Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Joyful Noise of Jacob Collier

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

Jacob Collier’s music is impossible to categorize, as it incorporates a multitude of genres, including jazz, a capella, groove, folk, trip-hop, classical, Brazilian, gospel, soul, and improvisational. His sonic recipes are a magical concoction of traditional and world instruments, along with quirky cameos from assorted objects such as saucepans and marbles. Combining prodigious instrumental and vocal skills with infectious enthusiasm, the music of Jacob Collier is—without hyperbole—a joyful noise like nothing like you have heard before.
The 22-year-old London native has taken the music world by storm during the past year. Jacob’s debut album, In My Room, was released on July 1 and instantly rose to the top of the Jazz charts in 23 countries—also attaining the #1 spot on the Contemporary Billboard Chart—and has gone on to earn two Grammy nominations.  This whirlwind journey began not long ago, when a YouTube video, self-made in the music room of the family home while Jacob was still a high school student, caught the eye and ear of music legend Quincy Jones. A meeting between the two opened up undreamed-of doors for Jacob, marking the beginning of a journey that has taken him, literally, around the globe. Audiences from every continent (save Antarctica) have been stunned to silence while being transported to rapturous levels of amazement by the sight and sounds of a young man who, it appears, can do it all.


The "One-Man Live Show Creature"
image by Betsy Newman

At 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.

Here is our complete conversation, slightly edited for clarity, omitting a few details about future plans in the works at Jacob’s request.

Roy Abrams: Happy New Year, and thank you so much for spending some of your time off with me today! This is a very unorthodox way to start an interview, but I wanted to share some thoughts from a musician friend of mine who attended your Joe’s Pub concert in New York City:

“I just basked in the joy of his genius and let the music fill my soul. It was beautiful, magical. A rare, transcendental, inspiring experience. Music has been so debased and trivialized, and he returned it to its rightful position of joy and beauty. It was food for my soul and, looking around the room, we all felt the same. One of the great experiences of my musical life. It reset my computer and reminded me that every time a musician picks up an instrument, he is connecting to whatever created him.”

Jacob Collier: That is stunning, really. That’s a wonderful way of framing it; I’m overjoyed that he felt this way.

RA: He found the words that I was looking for and couldn’t find. I wanted to explore your thoughts on the joy of creation. Watching you onstage is seeing someone who is having so much fun. There’s so much going on, from an intellectual and a creative point of view, but there’s an emotional vibe present that reminds me of a young child on Christmas morning.

JC: [Laughs] I would say that without the joy of creating things, I’m not sure what I’d be living for. It’s such a central part of my life and has been for so many years. It’s funny, because the whole live show thing, I had to learn, energetically, how to approach that, because having grown up in this room, in which I’m currently standing, this was my playground for so many years, but the energy went inwards. When I came in the room, the energy was climbing in upon itself. It’s a very internal world. So, when I came to (bringing that) to the stage, I had to consider just how best, for myself, to share that energy with others. At first, when I did the first few shows, I felt like I was inside the room, which is, obviously for me, it’s lovely, but I feel like I’ve learned much more how to share that energy in terms of pushing it the opposite way that I’m used to, which is outwards, so I think it’s an enchanting thing, for me, to be able to transfer that energy to everyone in the room. It’s that joy of seeing the joy on all those faces; the joy that I feel when I hear the quote (that you read) is profound because there’s something about joy which encourages joy. For me, that seems to be a very central part of creating, and the reasons to create, and wherever I’m inspired by somebody creating, it’s some kind of joy that I’m receiving. I feel like joy has pretty much been missing from popular music for the last five to ten years. I feel like it’s a celebration of the melancholy and the introverted and often the struggle of internal turmoil … I think, undoubtedly, that some of the greatest music has been written from that standpoint. For me, it’s exploring all those experiences and emotions in one’s life, but to transfer that into something joyful, that’s (what) music is capable of doing, and I don’t know anything else that really is capable of doing that.
Jacob in his music room
image courtesy of Jacob Collier

RA: At what age did you first start composing?

