Love Letters: Jacob Collier

Above: Jacob Collier performs at the SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in San Francisco. Photo by Noah Berger/Special to The Chronicle.

Spotify Wrapped landed recently. I am officially a laggard when it comes to new technology, so this was my first paid year on the platform. And boy howdy, I can see why people like it. The interactive graphics, the accompanying music that they know you’ll absolutely love (because you’ve given them all the data that say it is so), and the cheeky comments about how often you’ve played songs or musicians without consciously realising it. It’s delightful and revealing. It also won’t let me get away with forgetting the year that has been. But before I can write about that, I have to post this debt of gratitude to a musician who helped me through it – Jacob Collier.

Interestingly, this wasn’t my first foray into trying to “like” Jacob Collier. It’s funny, isn’t it – am I the only one who tries to like an artist, even knowing that, if it’s an effort, it’s become more about social pressure or being in the know or being able to contribute to a kōrero about the art, rather than the actual music? I gave Jacob’s vocal multitrack masterpieces a go early last year, and nothing clicked. Maybe mistakenly, I searched him on YouTube and and tried to watch the thousands of heads pieced together for his Moon River cover first… I just didn’t get it.

So, what has changed? Concretely, I can say circumstance, accessibility, and time. I’m now on a paid Spotify account, which tailors music recommendations to a nauseatingly accurate degree. I was gifted a large amount of time by myself earlier this year. But what neural pathway linked up to convince me to search for him again? How much did the algorithm play into it?

Thanks to this little trick which lets you download your entire listening, search and playlist history for the last year with Spotify, I went back to find the exact moment when I heard Jacob’s album Djesse Vol. 1 (pronounced “J-C” – his nickname based on his initials) the first time.

The circumstances behind the decision will forever be a mystery. But I will always appreciate that I gave Jacob another shot. I’m living proof that there’s something to be said for hearing a song or an artist at the right time. It was Monday, 28 March 2022, when I played that album for the first time, start to finish. Henceforth, Jacob accompanied me at any hour of the day it was acceptable to wear my headphones during April, May, June and July.

I can already hear question you’re asking, so if this name is new, you can sort Jacob into Interesting, I’ll give him a go; or There’s better music out there, won’t bother; or Already got enough recommendations, thank you. How can I best put it? Jacob’s unconventional mix of orchestral jazz funk with pop, a cappella and soul elements also pulls from musical traditions around the world, so in other words, he’s very hard to nail down.

He started recording his own vocal tracks and experimenting by harmonising with himself at age 11. Making a name on YouTube with covers of Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing and Pure Imagination, Jacob drew some of the titans in for collaboration: MARO, Daniel Caesar, Laura Mvula, Quincy Jones, Mahalia, Coldplay, Steve Vai, John Mayer, and our very own Kimbra. He played every instrument on first album, which he recorded and produced in the room he learned to walk in (pictured below). He was 22. He’s the first British artist to win a Grammy for each of his first four albums.

If I were being more realistic and trying to view this from an outsider’s perspective, it’s clear that Jacob’s music flourishes because he knows his craft – not just the musical theory, but the accompanying physics and mathematics behind why his music “works”. He layers that deep knowledge on top of a mastery of genre, where he creates a starting point for us mortals to understand and begin to categorise his songs, before he completely surprises and delights us with something new. It’s the reason he’s called “the musician’s musician”.

Creating your own instruments when what’s available won’t get you the sound you want for your live show? Finishing a two-hour live Logic breakdown session with a 21/22 (with the right hand tapping 21 beats and the left hand tapping 22 beats in exactly the same amount of time)? Creating a musical sequence that supports that pedal note in the last minute of Moon River to change so incrementally so that our ear doesn’t hear the semitone shift until the whole song has changed key underneath it? Setting yourself a goal of improvising a different piano ballad every night on tour, without practising it beforehand, and often without deciding which song it’s going to be, or even which key it’s going to be in, until you start playing?  

His perfect pitch is so accurate that he can hear in hundredths of semitone differences between notes. He writes songs in D Half Sharp.

