Jacob Collier: The whimsical process of creating art Musician Jacob Collier is known for his electrifying performances and thoughtful views on art and humanity. This hour, Jacob joins us for a conversation on the sparks that fuel his creative process.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And do you know Jacob Collier? If you're a music lover and spend any time on social media, where he has millions of followers, you probably do. Or maybe you're a fan of Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder or Bobby McFerrin and have been wowed by Jacob's spin on those musical giants. Or maybe you've never heard of Jacob Collier, in which case, I have the distinct honor of introducing you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB COLLIER SONG, "DON'T YOU KNOW")

ZOMORODI: The 27-year-old is often called a prodigy and genius by his fellow musicians. He's been nominated for nine Grammy Awards and won five for his inimitable blend of genres and how he layers sound upon sound. Like, all the different instruments you're hearing right now - they're all being played by Jacob.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB COLLIER SONG, "DON'T YOU KNOW")

ZOMORODI: He's also an old soul with distinct ideas on finding inspiration, the power of solitude and listening to your instincts. Jacob spoke and performed on the TED stage in 2017, and we featured him earlier this year in an episode called "Play." But our conversation went on for so long and was so interesting that we wanted to bring Jacob back on the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU KNOW")

JACOB COLLIER: (Singing) Sticks and stones...

ZOMORODI: So today, an hour with musician Jacob Collier, recorded at his keyboard in a very special room in his childhood home in London.

COLLIER: Ah, the magical room. I'm extremely lucky in many senses, I feel. And one of those is that I've always lived in the same house for my whole life. This room was where it all began for me, and it's mainly because this is the room where the piano lives. And pianos are fascinating things for children. Specifically for me, I found it utterly magnetic. The idea that you could sit and basically play all music that had ever been made with these black and white keys, and it was just a matter of uncovering it. And so I spent a lot of time here, just kind of seeking my own goosebumps, I suppose, really kind of drilling into the things that freaked me out the most and made me the most delighted. And over the course of, I suppose, two decades, really, it became a kind of multifaceted recording space. But it started with just a few different musical instruments.

ZOMORODI: Wait. So exactly how many instruments do you play? Like, what do you have at your fingertips right this second that you could put into a song?

COLLIER: Well, I've got my voice, which is the main one. (Vocalizing). And voices do so many different kinds of things. And I'm a huge fan. Then I've got this, (playing keyboard), which is just a MIDI keyboard. (Playing keyboard). And I can play notes on it like that, which is cool. I don't know if you can hear this. (Playing bass guitar).

ZOMORODI: Oh, yeah.

COLLIER: But this is a bass guitar. (Playing bass guitar). So that's a bit of a friendly beastie. And let me just pick up this, as well. This is an acoustic guitar. In fact, it's a five-string acoustic guitar, (playing acoustic guitar), which is a little uncommon. (Playing acoustic guitar). And so it's what I just described, perhaps plus drums. So you've got things that make rhythm. You've got things that make harmony. You've got things that make melody. And then you've got things that make sound. And within those four families of kind of musical creation objects, I found myself never bored, you know, never unfascinated by the potential of what music could do.

ZOMORODI: I also started on piano. And I was told I needed to practice for 45 minutes every day. And I'm not - I'm sad to say that I don't play anymore. And I hated it.

COLLIER: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But it sounds like you got different directions or prompts.

COLLIER: Well, I did. I do remember being offered piano lessons, which I politely declined.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

COLLIER: Very polite. But I did say...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...You know, I want to keep exploring this on my own terms, which was actually really well-received. I was essentially brought up by my mum on her own. And so she had this kind of extraordinary attitude about learning, which really came from play rather than practice. And I think it's an interesting thing to think about and talk about because it's hard to draw the line between those two. And...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

COLLIER: ...Certain things you need to practice in order to be able to do them. And other things, I think, are better discovered through just the process of kind of sniffing out what feels really good. And both sides have existed for me ever since I began the world of music, however conscious I've been of either process. But much to my kind of delight and gratitude looking back, I was really enabled to make my own world and design my own learning process in this room kind of for myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I mean, what you describe sounds like the essence of what's wonderful about being a child - is discovery and experimentation while you play and wonder. But how have you managed to hold on to that as you've become a professional musician as you've gotten older? I mean, and that is the word that so many people use to describe your music - is playful, joyous.

COLLIER: Oh, that's really lovely. It's funny - I still don't really think of myself as a professional musician, even though that sounds...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...Kind of strange to say out loud. I don't think I'm that professional. I mean, I sort of - there are certain things that I've gotten very good at, but I think that in some ways, there's something very sterile inherently about the word professional 'cause it means that you've stopped learning. And I feel like in general, the more I figure out, the more there is to be figured out. I don't feel, by any stretch, you know, well, I finished that now - you know, I don't need to do any more of that - because I think that once you've understood a certain angle or a certain corner or a certain kind of concept or structure within it, then it just reveals the one beneath it or the one above it, you could say.

