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Jacob Collier Finds the Simple in the Complex

The multi-instrumentalist Grammy winner on virtuosity, Quincy Jones and coming to India

Anurag Tagat Sep 03, 2019

British multi-instrumentalist and composer Jacob Collier will make his India debut this month. Photo: Alexandra Gavillet

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At some point during a half hour chat with British composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier, he gets a bit meta talking about jazz’s place in the world. “We improvise all the time, I’m improvising right now. It’s based on a language I’ve learned. Jazz is like a study of how to improvise as well, which I think is a really good skill for human beings,” he says over the phone from his home in North London.

In the course of the last decade or so, the 25-year-old went from YouTube wunderkind to a must-hear versatile artist who could sing in a manner that’s perform beyond smooth and pitch-perfect and arrange songs old and new to breathe a new life into them. After all, he won two Grammy awards in 2017 for his arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You and I” and the theme to The Flintstones, a beloved cartoon show. With his earlier covers and reworks, Collier became part of the wave of A Cappella artists who would split screens and perform incredible vocal-only versions of songs. He says, “I might add some crazy rhythms or crazy grooves, chords or melodies, but the most important thing is that the spirit of that song remains as it was born. However, the way I fell in love with it as a kid is maintained.”

The young British musician has quickly become one of the most important names in contemporary jazz and pop music. It’s because of how he thinks about music. “I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a virtuoso in anything,” Collier says. But the potential for stardom was noticed by music mogul and superproducer Quincy Jones, which has taken him to share the stage with jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, among others. Collier, who is signed to Quincy Jones Productions, says of his mentor, “We began to work together in a proper way, but the one thing I love about Quincy so much is that he’s essentially a godfather figure to me, in the sense that he wouldn’t say, ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘I wouldn’t advise you creatively to do this’. He knows that I have a bit of space and we’re on the same page about whatever I’m to do at this point is probably the right thing to do.”

Along the way, Collier launched his own material, releasing his debut In My Room in 2016 and then moved on to an ambitious 50-song project called Djesse, whose first two volumes have released to positive public and critical acclaim. It’s got collaborations ranging from guitar virtuoso Steve Vai to reliable crooners such as Lianne La Havas and JoJo.

In his run of promoting Djesse Vol. 2, Collier and his band is in India for the first time, with two shows on September 17th and 18th (which sold out in less than a day) at the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai, courtesy of music management company Mixtape. Ahead of his India debut, Collier spoke to Rolling Stone India about nerding out, how he learned the tabla and ektara and incorporated them in songs like “Close To You” and “Down the Line” and jazz. Excerpts:

What was it like getting asked to come to India?

I keep a list of places that I always wanted to visit. India has been top of that list for longer than I can remember. When I finally got the offer to come over to Mumbai, I was just so thrilled, because I didn’t expect to get that sort of city. I’ve wanted to go for ages, but the fact that I was able to plot it on to the end of this Asian tour and come over to India at the end of it is super exciting.

I feel like there’s this whole new adventure to be had, over in that part of the world, because I’ve never been there my whole life.

You’re halfway through Djesse as a project now, two volumes out of four released. How much of this is all charted out and how much are you figuring out along the way?

The whole thing was planned from the start, in its shape. Once I began to record it and mix it and create these songs by traveling all over the world and working with different collaborators, the thing always changes. It always evolves. I have some of Vol. 3 and some of Vol. 4 mapped out, but I know when I release them, things will change. But that’s the most exciting thing. I’m obviously used to planning things out, but this whole album and tour, it’s taken tons of planning. It’s 50 songs, 30 different musical collaborators from every different genre under the sun. I’m evolving as a human being through this whole process, so the really cool thing is to grow alongside the music and it’s taken me to some pretty crazy spaces.

Watch Jacob Collier’s Tiny Desk performance below.

When you work with well-known hits like “Close To You” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” what is your process of picking songs apart?

It’s something I loved doing so much as a kid. In some ways, I learnt most of my composition process from arranging. Of course, what that process entails is taking a song and figuring out what the most important ingredients to that song are, stripping everything else away and starting from scratch. It was a really cool exercise for me as a boy to take these different songs and invent with them as much as I possibly could and stretch them in different directions, whether it’s harmonically, melodically and rhythmically.

I began to get together these production skills and playing different instruments and I guess before that, I didn’t have the thought of having this as my career. I just thought about it as learning as much as I could, whatever process I was learning and being as good as that. But I guess I realized halfway through that process that I might as well be having a career, even though it didn’t feel like that. The whole thing sort of happened by accident, which is crazy.

