Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Grammy-winning virtuoso Jacob Collier discusses Djesse Vol. 3 and leaving genre behind

Photo: Jacob Collier
Photo: Jacob Collier
Graphic: Allison Corr

It took Jacob Collier about five months to complete “All I Need,” his rollicking collaboration with R&B songstress Mahalia and rapper Ty Dolla $ign off of the forthcoming Djesse, Vol. 3. “I just couldn’t get the chorus right for such a long time,” Collier told The A.V. Club over the phone from his London home. “And I went ’round and ’round trying to find just the right chorus. I must’ve tried 12 or 13 choruses over that same core sequence, just different melodies. None of them were quite right until I found the perfect one.” That level of dedication comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. The four-time Grammy winner detailed the track’s mixing process in a lengthy live stream where he shared demos of some of the discarded vocals—sultry intonations that could have changed the tone of the song entirely. He ultimately landed on a sunny jam rife with lush harmonies, joyful refrains, and layers upon layers of delicately woven instrumentation. It’s indulgent—like springtime condensed in four lovely minutes—and indicative of his innate skill and patience.

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The “In My Bones” artist is so patient that he readily altered his original plan of releasing his four-part Djesse project in one year in order to perfect it. Vol. 3, which drops on August 14, is a vibrant, brilliantly chaotic reminder that good things come to those who wait. The level of production on each track renders the album a unique and fulfilling experience, one that strongly pivots from the first two installments (and for good reason). Collier spoke to The A.V. Club about his forthcoming album, the vision behind Djesse, and the confounding nature of music genres.


The A.V. Club: We’ve seen a number of creative performances from you over the past months, like your appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and your NPR Tiny Desk concert—both of which featured multiple versions of you playing different instruments. How else has quarantine bolstered your creativity?

Jacob Collier: I feel very lucky because I’m in a position where I’ve cultivated this creative environment inside my family home for the last 26 years now. In some ways, for me to be working from home—finishing this album, producing, making videos, starting campaigns, releasing music—feels normal because it’s been my way of life for such a long time. However, I think it’s also been a time to ask questions. I took the opportunity not to be creative because creativity is what happens when I don’t think—it happens automatically. But when I’m not rushing to get something done, I think that’s when some of the really valuable osmosis and growth happens.

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The last four or five years have been so much fun, but I’ve been running all over the world on three tours. I never sat down and really thought about the whole thing too much. I’ve always just been determinedly racing towards the next bubble. I found that going on tour was a real energy booster for me as of late. I love working with crowds, feeling like you’re being expressive in an instantaneous moment, and then you get 2,000 people’s energies slapping back out to you. That’s something I’ve been grappling with. I’ve had to figure out how to guard my time in a whole new way, without the ability to be constantly distracted by travel. And I think I’ve sort of fallen in love with different parts of the creative process that I never get time to really enjoy.

AVC: More often than not you hear about how exhausting touring is. It’s interesting to hear that it has the opposite effect on you.

JC: I love the feeling of going around and collecting these spaces and stories. Obviously part of it is exhausting, but then again, so is staying at home all day long. I think there’s always a way to source energy from everything that you interact with in your life. As an introvert, my challenge over the last four or so years has been finding ways to source energy in a sustainable way from traveling. It’s a problem that I’ve had to solve. But I think I reached a point by the end of last year when I finished this sort of extravagant tour with my four-piece band. It was such a wonderful exchange that coming home felt far less like I’d just run a marathon and more like I was ready to jump into a different creative challenge.

AVC: And then a pandemic hits.

JC: Exactly. I was planning on going on the road at the end of March. We had the rehearsal space, all the music was planned, and I had the band ready. But I guess I’ve never been one to sit and dwell on what might have been X or what could have been Y.

AVC: With your sprawling four-part album, Djesse, you explore such different sounds. Vol. 1 was very jazzy, while Vol. 2 was composed largely of bucolic folk. Vol. 3 pivots so much with its R&B, hip-hop, and house sound. What story are you hoping to tell with this project?

JC: I plunged into this quadruple project knowing that I wanted to describe my musical universe and all of its multiple facets with one through-line. One thing that became clear after having just completed my first album, In My Room, was that I wanted to work with other people, these musicians that have inspired me so much and given me my own voice.

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I started with Djesse Vol. 1, which isn’t specific to any genre, but is about a broad, acoustic space. It’s real instruments in a large open room. I worked with this incredible orchestra called the Metropole Orkest, and they provided this expansive soundscape. Vol. 2 was about an acoustic space that was slightly smaller. That lends itself a little more to folk, jazz, and world music from Africa and Portugal. With Vol. 3, I always described [it] as negative space: From the listener’s perspective, the space around the music has disappeared, and you’re right inside the sounds of the music rather than sitting by the side of the musician like in Vol. 2 or at the top of the cathedral like in Vol. 1. It’s all about what happens when you explode those kinds of sounds, and it’s more along the lines of R&B, soul, and hip-hop. I look to these, these sort of deliciously rhythmic musical forms that I’ve loved for so many years. So I wanted to really push the boat out for this one, in terms of sonics.

I’m so grateful for the bonus four months that I have to craft it. When I was about to jump on tour at the end of March, it was cool, but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t ready. I think having had the chance to really sit in the sounds, I’ve been able to craft it in a more fully fledged way. The basic vision for it was to have these three different universes and then a fourth universe—Vol. 4—to kind of repopulate all of those seeds that I’ve been planting as one sound. I planned for it to be about a one-year escapade with all four albums coming out in one year. I ended up expanding that to be four years long.