So it's something someone once said. I can't remember who it was, but they said something like, you know, the creative adult is the child who survived, which I think is kind of true. You know, I mean, every child, I'd like to think, sort of goes into the world of education and learning with a totally open mind. And it's very, very difficult to kind of come out the other side with that curiosity intact because it's exceptionally easy for people to shut it down. But I think that I had an interesting dichotomy because at school, you're mucking with all sorts of people from all sorts of walks of life, which is a very important thing to do as a young person. But, you know, in terms of learning music, it wasn't really a place where my curiosity was sated or expanded. But at home, it was this kind of unlimited space.

So I had this - these two sides of the learning coin where education was sort of being done to me, but learning was being done for myself, by myself. Even within educational institutions, I fell in love with the idea of grounding my own ideas in sort of things that I was interested in.

ZOMORODI: I wonder if you could walk me through that. So, you know, you're a teenager, and you come home from school. And you, I don't know, throw your knapsack down on the family room floor and then go into the room. And then what would happen?

COLLIER: Well, it's seeking chemical reactions, really, isn't it? It's like seeking the spark that starts the process going. And it's kind of a mysterious thing. You know, you don't know when or how you're going to be inspired. And it might be by something that you're not expecting to be inspiring. In fact, normally, it is something fairly improbable that gets you excited. But I feel like, you know, as long as I had some degree of language on a system that I was using to express the music I was trying to create, then I had something to do with it. So I remember, you know, being at school and singing in the choir, which really was a joy, even though I was a little irreverent.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: Actually, I was very irreverent in that choir. I would sort of take people's parts and write notes in the score that weren't in the music...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...And then hand them back out. And then people would sing the funky notes. And then it would be extremely frustrating for the leader. Say, what is this going on, this E-flat over here? Where did this come from? I bet it was you, Jacob. You know?

ZOMORODI: That's, like, the nerdiest acting out I think I've ever heard. I love it.

COLLIER: Exactly. Absolutely. But that process of kind of stretching the stuff that was going on at school was really fun. And what I would do - I would learn a - you know, I'd learn a song or listen to something or whatever. And I'd bring it back home, and then I would recreate my own kind of spin on it. Maybe I'd record the song, and then I'd reverse it. You know, that's always a fascinating thing, especially for me when I was, like, 12 or 13. I used to play a game with my friend where we would say a word - you'd say something like, good afternoon. And then you'd reverse it, and it would be like (vocalizing). And then you'd learn how to say the reversed version. You'd say (vocalizing). And then you'd reverse that and see how close you were.

ZOMORODI: I love it.

COLLIER: It was so interesting. And all these tools were brand new. And I didn't understand what on Earth I was doing, but I wanted to find out.

ZOMORODI: Is there a song that's coming to mind right now - one of those early ones that you would come home and remix?

COLLIER: Yeah, there was one song called - it's called "Blow The Wind Southerly." It's a beautiful folk song. I think it's definitely British. I'm not sure where in the British Isles it's from. But there was an arrangement that was handed out to my school choir. And, you know, it was just like, (vocalizing, playing piano). Like, that's the tune. It's very simple. And the arrangement was, you know, lots of oohs and ahs and all sorts of things. And I remember thinking, oh, but you could add a G there. Or you could add an E there. That'll be crazy. If you had an E, that would be wild. All these things were going in my head of how I would recreate it.

And I went home. And at this time I couldn't sing below, kind of like, (vocalizing) - that was, like, my lowest note because I was a boy. So I got out my pitch-shifter plugin, and I sang, you know, one octave higher than the baseline. And then it transposed down, so it sort of (vocalizing) - this funny sound. And I recreated this arrangement from memory. And then I added all the notes that I had dreamed of adding when I was in the rehearsal.

And that was super fun. And I think that every experiment like that would teach me something or evolve my understanding a little. And the thing that taught me the most, above all other things, was the voice because there's something about the voice that's so kind of present and so universal. You know, when you sing a note in a chord, if I'm D - if I'm in D major, which is here - (playing piano) - and if I sing in F sharp - (vocalizing, playing piano) - the feeling of that note is different from singing an A, (vocalizing), or a D, (vocalizing). You know, like, being different notes in those chords - it gives you a different perspective of the harmony.

And so I would sit at the piano, and I would play these dense chords - these kinds of colorful, clustery beams, you know? (Playing piano). And then I'd try singing them. And if you have a chord like this, (playing piano), this is a really dense chord. And by dense, I mean all the notes are very close to each other. These are - my favorite chords in the world sound like this. (Playing piano). It's like tension and release at the same time. Beautiful. And if I sing this note, which is an E - (vocalizing, playing piano) - then I'm fighting that note. (Vocalizing, playing piano).

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

COLLIER: Yeah, we're fighting. (Playing piano). But that's such a beautiful fighting. (Vocalizing, playing piano). And, like, if I move to - (vocalizing, playing piano) - then I'm fighting a different note. You see what I mean? So...

ZOMORODI: There might be some people who don't think that's very beautiful, Jacob. They might think, like, oh, that makes me feel uncomfortable, actually, those sounds.

