Jacob Collier on the surprise of international fame and more at SXSW

Jacob Collier may not have visited Austin, Texas prior to this month but best believe, the UK buzz artist left SXSW reeling with his presence. The 22 year old has been catapulted to global fame over the last year in particular; with two – yes, two – Grammy Awards to his name, the multi-instrumentalist and producer has his eyes firmly set on moving forward in creating sounds that capture the attention of many. Larry sat down with Jacob to learn some more about the musician’s ethic and how he’s handled this new shine of the spotlight.

Well welcome to SXSW!

Thank you very much indeed.

Is it your first time at this festival?

First time ever. I’ve never really been to this city before. It’s my first time here, but this festival is nuts. Everyone’s running around and doing interesting stuff, it seems.

What are your impressions of the city? Is it just that, pretty mental?

Yeah, we’re talking one drive through the city to here, but based on things I’ve heard from other people and what I’ve seen, people are enthusiastic and really going and it’s warm and sunny, which is coming from Boston yesterday, that’s a real relief.

As we were walking over to this interview there were a couple people coming up to you, know you personally or a fan of your work. Is that a pretty good indication of how your life has become?

It’s funny. It happens fast. One moment it’s okay and then the next moment, people are running after you sometimes. In a place like this it gets more intense than in the middle of the road where I’m not notified, but it’s crazy. It’s been a funny couple of years, because it’s gone from me in my little room doing things for fun, to me in my little room doing things for fun that everyone’s kind of checking out and it’s super exciting. It really, really is.

Would you have ever expected for you to have an album released last year and with the international attention that that’s received?

It’s crazy. I didn’t set out with this in mind. I set out to do something I wanted to do.

Whatever that ended up being…

Whatever that ended up being and when you do that and it works it’s a really golden feeling. To have these two Grammys I just got last month, it’s crazy. You never sit and think, “Oh, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to get this album out.” You just think, “I’m a kid in this playground and I’m doing my thing.” To be doing my thing and to be bouncing around the globe and stuff, it’s very, very humbling and very wonderful indeed.

I’m sure it’s brought up with you pretty much every interview, but one thing that you’ve been doing beautifully is exposing people to music that they mightn’t be exposed to otherwise. Especially in this digital age, where we’re flooded with so many different types of music, often, some of the greats from past get left behind.

How important is it from your point of view that we do what we can to maintain and instil that knowledge of the past in the next generation of music fans?

Crucial, really. I was brought up on the oldies. Stevie [Wonder] was my number one, and probably still is my number-one God figure. Stevie and then people like The Beatles and Joni [Mitchell] and all of these sort of classics. I started there and for me it was kind of like a process of catching up with what’s going on right now. Obviously with the internet, as you said, it’s like everything’s always available and the challenge is, how do we make sense of that? How is there meaning in all of this crazy information? All you need to do is look for pathways. You think, “Oh, this is connected to this, to this, to this, to this, to this.”

I think as the new generation comes up and then their newer generation comes up, it’s really important to try and encourage people to just follow those threads backwards. I feel like a lot of people start with what’s around them and then it just takes that curiosity spark to trace it back to something and for me, it’s always the most pure when you look back at the music that was coming out in the ’60s and stuff, it’s like that’s really where things stood still, and since then it’s been this amalgamation of everything. For me, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a creative person than right now.

Especially in the jazz world as well with La La Land, as I’m sure everyone talks about and this kind of renewed discussion about the genre. Where do you think that you fit into all that, if anywhere?

The values for which jazz stands are eternal values. The idea of harmony and improvisation, spontaneity, reinvention, these are concepts that, as human beings, we can relate to. I guess the challenge is to try not to tie ourselves up in knots about representing that too much and just to have some fun.

It looks like you have a lot of fun with everything that you do.

It’s a blast and if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be doing it. I think jazz is as alive and well as it’s ever been, but it gets stilted when people I think believe that the only way to maintain it is to try and keep it the way that it is right now or the way that it was 50 years ago, because the way the internet, and the world and human beings work is that you can’t keep things the same for too long. They need to change.