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When I was starting this project I thought, “Who says you can’t have Gnawa music from the streets of Morocco mixed with hip-hop, rock and roll, elements of jazz, a fully fledged orchestra and choir on top of rappers, poets, singers, fiddlers, banjo players, and Northumbrian pipe and make it all make sense?”

AVC: That concept really comes through in tracks like “Count The People,” which appears on Vol. 3. Jessie Reyez has this rocking, anthemic wail that blankets over the chorus, and you energize the tune with speed-rap. Then T-Pain mellows things down just before a dubstep-style breakdown. It’s difficult to pin one genre to it.

JC: And I don’t know if I can really give you an answer to it. I suppose it’s a combination of so many things. When I was a boy, I was such a sponge, and I would listen to just everything I could get my ears on from Stravinsky to Beck and Björk, Bobby McFerrin, Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder. For me, it was just one big flavor. I never thought about genre until someone said, “Oh, I think I’m into jazz.” And then I listened to some jazz and some folk and thought, “Why are they in different boxes?” Then I realized that that kind of bias goes really deep in the industry. You’ve got entire charts of music dedicated to these different, segregated spaces. So for me, it was a bizarre thing to put my taste in into boxes.

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AVC: You recently released your fourth track from Vol. 3, your collaboration with Tori Kelly, “Running Outta Love.” Soon after, you tweeted a video of the two of you laying down vocals for the song back in 2017. Is that your longest-gestating track on the album?

JC: It actually was. I think it was February 2017 that I started that one off, which predates many, many songs. It predates the entirety of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. That song was the one I was most excited about for a long, long time. Tori is such a hero of mine, she’s just got a spectacular voice. The nice thing about that song for me is it’s almost like a still point. There’s something very hypnotic about this walking pace groove, which was a reassuring balance to some of the weird and wonderful more experimental craziness of the album.

AVC: Through Djesse’s entire process, which collaboration did you learn from the most?

JC: I would say two of the most ground-level life lessons I learned were from Hamid El Kasri and Oumou Sangaré. Oumou is one of the most legendary Malian singers of all time and an extraordinary storyteller. I was completely gobsmacked when she agreed to do a session with me and she actually came over to [my home] during one of her London escapades last year. She didn’t speak a word of English, so the challenge was to find a way to build a bridge of communication that wasn’t reliant upon explanation. I made this groove for her, and when I played it, she was fairly excited about it, but she wasn’t really going crazy. We spit-balled for a little while, and then she did something that felt as if it belonged to a slightly different sonic landscape, so I abandoned the groove and built this other thing around her. Suddenly, we connected. I walked in with all these preconceptions, expecting to do something totally different. I kind of did the same thing with Hamid when I got to Morocco and I played him my idea. I had to learn to embrace the [music] that was right there in front of me. A lot of those lessons are just about how the things that least work out [can be] the most fulfilling and how some of the most meaningful communications are not based in words, but on our experience or an exchange.

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AVC: Do you have a favorite song from Vol. 3?

JC: I think my favorite song on the album is “He Won’t Hold You,” actually. Obviously it changes all the time, but I think I would say that song is the one that stands up the most. It’s a really personal song for me that has the weight of the reality of loss. It’s almost like a new frontier for me because a lot of my music is based in colorful degrees of comfort and exploding that joy outward. But with “He Won’t Hold You,” it’s almost like I had to build a bridge for myself between the kind of peace that comes from exploding with energy and something which is able to be very still. It manages to rock me in a very valuable way.

I always wanted Rapsody to be the poet on that particular song. I actually reached out to her about six months ago now. She actually didn’t really reply to me for about four months. I’d given up hope until she eventually came back around and said, “Hey, I’m so sorry. I’ve been out of the loop. Let me do this.” And the moment that she sent [her spoken verse] through, I new that it had found its muse.

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AVC: During Elle’s Song Association you covered “Moon River” and paid it a unique compliment: “It’s one of those songs that is so strong that you could [musically] destroy it and it survives,” meaning that you can change the song’s structure and it would still sound great. Is there another song that you love to musically “destroy?”

JC: I learned a lot of my compositional skillset from arranging. My first YouTube videos were all cover songs. There was one song called “Don’t Worry About A Thing” by Stevie Wonder, which is another one of those classic songs. I really stretched it to its absolute limits. And I think at 18, I was just so excited by the idea that my skillset could be stretched and sort of expounded. Perhaps “destroy” is a slightly strong word for me to have used, but I think it’s more about stretching something, maintaining one part and then recontextualizing another so that it ends up being far, far from home and leaves you trying to find a way back to that home in whatever musical fashion takes your fancy.

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AVC: You arranged, composed, performed, and produced this album. As a producer, do you have a particular guiding philosophy?

JC: I never really learned how to do things properly. I didn’t sit down at the piano with a piano teacher and get lessons and I didn’t do that with the bass or the drums or guitar or [the audio mixing software] Logic. I’ve been producing since I was about 7, and I’ve never particularly sat down and thought about why and how things should be done. I just followed my gut. I think it tends to lead you in the right direction. For me, one of the biggest challenges with producing my own music, which is really a loss of my own experiences is, with all these myriads of layers and all the different kinds of sounds, I think the job is to be a painter and to make sure that you’re not painting everything on the foreground. I mean, obviously if you want to do that, that’s fine. But you know, you need to make some decisions about what your priorities are. Some things need to take precedent and be in the foreground. Others need to melt into the background. I think that you leave room for the audience to find themselves within that structure. One of the tricks I’ve been learning recently is that when you’re dealing with these kind of dense structures, it’s all about space. And it’s about finding where to put and leave that space and how to build a structure that is appealing enough to climb inside, but not efficient enough to close you off.

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