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19 February 2024

Jacob Collier’s internal weather

The 29-year-old made a career taking theory to the masses, but believes his real “superpower” is his instinct for his own feelings.

By Kate Mossman

On the day of a show, Jacob Collier will wake at around 2pm or 3pm and take a look at the weather. Not the weather beyond the hotel room curtains, you understand, but the “internal weather”. “How are you doing, Jacob?” he will ask himself.

“I’m tired.”

“It’s beyond your control. Make room for yourself. Don’t worry if you don’t have the onstage energy. You’ll get it from somewhere.”

He will plan his entire setlist according to his internal weather. The ability to examine and respond to his own feelings is, he thinks, a superpower: a gift from his mother when he was first able to speak. You doubt he’d have got where he is without it. He entered the lobby of the hotel in Soho where we met with his toy alligator, Jethro, strapped to his backpack. 

Collier is the only musician on the planet to make a business of communicating extremely complex theory to the masses. If the world needed a global singing teacher, he is that, wrangling tens of thousands of people to sing in harmony (there is a track on his new album built from 100,000 voices of fans). His gigs feel like a megachurch. As a producer and co-writer, he has smuggled many sounds into mainstream pop that don’t belong there, working with Stormzy and Chris Martin among many others. He is possibly the first truly hybrid artist, not just “straddling” genre, as they like to say, but floating above it.

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He orders a chamomile tea with honey. Though Collier, 29, has migrated beyond the jazz world, he has something of the old polymath guru in him, in a hyped-up boy’s body. He is evangelical, clean living, magnanimous, consciously humble and completely in control. He grew up without a father figure, then acquired several all at once: Herbie Hancock – who bought all his records – Chick Corea and Quincy Jones. He describes these cosmic dads as “gentle giants” in the flesh: “Chick was such a curious person, with sparkling eyes and sparkling fingers. They were always respectful, always present for people – you can’t take that for granted in someone of that stature. You don’t have to be prickly, have an ego. For me, there are no excuses.”

Two weeks before we met, I saw him rehearse for his upcoming world tour (which culminates at London’s O2 Arena in December) in a studio behind a speed-metal pub in Camden. The room was filled with musicians in their twenties, though some worked on laptops instead of instruments. Collier’s ears were unnaturally attuned. He called over the heads of several band members to a keyboard player 16 feet away, mid song. “Can you flatten the C-sharp in that chord?” It is hard for his band, he later told me, because he can play all their instruments, and he knows exactly what they’re doing. They must feel so watched.

Next to the piano sat a half-eaten Japanese meal and a bottle of Huel: of course Collier would drink Huel. “There is a generation of musicians coming up in the jazz world,” he later told me, “and they’re very clean and polite and stuff, and in some ways I’m one of them. I’m quite a clean man. But the music is dirty…” As his profile has grown, his clothes have got louder. At the rehearsal, he wore one tartan sock, and one featuring rubber ducks; pink trousers in the pattern of giraffe skin; and his own design of Crocs (“My life’s dream!”), launched last year, and now out of stock, featuring tiny bells and treble clefs. Though he dresses like Timmy Mallett, you do start to wonder why everyone else wears black and grey.

Behind him was a standing drum kit with a single cymbal cut into a spiral and hanging down like a ribbon. Collier bunched his hands in his hair as the band started playing, stretched up and poked his drumsticks into the soundproofing on the ceiling, then dropped them, and threw himself at the piano for some big Brazilian chords. Some people struggle with the fact that he won’t stick with one groove, as they like to say, for a whole song – tempo, key and genre switch wildly like a stunt-driver doing handbrake turns. There are entire pages on Reddit populated by people writing dissertations on him, asking why it is that while he has 2.4 million followers on Instagram other people hate his music. For some, it’s his scatting – the son of an inspirational music teacher, he punctuates his songs with a fair amount of unfashionable “uhs” and “ahs”.

