Jacob Collier: "Stevie Wonder is my ultimate musical crush"

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg
Not only is he a YouTube sensation, two-time Grammy award winner, multi-instrumentalist, jazz theory & harmony wizard, and all around musical genius, but he’s only 22-years-old. With Jacob Collier’s unique one-man show coming to The Barby in Tel Aviv next week, we spoke with the British superhero about his “orchestral, energetic bundle of eclectic musical joy.”
What was the first instrument you ever picked up?
Well, I didn’t have many lessons as a kid – only singing, so I sang first and then all the other instruments just fell into place. I was such an adventurous kid and I loved to explore all these different sounds. Music is like cooking for me: you mix the ingredients together in one big pan and see how they end up. Through experimenting, you find what you really like and stick with it.
What style of singing were you taught?
I had classical singing lessons, which was really fantastic because it gave me a solid technical foundation to approach all the other genres later on like jazz and funk. But then again, I was also listening to a ton of Stevie Wonder and Bobby McFerrin at the time, so the two came together in my head.
What was your mother’s role (as a classical violinist) in your musical upbringing?
My mother was this force of nature when it came to both communication with people and the whole of learning music. She’s a champion. Still to this day, she challenges me. Whenever we play together, there’s this immensely special thing that happens. I’m blessed to have her.
How do you differentiate between ‘working’ and ‘playing’?
I think of what I do for work as playing/jamming. Music for me is so much fun so I don’t take my work very seriously in terms of not being humorous, but I take it absolutely seriously in terms of taking the time to make it as rich and glorious as possible. When I come home and there’s nothing I desperately need to do, I’ll explore and try out new things, but I try to make the work part of my music as enjoyable as I can since it is part of my life.
What is your compositional process like?
Sitting at a piano and working on a song is quite a luxury for me. These days, I have to do most of my writing while traveling. I’m a huge fan of voice memos. I put down many ideas there and sometimes I even use some of those audio files in my actual recordings. You get this really raw energy from voice memos that you can’t get when you sit down in a studio with a microphone. There’s this sense of immediacy, which I’m really drawn to.
How did you develop your deep understanding of theory and harmony?
I never really liked theory classes very much. To be honest, I was never that good at them. I’ve definitely learned more from using my ears rather than my brain. While I was drawn to the linguistic part of expressing that in college, I disagreed with a lot of the things my teachers were saying…I ended up making this compound Jacobian world of understanding in my head that made more sense instead.
Can you give me an example of something a teacher said that you disagreed with?
Well, a lot of teachers impart this idea that there is an absolute way of doing something. I don’t believe that exists nowadays, in anything. It’s not about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s about what feels good.
What’s your take on transcribing then?
Well, I have this strange memory where if you play a series of chords, I can tell you the note in each chord. I suppose what that means is that sitting down and writing all of this out doesn’t really change much. Where it was helpful was in terms of piano. I transcribed a couple of piano players who play slightly differently than me and it was great to get inside their time feel. I transcribed a ton of Bill Evans tunes and I’m also a huge Keith Jarrett fan.
Any teachers that truly impacted you?
Not as much teachers as musicians. I believe that when you listen to music, it gives you this periphery of great stuff in your ears and then when you sit down to make music of your own, those are your teachers, those are your guiding forces. It’s better to have Stevie Wonder as a reference point than say “this textbook that I read in class.” Stevie is so fantastic and has a real relevance to my life and the lives of so many people.
When did this adoration for Stevie develop? It definitely shines through in your arrangement of his “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.”
Stevie is my number one. As a kid, he represented everything that I really loved about music: he had all the chops, he had all the chords, he had all the funky stuff, all the groove, but then had that voice and behind the voice, he had this soul and feelings, and he also had this sense of humor mixed with this humanity. For me, it was like an ultimate crush…I’ve met him a couple of times and it’s surreal every time.
Another great role model in your career has been Quincy Jones. Tell me about that relationship.
Quincy runs a management company out of L.A. and he’s one of a group of people who essentially makes shit that I want to happen, happen. I have a lot of ambitious and crazy ideas and they wouldn’t be possible without the muscle. The most important thing for me is having the ability to completely maintain my own creative space and Quincy is 100% onboard with allowing me to take the reigns. As a human being, he’s so extraordinary, but he also has so many different friendships and relationships across the industry, which have led to collaborations with people like Herbie Hancock and Chick [Corea].
Is it difficult to be so young in the music industry?
For sure. The last couple of years have been nuts. I’m surrounded by people that are a lot older, so I have had to do some accelerated growth. I do think that the industry is changing at such an unbelievable rate right now, where nobody knows what’s going on…which means it’s anyone’s game. As a creative person, I find it quite exciting to be alive at this time because it’s no longer the record company who has the power; the power is in the creator’s hands. I’m definitely a great big kid. So my challenge is finding the balance between that and the great big industry. It’s all about the joy and having fun. If that gets lost, I will ultimately end up becoming an adult, which would be a shame.
So the Joy in your videos, that’s genuine?
For me, it is so important to hold onto the reasons anyone does anything and for me, it’s to spread this joy and understanding of myself to the world. When I record in my room, it’s a very specific environment, but it’s one that I have control over. When I started playing shows, I had to learn to play in the moment, taking that joyous energy going inwards into my room, and pushing it outwards into the crowd. It was a big transition for me in terms of growth…something that I really had to expand into.
Tell me more about this transition from recording to playing live?
