Jacob Collier: ‘I have so many ideas that I call it ‘creative infinity syndrome’

Jacob Collier

Bright young thing … Jacob Collier. Photograph: Mogli Maurea

“I naively felt that by the end of four volumes of Djesse, I would have learned enough to start my artistic career properly,” Collier says. “The truth is that you can never know enough because you have to just go. You have to throw paint to see what sticks and that’s why I’m still learning.”

Indeed, Collier is now putting the finishing touches together for Vol 4, which he describes as a repository for his untapped ideas – namely the sampling of his live audiences to create a mass choir of backing harmonies. “This whole process has plunged me into the deepest waters of creativity and taught me how to draw things out of my collaborators that they didn’t even know they had in them,” he says. “People like Oumou Sangaré and the Moroccan musician Hamid El Kasri don’t speak much English, for instance, so I had to get to them without words and through the language of the music that would make them smile instead.”

There are also other collaborative methods Collier has picked up over the past five years of creating Djesse. “When I worked with the Metropole Orkest, I had to write every part for 60 musicians out on paper,” he says. “It was painstaking. And then you have someone like T-Pain, who just wants to party, and that is just as valid for the creative process. Ultimately, it’s all about being taken by surprise and being enlivened by the potential for things to change.”

Collier’s answers can come across as soundbites, yet he delivers them with such vibrating enthusiasm it is hard to imagine he’s not speaking sincerely. This earnest creative fluidity has since made Collier a sought-after collaborator outside his own projects. He has the makings of a modern-day Quincy Jones, having turned his instrumental prowess into successful pop production. He worked with Coldplay on their softly balladic 2021 track Human Heart, as well as co-writing singer SZA’s 2020 ear-worm Good Days, while most recently, he was invited to Essex’s Osea Island to work on rapper Stormzy’s third album, This Is What I Mean.

Jacob Collier Stormzy
Jacob Collier on stage with Stormzy at the O2 Academy Brixton, 2022. Photograph: Michal Augustini/Rex/Shutterstock

“Stormzy reached out to me cold last year, saying he was a fan and that he wanted to make some music together,” Collier says. “It was a crazy message to get but I sent him hundreds of vocal stems for a song idea and then we spent a fortnight in the manor house on Osea Island that he had hired with 20 of his favourite musicians and producers. We would play football and eat, and the music was a byproduct of the hang.” Collier ended up being involved in seven tracks on the record, his unique vocal stacking and harmonising interwoven throughout Stormzy’s introspective verses. “I’ve never heard music like this from anybody,” Collier says. “The record feels like the island, it’s so full of love.”

Working with Stormzy has added even more ideas to Collier’s “creative infinity syndrome”. He mentions future plans for building studios abroad where he could spend extended periods of time with collaborators, as well as working on film scores, producing a platform where he can share his musical learning, creating a solo piano-and-voice record, a guitar album, writing for orchestra and even starting an indie band. “The main challenge is going to be leaving some space in my life for me to not constantly do projects for the next few decades,” he says, finally. “Life still needs to take you by surprise so I want to make time for that, too.”

What would that space look like? “I made a five-year plan on the plane yesterday and I worked out that realistically I wouldn’t be able to take time off until 2025,” Collier laughs. “So I don’t know what I’d do yet: I still haven’t had time to move out of home! I need to finish Vol 4 first and then there will be another tour.”

For now at least, Collier has a week off to recuperate before heading back out on the road to finish this year’s run of dates. He plans to spend most of his precious free time at home with his mother, the violinist and Royal Academy of Music conductor Suzie Collier. I ask how much of his work ethic and creativity comes from her raising him as a single parent. He jumps forward in his seat as his face lights up in response. “So many of the ideas that underpin my life come from her. She had this spectacular way of giving me a lot of space and showing me that everything in the world is talking to you, or singing to you if you just listen,” he says. “Her whole life is music. My earliest memory is sitting on my mum’s lap while she would play the violin above me and it was like I was part of the body that was creating. It was such an amazing feeling.”

Suzie has since become a favourite of Collier’s fans, collaborating with him on Vol 1 of Djesse, as well as appearing on tour in Copenhagen and Toronto earlier this year. “She is a rock star: my fans are wondrously rabid and they go wild for her whenever she comes on stage,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so cool to see her flying now and getting recognition for being a master teacher – she has always taught me so much.”

Collier describes watching Suzie conduct chamber orchestras and realising how the body could be used to make music, as well as play instruments. “I have realised now that conducting these audiences to sing during my shows was inevitable because I watched my mum do it so many times,” he says. “I would see her jump up and when she hit the floor, the music would begin. Something in me already knew what would happen if I just raised my arms while the crowd sang. It would make the most glorious sound.”

With the Djesse series ending and the prospect of a new chapter opening, Collier is coming full circle, back to his mother’s influence and setting free his YouTube harmonies into rooms filled with willing voices. “I began my musical journey using my voice on its own as different instruments and now having these crowds of thousands sing back to me is everything I have wanted to do since I was 15,” he says. “I’m totally besotted by the feeling and I’m sure there’s still so much more to discover.”

As if to prove his point, back on tour a few weeks after we speak, Collier posts an Instagram video from an audience singalong in Rome. This time, rather than simply follow Collier’s raised arms as he directs the crowd into a three-part harmony, they go chromatic, finding their own steps of harmony between the typical major-scale intervals. “I’ve been trying to find a way to do this for years!” he writes. “I still can’t get over what happened.” It seems there are still many more anthems for this restless musical mind to explore.

Piano Ballads: Live from the Djesse World Tour 2022 is out now. Djesse Vol 4 is released in 2023.

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