Collier would often return home from Mill Hill County High School in north London upset, or in a state of confusion. He found the teaching a problem. “My brain likes to find the outer edge of something and access it through there,” he says. When told to write an English essay, he might draw a character first, or make up an imaginary word, which did not go down well with some members of staff. “I think the biggest damage any teacher can ever do is to strip you from confidence,” he says. “I do a lot of my best work when I’m not afraid of doing something wrong. If there’s a sense that there’s this judgement from the outside, it can paralyse you – for life. As a teacher, you have a huge amount of responsibility to keep curiosity awake for your student.”

I had assumed he was home-schooled: his mother, Suzie Collier, who conducts the orchestra on his new album, taught violin at the Royal Academy of Music.

“She taught me to put myself back together, because at school, or with friends, you go through really strange experiences,” he says. “‘I don’t know who I am today,’ or, ‘I feel really confused, where’s my North Star gone?’ School’s not that different from the music industry: this wild place where no one really knows what’s going on. You’ve got people who think you have to do what people did 50 years ago, and people who think you have to do something that’s never been done before. I’ve always liked to make up my own rules because it gives me a sense that I can build a home there.”

Collier had been working with Cubase music software since he was seven years old. When he got early goosebumps from listening to Bartók, Bobby McFerrin or Earth Wind & Fire, he wanted to know what had raised the hair on his arm, so he started to take music apart and put it back together. Though he is a global star and has been on the cover of Rolling Stone, he still lives in Finchley Central with his mother. He is too polite to eat his French fries while he’s talking, so he puts as many in his mouth as he can while the questions come. What about the state of music in schools?

“There are a lot of people in charge of school systems who are afraid of people’s freedom,” he says. “There’s a delicious riotousness to music that you can access by saying: this is for everybody. Come as you are, bring whatever you hold, you’re welcome here, and you can sing. If you’ve never played an instrument before or sung in a choir, how would you know the power of it? I’m accessing parts of myself that are deep, and I can’t access them in other ways. But you’ve got people making policies who don’t know that feeling. They’re assigning value to the wrong stuff. Music is a primary source of awakeness.”

Ten years ago, the editor of Jazzwise, Mike Flynn, met the 19-year-old Collier for a pint of Coke near the Royal Academy, where Collier was studying piano on the jazz degree course. He was doing a harmony module with the piano player Tom Cawley, but within a few weeks he was running his own sub-lesson within the class. At the time, his multiple-harmony version of “Pure Imagination”from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, self-produced and recorded and mixed in one sleepless stint, had gone viral on YouTube: Collier was receiving messages from jazz pioneers such as Pat Metheny, who couldn’t work out exactly what he was doing. “The sound of it was traditional but the harmony itself was from another planet,” says Flynn. “He was exploring the tones between the tones, and harmonising them. There is this performative aspect of the studio that has become his language – you don’t get Coldplay bringing in a camera crew to film every stumbled chord change. It’s frustrating for other musicians to see that level of technical ability, but he has brought a joyfulness and wonderment to the idea of adding notes to a chord, and he takes his audience with him.”

Collier explains his approach to harmony on the hotel sofa, his long fingers pulling apart an imaginary squeezebox. Rather than a scale, he saw a spectrum, “a sort of quantum thinking. I fell in love with the idea of these two axes: the bright direction and the dark direction. It sounds intellectual, but really it’s just the process of dividing any note into an infinitely small number of notes, which is what blues singers do, what Indian singers do, bending them with emotion and intention.”

When he switches from a “known” key to one of his weirder keys, mid song, “my mind wakes up and goes crazy”, he says, “because it’s a key I don’t hear much. It’s like untrodden snow. It short circuits to your heart.”

In explaining things, Collier understands them better. He called his harmonic approach his “super-ultra-hyper-mega-meta-Lydian” scale. It was rubbished by some musicians, but the name was a joke – the musical equivalent of his Crocs.

Jacob Collier’s album “Djesse Vol 4” is released on 29 February

[See also: Jennifer Lopez’s beautifully unhinged visual album]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation