Jacob Collier (Ep. 15)
BY Future of StoryTelling — July 9, 2020

Grammy award-winning musician and YouTube star Jacob Collier discusses his unique approach to creativity and how he bridges the intellectual and the emotional in his art.



Available wherever you listen to your podcasts:


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Additional Links:

      Jacob's website

      “Hideaway” music video

      Jacob harmonizing a live audience

      Compilation of Jacob's “#IHarmU” series



      Charlie Melcher:

      Hi, I'm Charlie Melcher, founder and director of the Future of Storytelling, and I'd like to welcome you back to the FoST podcast. There are a myriad of different roles that storytelling plays in our society, and we at FoST love to wax lyrically about the power that stories have to inspire profound change in the world. But an even more fundamental value of storytelling is that it brings us joy.


      Today, I'm very excited to introduce to you an artist whose work brings me and millions of others a great deal of joy. Jacob Collier is a new type of musician-storyteller, belonging to an only-recently-possible category of artists whose careers develop almost entirely online.

       

      He first came to prominence as a 17 year old posting homemade videos on YouTube, where he would cover popular songs and use his self-taught video and audio production skills to layer multiple performances together, allowing him to sing and play numerous instruments simultaneously. He quickly gained a large following and began turning heads in the music industry, leading to a management deal with Quincy Jones at the age of 19.


      Since then, Jacob has developed into a respected voice in the music world, collaborating with the likes of Hans Zimmer and Herbie Hancock, sharing the stage with Pharrell and picking up four Grammy awards along the way. Jacob is a rare talent, equally comfortable discussing intricate concepts of music theory as he is getting the crowd dancing with exuberance at a sold out live show. I'm so thrilled to welcome Jacob Collier to our humble FoST podcast stage.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Jacob Collier, I'm so honored and excited to have you on the Future of Storytelling podcast. Welcome.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Thank you so much for having me. This is going to be magnificent fun. I can feel it.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I can too. I'm so excited to be with such an unbelievably talented, creative person. I watched so many of your videos. And honestly, every time I've seen one of them or listened to some of your music, I feel like it's exploding out of the shell. There's so many ideas, so many harmonies, so many instruments, so many art forms. It is literally like it can't contain it all almost in the songs.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Well, thanks so much for saying that.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Let's sort of go back to the beginning a little bit, if you don't mind. You started as somebody who is uploading YouTube videos from your bedroom. How did you get started in music, and what got you sharing your music that way?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      So yeah, I grew up, I suppose, making music mostly in the room that I'm talking to you from here in north London, my family music room. I've lived here for my whole life. And so the whole process of making music for me started so early on that it was almost my second language growing up. There were the words I was piecing together with my sentences, then there were the sounds I was piecing together with my hands or with my ears at a very young age. We were the kind of household who would play Bjork and Beck and Bach and Bartok and Bobby McFerrin. And everyone's begun with B that I've just listed somehow. But we all those people would be spoken about within the same sentence, with one breath would be all these different kinds of flavors.


      And I think that for me, I was determined to find a way of making sense of all these different materials and somehow kind of alchemizing them into something that felt like it was innately Jacob, something that was Jacobian by nature or whatever. And I was extremely lucky not just to have the means to listen to and discover music, but also a very open-minded dialogue within my house that I think enabled me to have a voice, a human voice that would sing songs, and that would speak out with opinions, but also just someone whose ideas had as much value as the results of those ideas.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I know that you started by doing covers of other people's music, and these were not just like simple karaoke style renditions of somebody else's songs. They were wildly complex and layered, and you would be playing multiple tracks and multiple harmonies, multiple instruments, and then piece this all together and release it. But I find it so interesting as a young artist that you started by playing with other people's work, improvising on that.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      It's a funny premise, I think, to write music, and it felt much more scary than it did to stretch something that somebody else has made into this kind of maximalist oblivion, which I so enjoyed as a 16 year old, 17 year old. I think I was so drawn to the sort of magnetic power of musical language taken to the extreme, chords because with six or seven or eight or nine notes in them and rhythms that melted your brain.

       

      I was looking for materials that felt safe to mess around with. What felt doable was taking a song that I loved, like say Stevie Wonder's Don't You worry About a Thing, and thinking... Well, I love this song, first of all, so I think it deserves to have a sort of new spin on it, and I want to learn from this song. I want to stretch it. And so I would stretch it, and I'd think, "Well, how far could I take this melody? How far could I stretch the chords?"

       

      In the process of extracting and kind of exploring the raw materials of each of these songs, I really fell in love with the idea of filling up this palette, this pallet of skills and flavors and tones and tastes, really, and combining them in this sort of full-hearted way. And every time I arranged a song, I learned so much more, and I wanted to take that into the next arrangement and the next arrangement and the next arrangement.

       

      And so I guess from the years of about 2011 to 2014 or '15, online, you sort of see me learning all these skills. And I would say that most of them are musical, also visual skills, how to edit videos together, how to successfully mask multiple Jacobs onto a screen.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      You were hacking it, yeah.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      I was hacking it. I love the experience of playing with it. I love the experience of stretching myself. And arranging felt like a safe place to do so, I suppose, before I was ready to embark on writing my own music.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Okay, so let's talk about the visual side. Because you're not just this virtuosity of musical talent, you're creating these incredible visuals to go with your music. Is that natural? I mean, why did you find the visual side so interesting? Most people stick to one, no?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      You know what? I've always loved the idea that you can, first of all, experience, but also create art or music from multiple perspectives. And I guess this began with, well, I want to be the bass player in the band, but I also want to be the drummer in the band, but I also want to be the keys player, but I want to sing all that stuff too, and I want to play the melodica solo. That wasn't-

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      You didn't have any friends? Couldn't you put a band together?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Exactly. I was going to say, it's not particularly a common way of doing things, and it wasn't even necessarily that I was excluding other people in my life who could have helped me do it better. I think it was just that I was too interested in understanding the musical DNA for myself to wait for someone to explain it to me. I wanted to go and touch it with my own fingers.

       

      And the first thing I did was to, I suppose, make these mosaic videos where there'd be one Jacob over here, one Jacob over here, and another Jacob here playing it over here, and playing lots of different instruments. Some of them would be musical instruments, some of them would be saucer pan lids or bits of metal or stamping on the floor or whatever I was actually recording.

       

      But I was not a particularly gifted editor of video to start with. If I had any gift at all, it was the gift of knowing what I wanted to achieve and the patience to wait until it was achieved before I was happy with it. One thing that I've really tried to do is just to turn on the tap and see what kind of raw materials I've got, like what am I responding to here? What excites me there? What raises the goosebumps? What makes me feel uncomfortable? What makes me feel comfortable? And taking all of those and just trying to be as faithful to those materials as possible.

       

      Which I suppose has led me from my first album, which is called In My Room, which I recorded in this exact room, to my most recent project, which is this quadruple album by the name of Djesse, Djesse Volume One, Two, Three, and Four, which is, I suppose, a more ambitious task than simply turning on the tap and seeing what comes out in three months. And it's ended up being this sprawling kind of three year long, epic 50-plus songs project with 30 collaborators from the world over from orchestras to choirs to rock guitar legends, folk singers, R&B, soul singers, rappers, trappers, you name it, and being determined to kind of stretch that idea of comfort and to learn as much as I can from people that have taught me all these lessons.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      And how do you choose your collaborators? You started as somebody working very solo in your room, and now you've got this world-class group of collaborators. How do you choose?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Well, here's the thing, I released In My Room, and I did it independently, and I toured the world for two years with a one man show. And it was great fun. I learned so much, I just learned so much. And didn't have a great deal of experience even particularly performing on stage representing myself before my first ever gig, which was at the Montreux jazz festival in Switzerland opening for Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea as my first gig ever. Crazy crazy night.

       

      And from that day to the last one man show ever, which I believe maybe was in Moscow back in 2018, I did about 200 gigs. And I was learning at a really, truly accelerated rate about what audiences do to performers because they were all I had. And so, what happens when you tell a story on your own terms in your head is different from what happens when you tell a story to a room of listening people. And I think that the amount that you can learn, if you're willing, from those reactions is really extraordinary and learning how to listen to those voices without necessarily even being too effected by them was something that I've loved to learn. I think it's been amazing.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I was just going to say, I had the wonderful experience of getting to see you perform live at the TED conference in Vancouver. And certainly, the highlight was feeling like you were playing us. There was that moment when you got us all harmonizing with you, the audience, and the fourth wall was broken.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Yeah.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      It was really beautiful and you did it so well.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Oh, thank you.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      And by the way, that's a group of people who are naturally kind of reserved, a lot of successful, well-off people who don't necessarily get up there and sing.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Yeah. I think there's something magical about breaking that, yeah, as you say, that fourth wall, that barrier. I love the idea of no matter who you are, where you come from, what you believe in, what you stand for, we can all make a sound, and we can all do so harmoniously. And it's something that really struck a chord with me earlier on.