COLLIER: Oh, yeah. I mean, to be honest, I think some of the most beautiful sounds do make you slightly uncomfortable. But I feel like all of harmony - you know, the whole of the world of adding notes to other notes and things - it's all about context. So, you know, I wouldn't start my song on this chord. (Playing piano). But I might start my song on this chord, which is F major. (Playing piano). And if I go on a journey (playing piano) and I land there, that's a kind of a fascinating feeling because I'm here. And I have to break out of it somehow. And maybe I'll go somewhere new, you know? So when you create tension, it just - it's like a signpost. It says, right, I've got a collection of energy. Where are we going to put it? Where's it going to go?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLLIER: And I would take these experiments. And I'd compound them and conform them into songs and arrangements and my experiments that had no end in that capacity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: In a moment, how Jacob's irreverent musical experiments turned into sold-out performances, like this one, all around the world. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLIER: Thank you so much.

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. My guest today is Jacob Collier. He's a five-time Grammy Award winner whose joyful and playful music is hard to define. It spans genres and doesn't really adhere to any one tradition. And as we heard before the break, Jacob got his start by messing around with just about any instrument he could get his hands on, reworking classical compositions and turning them inside out. And eventually, he started sharing his music online.

COLLIER: Yeah. You know, there are lots of musicians who come out of whatever music they're learning or studying or creating and stand on a stage and play their songs, and that's the first time that they share their things. But interestingly, for me, there was about a three- or four-year window where I didn't play any songs live. I just released them as I'd created them. And those arrangements of songs were kind of mosaics of sorts. You know, there were lots and lots of different ingredients...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPING ON MY DREAMS")

COLLIER: (Singing) You've been feeling like you're running away.

...Combining together to make a kind of quite intricate structure. So it's, you know, lots of lots of different voices and lots of different stringed instruments and bass instruments and drums and various things that you wouldn't call instrument, but they are definitely instruments like badminton rackets and saucepans and things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLEEPING ON MY DREAMS")

COLLIER: (Singing) So I decided to remember your name.

And they'd all fit together to make this tapestry of sound. It's quite hard to play it live.

ZOMORODI: Saucepans, did you just say?

COLLIER: Oh, I said saucepans. Do you have saucepans?

ZOMORODI: We do. We call them saucepans. And so...

COLLIER: OK.

ZOMORODI: ...Wait. You're playing those?

COLLIER: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Those are in your room? Are they there right now?

COLLIER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. There's one up on the shelf here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Oh. Are you OK, Jacob?

COLLIER: Sorry. I had to stand on the piano to get it. (Playing saucepan). That's what it sounds like.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

COLLIER: It's a good one, isn't it? Kind of like an agogo.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

COLLIER: So, anyway, these things all kind of had their place.

But when it came to, you know, how am I going to play these - play this stuff live? - it was a really interesting challenge 'cause I'd never really considered having a traditional kind of band. And I kind of felt like the world I was making kind of needed its own degree of performance structure. The - I did not - I didn't know what it was. It was a mystery until it made perfect sense.

ZOMORODI: Wait. Tell me more about that. What - tell me about that process, the mystery being that you were kind of a lone operator in some ways. You were the percussionist, the bassist, the lead singer, the keyboardist. And that doesn't translate to going on tour usually, if you're the one - well, I mean - well, Beck made it work, right?

COLLIER: Beck made it work. Yeah, he did. The challenge was, how do you tour a room instead of a band, you know? How do you tour a world...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...That is a portable space in which I could be kind of doing equivalent things to the things I was doing when I was making the music, which felt like, you know, the most honest way of playing it live would be to somehow recreate the process of layering down these tracks and all sorts of stuff but in real time. And I made an album called "In My Room." It was the first songs I'd ever written, really.

And it was around that time that I met a wonderful man whose name is Quincy Jones. And Quincy Jones got me my first gig.

ZOMORODI: The Quincy Jones.

COLLIER: The Quincy Jones. Yeah, he got me my first gig. And he - oh, he's such a cool dude. And Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, who are two kind of absolute titans, giants and legends of the jazz piano world - they were doing...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

COLLIER: ...This tour at that time. And they would just kind of improvise and play a bunch of stuff together and kind of duel on stage. They needed an opening act at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. And so Quincy and his team managed to land me that gig, which was extraordinary as a first gig. It was really quite scary - you know, 3,000 people, and it was just brand-new. The whole thing was brand-new.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN THE LINE")

COLLIER: (Singing) I was walking down line, trying to find some peace of mind.

ZOMORODI: And had you performed at any point by then?

COLLIER: Well, I had done some performance. You know, I played in school concerts, and I'd also sung in some operas as a boy. I sang in some productions at the English National Opera and a few places around Europe singing Benjamin Britten and singing Mozart and things like that, but that was all playing other characters. Around the time where I was offered the gig, I received a Facebook message. I don't often check my Facebook messages.