Jacob collier live

Jacob Collier at a live performance. Photo: Adam Hart

What people dig about your music is that there’s virtuosity but also accessibility. How do you become a virtuoso songwriter? How do you make it more about the music but not the instruments?

It’s a really important question. I wouldn’t necessarily think of myself as a virtuoso in anything. In some ways, I felt like this for a while, but I think there’s a difference between complexity and virtuosity. You can have something very rich and with good ideas, in terms of complexities, but the essence of them can be simple. I think virtuosity, the essence of it is complex and complexity. It might sound strange, but the essence of complexity is simplicity.

I wasn’t one of those musicians who was brought up having a lot of music lessons and I hated musical theory for most of my teenage years, and the whole process of learning instruments. I didn’t really quite take to it – I didn’t have piano lessons or bass lessons. These were things I discovered on my own.

What that meant, I suppose, was that the most important thing for me was always the music. Even now, when I play instruments… say for example, I sit down and play the piano, rather than thinking about a pianist, I guess I’m thinking about skipping that bit about playing the piano and just playing the music, trying to get to what the essence of that instrument really is. Often, the essence really is quite simple.

If you sit down and write them out, they’re quite complex, but the essence of them is not really based in me trying to be really good at that instrument. It’s based in me trying to portray a particular idea. I guess I took that spirit into my songwriting.

I guess I always created music the way I listen to it. One listens to music on different levels – one is with the part of your brain that loves information and loves putting things in frameworks and the other is just the child that listens for no reason, I guess and loves music as a language.

One thing that’s impressed a lot of musicians is your use of microtones. What can you tell me about that?

There was one moment a few years when I got bored of all the notes on the piano. I’d used them so much. It sounds kind of funny, but I’d used the 12 notes in music for a long time and I wanted to push that concept further. I wanted to stretch my understanding to places that aren’t necessarily reasonable or aren’t often used.

I realized it’s possible to go into these half keys – there’s no rule that says you’re not allowed to. The only rule is that people don’t tend to do it often because it can be quite challenging. I love to push myself into these different spaces and it feels natural to explore these other keys, because they do keys. No one sat down and said, ‘Hey, these 12 keys are the only keys you can have for eternity.’

It’s funny, one of the reasons I’m so excited to come to India is just to experience the music. The Indian musical tradition uses so many scales that draw notes from non-equal temperaments. Some extraordinary ragas and scales where the Seventh is very flat between the major and minor third. It’s amazing to see what people have been extracting from the idea of tonality and how you can play with sort of gravity in that space. I love that as a concept and I feel that the Indians are amongst the greats of microtonal understanding.

Hear Collier’s collaboration with Lianne La Havas on “Feel.” 

I read about how your studio room in London has a bunch of instruments from all over the world, including the ektara and tabla and stuff. Did you learn the Indian instruments yourself?

I did. By no stretch of imagination am I the master at these instruments. I’ve always been intrigued by different sounds. The ektara was a gift from a friend when I was in high school, about 12 years old. I think somebody traveled to India and he bought it for me and he knew I liked wood instruments. The moment I got it, I had to put it in a song. So I actually put it in the arrangement for “Close To You.” You can see it in the video.

The tabla, again, it’s not a straightforward instrument [laughs]. I’ve heard people say it takes three lifetimes to master the tabla. I don’t disagree with it necessarily, but I wanted to master just the very basic technique just so I can get the sound [mimcs tabla beat] and I definitely liked recording with that as well. That’s on one song called “Down The Line.” I’m not the best at the tabla, but I do love experimenting with what the different sounds are, that you can get from an instrument like it. The way some of the greatest tabla players in the world think about rhythm has just defined so much of rhythmic understanding worldwide. It’s a real honor to be traveling to the homeland of such traditions, I suppose.

You’ve said that jazz is an understanding of music, rather than an end in itself. Do you think the world at large is realizing this only now?

I think so. One of the exciting things, it appears, that people are realizing is that it doesn’t really help anybody to label music as something, right? It doesn’t help for someone to say, ‘I’m a jazz musician’ or ‘I’m a rock musician’ or folk, classical or electronic musician. All it does is make that person’s music smaller. One thing I feel strongly about – and one of the reasons I undertook this crazy multi-genre four album project – is because I believe so strongly that music is such an omni-language, you know? Music speaks to everyone and everything in different ways.

Nowadays, one of the cool things – and one of the reasons I’m excited to be alive at the time that I am – is that those boundaries, regulations and norms about how music should be consumed or created are dissolving. I do think people who are getting into jazz nowadays are more aware that jazz can take you into different spheres.