JC: If I remember correctly, I made two little recordings in primary school, which I released for my peers and teachers, in order to raise money for (a charity event). I put together some recordings that I’d been creating. The goal of releasing a short CD gave me something to work towards. I remember at about the age of seven I was given Cubase, which is recording software, and that became my primary instrument until I was about 11; then, I got Logic, which was really a step up for me in terms of how to do things. It’s that 21st century thing of creating using a computer but using the things around me as my fuel. People don’t tend to use acoustic instruments very much, but I was always drawn to them. I was surrounded by them, brought up in a house that was full of musicians already. It made sense to me. The piano that’s in front of me, this is the piano that’s been here for 22 years or however long I’ve known it, and there was always percussion around, there was always violins. I think that singing provided me with the kind of sonic quality that I was missing. At that age, I really couldn’t do too much on musical instruments, but I could always sing. Early on, I was drawn to this idea of singing the way that I heard the instruments. What I ended up with was a way of making music which is not completely instrumentally specific; it’s more a kind of celebratory understanding of things that I heard. I was such a thirsty child that things went in and came out Jacob-flavored. That was a concept that was very much celebrated by my mother, in particular. She really encouraged this, because there really isn’t too much that’s negative about that whole process of drinking in and then giving out. Harmony I was always drawn towards; rhythm I was always drawn towards. I just started challenging these concepts, so …. Composition, to answer your question, I would say it was something that I’ve always done. I began to play around with things … What happens when I record a thing on the MIDI keyboard and then drag it two bars later or drag this one note a couple of seconds later? How does that affect the chord? How does that affect the structure? How does that affect the feeling? It was always about how does this feel? How does it feel to listen to this chord with this note on the top? (Gradually), I built myself a personal bank of musical understanding, from the age of six or seven through to the present day, and it’s still growing.

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?


image by Betsy Newman

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 teachers 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.
RA: And your YouTube videos were the catalyst that led to Quincy Jones entering your life … and the rest, as they say, is history! What was the time span between your initial meeting and the recording of In My Room?

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.

Jacob and Quincy Jones
image by Betsy Newman

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.
image by Greg Gorman
RA: Getting back to what you said about hoping other people will do the same, I think that what you’re putting out there, the effect that it’s having upon musicians and composers, is similar to how Robbie Robertson described the effect that The Beatles had on their peers, proving by example that you can try anything right now; there are no rules.
JC: [Laughs] I think that this is the dangerous truth of it, that there are no rules in 2017, and this applies to lots of things in the world, some of which are less friendly than others; lots of the old regimes and the old ways of doing things just don’t work anymore. And so here we are, as a young generation of creative people, really as humankind, in a world where you can just try things out. And the more people do that, the further we’re going to travel in terms of exploring stuff. Going back to an earlier point about education, I do feel that the whole principle and philosophy of one’s mistake being something that is a detriment is really damaging. It can damage a lot of the potential for people to think in new ways about how to do things. I think I was very lucky to grow up in a house where my Mum was so encouraging to me to do things the way I wanted to do them; it wasn’t the way she wanted me to do them, or the way that my teachers wanted me to do them, or the way that people of the world would normally do them; it was just to trust my intuition. If people were to do this, I really think that if people had it in their head that trying things a different way was something positive (and) exciting, and they could trust that process, which is the process that all children go through, as they learn anything. I’m trying to organize what I’m seeing, and I’m inventing (with them) the whole time, and I’m playing with this ….you know, you might see this as the salt grinder, but actually it’s a character! And I’m moving it across the table, and it has a meaning to me in my mind, which is as important, if not more important, than the actual meaning it has in the world. That philosophy, which is the child’s philosophy, is one which is so under-encouraged as people grow, and as people learn to create. I think that if people did give their imaginations … it might seem like a strange thing to encourage, but people are drained of their potential energy when they’re so young. For me, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a young, creative person. For that reason, it’s this glorious, gleaming place where anything is possible but I do hope, if I’m inspiring anything at all, it’s that process of doing things on your own terms and being in a place where you’re able to try things out and not worry about what people think of them, and not worry about the results of things, and just to have fun, because as you said at the very beginning of this talk, it’s that the joy of having fun is the main thing that hopefully translates; the whole music thing in general is, here are some people having a conversation, here are some people speaking a common language, no matter where they’re from, no matter how different they are, here is a world of understanding things which can be accessed by anybody! The joy that that translates in is unlike any other joy.
image by Retts Wood
RA: There certainly seems to be a new front line of organic, or shall we say, granular musical artists … who appear to have arrived among us at pretty much the same time. There’s you, Michael League and Snarky Puppy, Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis … What’s your take on this development and where do you see it leading, in terms of so-called industry trends and music listening tastes?
JC: Yeah, a very interesting question. As I’ve seen a lot in the last two years, the Internet is kind of converging everything into one great big globular mixing pot of stuff, which is very difficult for people who don’t have a means of navigating it because it’s such an overstimulation for the younger generation. It’s so hard to find anything meaningful, sometimes, in this massive sea of information that we have before us. I feel like musically, the people that I find the most exciting are doing a similar thing, in the sense that they’re combining things from all over the world and putting them together and to create these new compounds which have their own elegance to them. Michael, for example, and Becca both have a broad knowledge of styles, whether it’s African music to Indian music to American jazz music to European folk music and those convergences form new ways of being linguistic with music which is exciting for a number of reasons. Mainly because, I think, the older generation of people who are very precious about maintaining the purity of things—I do have a respect for those people at times, but I feel like there’s something to be gained from not being too precious about things that have come before us and actually embrace the idea of bringing things together. So yeah, Becca and Michael, to call up those two you mentioned, I think have found a lot of joy with putting this crazy badass funk bass line which Weather Report might have laid down in the ‘70s with this kind of strange South American rhythm which nobody’s ever really heard of but it kind of has a weird wonk to it. That, for me, is a real joy and I hope that people around the world do this, and do it in a way which is a total understanding of these cultures, get their hands dirty with the cultures; go visit other places and go listen to the real master musicians, and once they’ve drunk that in, I hope that things will come out of it which are crazy and new and relevant and exciting. I think that in some ways, it’s quite easy to be dilute with all the stuff that is before us. We kind of have everything—everything is available on the Internet, at all times. Obviously, the industry is very, very afraid of this because it’s hard for people to make money from every single different kind of stream and downloads, illegal or legal, and things like this. But I don’t think it’s doing anybody any favors not to go and explore all of the stuff there. If you can pay for it, that’s fantastic, but I’ve treated the internet as one of my primary resources for just exploring things, and for that reason, I’ve listened to probably 20 or 30 times more music from different places than I would have if I was born 20 or 30 years earlier … and that’s cool, that’s really cool!

