Jacob Collier is possibly the first person I’ve spoken to this year who looks completely at home on a Zoom call. The fast-talking multi-multi-instrumentalist is perched at his work station in his music room in Finchley, a sunny space crammed with tempting kit that will be familiar to viewers of his “Logic Session Breakdowns” on YouTube, where he talks fans through the incredibly complex layers of his kaleidoscopic jazz songs. He’s speaking to me through a large expensive-looking microphone, and can flick between cameras so I can look down on him from the ceiling. My only disappointment is that there aren’t six of him.
Since 2011, the 25-year-old has been the go-to guy for a “how did he do that?” music video, beginning with split-screen cover versions of classics such as Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely and the Oklahoma! standard Oh What a Beautiful Morning, in which multiple Colliers with hair in varying degrees of spikiness reimagine the music in intricate a cappella harmonies. “I’ve always been in love with putting sounds together,” he says. “And the more sounds you put together, the more exciting it gets.”
During lockdown, he’s been getting even more ambitious. For NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series, he used a static camera to film a “live” show in which four of him performed three songs on bass, drums, keys and melodica and even chatted to each other in between. It took him six days to get it all in sync. In May, for Jimmy Kimmel’s chat show, he filmed three of himself singing his recent single All I Need in his bathroom, with guest vocalist Mahalia appearing in the mirror singing the chorus into a toothbrush.
He also did one of the Together at Home concerts on Instagram Live, inviting Chris Martin to join the stream for versions of Coldplay’s Sparks and the old favourite Moon River. Because of the small time delay between Martin singing and Collier hearing him, he had to play piano consistently a little behind, what he calls a “psychological latency fix, which is not hugely trivial.” During the show, the frontman of the stadium-filling band said he felt like Salieri to Collier’s Mozart.
“Chris is a dreamboat, basically,” says Collier in return. He was invited to “decorate” three songs on the last Coldplay album, Everyday Life, adding his distinctive backing vocals to Church, Cry Cry Cry and the title track. “Chris is one of the most brilliantly-minded musicians I think I’ve ever encountered, and so, so joyous. To be completely honest with you, I think there are very few musicians nowadays who are making music from the perspective of just being open and joyful.”
Collier would be another one. He’s so excited by it all! I ask him which instrument in his room has come from furthest away and he’s quickly scurrying around showing me all sorts of contraptions, from a guitar-like guembri given to him by the Moroccan Gnawa musician Hamid El Kasri to “a kind of washboard thing” he found on Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar. He claims it’s thanks to him that Apple have upped the number of tracks you can use in a single production in their Logic Pro music-making software, from 256 to 1000, because he was consistently hitting the 256 limit. His record now is 646, on All I Need. On his recorded version of Moon River there are between 100 and 120 voices singing simultaneously.
“We live in a creative infinity age, where you can do everything all the time forever,” he says. “That’s great for someone like myself, who is such a maximalist, to really dig into what I feel is important, to explain it and explore it. If there’s any kind of goal I have, it’s to find a musical language wherein I can continuously explore music on my own terms in my own time. How do I bring Bartók to Coachella? Whatever success I’m finding is a bonus by-product. I’m too fascinated with the music to care about anything else.”
His world of maximalism ranges from his trousers, which are typically voluminous and multicoloured, to his albums. His 2016 debut, In My Room, won a Grammy (one of four he has now collected) for Best Arrangement for a radical rethinking of the Flintstones theme tune. It was somehow unsurprising that he decided to follow that with a four volume, 50-song collection titled Djesse. Its contents range from an Overture composed for the Metropole Orkest to a cover of The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, and its contributors include rapper Ty Dolla Sign, prog rock guitarist Steve Vai, soul star Lianne La Havas and Malian singer Oumou Sangaré.
Volume One was released in December 2018 and Volume Three is coming next week. It takes him closer to the pop and R&B worlds, with the funky In My Bones and impressively slick Time Alone With You sounding like he’s been spending time listening to Prince and D’Angelo.
Collier has his own idea of how the four releases fit together: “It’s been an ever expanding sprawl,” he says. “Djesse One was this acoustic space filled with an orchestra. Volume Two was a smaller acoustic space. Volume Three is where all the weird and wonderful goes on and it gets real funky. And Volume Four, which will come hopefully next year, will be a really expansive space where everything explodes.”
It’s been a long journey to get here. Raised by his mother Suzie Collier, a violinist, conductor and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, he attended the Purcell School for Young Musicians and did two years of jazz piano at the Royal Academy. He performed in operas including The Magic Flute and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw before his voice broke. When legendary producer Quincy Jones discovered his videos online and became his mentor, his career really took off.
And he’s still only getting started. Remarkably, he refers to the 50-song project as “the first chapter” and dismisses any idea that he might have bitten off more than he can chew. “I’m constantly trying to find more stuff to bite off! I’m just ravenous for the energy of creating and learning. It’s a cool feeling.”
if only there really were two of him, or six, or 100, he might achieve everything he wants to. He’s going to use every means at his disposal to ensure there’s a lot more music to come.
Djesse Vol.3 Is Released on Aug 14 on Hajanga/Decca/Interscope