There’s a reason Jacob is described as heading out “on a quest to remake all of Western music”, and no-one laughs at the audacity of the statement, or the subject of it.

He’s not everyone’s cup of tea; here’s where it’s important to acknolwedge there’s a second element at play here. I was hurtled back to my University days recently when Peter Rollins reminded me of the signifier and signified concepts on a podcast. The idea is that a sign will never just be signifier of what it represents – it will represent so much more. For example, something like my “jeans” will always say more about me than “blue cotton pants” or even “Jemma wears jeans”. The choice of pants and colour and cut and brand and how I wear them tell you about my style, my values, my financial status, how seriously I take myself, what I think I look good in, and the list goes on. Equivalently, the music I listen to cannot be any different. That’s what I meant about that social pressure of trying to like an artist – it is as much about liking the music as being seen to like the music.

Ergo, liking Jacob is as much about his music feeling good as it is about saying, “I understand (some) of what makes this musician so good, so that must mean I am a good musician too.” – I have no shame in admitting that! And that’s why they say the harmonising that he’s famous for conducting at his concerts is so beautiful – the crowd are probably not your average Swifties or Sheerios. I’d guess that they’re likely music teachers or students, play in bands themselves, or people who understand the concepts of chords, scales, keys, and rhythm. They’re no just here to see, but to learn from, a genius in action.

Although I understand less than 10% of the mastery that goes into each one of Jacob’s songs, I think I may grasp enough to realise how much this man knows about music that I do not, and how incredible his talent it. I can’t keep up with the microtonal changes in tuning systems he creates, or get my head around the super-ultra-hyper-mega-meta-Lydian scale that helps him improvise (yes, it’s a thing). But it’s another reason he appeals to me.

Thirdly, this savant, a complete master of harmony and rhythm, treats his audience with respect. Jacob’s genius is coupled with both humility and a child-like wonder. He’s delightfully enamoured about what he creates, and how he can share that with people. His masterclasses are as much about stoking fascination and joy as they are about imparting knowledge. For anyone wanting a taster, check out his Logic Session Breakdowns – there’s a reason the commenters call him “the Bob Ross of the music world”.

The fourth reason why it was so important for me to write this love letter was that Djesse Vol. 1 held space for me in a way that is hard to put into words. I just can’t deny that this music found me at the right time.

When I rediscovered Jacob, the emotional landscape of my life was grim. The seeds of his music landed in more fertile ground this time. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t trying to like it, so when the opening contrary motion of Ocean Wide, Canyon Deep started, probably as I was cooking dinner, it triggered the neurochemicals in my brain to act in a way that I was desperate for, but could not figure out how to cultivate myself.

Whatever magic it was, I was hooked. Jacob helped me feel emotions that I didn’t want to but needed to. As Emily Nagoski says, “emotions are like a tunnel – you have to go through them,” (I prefer the adage I’ve coined, “emotions are like a bear hunt”, but whatever).

That’s why, when I write about musicians, it’s easier for me to write about how their music stimulated me intellectually or spiritually, rather than try to describe how the sounds made me feel. I am still processing the feelings that Jacob’s music has stoked in me, and that’s one of the reasons I still listen – at a feverish rate, apparently.

This piece has a missing link. I can’t fully explain just how much Jacob’s music impacted and held me, because he accompanied me through the months of 2022 that are only just starting to form as words in my head as I remember them. Monday 28 March was the start of a week I never wanted to face. As Brooke Ligertwood so eloquently put, “the grief has lowered my word count.” I’m working on a way to share with you what happened, but it’s not ready yet. So yes – aroha mai – there is a gap in the story for my readers.

But this Love Letter had to go live today.

How come?

I’m off to see Jacob play tonight at The Powerstation. I don’t really know how much of that experience I’ll be able to put into written words, and I don’t really want to try. Ask me about it next time you see me, instead.


Recommendations:

Live in Lisbon – do you wish you were there?
You could write a thesis about this cover song. But more importantly – can you feel the joy of this man?
A Tiny Desk, for the Traditionalists.
The lullaby for your next baby.

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