And at that time, I did even more seldom. But luckily for me, on this one day, I did check my messages. And I had this message from a man named Ben Bloomberg who was at that time a Ph.D. student at MIT in Boston. And he said, you know, hey, my name is Ben, and I basically build stuff. I build live things. And I've built things for Bjork. And I've built things for Imogen Heap and OK Go. And I just love these videos that you're making. And if you ever wanted to build something, just let me know. And it was kind of a big moment for me because I realized maybe this was the key that I was looking for about, like, maybe he could build me some kind of rig that could enable me to either uproot my entire room as it is and move it around the world or maybe to build some kind of equivalent thing that you could tour.

And that's exactly what I did. I flew to Boston, and I met Ben. And Ben is just the nicest dude. He's just super, super open-minded, super creative, really, really fun. And we started to mess around with a few different things. And the first thing I really wanted to build was this instrument called the vocal harmonizer. And the vocal harmonizer that we built was - is an instrument that basically enables me to sing a note and play a number of notes on a keyboard, and what comes out of the instrument is the sound of my voice but singing all of the notes that I play. So it's kind of like I'm a spontaneous choir. I can...

ZOMORODI: That's how you do it.

COLLIER: Yeah. So I can kind of play with all the voices. And it has this crazy kind of vocoder harmonizer sampler sound that we kind of forged together. So, you know, it was a really interesting process for me, and it took about two or three years to really kind of feel like I could dig it fully. And that was how long I taught with a one-man show. I did about 300 gigs all over the world, and by the end of it, I'd kind of fallen in love a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

COLLIER: (Vocalizing). How's everybody feeling today? You feeling good?

(CHEERING)

COLLIER: Fantastic. Would everybody mind just singing with me for just one second? Could you sing something? Can you sing a D? Sing ooh. Everyone sing ooh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ooh.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) ooh, ooh, ooh, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ooh. Ooh. Sing it louder. Sing it louder. Sing it louder.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ooh.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) ah, ah, ah, ooh. Sing (singing) oh, oh, oh. Now, please, if you could sing (singing) ooh, oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ooh, oh, oh.

COLLIER: (Singing) Whoa, oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Whoa, oh, oh.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) ooh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Ooh, oh.

COLLIER: (Singing) Ooh, oh, oh, oh. Ah, ha, ah, ah, oh. Sing (singing) wah, ah, ah.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Wah, ah, ah.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) wah, oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Wah, oh, oh.

COLLIER: (Singing) Wah, oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Wah, oh, oh.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) wah, oh, oh.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing) Wah, oh, oh.

COLLIER: Sing (singing) wah, oh, ooh.

Thank you so much. That was beautiful. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

COLLIER: Thank you. So do you feel that motion? Do you feel like yourself as part of that motion, things moving underneath the surface? So the language of musical harmony is an absolutely extraordinary one. It's a way of navigating one's emotional frameworks but without the need to put things into words. And I think that, as with many other languages, it doesn't matter how much you know about a language, it doesn't matter how many words you can say, how many phrases you know. What matters is the emotional choices you make with this language. So I encourage us to embrace this idea as a community, which is the thing which in time may grow us towards, as opposed to away from, our own humanity. Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: Well, the one thing we can't bring people listening right now is that you're very generous with your expressions when you're on stage - just the real, genuine pleasure you derive from hearing sound. And you can't fake that, right?

COLLIER: No. I think you're so right. And I think there's something really effortless about enthusiasm in a sense because, as you say, it's either there, or it's not. And it takes no effort to be enthusiastic about something if you love it. At least that's what I find - is it's like if you put a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of salt in a child's mouth, or in somebody's mouth, and say, hey, you know, which one do you like better? Then it's really obvious. It's like, ugh (ph) for the salt, and there's, ooh for the sugar. It's lovely and sweet. And that kind of instantaneousness, I think, is actually - it's really powerful.

And when I look back at the music that I have made and the music that I learned as a boy, a lot of it came - literally just came down to, what do you like? What is it that you like? I think it's a question that's not asked enough in education, where someone says, you know, what do you like? What feels the most important thing to you to make in the whole wide world? Because that's what you'll spend the rest of your life trying to figure out. And I know when my enthusiasm kind of dries up or it's not there, it's normally because I've kind of migrated to something that I maybe think I should like, or other people like or whatever. But it's not really connected to something that I'm enthusiastic about at that moment.

And so I think it is important to kind of seek out the underlying source of what it is that you get that spark from, you know, because in a certain kind of a way, when you get that spark, you just know. It's not something that you decide or needs much thought. You think, oh, I love this. And I think in my mind, what happens is, how can I share it? How can I share that enthusiasm? How can I explore it and expand it and give with it? Because I think that's what we're here to do as people. I think if there's something that gives us a spark, then we have to give that spark right back.

ZOMORODI: You seem to have such an interesting relationship with your own voice. I read somewhere that at one point, you experimented with all kinds of different ways to use your voice to try and pinpoint the one that you liked best, which I thought was kind of funny because I think a lot of people think, well, oh, this is my voice. This is the way I sound. But correct me if I'm wrong - you kind of have the philosophy that you can sound a bunch of different ways. I mean, one of your most famous projects was the a cappella cover of "Moon River," where you ended...