I think people who are getting into jazz are on the cutting edge of where music is today and will be in the next 20 or 30 years. I think it’s really important for people to understand that the science of what’s going on but without getting too caught up in trying to be right or trying to avoid being wrong, I should say. Music is such a bigger thing than that. I reckon there hasn’t really been a more exciting time to be creating than right now, in my opinion.

What kind of role, if any, does Quincy Jones play here? Is he just there at the end of it to listen to what you’ve made?

When I first met Quincy, which was so surreal in itself. I’d released a song called “Don’t Worry About A Thing” – I got a few different emails from people and one of them was from Quincy Jones. I just couldn’t believe it, I thought it was a joke. It was real and I went to meet him. He’s one of those extraordinary figures, he’s literally been around in music for 60 or 70 years. He’s been on the cutting edge of what’s happening with every decade. I was excited to meet him and I was blown away that he was excited about my music. I was also aware that I’ve always believed incredibly strongly in my own independence and my own creative control. I knew that was something I was going to let go.

One thing he’s done in the last 10 years or so is he’s founded this management company who help younger artists to start their careers. This was something I was intrigued by and they said, ‘We’d love to help you and sign you to our label.’ I eventually said, ‘It’ll be great to do that at some point, but at that moment, I would rather stay on my own and focus on what I’m creating.’ Over time, me and Quincy and Quincy’s team became even better friends. I suppose I realized that Quincy in all his greatness has all of these great connections and it could help me increase my reach in the community of the world.

He’s not been in the studio or help me have these ideas. The ideas belong to me, but Quincy is just such a mediator and I think he’s always been such an incredible force of opening people up to different kinds of music. On the subject of jazz, it’s evolved into something brand new and I think it’s opening people’s minds and other people’s careers. But for Quincy in the 1950s, especially as a black man, it was just extraordinary what he managed to do for the music and the world by breaking these boundaries. Can you imagine, he was studying in jazz arrangement and composition and he was working with people like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and he took that knowledge and school of thinking and brought it into Michael Jackson and the Eighties and they created Thriller.

It’s ridiculous how nowadays, you can sit and think, ‘Oh, it’s cool to use jazz harmonies in pop songs’ but Quincy was the first guy to do it and it’s one of the reasons that it’s such an honor to know the guy and spend time and get to know him and learn from him.

Watch Collier and the Metropole Orkest perform “In the Real Early Morning”

Who’s your favorite famous fan who you can’t believe actually digs your music?

[Laughs] Yeah it’s funny. There have been a couple of them over the years – it’s funny how the Internet makes the world smaller. One of them was Herbie Hancock, who’s one of the greatest jazz thinkers in the world of all time. We’ve become good friends over the years, because we both love harmonies so much, we end up having geeky discussions about harmonies and what makes chords sound good. He’s a giant of music and one of those people that I was just lost for words when he sent me an email – ‘I love the music you’re creating and it’s amazing’. When you think about it, it’s just so bizarre, because I was just here in North London recording these arrangements and I wasn’t compromising myself or trying to do things that would fit into other people’s boxes. I wasn’t trying to get signed to a label.

It’s a similar thought, almost all of the music I recorded was here in London, in this room that I grew up in as a kid. To be able to reach people in such far off lands such as India is really mind-bending, man. It’s hard to believe that I can travel to meet these people and play my music.

India is your last stop on the Asia tour. What’s next? Are you sticking around in India or heading back home right after?

I guess the rest of 2019 and 2020 and 2021… I’m not really allowing myself to think much far ahead of Djesse Vol. 4. Just because Djesse is such a huge project. If I start planning, it will most definitely change, because things are growing and moving so fast in the world.

After the whole thing of Djesse is complete, I guess there’ll be a few different things that will excite me and things I’d like to jump into, but one of the amazing things about doing four albums is that there are so many different seeds being sown across different spaces. Even within Djesse Vol. 1, the sound of the orchestra were exciting for me and it was the first pieces of music I’d ever written for orchestra. But there’s so much more I want to extract from that sound space. Djesse Vol. 1 was an experiment in that world, so I’m sure at some point, I’ll return to that world and write some more music for film or orchestra. It’s the same for the rest. There’s lots of musicians I’m meeting.

As far as India is concerned, I’m trying to see if I can to find a way if I can stick around in India a little more after the show. As I said earlier, there are so many reasons why – to explore and stay there to learn from the culture. If I don’t end up staying after this show, I’ll want to find the time where I can come without the thing of working and just come as a human being and explore and run around. India is such a rich place in so many ways and I want to do it justice when I come and hang out.

Mixtape presents Jacob Collier at the NCPA, Mumbai on September 17th and 18th. Get tickets for the show on September 17th here. Stream ‘Djesse Vol. 2’ below. 

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