      Charlie Melcher:

      At the Future of Storytelling, we are always exploring the breaking of that fourth wall. We're always very interested in this next generation of participatory media. One of our speakers some years ago, a guy named Scott Snibbe, who's done some amazing apps and musical work, he spoke about this idea that music was always originally a participatory form. You wouldn't sit around the campfire, and some people were playing drums... And everybody was either dancing or singing or playing an instrument. As opposed to cut to a classical music concert today, and everyone's sitting dead silent, not moving.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Yeah. I mean, it goes without saying that music began as not only a participatory thing, but a physical thing that happened in our bodies that happened for our bodies, just as it happened for our minds. And one of the sort of diseases I think now is sweeping the world is this idea that our mind and our body are separate things. And I think that the truth of the matter is that there's just no difference between our body and our mind. And the moment that we neglect to look after one, we neglect to look after ourselves at all.

       

      And the really strange thing is that rhythm is just basically, it's us walking, it's us talking, it's us blinking. It's everything that we do in our bodies is rhythmic, and that's why music is so inherent to our lives. And I think that bringing the music back into the physical realm is something that it's taken me an extraordinary amount of time to really connect with. Because before I went on tour, I really thought to myself as a recording artist. And then I went on tour, and something clicked out of the brain and into the body, and I relaxed physically. I relaxed into my body, and I was able to connect with what it meant to stand and jump and dance and move and communicate with my whole body, not just with my mind.

       

      As someone who is profoundly introverted, the joy and the catharsis I felt when something clicked inside my mind with something clicking outside my body, it was such a relief, I suppose is the best way I can describe it. It's like the realization that you can be exactly who you are at any moment, and the more you you are, the more compelling your story is.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I think that's so beautifully put that the more that you can be you, the higher the expression of the art and the more it resonates for others. I've seen you performing up there and connecting with that audience, and it truly felt like a dance, like you were dancing with the audience. And everybody was joyful, like out of their mind joyful.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      That's very nice to hear that. Thank you very much.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      So let's talk a little bit about technology. I mean, the fact that you could both produce your own album from the room you're sitting in now, the fact that you can share it out into the world. We've talked for a long time about the democratization of creativity enabled by these new tools. You seem to me to maybe be one of the great artists that represent that idea or the potential of these tools. How do you feel about technology in your work?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      It's a tricky conundrum, isn't it? Every time technology makes your life easier, it makes your life more difficult in a different way. I think it's a tremendous challenge and a privilege to exist creating in a time this entrenched in technology. For me, I'm eternally grateful to it. And I think that I have absolute hope and belief that if humans continue to prioritize the things that make them human in their use of technology, that there is just no limit to the things that we can accomplish to bring each other together.

       

      I guess most importantly, I've been able to expand my idea of what's possible with making music just from the tools that I have at my disposal. So one person can't sing six notes at once in real life, unless they are insane, absolutely insane, and truly extraordinary. But I've been able to imagine myself as a six-voiced beast, and I've been able to execute that using technology. And I say that within the confines of this room where I've been recording my albums, and sometimes that goes up to hundreds and hundreds of simultaneous voices. And that's a really unique sound, and I do love that one.

       

      But also on stage, I have this musical instrument called the harmonizer, the vocal harmonizer, which I believe I had on stage at that TED conference too. The way that works is that I sing one note, and then I play a variety of notes. I can play up to 12 notes in fact. And the note that I'm singing in real time is sampled and comes out as all the notes that I'm playing. So I'm essentially able to improvise as a choir on the spot, spontaneously. But it's not based on anything prerecorded, it's based on real life. So if I go, "Wow," then all voices go, "Wow," but they do so on their respective notes. And if I could sing six voices at once, I wouldn't be making harmonizers, I would be singing six voices at once. But I can't do that, and so I make a harmonizer to make a human action possible that wasn't possible before.