COLLIER: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Up layering your voice, like, 5,000 times.

COLLIER: Yeah. I think, in a sense, you know, you have your one voice. That is your one voice, and you can't change that. But learning what your voice can do is super, super fun. So, you know, learning about shouting and screaming and whispering, and you can sing high. You can sing low. And also, what happens when you layer your voice? - which is something I really love. Like, your voice becomes a new instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON RIVER")

COLLIER: (Vocalizing).

It sounds like a church organ. It's a crazy, crazy sound. And that's part of my instrument in a certain way. And I think, you know, discovering your instrument in that sense is really exciting because it gives you a set of tools, and when you have a set of tools, then you can kind of go play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON RIVER")

COLLIER: (Vocalizing). In a certain kind of a way, I think that there is a way that my voice feels the best when I use it, and I think it's when I use it in a healthy way. And so there is a certain amount of discovery about what that feels like and what that sounds like. But, you know, I don't know how it's possible to find your voice unless you're kind of just trying everything. I think that you should try all sorts of things, you know? And over the years, I've been a dubstep producer and a jazz pianist, and a folk - you know, a folk fiddler and a slap bass player and all these different things. I'm none of these things, really. But wearing the different hats teaches me about what I like.

Going back to what I said before, when you know what you like and you trust your nose, in that sense, then you kind of know how to combine the things that you know. And you actually need to know so little to start combining things. And I think one of the best examples of this is if you look at a baby who's learning to talk. You know, the baby doesn't sit down and kind of study grammar and spelling and all these things before they start playing around. The first thing that the child does, is start playing around - I think (vocalizing) - they're pulling syllables out of the air and saying, oh, how does it feel? Oh, I use this syllable to mean this or to ask for this or whatever.

And only later do they sit down, and it's like, OK, so this is what this word is and what it looks like on the page, and this is how it's spelled, and this is what a comma is for. And I think, well, I know what a comma is because I know what it means to pause in a sentence, but I didn't know it was called that. And I think, for me, with music, it was a bit like that with theory, you know, which I resisted for so many years. I thought, this is so boring. (Vocalizing).

But then I realized, oh, a lot of this stuff, actually, intuitively, I've kind of discovered just through - just through using my voice in interesting ways. And I guess one thing I really felt is I think your voice, or you could say your sound, as a musician - people are interested in it and go, well, how do I find my sound? I don't think your sound comes from all the things that you do really well. I think that, in some ways, your sound comes from things that you don't quite know how to do, or that you do kind of weirdly, at least to start with, because I think that teaches you equally as much as, you know, doing something well, if not more.

I think any time I kind of - I struggle or I come up against a creative block, which happens a lot - you know, I think, well, how would I do this the worst it could possibly be done? Or how wouldn't I do this? And actually, that could be really helpful in breaking me out of my - out of my barricade, because it stops me being too serious about - about the whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON RIVER")

COLLIER: (Vocalizing).

ZOMORODI: Whoa. Thousands of you, Jacob, thousands of you. It's like a wall of your voice. It's wonderful. So you spent years touring as a solo act. You gave these very theatrical performances, where you basically were leaping from one instrument to another on stage. Did you think, you know, I like the solo thing; I like being able to play my instruments the way I want to play them? Or did you start to think, well, I don't know; I'm getting a little lonely up here? Maybe it's time to open up my playground here to other friends.

COLLIER: Yeah, well, both things were very much true, kind of one after the other. I think at first, it was really thrilling and immensely challenging to do it by myself because it enabled me to kind of think on my feet in a way that I'd never done before. And I had to change gear really fast. And I've got that kind of mind that just gets a kick out of that kind of experience and those kinds of experiments, you know, to have to do four two-bar loops on percussion. And then you have three beats to make it to the bass. And if you don't make it to the bass, it will loop the - in silence.

So you have to play it, you know, all these kind of things. So very, very, sort of confining system of things, which I found immensely freeing. It was kind of a very strong set of boundaries that I had to be creative within these very strict rules and - in a funny sense, I really loved that. But after three years, I just - all I wanted was a bandmate. I just wanted someone else to jam with, you know? Because the one thing that you can't do on stage, on your own, is - is improvise with someone else - is to jam with someone else. And I got so kind of caught up in my own space and need to jam that I started to jam with the audience. And the audience would sing stuff, and I would - I would ask them to sing chords and clap and certain things and stamp and call and response and all sorts of these things. And I loved that, and I still do that now. It's just one of my favorite things ever. But I knew I needed, you know, a band next.