RA: I spoke with David 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 you’ve done?

JC: Good one! It always interests me, the idea of new and older generations. Obviously, collaborating with Becca, for example, is a joy—part of it because we have fairly similar ways of learning things, and we have a similarly open mind, being kind of semi-millennials—so that, for me, feels like a very natural joining together of forces and it’s nice because we both have a sort of language and framework (in common). For someone like David and Herbie (Hancock), who I’ve also talked about, that generation, kind of 70+ kind of age, it’s a really interesting group of people, partly because some of them will never understand the joy of how to take an old language and do something fresh with it. It’s a hard process for somebody to go through who’s lived under one particular thing for their whole life, but perhaps they’ve devoted their whole life to mastering it, and suddenly somebody’s taking it and making it kind of new and hip, and that’s really scary and nasty, and I do understand that. But David and Herbie have both, for their whole lives, by entrenching themselves in fresh and new sounds. Herbie, for example, he obviously began with Miles (Davis) and it was all very acoustic and all really quite jazz and holistic in quite a classical sense. Obviously, in the ‘70s with the whole Headhunters era, he opened up a brand new can of worms, and it was a sacrilege at the time. Herbie maintains the same excitement, it’s like a child. Herbie and David are like children in the sense that they’ll hear something that‘s exciting or new or weird, and they’ll jump up off their chair, (saying) “What was that??” It’s that enthusiasm for the stuff that is something that I have in common with both of those people and that transcends all ages. David and I get along partly because we’re both very excited about stuff and that excitement will draw us toward certain musical conclusions, and Herbie—I got home last month from recording Herbie’s new album, and it’s a massive mixing pot of stuff. There’s so many people that they’re flying in. There’s Thundercat, Wayne Shorter, Zakir Hussain (the tabla player) and Pharell … all these kinds of people. But Herbie is constantly excited by new stuff,  and so it’s important when you collaborate to find that common ground. It might be that you have no common ground, musically, at all, which isn’t the case with David and Herbie, but it might be if I went to Morocco and worked with some of the master musicians, which I’m planning to do, actually; I’m very excited. For that, it’s a more human connection that needs to be made, for me, that sense of joy is the one—that’s the common ingredient between any two human beings, but those two in particular: the process of making music is a joy because of the joy and because of that contagious excitement, and because they also have 50 years on me as far as musical life experience is concerned. So, I’m kind of there as a thirsty individual, just drinking in as much as I can of those traditions. I’m quite blown away every time I spend time with those guys for that reason, because they were around when most of this stuff was being generated. So yeah, that’s crazy.