       

      And I wouldn't say the same is true for Instagram filters, for example, or auto-tune. But I do think that when technology is paired up with the right kind of brain, there is, as I say, a kind of connection that becomes possible, that is kind of beyond our wildest dreams, and I'm beginning to understand the impact of what that can mean.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      With an artist like yourself, I'm really interested in how you set parameters. Your creativity seems so boundless that in fact you could probably be working on an infinite canvas. How do you bring it down to something that you can work on?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Well, I have struggled with that. Absolutely. I think what I've realized is that most of the time the reasons why people don't do things is because they don't believe they can. And I think that for a lot of my life, and I think for a lot of people's entire lives, the question is am I worthy of doing this? Is it right for me to do this? And tragically, I think that a lot of those questions don't get answered because you figure, well, no, I'm not ready for this yet, or, no, I can't do this or, no, I'm not worth me doing this.

       

      And I think that what I've realized recently, once you really let yourself open up, you can do anything in the world. You can do anything in the world. If you believe that you can do anything in the world, then you can. And I think that that process of realization is not anything particularly glorifying. It's just the reality. A human being has so much potential. And so what if you accept that you can do anything in the world? And then you have to decide what to do, that becomes the next question. And that is a really difficult question to answer, and one that's only really answerable by doing stuff. Because the more that you do, the more you learn about what it means to do anything at all.

       

      I find that the things that I've made from the perspective of, "Well, that's what I liked," and, "That's what I believed at that time. It might not have even been the best option, but I believed in it," Those things for me tend to stand the test of time and they make me look back and smile. The more stories you can tell that come from the reality of a moment, rather than any kind of construction of what a moment should or would feel like if you had enough tools to tell the story, if you were the right person to speak out at this moment, if you had all the self-confidence in the world, or if you X, Y, and Z. Those things somehow don't hit home as much as I am who I am, and I have the materials I have right now, and I'm willing to tell the truth with those languages, I suppose.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Here, here. You use the word storytelling a number of times when you talk about your work. Do you think of your music as telling stories?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Absolutely. I think that music is most definitely a language that can be understood unspoken on many different levels. You can zoom into the ins and outs of what makes her C super Lydian chord slightly more dynamic than a C super Lydian dominant chord, but you can also just sit by a campfire and strum a chord on the guitar and strum it again and strum it again and change the chord and strum the first chord again, and it means just as much if not more. And so I think that as a musician, one thing I'm just so interested in is just how many of the different degrees of concentration across all these different disciplines of how it is to perceive.

       

      I think that there's a myth that you're either a left brain thinker, or you're a right brain thinker. And the left brain thinkers put things in boxes and sell them to people, and the people [inaudible 00:20:03] them and everything's linear. And then there's the right brain thinker who says, "I'm a dreamer, and all my dreams is all I have," and then you're supposed to believe them. And I just, I don't believe it. I think that the challenge of the 21st century creator is to merge many perspectives and to move many perspectives and to lay the foundations for many perspectives worth of understanding.

       

      Oftentimes when I think about music, it's about almost like playing this accordion between these different perspectives. And on the one hand, you've got the perspective that analyzes it, then you've got the perspective that just has sensations. You've got the audience that criticizes and the audience that is moved. And you've got the adult who brings his experiences or her experiences to the table. And then you've got the child who brings no experiences to the table, but a raw sense of delight or a raw sense of whatever.

       

      And the master storytellers, whether on a conscious or an unconscious level, have this together. They have the whole package together, and they don't separate the intellectual with the emotional. Because I think she or he who does that does not fully represent the power of what a real, true, honest storyteller can be in today's world.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Couldn't agree more. Could not agree more. I notice that you've been putting some things out to your fans, inviting them to collaborate or iterate on some of your musical sketches. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, I'm just thinking about how far you've come from the solo artist working alone in your room, to being somebody who collaborates, to now being someone who will collaborate with anybody basically.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. Open house policy. Yeah, I think as you make a reference to, most recently, just as the world was going into lockdown about two-and-a-half months ago, whenever it was, I launched these beat sketches, or campaign or whatever it was. And really what I've ended up with in my completion of Djesse Volume Three, which I'm working on right now, is just a lot of these kind of one minute-ish long seeds of ideas that don't seem to belong necessarily on the project, on the album of songs, but neither do I want them to be forgotten. So I decided to share them with the world.