And I also knew that, for my next album, I didn't want to just do it on my own in my room. I wanted to expand that world. I wanted to dunk myself in the deepest possible waters of things that I partially understood and see what happened. And that's how the whole of this next project sort of came about. And the project is called "Djesse," D-J-E-S-S-E. And "Djesse" is a four - it's a four-volume project. And it's the sort of most maximalist form of collaboration that I could possibly imagine. It's - every album is a different genre, a different set of sounds, different part of the world - just a completely different journey.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. You actually visited us at NPR back in 2019 for a Tiny Desk concert, where you played some of "Djesse: Volume 2." So let's take a listen to part of that performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLIER: (Singing) It don't matter what your boyfriend said.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Gonna love you any old way.

COLLIER: (Singing) It don't matter 'bout the games you play.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Gonna love you any old way.

COLLIER: (Singing) It don't matter what the preacher prayed.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Gonna love you any old way.

COLLIER: (Singing) 'Cause when you wake up in the morning, gonna throw it all away.

JACOB COLLIER AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

COLLIER: (Singing) It don't matter if you're here to stay.

ZOMORODI: In a moment, more from my conversation with Jacob Collier. We're going to talk about burnout and how to keep joy alive, even when play turns into work. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLLIER: It feels like...

COLLIER AND UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we are spending the hour with musician Jacob Collier, who at this point has four albums under his belt. He's working on a fifth. He's collaborated with musicians all over the world, and he's currently on a global tour. Oh, and by the way, he is only 27 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE ME CRY")

COLLIER: (Singing) In every mouth, there's a word of forgiveness that melts all the ice to the ground. Why do you sigh?

CHORUS: (Singing) Sleep like an angel. Gonna make your wings (ph) all right.

COLLIER: (Singing) I don't know why, why.

ZOMORODI: Jacob, I hate to ask, but how the hell are you going to keep this up? I mean, you'll be - you won't have even hit 30 by the time you finish this massive, four-volume project, "Djesse." What - do you ever think about that, like, that you're firing literally on all cylinders? This is hard to keep up. I mean, if you were an athlete, you would be maybe getting an injury at some point, certainly chugging a lot of Gatorade. How do you keep up this momentum?

COLLIER: Oh, yeah, that's a big question. I asked myself that a lot last year, which was such a weird year for everyone in the world. But for me, it was kind of funky because I'd had this 2020 world tour that was pushed to 2021. And then it was pushed again. And so I was kind of left a little bit at the mercy of, you know, these - so many unfinished ideas and so much kind of potential but not being able to leave the house.

And so in a weird sense, I'd kind of - I'd left the room, and I toured the world, and I collaborated with these different musicians. And I was just kind of learning that language. And then I had to put the lid back on it and go home, which is actually very strange creatively and challenging for sure. But, you know, I think that after "Vol. 4" is done, which hopefully will be, you know, not too long away, it's going to be interesting to see what feels right to do next. I'm deliberately not making a plan because I don't know what I'm going to need at that time. But I think that, you know, my priorities creatively, as I kind of expected, have shifted drastically since I began. And I didn't sort of think in my wildest dreams that it would sprawl to this scale, the "Djesse" project, and it would have this many musicians on it, and it would be sort of - and have this much kind of expectation from the world.

So, you know, it's a very interesting challenge. But I'm learning the power of taking time away, especially from social media, I must say. And I know I'm not alone in that, but it's such a strange world - isn't it? - to live online. And I think it's the polar opposite to being curious and being open. It has all of this kind of digital certainty and things lasting forever and very judgy and also incredibly joyous if you kind of embrace it for what it is. But...

ZOMORODI: Yeah, because you wouldn't have been discovered were it not for the YouTube social media world, right? I mean...

COLLIER: No, not at all. There's always two sides of that coin. But I - you know, I think when you leave the house, I'm sure - and I'm sure many of you listening will feel like this, too. You know, when you're in the context of your own life kind of firsthand, when you're within the things that you think about and the people that you know, something makes a huge amount more sense than when you're removed from it and you're kind ideating around it, but you're not with it.

And I know that for so many musicians, you know, many friends of mine and me, too - I just found it hard to not be able to kind of do what it is that we that we really love, which is to share, as you say, to share the music in the real world and with each other and to challenge each other and to get into those situations where something can happen by accident because, you know, it's so hard to, you know, even catch up with a friend in a way where you might start doing something creative because, you know, if you're on Zoom for an hour and then you have to go home, do this other thing, or you've got to do X, Y, Z, it's tough. It's tough to be spontaneous in a controlled environment.

ZOMORODI: I think you're putting, really, your finger on it. And it makes me think of all the people who maybe do play around and find out that they're good at something. And, you know, when I was a kid, they would have called that a hobby. And now it's like, oh, you could sell that on Etsy. Or maybe you should start a YouTube channel. Or you could get a lot of followers on Instagram and become an influencer. It's this kind of need to commoditize the things that give us joy or that we think could bring joy to other people. Do you ever - I don't know. You're really successful. And obviously, this is what you're doing to making a living. But does it - I sound like such a Gen-Xer, but do you ever feel like you sold out?

