What’s it like being mentored by Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock? A chat with Jacob Collier

It doesn’t matter which way you look at it, Jacob Collier is a musical genius, and he wants us to know that he’s only just scratched the surface.

The 23-year-old British multi-instrumentalist gained millions of admirers across the globe after sharing a series of astonishing YouTube videos doing complex covers of soul, and jazz standards, in which he multi-tracked himself singing various vocal harmonies, and playing a range of instruments.

After releasing his first debut album In This Room in 2016, winning two Grammy’s and touring extensively around the world, Collier is finally bringing his wildly innovative one-man show to Australian shores next week.

We caught up with the musical mastermind ahead of the tour to chat about his first time down under, his love for Hiatus Kaiyote, the making of his giant 40 song sophomore album, life lessons from Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones, and more.

Life in harmony: British multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier discusses his first Australian tour, album number two, and the magical ingredient in music.

HAPPY: You’ve just sold out your first Australian tour which is awesome! What are you most looking forward to about playing down under?

JACOB: It’s my first time there, and it feels like a different planet almost. Everything I’ve heard about it, it’s like it’s this other world. I’m just super stoked, everyone’s really excited, it’s great, I hope the sun is shining and I get to run around in the wilderness a little bit, that would be really fun.

HAPPY: Yeah, here’s hoping the weather gods shine down. Do you listen to any Australian artists?

JACOB: My all-time favourite are Hiatus Kaiyote, who are Melbourne based, I don’t know if you know those guys but they’re this amazing R&B, soul, jazz, crazy funky off the wall dudes, and they’re really amazing. I hope that I can go down and dabble in Australian culture a little, at least buy myself an Australian shirt or something like that, and get an inkling of what music sounds like down there.

HAPPY: I think just about everyone’s acquainted with Hiatus Kaiyote down here. Now, you recently announced that you’re done with solo touring, will you be bringing a band out with you here or? What can we expect to see?

JACOB: Well, I’m going to be bringing this one-man show that I’ve been touring around with and it’s just crazy. It’s like this circle of musical instruments and I’m in the middle of the circle dancing around playing all this stuff, there’s a drum set, a piano, a guitar, a harmonizer, I’ll be singing, and I get the audience to sing and stuff like that. So, it’s going to be a big party, people are going to sing, and hopefully dance. It’s always a really funny thing to go to a place for the first time because all of the best guys come out, and it’s a great big party.

HAPPY: Sounds like a whole lot of fun! How did you develop an ear to hear harmony better than, well, anyone else really has? Do you just work that way? Or was it struggling and studying that got you to that point?

JACOB: Well that’s very kind of you, first of all. I don’t think that there’s ever such a thing as finishing learning about harmony, so I don’t think I’m finished but I’m like a sponge, man! Ever since I was a kid I’ve always loved to sit down and explore it, all these different songs have certain moments where you think “what’s that magical ingredient?!” It’s like cooking, you ask “what’s the spice?” and you find out the spice is like an E flat or something, and so you remember and when you go to write your own songs you think “oh, I want to use that spice that I heard before” and I guess that’s how my fascination began.

I’m still going on that, it’s like an ongoing process of learning, for me it’s kind of like another language almost. If you want to try and say something, if you do it harmonically it’s like a different way of saying the same thing.

HAPPY: That’s awesome. Something else that’s awesome is having music legends like Herbie Hancock, and Quincy Jones as your mentors and to be blowing their minds! What’s that like for you?

JACOB: It’s honestly super weird, but it’s amazing as well! I mean these guys are my heroes, and have been for like 20 years. I’m 23 so that’s a long time. It’s just great to sit down and listen to their stories, they were there when all these pinnacle music moments happened, so it’s like “how did it feel to be in the room when they did this? Or to be the guy who did this?” I think Herbie was the second guy to ever play a synthesiser, so it’s kind of an insane thing to sit down and talk to him about how that works and what his impressions were of all this brand new technology back in the 70s. Nowadays he’s still pushing the boundaries just like he was in 1977.

HAPPY: What’s the most important lesson that they’ve taught you?

JACOB: It’s hard to say, honestly for me it’s more than all the stories, and more than all the music talk, just watching them be human beings is really inspiring. If you watch someone like Quincy interact with people, he treats everyone equally, he’s so gracious towards them, he gives them all a proper moment to interact, almost like he’s their uncle, rather than being this crazy mastermind that he is. He takes them and interacts with them as a person, the love and quality he portrays in those situations is kind of reassuring because it shows that you can get to that level, the top of the tree, and still have that at the centre of the way you are. It’s super rad.

HAPPY: Definitely. So, what’s next for you? I know there’s been talk of a second album to be recorded this year.

JACOB: That’s true. It’s a huge album, it’s more like four albums in one. It’s about 40 songs and basically makes the journey through all genres, every single musical genre that I like I just do them all. It’s taken a lot of planning, just plotting this graph of “I start here, then go here, and go here, and go here” things like that, and so I’m super hyped right now. Right now I’m just pacing the room that I’m making the album in, which is a back room that I have at home, it’s cool, it’s just really intense. I’m so glad to be able to sit and create again because I’ve been touring for the last two years pretty solidly, and this is the first time I’ve had to sit down and fix things so I’m stoked for sure.

HAPPY: Wonderful! Should be really good. So, what’s been inspiring you whilst you’ve been writing and making this album?

JACOB: That’s a good question, you know that moment where winter ends and spring starts coming in? I don’t know what the seasons are like down under but in London there’s this magical thing that happens where everything goes just a little bit green, and then everybody wakes up. It’s a weird thing to say but, for me, the coming of spring has been particularly rad for new ideas.
I’ve also been drinking in as much music as I possibly can, and that leads me in different directions, but I think when you’re touring there’s whole inspiration that comes from travelling, and I haven’t done very much of that this year because I’ve been recording so much, so I’m actually excited to come to Australia because I feel like it’s such a new world, I’m going to get all these new flavours, new people, and I’m excited just to hang down there for a bit if I can.

HAPPY: Well we’re really excited to be having you! I only have one last question, you’ve had an incredibly impressive career so far, and it’s really only just begun. What’s been the highlight for you?

JACOB: It’s hard to say because it’s been a whirlwind. It’s funny to look at it as a career because I’m just getting started, but a couple of high moments… one would be winning those two Grammy’s last year, that was insane because I made the whole album in my room, and I did it exactly how I wanted to do it, so to have the Grammys give it a thumbs up was just this insane moment of realising that I’ve done the right thing, you know? It’s been good.

This is kind of a strange thing to say, but in some ways coming back home having toured all over the world – other than Australia – for two years, and being able to keep going, that in itself is a high point, because it means that the thing hasn’t happened yet, I’m just going to keep building, and traveling and playing and stuff like that, it’s kind of a cool thing to realise that I can keep doing the thing, and keep learning, and keep exploring, and that’s a valid way of building a living. It’s crazy cool.