wonderful things to say about you!
David, being of the old school of which you spoke, has such admiration for you,
and Becca, and Michael, and Michelle. What was it like collaborating with
David? What have been some of the other unique and/or challenging collaborations
RA: It’s one thing to watch your One-Man Live Show Creature on video. It’s another thing entirely to be sitting about 30 feet away from you and being immersed in that experience. The technology responsible for this achievement is mind-blowing. How did you cross paths with Ben Bloomberg, the graduate student from MIT who has become your technical collaborative partner who has helped you to bring the one-man creature to life? Also, have the two of you discussed the possibility of forming a company that would make these instruments publicly available?
RA: As a student, were you a science kid at all?
RA: I’d like to talk about the success of In My Room. Since its release on July 1st, it’s been a nonstop whirlwind of accolades and achievements. As its creator, how does one absorb all of this?
JC: It’s an interesting question. I guess it comes down to the reason why I’ve done all this. If I’d done all this to be famous, to get people to love it, or to be able to travel the world, or to be able to have lots of money, I think I’d be a big-headed, little-footed (person), unable to contain himself. I’ve always been such an avid expander, in terms of (how) I’m up for doing the next thing. I don’t think I’ve ever sort of “made it” in the sense of “now I’ve made the album, now I can go to sleep” To me it’s always a process of expanding what I know and what I think I know and unlearning things, relearning things … so as far as me as an individual is concerned, I don’t feel like I’ve changed too much, which is quite a strange thing to say, because so much has changed in my life, but the process of making music is still formed out of being a great big kid in a small room, and just making stuff for fun. I think that the moment that particular spark goes out, I think it’s game over, really. That’s still the main reason why I do this, and without that, it would be strange. It’s been crazy; it’s obviously astounding how many people in different places in the world come are able to come to gigs of mine, just turning up in some obscure part of the Philippines, or Prague, and there are hundreds of people there, waiting for me. It’s profoundly wonderful and also hard to believe. I’ve had to do a little bit of accelerated growth as a human being, being 22 and I think that I’ve learned, certainly energetically, how to deal with some of the experiences and some of the things I’m going to do and have needed to do, like tour. Being a sort of natural introvert, it’s a big shift to suddenly be on billboards and racing around the world. It’s an exhilarating ride, and right now I’m just going to go with it, and I’m enjoying every moment of it. It’s obviously kind of important to balance out being a crazy kind of superhero with being home with my family and seeing my friends, which is actually what this month is all about; I’m home for January, doing lots of inventing here and making some new music and stuff, so that’s really great. Without that down time, it would be hard to keep going. I’m filled with joy and I’m also filled with hope. I think that having uncompromised my entire process—I’ve never even dreamed of compromising what I want to do and how I want to do it—I waited quite a long time to do In My Room, and I feel that I did it at a time which made sense to me. Just that feeling of having done something the way you wanted to do it in unconventional ways in the music industry … to have walked away from it with so much promise of things to come, and I seem to be inspiring people … it’s really all you could wish for! Without thinking too much about it, I’m just extremely grateful. I’ve unprecedentedly travelled in the last few months and will travel in the next few. I’m going to finish this world tour this year; in the summertime, that will come to an end. After that, there’s a whole brand-new album to make. It’s crazy—I’ve ended up in a position where I can, as you say, I can try lots of things out, and I can do things the way I want to do them.
RA: Meeting you after the Joe’s Pub show, I was struck by how totally grounded you were, which is an inspiration in and of itself. Some people in this field seem to forget that their feet are, in fact, fully attached to the ground!
RA: Your “Happy New Year” email sent to your fans stated that the upcoming shows are “fully reinforced” … what does that mean?
RA: Thank you so much for spending so much time with me today. I was originally introduced to your music through bassist Leland Sklar, who posted “Fascinating Rhythm” on his Facebook page. For me, that was it. I kept exploring your music—as you said, the internet is a godsend—because that’s what led me to your music. My stepson, who is your age, was with me at Joe’s Pub, is a diehard fan as well, so it’s a multi-generational thing that I’m seeing there. This is why I look to you as being a source of reinvigoration, hope, inspiration, possibilities, and bringing back joy—to not only the creation of music, but also to experiencing it on a level that many of us have not in a long, long, time.
© Roy Abrams 2017