When Quincy Jones calls you ‘the future of music’ there must be something special going on. Seeing young Brit Jacob Collier (1994) perform is indeed something extraordinary and having a word with such a vibrant personality is a pleasure too. We talked with Collier about positivity, creativity and the importance of maintaining your childlike spirit.
When I saw you perform it struck me to see how many musical ideas you have. Where do they all come from?
I’ve always suffered from the ‘too many ideas syndrome’, but I love it. I suppose it has something to do with developing the courage to let it all come out. And when they’re out I need to decide maybe I don’t need this inner court or that section. But for me to have all the material on the table to start with feels as the right way forward.
Once all the ideas are out, how do you pick the right ones for you?
‘It depends what kind of idea it is. If it is songwriting, there are constantly decisions you need to make, so one is what the structure of the song is. Is there a section I don’t need, or is there a section I’d like to add? Or in terms of one particular phrase these chords are too sparse, so I have to build on them or take things away from them. I think it’s constant zooming in and zooming out. I have to zoom out to imagine it’s not me but someone listening to the radio. Yet, how would it sound if you look at it through a microscope on every detail? I love to examine both of those perspectives.’
And then somewhere in the middle there is the answer?
‘Yes, but I believe you should always be able to tune in to the very finest and be satisfied and also be able to do the opposite. I’d say most people would tune in around the middle and as an artist I try to tune into a perspective as broad as possible.’
During the show I saw you perform this intimate, delicate piano song. Is it hard for you just to stick to the piano and keep it simple?
‘Oh man, I love it. This show was short, only one hour. Normally my show is more than two hours. There are more intimate moments with the piano and the guitar as well. For me these moments are really important. Besides, there is a lot of chaos when I perform and I think that’s also really valuable. The people were standing; they want groove and so I’m not going to play too many slow ones, but those are always some of my favorite moments in the show.’
‘When I play all the different instruments at once there is a lot to remember. I need to be here and here, and the amount of brain space I have to interact and be really present is less because there is so much I have to do. I still love it equally, but when I play a ballad it’s more about energy going in. I can take my time when I make decisions. But one wouldn’t exist without the other. You can’t have a show with only those quiet moments; it’s about having that dynamic range.’
Since you left your music room at home where you recorded your debut album, you’ve traveled a lot and met a lot of people. Do you ever miss being in your room as much as you were before?
‘I think my imagination and my comfort zone had to evolve. I only lived in one house all my life, it really is my childhood room. I think everyone from time to time thinks “I just wanna be at home”, but I don’t feel like I left the room behind. It’s more like I’m taking it with me.’
During your performance the stage looks a bit like your room at home.
‘That was the idea, I wanted to tour the room.’
Since you left your room last year, what was one of these moments that made a big impression on you?
‘The first ever gig I did was a bit crazy. It was at the Montreux Jazz Festival and I was opening for Herbie (Hancock, red.) and Chick (Corea, red.) which was amazing for me because they’re two of my biggest heroes, but we never rehearsed the show. That will go down in history as one of the most unforgettable 30 minutes of my life. I went on that stage and I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t know if the tech was going to work. But it went great and the feeling at that moment was like I learned more those 30 minutes than I did in years of education. Since then I did about 150 gigs, but that one will stay with me my whole life. Right now, the energy during a show is crazy, but at that first gig the energy was a lot more inwards because I used to be indoors in my room. So I had to go through a process of learning how to communicate with people outside.’
Are you more open now than during that first gig?
‘Open is quite a broad word I think. I’d say I’m definitely more open in terms of performance. Creatively speaking I’m the same as I always was, like when I was 3. I was a kid with a lot of colors and things to share and I’m not afraid to be myself even if that’s a bit weird. It has brought me so much joy to go around the world and learn so many skills. I hope I’m still the same Jacob, only more experienced.’
Is it hard to stay close to yourself in this world with all these distractions?
‘That’s a great question. This is a one man show, so I’m on my own and I had to befriend myself. I do know very well who I am because of this. It’s like a very close friendship; you have to forgive yourself from time to time and be healthy, eat and sleep. Congratulate yourself when you’re doing something well and criticize yourself when something could be better. All those relations, as with a friendship, it strengthens over time. I don’t think I find it hard to be close to myself. I think I can find it hard to be close to the place I’m in, because I’m so happy inside my own head. As an introvert my world indoors was very comfortable to me, but right now I try to be a bit more present during the tour and I’ve got over the exhaustion being on tour because I learned to sustain my energy a bit better.’
Your music brings a lot of positive energy.
‘I definitely appreciate positive energy and I think that people who give out positive energy give life to people. The only thing I can really try to be is myself and in general I’m quite a joyous person, so that’s lucky. I think it’s important not to share too much self-indulgence. There is a lot in the world that’s quite negative and difficult to handle and you can feel quite powerless. If I’m representing anything it’s that we’re alive a little bit of time and it’s great to be here and give things out and take risks and explore things and go on adventures, because it’s not that serious. I don’t take my career and my life that seriously, but I put a lot of love and care into it.’
Yes, you can tell. Were your brought up that way?
‘Yes, my mom is very similar to me in that aspect. I never had these goals of being famous or rich or have a legacy, I just wanted to be myself. As a kid it was that process of understanding who I was and what I loved and what I responded to. Obviously, I’m mostly self-taught as a musician and this way you learn to form a relationship with yourself without holding on too much to yourself. Just try to let yourself be and enjoy it.’
I can imagine it’s not always easy when you’re this energetic and you have to fit in a school system when you’re for example seven years old.
‘I didn’t take it that seriously. I quietly ignored my music teachers, because I had my own world I really believed in and my own process.’
Did they try to teach you something you thought was not right?
‘I think everyone at some point in their education comes across that point. In my case, I just disagreed with the things they were saying. “Music is wrong here, and right here” they said, but music is not science, it’s about how it feels. It’s interesting to be in education because you meet people and you can take the bits that are good for yourself and build yourself a library of knowledge. But I don’t think there are a lot of teachers that help you to make your own decisions. A lot of time you have to understand their decisions and if you don’t then you’re wrong. Again, I think when you take it all too seriously you lose your childlike spirit which is I think very important to maintain at any point in your life. That’s really exciting!’
You played at the So What’s Next Festival, so the logical last question is, what is next for you?
‘I have so many ideas, things I’d like to do. I work on this big album right now, it’s quite a long project, 30 songs or so and it’s a journey through different genres.’
Do you work on it in your room again?
‘I’ve been working on it at home for a while, but this album is more about collaborations. I’m working with orchestras, I’m working with other musicians, so I’m traveling around to work with them on this crazy project. The album, together with these videos that go with it, will be released in 2019 and the plan is to go on tour with a band. From there I don’t think it’s good to plan too far ahead, but I want to keep on creating and see where it leads me. I feel really lucky I can explore my understanding of the world. I think that is what art is: trying to explain the way I see things and learn about it and hopefully enlighten some kind of thing in somebody else.’