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?
Jacob at the Malasimbo Festival, March 2016
JC: These are all great questions! Ben, in a very 21st century way, sent me a Facebook message one day, saying I’m a graduate of MIT and I make things … I just wanted to reach out and say that I’m a fan, and if you want to build anything, just let me know. It was just crazy, because I’d agreed to this whole Herbie Hancock/Chick Corea shenanigan two days before, with no idea how I was going to do it. I had no idea of a one-man show, and Ben just reached out at the opportune time. I flew to Boston as part of my upcoming trip to the States and we talked about the Harmoniser, which is the first thing on the list. I had about 4 hours’ worth of ideas, which I gave him when we first talked on Skype, and we’ve achieved about five to ten percent of those. The Harmoniser was the first thing we did. I always wanted to be able to sing harmony live, in terms of being able to improvise it, and improvise harmony as I hear it in my head, instead of it coming out as piano, it comes out as my actual live voice. Ben has all these crazy ways of doing things which are above and beyond my understanding completely, but we did a whole lot of research about who’d done it before, some (ideas) we adapted to fit our needs, some we completely discarded, and some which we built from scratch. All of those things went into one great big box, which is laying in front of me right now, and essentially it’s a computer, a mixture of software and hardware, and Ben will tell you better than I how (it works) but it’s essentially running a plug-in that Ben has generated, which resynthesizes the voice and then treats it a bit like a synth, so that you have things like portamento, and mid… compression … and everything kind of gelled. We finished it in about a week and we then refined it over a few months. We’re about to build Harmoniser 2.0 which is really exciting; (it has) a bunch of new features. So the one-man show was—I guess it was about a week of work—I discussed with Ben the idea of having a circle of instruments, a little bit like this room, I guess. A bass and drums and piano of sorts and have the Harmoniser at a central point of it, because I feel like the voice is such an important ingredient for communicating with people. To have this human voice at the center of what you’re doing is a great way of doing things, because people can relate to a voice in a way that they can’t relate to any other instruments. So that was what we wanted to do, and we spent a few days trying some stuff out (where) I could run around and have things where I feel I want to, and then I sat down and kind of rearranged my arrangements! I worked out how (the songs) could work with a one-man show. It’s been a process of crafting, chipping away at this initial thing for about a year and a half now, and it’s crazy! The energy going out instead of going in was certainly a transition for me, but I think by the time we got to that US tour at which you saw the Joe’s Pub show, I think it was getting to a stage where I was just able to essentially just communicate. I can’t really be grateful enough for Ben; he’s one-of-a-kind and manages to be supremely awesome and very humble and very wonderful as a person as well as his formidable technical abilities, which is really a treat for me. It’s hard to work with somebody who’s kind of grumpy and kind of cantankerous. Ben seems to be this gemstone of a human and I think we’ll be friends for life!

RA: As a student, were you a science kid at all?
JC: Actually, I wasn’t particularly a science kid. Strange. I fell in love with math at a very early age and I kind of fell out of love with math at around age 13 or 14, only because my teacher at school was uninspiring …it (became) like an extremely high mountain that was unclimbable except for a particular band of people who worked extremely hard. I’ve never really been an extremely hard worker in that kind of way. I’ve never practiced a long time or sat down and done (a lot of) exercises, so that mentality I couldn’t relate to, so I guess I dropped the ball, which is a shame in some ways, but I think with some of the ideas that I enjoyed about math, I also (related) to music, so I liked doing that, but it’s funny. As a kid, I didn’t build computers, which obviously Ben did! It’s a real joy to join forces with him, because it’s meant that I’ve been able to focus on completely other things. Now, with Ben in my life, there’s this thing where I can describe to Ben something in my head which would make a lot of sense, and Ben would consider how that could be created from scratch. Ben will craft this new thing does this strange function, and I guess both of us are doing what we do best, which is one of those dream collaborations. With regards to your other question about whether one day if these will be available, some of them we’re working toward (that); I think that the Harmonizer and the one-man show have been things which we’ve specifically crafted for my needs, at this point. But I’d be very excited to make them open source and thrown them out into the world and see what people could do with them, but I feel like I owe it to those people to kind of nail it first, so I guess that’s the goal.