I’ve toured for almost 2 years now and like many skills, the more you do something, the more comfortable you feel doing it and the better you get at it. I’ve been in many crazy environments from tropical islands in the Philippines to massive festivals (I played Coachella the other week) to the Blue Note in Toyko. I had to learn to plant some anchors in my life so that that source of energy didn’t exist in one place, but rather wherever I was.
How about on a technical level? How does your material translate?
A grad student at MIT in Boston named Ben Bloomberg invited me to explain my idea to him of taking my ‘room’ on tour. I had never really seen it done before, but lucky for me, Ben is a freak and superhero, so we brainstormed on how to do this and came up with a whole mix of things, including: five simultaneous loops that run on the stage at any given time (I can run between them and build harmonies and grooves on the spot), a few custom built instruments, the most important of those being the harmonizer (an instrument that allows me to sing up to 12-note chords all generated in real time…I sing and the harmonizer samples my voice, then I can play it on the keyboard so it’s essentially like this impromptu choir of Jacobs), and I can trigger pre-recorded segments that I recorded at home too, so there is this integration that gets pretty funky.
How about visually replicating those 5-6 Jacobs at a time in your YouTube videos?
Behind this circle of instruments of piano, bass, keyboard, harmonizer, melodica guitar, and percussion on stage, there’s this enormous video screen that duplicates Jacobs on it, using two 3-D cameras that follow me around, tracking my skeletal movements. You’ll essentially see a Jacob step out of his body and become two and then three and four.
And what material can Israelis expect in this one-man show?
A whole mixture: there are a couple of songs that I have completely rearranged for the show, which is always really cool because it goes back to my first love of arranging and rebuilding. There are also a bunch of new arrangements of In My Room. When playing live, things have to adapt and change, so often to keep myself on my toes, I change a key of a song or the tempo of a playback before a gig. It drives my team crazy, but I love it. It’s impossible to say just how the Israel gig will sound because it’s quite a long way away [2 weeks]. I make sure to find a fresh energy to source for each show.
How would you describe your sound to a room full of people that might not know you (i.e. an Israeli audience)?
I find that difficult question to answer. It’s sort of an orchestral, one-man, energetic bundle of eclectic musical joy. It draws from all of these styles – jazz, funk, church, a cappella. It’s definitely a multilayered mixture. Some of my favorite music is music that is based in one style and borrows elements from others.
We spoke about harmony…now, how about rhythm?
Rhythm is vital to me. I have a whole bunch of ideas that are rhythmically based. There are some crazy rhythms that I’ve heard from Israelis, particularly bassist Avishai Cohen who was a real hero of mine as a teenager. I’d say that rhythm is almost as important to me as harmony but not quite, because harmony is the love of my life [besides Stevie of course].
How do you choose which song to arrange?
It is an interesting thing to decide on. You want a simple melody and often you want a melody that is quite repetitive because once the listener has heard it once, you can reinvent it while it’s still in their ears. Take something like “Fascinating Rhythm” – it’s so repetitive so you can really have fun with that melody. A simple enough melody, but with a real depth to it for reinventing makes me really excited. That’s a quality I look for when I’m choosing my projects.
What has been your most challenging song to arrange?
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” on the surface has a very pentatonic melody, but then there are these quirks that Stevie throws in, like playing with unexpected suspension chords over a ii-V. The progression is very simple on the record, so it was a challenge for me to stretch my ear and try to reinvent this diatonic descending melody in a crazy way.
Is this your first time in Israel?
Yes, which is so exciting. It’s the one thing my team and I talk about all the time. I’m just hoping that I’ll have enough time to explore and hear some music and talk to some people. It’s hard sometimes to properly drench yourself in a place. It’s such a different world from the one I’m used to, but I’m sure there are common grounds.
Rumor has it you’re teaching a master class at the Rimon School of Jazz? What do you plan on talking about there?
Normally, at the beginning of a master class, people like to hear me talk a bit – about harmony, grooves, production, etc. – and sometimes I show some sessions from my record and break the mixing layers down. But, a lot of it is getting to know what those students are really hungry for and once I have a better idea of what they’re lacking, I can feed them in that way. Often, we end up just talking…about what it means to make music and what it means for me as a young person to be a part of the industry and maintain a sense of integrity and musical self.
So what’s next for Jacob Collier?
I have an infinite amount of things that I’m working on at all times. One that I’m most excited about is my next record, which is a huge scale project. After doing a record on my own, the time has come to invite other people to play in this project. There’s going to be a whole group of musicians on the album. I’m planning where to travel to chase some of my collaborators down right now. I’m also going to be building new instruments with Ben. I’ve got these plans to build digital platforms for people to learn about harmony and rhythm that are more about interactive, experiential and emotion learning. I’m so passionate about education and I think that it’d be cool to find a way to leave some good ideas online or in the world somehow – whether that be by writing a book or in my new album – to help musicians discover the things they can’t in musicology alone. And above and beyond all that, my ongoing project is to just be a kid and see where the road takes me.
Any final advice or last words?
First and foremost, do things on your own terms. Do things for yourself because there are so many people that do things for other people – whether for a teacher or parents or to impress a girl – it’s hard to ground that skill set, but it’s really important. Invest in your imagination. Also, have the courage to stay with something long enough for it to be really wonderful and once that’s done, have the courage to stop and move on to something new and equally beautiful.
Jacob Collier will be performing at The Barby in Tel Aviv on May 15th. Find more event details HERE.

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