COLLIER: Oh, sold out. Well, it's a hard thing to quantify. You know, I think the - in my mind when I look back, there are different moments where my career kind of jumped into a space that was unknown. I fully kind of relate to the idea that trying to commoditize something that you just love for the sake of it is super, super challenging, I would say, in any industry. But in terms of the music industry, you know, it's tough. It's tough to keep doing things that might be kind of weird, that people might not fully understand or be interested in but that you really love and to share those with people without letting the kind of the big wide world get its claws in you.

And I feel like I've been very kind of stubborn about that space in the past, you know, and saying, you know, I want to do this on my own terms. And I want to do this in my own time and all those things. And I think that for artists kind of all over the world, that is the most important thing - is to do things the way that you want to do them. But, you know, I also feel that it's an interesting problem to have when you start to reach people or when you realize the potential of something that you're doing. It's a bit like, you know, you become aware of yourself, and you think, oh, I don't know if I can just stumble into something anymore because, you know, everything I do feels significant in a new way. And maybe I should be having my camera on for this, you know, or I wonder if I should - you know, all these things kind of start turning.

And I think that for me, when I look back 10 years and I was just kind of in the thick of really unearthing a sound world that felt like it belonged to me and it was something that I really was excited about, I kind of didn't think twice about making things. I just sort of thought, well, this feels good. I'll do this now. Maybe I'll have this. Oh, no, no, that didn't work, you know, whatever. And I didn't feel bad if I did something I didn't like. It was just part of the process. Whereas I think what's harder now is if you do something and it kind of doesn't work so well, especially if you release it - you know, if you make an album or you release a song...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...And you think, oh, that didn't really - actually, that didn't really work. It was worth experimenting with, but now it's, like, public, and people think, oh, this is what Jacob does now, you know, whatever. So I think that process is...

ZOMORODI: Yeah, stakes are much higher.

COLLIER: Yeah, for sure. It's a really interesting challenge. But I do think that - well, I know for a fact that when I need to kind of find the ground beneath my feet creatively, I have to stop listening to those voices, you know, the voices that are saying, oh, it's like this, or it's like this. It's like this. It feels like I'm back at school in a lot of ways. You know, it's - do you understand? This is how this is done, and anyone who does it different is wrong. And all these kind of strange haunts that come back to you. And the funny thing is, in music, nothing is wrong at all. I mean, I think you can make a strong decision or a weak decision about how something is played or how something feels. But otherwise, I mean, you have to just muck in and figure stuff out. And I've got a lot of kind of pleasure and joy over the years of just kind of mucking about and finding things by accident. And I think that accidents are harder to come about and find their way through the surface. If you're doing something that's for others and that's being kind of made available and is permanent in some sense, I think that the idea of play, I think it does become harder and all the more important, I think, to kind of get right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I NEED")

COLLIER: (Singing) Hi. I love the way that I feel when you put your arms over me. There must be something I could say to make you stay. Oh, hi. Hello. I love the way that you get in the groove when you walk with me. Only me. But every time I think about it, can't stop thinking 'bout it.

ZOMORODI: There is a school of thought where people say, you know, play around, figure out what you love and do that, and you'll never work a day in your life. It sounds like that school of thought certainly works for you, applies to you. But there are some people, I think, right now who are thinking, I have played around, and I haven't found my thing, my calling. You know, I think - we look at people like you who are so beautifully managing to take play and turn it into work and back and forth like that. There's a melding there. But I wonder if, for some people, we have to say, like, it's OK; work is work, and play is play.

COLLIER: Yeah. Oh, it's such a tough one. I mean, it is OK to draw a line between work and play. I think to say that they have to be one and the same and that that's the only way that life is truly kind of meaningful, I think that puts pressure on, in a certain kind of a way. There are certainly things I do that are no fun at all and that you just have to do. Maybe it's doing a bunch of travelling and being on early flights and all these moments you think, actually, this is - this really isn't fun. It's not healthy. It's not sparking any joy. I'm absolutely, ravagingly (ph) knackered, and I just want to go home. And I do know that feeling to a point. And I suppose what I'd say is it actually takes very little time and energy to be curious about something. And for me, I feel like curiosity is where so much of the joy starts. I know those days where my mind is closed, and I don't feel curious.

ZOMORODI: You have those days?

COLLIER: Those are the hardest days. Oh, absolutely. And I think that, you know, it was - a big lesson for me was how to kind of re-find or discover the curiosity. And the thing that I felt, which was wrong, I think, was I have to kind of rekindle curiosity that I used to feel about certain things. Or even just music - I used to love writing songs, and now it feels like, oh, there's just so much pressure, or, oh, there's a burden here. And I don't know if I - whatever.

And I think what I realized is, curiosity is always new. It always starts in the present, and it always applies to the present. Realizing that helped me get out of a bunch of ruts because I was relieved of the pressure of having to kind of find something that felt like it got buried or whatever. I think that sounds like an intimidating task, but it starts literally now, you know? And I think I've tried to figure out a sense of what was around me and just being interested in doing things and just for no reason at all. Just doing things for myself or for play or with friends or with other people and reawaken that kind of spark.

