WRUR 88.5 Different Radio

Jacob Collier On Creating The Negative Space Of 'Djesse Vol. 3'

Aug 15, 2020

A lot of music these days has to be made in isolation, but Jacob Collier an old-pro at that. The cover of the 26 year old's debut album, In My Room, was a 3-D shot of Collier surrounded by instruments in the room where he arranged, played, recorded and produced the album — the same room he played music in growing up, in the house in London and where he lives with his mother and sisters and connected with NPR's Scott Simon.

He says it's the room where he's spent most of his hours in quarantine "I've been able to get down to some music-making," he says, "which is the thing I most love to do most in all the world."

Collier's new album is called Djesse Vol. 3, part of a four-volume work, and although he's making music in isolation these days, he traveled to LA, Casablanca, Morocco, Tokyo and Nashville, Tenn., for the project.


"What I was determined to do about two and a half years ago when I set out on this voyage was to, in some way, describe all of the music that I had been listening to for my whole life," he says. For Collier, that meant exploring everything, collapsing the boundaries between classical, folk, rock, jazz, electronic and gospel. But he wouldn't categorize his own music with genre labels.

"The way in which I conceived of the whole thing was not particularly based on genre, but based on space," he says.

In that sense, Djesse Vol. 1 uses the energy of orchestras and choirs to capture "a large, acoustic space," while Djesse Vol. 2 focuses on the songwriting of "a smaller acoustic space" with folk, jazz and musical traditions from Africa.

"And Djesse Vol. 3, this particular volume," Collier says, "I suppose it explores much more the idea of almost negative space. It's like all of the whole scenario has collapsed and you're in the middle of the night and you're exploring all of the kind of deep funk within all of the strange weirdness of what it means to stay up late at night and create stuff."

NPR's Scott Simon spoke to Jacob Collier about creating his Grammy award-winning arrangement for his cover of "Moon River," on learning new instruments and dealing with growing fame. Listen in the audio player.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



A lot of music these days has to be made in isolation. Jacob Collier is making the most of it. In the video that premiered in May on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" we see Jacob Collier in his London bathroom playing a keyboard propped on the sink. Then a jump cut - he plays a double bass in the bathtub.


JACOB COLLIER: (Singing) Hi. I love the way that I feel when you put your arms over me.

SIMON: Rubber duckies look on. Shots of hairspray add percussive sounds. Later, Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign sing in the mirror and through the windows. "All I Need" is one of the singles from Jacob Collier's new album, "Djesse Vol. 3." He joins us from his home in North London. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLLIER: How are you, Scott? It's so nice to see you.

SIMON: Since 2016 and your debut cover of "In My Room," you have self-recorded, arranged, produced. As regrettable as it is, are we learning things in this kind of forced-upon-us age of DIY music making?

COLLIER: Oh, I do believe we are. I mean, the world is utterly topsy-turvy. But it's been an extraordinary time for musicians, I think, all over the world to rediscover and further discover what it means to create stuff and make music and things like that. I feel very privileged to be positioned in such a way that my childhood music room of 26 years at this point has been the room in which I've spent most of my quarantine hours, which has meant that I've been able to get down to some music making, which is the thing I most love to do in all the world.

SIMON: You actually work in your childhood music room?

COLLIER: Yeah, I do. This is the room that I'm talking to you from right now. I live with my mother, who is a single mother, and my two little sisters, and we've been quarantined here for, I suppose, four months now, which is just so bizarre to think about. We've been singing Bach chorales every evening as a bit of light relief, I suppose.

SIMON: So let me get this straight. You sing Bach chorales the way some of us other families binge-watch "The Great British Baking Show"?

COLLIER: (Laughter) I would say so. Yeah, we just can't get enough.


SIMON: I want to return briefly to "Djesse Vol. 2." You won a Grammy for this marvelously rich arrangement of "Moon River."


COLLIER: (Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style someday. Oh.

SIMON: How do you begin to layer something like that?

COLLIER: Well, it takes quite some planning and also just a general sense of trust of your own ear, I suppose. I set aside one week, and I basically decided that I wanted to begin the arrangement with this great, big sort of harmony (ph) cluster chord. And from there, all of those kinds of pyramids and strange sort of harmonic pivots and all those kinds of things - those are things that just sort of keep me up at night. So I think for me, it was almost like I turned on the tap with "Moon River" and just sort of saw what came out.


COLLIER: (Singing) There's such a lot of world to see.

SIMON: The "Djesse" project is a sprawling four-volume work that's in progress. And although we've been talking about music made in isolation, for this album, you went from - what? - LA to Casablanca to Tokyo to Nashville. What is "Djesse" all about?

COLLIER: Wowzer (ph). Well, what I was determined to do about 2 1/2 years ago when I set out on this voyage was to, in some way, describe all of the music that I had been listening to for my whole life in one sort of sprawling, bridge-building activity. I was interested in so much music as a boy, and I still am, but I was such a sponge.