       

      So I said five beat sketches, just this one minute, little sketches with people all around the world. I said, "Hey, check this out. It's just something I've been working on." I made a little funny visual for each of the videos. And I said, "You know what? I could just release these to you, but you guys should mess around with these and go check them out." So I said, "Upload your play, your process of play to the beat sketch hashtag." And it kind of exploded. It was wonderful. I was so inspired by just the myriad of approaches from rappers to strange instruments I'd never heard of, people playing along with these melodies, to people remixing them in Ableton, to dancing alongside. It was just amazing.

       

      And to be completely transparent, I think that for a long time, I felt that if I kept some idea to myself and got it just right, then it would be the most honest, and it would fulfill its potential the most. But I really honestly think now, especially since I've started going on tour and getting crowds to sing and clap and dance and all this kind of stuff, that an idea will only begin to fulfill its potential once you open it out to collaboration in general. But also, you open it up to the world and you ask the world, "Well, Hey, what do you hear here in this song, in this idea?"

       

      And I found myself as an artist, as a songwriter, chasing those feelings and those moments much more than I chased the ones that turned back to myself. Not because of any particular moral high ground, just because of experience. I find the amount of joy I get back from an experience like that is just greater.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I love that it's a kind of creative call and response enabled by the web that you're putting out there. And I also was so appreciative that it was a call for creativity on any form. You weren't saying just musical. You said, "If you're a dancer, if you're a visual artist, just play with me. Come be part of this."

       

      Jacob Collier:

      I think, yeah, you're right. I think the thing that becomes clear is that a lot of these languages are very similar as well. You can say, "I'm a dancer, I don't do music," but you're dancing in time. You're dancing with cadence. You're a storyteller, really.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      One of the tenants of Future of Storytelling is that the lines between different media are blurring. When I was a kid growing up, you had to specialize, "Oh, I have to go to film school and devote years to be able to make a movie," or, "I have to spend years learning to be a writer." And now, you being a great example of this, everyone has the tools for everything, and everyone is actually encouraged and empowered to be an artist across all these different media. It's all zeros and ones.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      It is. It really is. And I guess one final point to conclude with there is I would say that the fastest way to refine your skills is by using them. But there's also a degree of concentration, which can't be overlooked when it comes to learning a skill. And I think that to be willing to concentrate on a skill for the purpose of being the better storyteller for it and having patience for things not to be rushed is something that I hold very, very close to my heart.

       

      I would definitely encourage people if you're listening and you're a storyteller of some kind to really enjoy leaning on not knowing the answer to all the questions and not knowing them right now and not needing to know them in a year's time and learning how to get in touch with what it is that moves you on every level because that gives you the apparatus to do the same in return.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      So where are you headed as an artist and, I guess the last question I would ask you, is how do you think about your role as an artist, the gift or the contribution that art plays?

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Wow. Yeah, that's a big one. In some ways, I try to think about my role and my purpose as little as possible because once I state myself as doing something for a reason, then it stops being art, in some ways it becomes politics or something else. What I can say from sort of divorcing myself from what I'm doing and looking at it from the side, I guess it seems like if there's something I want to encourage in the world, it's a sense of being a truly unfettered version of yourself and being fearless with that, and being willing to be challenged, being willing to stretch your knowledge, and to experiment and have fun and to play.

       

      When you start making stuff, you learn what you stand for. And that's one of the reasons why I do it. If there's any voice to inspire in others, it's the voice that I'm trying to inspire in myself. And that's the voice that will always show me the way, and that will not be told to be smaller, to be more convenient, will not draw attention towards itself because it doesn't feel like it's enough because it's always enough. It will just state things as they are, and it will play, and it will experiment, and it will stretch things, and it will teach you how to be you. I guess that's all I can commit to trying to do.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      Jacob, thank you for being you and for sharing the joy that comes from you. It's really a pleasure to speak with you.

       

      Jacob Collier:

      Thank you so much for having me.

       

      Charlie Melcher:

      I hope you're as impressed and blown away by Jacob as I am. If you'd like to see and hear some of his work, we've gathered a few of our favorite Jacob Collier songs and videos on this episode's page on the FoST website. You can access it by visiting fost.org or through the link in the episode description. Thank you for being a part of the Future of Storytelling family. Please be sure to subscribe to this podcast, give us a review, and share it with others.

       

      Our sincere thanks to Jacob Collier and to our thoughtful production partner, Charts and Leisure. I hope you'll join us next week for another conversation in the adventures of storytelling. Until then, please be safe, be strong, and story on.