And I think the other thing about curiosity is that, you know, sometimes when you're curious, you go and create something. You know, you think, oh, I'm interested about that. I'm going to write that down, or I'm going to play that on my instrument, or I'm going to teach about that tomorrow in a classroom or whatever. And whilst those ideas might stay, the curiosity moves on, and it moves on with your life. You know, you might have signed up for a job that felt like the dream job and the job that will give you all of the joy in the world. And a few years might go on, and you might think, you know what? I just - I think I've moved, and I think I need to do something new. And I think that that's part of being human.

In no situation is everything always a joy and everything always a breeze. And I find myself, increasingly, drawn to music, both as a creator and as a listener, that comes from a - I suppose a more honest, complex, emotional space than just kind of happy or sad or whatever. Human beings, I feel like all of our emotions that really have meaning are compound emotions. You know, it's a combination of relief and sadness or a combination of relief and joy.

ZOMORODI: Like a chord.

COLLIER: Like a chord. Exactly. And so I find myself kind of trying to unearth those feelings more now than ever before because I think that there's - as anyone grows older as a person, I think there's more things to feel. And there's all these layers now of the world as we know it. And there's so much that's unknown as well. That's one of the strangest things. But if there's one thing that music has taught me, especially being on a stage in front of thousands of people and not knowing what on Earth I'm doing, which is one of my favorite feelings of all...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: ...Sometimes it's the most magical thing to not know what's coming next. And that doesn't mean it's easy to be where you are, but I think sometimes for me, I - it's like, you switch it over, and you look at it from a different angle, and suddenly, you think, well, yeah, no one knows what's going on, and things are very uncertain, and somehow, it's going to sing, you know? And when you're on stage, you have no choice. You have to sing. And that can be really good for you, just to say, well, I have to play something now. So something will be played. It's...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) So off I go.

COLLIER: It's out of my hands. Yeah, yeah.

ZOMORODI: Might as well make it fun.

COLLIER: Exactly. Exactly.

ZOMORODI: OK, so, Jacob, we have asked you to play us out of this conversation with one final song. Tell us what you've chosen and what's so special about it.

COLLIER: I figured maybe I'd play the song, which is one of my most favorites that I've ever written. In fact, it was written in 15 minutes, which is a complete whirlwind.

ZOMORODI: What?

COLLIER: And I normally spend, like, months and months crafting a song, and this was one of the first songs I ever wrote that just kind of went (imitating pop sound) and it popped out. And so it's very simple. It's in F-sharp major, which is one of the best keys, in my opinion, ever. I was actually in New York City when I wrote this song. It was just this figure (playing guitar), which is so simple. And I just thought, that's nice. And then it was done. I thought, is that it? Do I need to now go and, like, make a thousand layers and stuff? And I thought, I don't know. But I recorded it on my phone, and then I forgot about it for a few months. And I came home, and I sat here in this chair, and I thought, OK, how am I going to record this? I thought, well, I've got my microphones out and sat here and sang the song, and it just didn't come close to the voice memo...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

COLLIER: It just didn't come close to it. So I released the voice memo in the end.

ZOMORODI: Did you?

COLLIER: Yeah, I just released the phone voice memo. And I'm glad I did, because it just - it reminds me, when I listen to it and when I play it (playing guitar), it reminds me of how sometimes it starts with just being curious about the smallest of things, you know? You just grab it for what it is, and you - it doesn't have to be anything more than what it is. And sometimes it's really plain and simple. And it was unlike any other song I've ever kind of written, and I love it dearly. And it's called "The Sun Is in Your Eyes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUN IS IN YOUR EYES")

COLLIER: (Singing) The sun is in your eyes. The sun is in your eyes. Throw me the cold. Throw me the cold, cold water of your smile again. To take me by surprise. You take me by surprise. Throw me the bold. Throw me the bold, bold treasure of your lips again. And where I go, you'll lead me in the right direction, with your love as my protection. I'll be a world of your projection. And where I go, singing songs to your affection. With rhymes to your perfection. In my eyes, see your reflection of you. I see you clearly now. I'll hold you dearly now. The sun is in my eyes.

ZOMORODI: That was beautiful. That was just lovely.

COLLIER: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.

ZOMORODI: That's Jacob Collier. You can see his full TED performance at ted.com

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB COLLIER SONG, "MAKE ME CRY")

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show today. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED App.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE ME CRY")

COLLIER: (Singing) In every laugh...

ZOMORODI: And if you've been enjoying the show, we'd be so grateful if you left a review on Apple Podcasts. It's the best way for us to reach new listeners, which of course, we really want to do. And one last reminder, please take our yearly podcast survey. Tell us how we're doing and what you want to hear more of. Just go to npr.org/podcastsurvey to share your thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE ME CRY")

COLLIER: (Singing) In every tear...

ZOMORODI: This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner, and it was edited by Katie Simon. Our production staff at NPR also includes Katie Monteleone, James Delahoussaye, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran, Diba Mohtasham, Rommel Wood and Katherine Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACOB COLLIER SONG, "MAKE ME CRY")

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