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.
image by Retts Wood

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!
JC: [Laughs] There’s something that Quincy says a lot (I think Duke Ellington might have said this to him) which is that you can never be more or less than you are as a human being as a musician, which I do believe to be true. I don’t think it’s possible to make music which looks big if you don’t look big, and I think it’s really hard to make music which has been inspired unless you’ve been inspired. It’s hard to make music which feels selfless unless you are somehow selfless. I believe that to be true in a big sense, and I don’t think it’s the right thing to try and put something forward which is anything more or less than who you are. In this world, as well, I think that people are very interested in and invested in somebody’s story. It’s not just about buying somebody’s records; it’s all about … I love listening to Snarky Puppy because I know their path, I know the Snarky Puppy story, which is ten years of struggling on the road, and they made a couple of records, and things didn’t take off, and then suddenly it took off, and then finally Mike League was able to do his … I know Mike League and I know his sense of humor, and I understand what gets him going, and I understand who the members of the band are … that whole investment, to me as a fan, is profound. I think it’s a nice thing to aim for—without revealing every single part of your life—to give a bit of your humanity out. I’m glad you say those things; that’s really very nice.

RA: Your “Happy New Year” email sent to your fans stated that the upcoming shows are “fully reinforced” … what does that mean?
JC: [Laughs] I’ve gotten to the end of a year of touring, and I’m at a stage where some of the songs in the show, I’ve kind of exhausted them as they are, so I’d like to enhance them by changing them up; adding a new segment, changing the key, giving them a bit of a kick, if you know what I mean. Starting from scratch a couple of times. Also, I’d like to add some songs. I’d like to do “Down the Line”, “Woke Up Today” … “Don’t You Worry “Bout a Thing” and “Close To You” have opened the show for a year and a half; it might be time to move those out of the way and enable some of the original stuff to come through. That’s going to challenge me more, and I’m quite addicted to being challenged and challenging myself with regards to the one-man show, because it’s such a solo endeavor. It’s that joy you get out of changing things up, which means that every now and then you should sit down and try to rethink a couple of things. So I think at some point in January, towards the end, I’ll get back in gear with the show and I’ll sit down with the songs as they are as I played them; I know the instruments that I played at different times, and it will be nice to just think, “Okay, so I’m going to start this song in a different section,” and (get into) that process of rebuilding is what I’m greatly looking forward to. Also, I don’t know how far we’re going to get with Harmoniser 2.0, but hopefully some of that will be in the show, and that means that the Harmoniser will have all these crazy new capabilities. So it’s a mixture of adding songs, changing songs, adding new instruments, taking away instruments, and also adding a bunch of new visual elements. The visual part of the show is one that I’m immensely excited about. My main video developer is going to be traveling (with me); he’s going to be projecting visuals onto the sails of a pirate ship, sort of like a pirate circus! He and Ben are coming over tomorrow to make a lot of stuff, and I’m excited to see what we can do, because Will (Young) is a profoundly creative character; I love him to bits. One of the things we’d like to do is to build an interactive machine which responds to different things that I’m playing in such a way that there’s no separation from what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing, which for me is what it’s all about.
RA:  Wow! I don’t know what else to say …
JC: Right now, we’ve already got a couple of these things. There’s a section in “Hideaway” actually now with visuals. I know that you didn’t see the visuals because that was in the States and at that point we couldn’t afford to bring the video (component) to the States. It’s a crazy thing … everything you see is connected somehow to what you’re hearing; it’s quite a profound extension of the show. It’s not a distraction; it builds very organically out of what you’re hearing.
RA: In the New Year’s email, you also mentioned putting a band together. Can you reveal any details of that?
JC: Yeah. I put a couple of gigs (together) coming up at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and I’m flying a bunch of people over for it, some of my most favorite musicians. It will be live streamed from Ronnie Scott’s Facebook page.(The band) might take form come September to December of this year. Obviously, right now I’m going to be touring the one-man show, expanding and reinforcing it like I told you about before. To (perform) new material, I think I’m going to be looking to tour in a slightly different way. It could take different iterations. One is the solo show, but including other musicians, where I’ll have a little rig, and the musicians are all in that, which could be crazy if I could work out (how to do it) where it makes sense. There’s also a thing where I could just tour with a band, which is also quite exciting. But it would be nice to (do) a solo show as well. There’s a thing I’d like to do where everybody sings and everybody plays, a bunch of improvisation and other instruments. Having made music in this room for most of my life was a big part of my learning process. I was also in a whole number of bands in high school; lots of different kinds of formats of making music. As you know, I just did this gig at MIT with a full orchestra and a choir and a big band, which was 200 musicians; that was playing album songs. These songs have a life of their own in some ways, and once you let that loose, lots of magical things can happen. I’m guess not being too precise about it to myself yet, because I have to leave a bit of space for that to be what it needs to be. I think for the next album, I’m planning on touring with a mixture of the solo things using a Harmoniser and other musicians as well.

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.
JC: Thank you so, so much!


© Roy Abrams 2017

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