And I saw no reason why, for example, the wonky grooves one finds on the streets of Morocco cannot be equated and collaborated with something like the wonky grooves found on the streets of Detroit in the hip-hop movement of the early 2000s.

I was interested in classical music. I was interested in folk music and rock 'n' roll music and a bit of jazz in there, too, and R&B and soul and electronic stuff and gospel - all sorts of things. And I guess I should say that the way in which I kind of conceived of the whole thing was not particularly based on genre but based on space and what genres, you know, fitted within different kinds of space.

So "Djesse Vol. 1," which is this dawn of the whole project, is a large, acoustic space - you know, something huge, broad, these massive brush strokes - choirs and orchestras primarily. "Djesse Vol. 2" was a smaller acoustic space welcoming things like folk music and music from Africa a little bit, too. And "Djesse Vol. 3," this particular volume, it explores much more the idea of almost negative space. The whole scenario has collapsed, and you're in the middle of the night, and you're exploring all of the kind of deep funk within all of the strange weirdness of what it means to stay up late at night and create something.


COLLIER: (Singing) Then now's the time to get that funky feeling right. If there's a thing...

SIMON: Another cut, if we could, from "Djesse Vol. 3," because you collaborate with so many people on this album. This is a song that features Kimbra and Tank and the Bangas, "In My Bones."


KIMBRA: (Singing) There's a pressing question on your lips, on your hips. On your lips, you've got some kind of question, like you got something to say. It's a question I could answer with some - with some kiss, what-a-do. There's a kind of magic in your...

SIMON: May I ask, are you staying up at night? Are you a perfectionist?

COLLIER: (Laughter) Yes, I am. I think my sort of perfectionism has been something I've lived with for many years. And I think at this point, it sort of includes imperfection, which can drive me nuts, actually, to be completely honest with you.

SIMON: How do you know when you've got something right?

COLLIER: That's a very difficult and important question. It's when you stop thinking about it. It just feels right. And this is something that I think many artists, including myself, really struggle with because there's always something you can do to change something or shift something or fade something slightly more cleanly or whatever it happens to be.

Say, for example, with "In My Bones," it's about 600 tracks in my logic session simultaneously playing, which is a lot. And I have - one moment I have to stop recording them and I have to start designing them. And then at the end of that process, you have to say, OK, I'm going to walk away from this, otherwise I'm going to keep going for the rest of my life, you know?

SIMON: Yeah. We put the word out on Twitter that we would be speaking, and we got a lot of good questions. May I share some with you?

COLLIER: Yes, indeed. That sounds - it sounds like great fun.

SIMON: (Laughter) Jackson Galaxy (ph) asks, what's your favorite licorice tea?

COLLIER: Oh. Well, Yogi. I'm not sure if you guys have the Yogi brand in the U.S., but I think maybe you do.

SIMON: I think we do, yeah.

COLLIER: Yogi licorice tea is undefeated.

SIMON: All right. You play so many instruments. A lot of people asked about that. I'm going to try and shorten the process. Is there any instrument you can't or have no interest in playing?

COLLIER: Well, I've never particularly been drawn to playing brass or woodwind instruments, which is actually a fair few.

SIMON: Yeah.

COLLIER: I think, to me, the idea of using the voice as those instruments sonically and in the compositional process is cool. But I'm always on the lookout for something new. I mean, for example, I recently realized just how deep the pedal steel guitar really goes and the way that the pedals can adapt the tuning of the strings. That, to me, sounds like a fun summer trying to learn that.

SIMON: Oh, my. Very good question we get from Cynthia Dagnal-Myron (ph), who asks, as fame grows, so do some of the challenges musicians face emotionally, musically and otherwise. What is one challenge you've faced or anticipate facing as your star continues to rise?

COLLIER: What's tough sometimes is sort of being in charge of bringing the best out of myself at all times. I think when you're a child, the best comes out of you without you thinking. And I think that as you, as you say, as your star rises, you end up in a situation where you have to decide what you're standing for at a certain point. And that can be both exhausting and unsustainable. But that whole process of kind of self-discovery, to me, I kind of miss the purity of that.

But I suppose what I would also say is that I've kind of deliberately taken a lot of time to do things on my own terms and in my own time in such a way that I've almost deliberately crafted a space where I can keep on changing things musically and keep on experimenting with things musically. I would tip my hat to the quarantine or global pandemic in a certain kind of way for that because I think if there's one thing that it has gifted us with, besides perspective, that thing is time.

SIMON: Jacob Collier has just released "Djesse Vol. 3" - speaking with us from his childhood music room, now his professional studio in North London. Thanks so much.

COLLIER: Thanks so much for having me.


COLLIER: (Singing) I'm counting sheep. I'm in too deep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.