That’s why we grow as people, so as jazz musicians, it’s important to think about keeping those old flames alive. Then it’s like, this world and everyone [in it] can connect with everyone else and everything’s so instantaneous; that’s the challenge and that’s the joy.

Are there some songs, though, in saying that, that out of respect or otherwise that you’d never touch, like you’d never do an interpretation of it?

Oh yeah. A song like “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys is such perfection and means so much to me, meant so much to me as a child and means so much today that it would strange to think I could get some new, hip way of doing that song. There are definitely songs that I love that are classic, immortal songs, that sort of reach out for reinvention. If there’s a melody that is repetitive and catchy and wonderful and has enough integrity, then you can completely destroy it and it will survive. For me, that’s one of the most joyous things to do, is to take a song I love and just reinvent it from scratch.

Are there any songs that you’ve tried and haven’t worked out?

I’m trying to think of a song. There was one time … There are a couple of Stevie songs, which I’ve begun to arrange and since realised weren’t worth it. There’s a song called “Super Woman”, which is in two parts and there’s the second part of that song which goes, doo doo da da da da da da doo doo, that melody. I started doing it and after a couple days, you realise it’s just too good to beat and some songs, as you say, are meant to be left.

What’s an average week for you? Are you constantly creating? Are you constantly putting stuff on YouTube? What’s an average week in your life these days?

That’s a difficult one. I haven’t been home for right now seven weeks. I’ve been touring and travelling and collaborating and teaching and all sorts of these other things.

 So an average week in your life is there’s no rule book to it?

Right now, I’m afraid I can’t present to you the average week, but I’d say if I’m home, I’m almost certainly going to be creating something, because it’s what gives me my life’s blood. It keeps me breathing and it keeps me laughing and keeps me smiling, so it’s definitely the first thing I’ll do, but once I’ve slept for 50 hours after a trip like this, first thing I’ll do is to hit that room and start making something.

Are you enjoying life on the road, though? Are you enjoying playing show and that aspect of it?

It’s magical and it’s grown on me more and more because I think that at first, it was a real transition from the sort of world of the introvert to the world of the extrovert or so to speak. The energy going in was all the energy going out, which is, it’s a skill I had to learn. I’ve really grown to love it. That said, going home is going to be real nice to sleep in my bed and have some home-cooked food is going to feel real good, I think, in a couple days.

How does it translate live? How do you take what you’ve been doing in your studio and your room and in those collaborations? Is that difficult to translate on stage or not really because that’s what you do on webcam and all that sort of stuff?

Oh, it was a massive challenge, as you can imagine. I’m one person.

There’s only so much you can do.

Yeah, there’s only so much you can do at any one time, but I have some amazing connexions with people at MIT in Boston, which is where they invented the internet and the computer and all this crazy stuff, so these guys are always in the cutting edge of technology and I asked them, well actually they reached out to me and said, “We build stuff.”

This one guy called Ben Bloomberg said, “I build machines. Have you got any ideas?” I said, “Well shit, yeah. I’ve got loads of ideas. I’ve got this image in my head of this room being on tour with me. How can I do this? How can I have a circle of instruments and be in the centre of that and be dancing around kind of somehow playing them all at once? Is it loopers? Is it samplers?”

We built a bunch of custom-made technology to make this possible. There are five simultaneous loopers that run at one time, there’s a vocal sampling instrument, which means I can sing harmony, there’s a video screen which duplicates my skeleton, which means that for every loop I make, I also duplicate in real life on the stage, an extra Jacob appears and everything is generated live. It’s a really exciting thing to have accomplished and now to be touring and it’s always changing, always growing and it’s amazing. It’s really exciting.

That is an impressive feat and I imagine you’ve probably got ideas on how you can better than and grow that and get your Tupac holograms out there.

Oh, hell yeah. Those are super expensive, but they weren’t, I’d be on it.

Congratulations on everything for you. When it comes to Australia, do you know that you’ve got kind of a fan base down there?

Absolutely. I’ve connected with a whole bunch of people, musicians and people there, but I haven’t made it down yet. It feels far away from lots of places, but everything I’ve heard has been glowing. When I go, I want to go and make sure I can actually hang out there and see the landscapes and feel the air. It’s a very special place it seems, and it’s one I want to fully invest in.

 

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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