Jacob Collier On Making Everyday Sounds Into Songs, And His Four-Album Project : It's Been a Minute English composer, singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier first gained attention on YouTube in 2012, and since then he's signed to Quincy Jones' record label, won two Grammys and released three albums. The 25-year-old's music is a mix of jazz, neo-soul and funk. He and Sam Sanders talked about his upcoming work, his four-album project, 'Djesse' and using everyday sounds to make songs.

Jacob Collier On Making Everyday Sounds Into Songs, And His Four-Album Project

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JOSH NEWELL, BYLINE: Did you plan on belting anything, or is it going to be...

JACOB COLLIER: (Singing) Whoa, listen out up (ph).

That's the loudest I'll go.

NEWELL: Beautiful. OK. One more.

COLLIER: (Singing) Yee, ha, oh, oh, woo, ah, oh. Ooh, ah (ph).

NEWELL: Great. Now let's figure out this keyboard thing really quick.


My guest this episode has music in his bones. Even his mic checks can give you chills. That is him there, humming, strumming his guitar, sound-checking with our engineer, Josh Newell. For this interview, this episode, I asked my very musical guest to start with a song.

COLLIER: I was just thinking about what song to play, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm going to play a song called "Make Me Cry," which is a song by myself, taken from my latest album, which is called "Djesse, Vol. 2."

SANDERS: Today, the music and mission of Jacob Collier.

COLLIER: (Singing) Bin de ha, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm (ph).

SANDERS: I am Sam Sanders. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR.

COLLIER: (Singing) Sin a la, la, la. Sin a lo, lo, lo. Lo, lo, ah. Zin a la oh, ah (ph).

SANDERS: Jacob Collier is an English singer, composer and producer. Also, he's a prodigy. He first gained attention on YouTube in 2012 with these epic, virtuosic covers of songs, like Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry About A Thing." Since then Jacob has signed on to Quincy Jones' record company. He's won two Grammys. He's collaborated with artists like Pharrell. And he's released three albums. The song you're hearing right now is from Jacob's most recent album, which came out this past July.

COLLIER: (Singing) Why do you cry? No one knows why, why, why, why.

SANDERS: Jacob has accomplished so much as a musician, and he's only 25. This is the part where I would describe Jacob's music to you, tell you where it fits in the music world. But here's the thing. It doesn't fit. It's too big, it's too bold. It is too genre-bending. There is no one word or label for the music that Jacob Collier makes.

Jacob and I talk about just that and why he likes it that way. We also discuss what he's coming out with next. And he plays and sings some more. Enjoy.

COLLIER: (Singing) Fall down like pouring rain. Let it flow again.

Can I have just the tiniest bit more of my own microphone? Is this my - there you go.

SANDERS: You got to do it rapper voice - turn my headphones up.


SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: No. Here we go. I'm actually - I'm all good right here. I've got the box.

SANDERS: Remember, like, there were several years where, like, every rapper has an adlib before their songs, right? It was like, turn my headphones up?

COLLIER: Yeah. I know. Of course.

SANDERS: It was very annoying.

COLLIER: Yeah. There's a song on "Djesse, Vol. 3," which is the album that has not yet come out, where I rap. And I begin by saying, turn it down a little bit.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: Turn my vocal down a little bit.

SANDERS: (Laughter). I like that. I like that. Tell us about that song you just played, which was beautiful.

COLLIER: Thank you so much. So that was a song called "Make Me Cry." It was actually the first song I composed for the entirety of this quadruple album project that I've been working on for a couple of years now. And it's rather gentle.


COLLIER: On the album, there's all these little chiming guitars and different stringed instruments, which all add up to this kind of warm - it's almost like a cuddle, I suppose.


COLLIER: It's a very warm, comforting song. And it's in D, which is, I think, probably my favorite key, as it stands.

SANDERS: Why is D your favorite key?

COLLIER: You know, I don't quite know. I mean, every key has a different flavor. D is a wholesome key. It's not bland, like C. It's not neutral. It's probably on the bright side.

SANDERS: I mean, any key can be bright or neutral or sad, if you make it that, right?

COLLIER: It's true. It kind of depends how you wield it, and it depends how you arrive in that key. But for me, D is a wonderful place to start 'cause it's like an unbiased feeling.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.

COLLIER: You know what I'm saying?

SANDERS: All right. So what do you want listeners to learn about you and your work and your art from that song you just played?

COLLIER: Blimey, that might not be my business or my decision, in a certain kind of a way. I suppose my job is to describe spaces that are honest to me. And the goal, I suppose, is that the listener can hear themselves in some way in that song and also, in some way, hear me. And so if the listener is able to identify with my honesty then I'm being the most helpful I can possibly be.

SANDERS: Well, that is very nice of you.

COLLIER: (Laughter) Cheers.

SANDERS: You do this thing where, in the work I've heard of yours, all the jazzy albums before, you'll be plugging along with these chords that seem pretty conventional and make sense. And then you'll jump.

COLLIER: (Laughter).

SANDERS: And it goes to this really weird place. And you're like, I didn't expect that chord. But it works. You do that a lot. And I like it...

COLLIER: Thank you.

SANDERS: ...For this song. You also have an incredibly impressive vocal range. Like, how many octaves were you jumping in that song?

COLLIER: I don't know. It could be three or four, I suppose.

SANDERS: I suppose. Casually. (Laughter).

COLLIER: (Laughter) I'm not quite sure. Yeah. I do like to amble around...


COLLIER: ...In terms of range.

SANDERS: That's fun.

COLLIER: I'm lucky to have that low, that low.

SANDERS: That was very nice. Then I noticed that you're just, like, virtuosic. You, at one point - at two points in that song, were playing the guitar and the keyboard at the same time.

COLLIER: (Laughter) Yeah. (Laughter). Yeah. It's funny, I guess when I was growing up, I didn't really think about being an instrumentalist, per se. I didn't think, well, I want to be a piano player, or, I want to be a guitar player, or even, I want to be a singer. I just wanted to be a musician.


COLLIER: And as I listened to music, I kind of understood it at face value. It was, well, if a musician is music-ing (ph)...


COLLIER: ...Then out comes all these different layers.


COLLIER: And I didn't think too much about it. I just wanted to make music the way I was listening to it. And so, yeah, I would find myself in situations where I'd want to be hearing the sort of delicate stroking of a guitar at the same time as a sort of chordal alignment on the piano and singing a melody. And...

SANDERS: So you just learned all of them.

COLLIER: I think yeah. I sort of stumbled into - I shortcutted (ph) to the music rather than got stuck in the instruments, if that makes any sense, which obviously leaves gaping holes in my technique. But I feel like the gesture of what I'm trying to communicate is intact.

SANDERS: It doesn't seem like there's any hole in your technique, hearing you do that song, so...

COLLIER: Well, thank you.

SANDERS: How many instruments do you play?

COLLIER: I - you know, I'm not exactly sure.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: One of the reasons for that being that I don't think that I particularly see a line between musical instruments and nonmusical instruments. I mean, (tapping fingers) is as good as...

SANDERS: Keep going. I like that.

COLLIER: ...A drumbeat or hitting your foot for me. This is the table underneath the microphone (tapping fingers). And when I was a kid growing up, I had a house filled with music...

SANDERS: Because your family's...

COLLIER: ...And musicians.

SANDERS: ...Very musical, right?

COLLIER: They are. Yeah, yeah. So I was brought up by a single mother with two younger sisters. And we all sang. We all played. And we all listened, and we all discussed. And we were fascinated, and we all enjoyed music.

SANDERS: Y'all sang together?

COLLIER: We did, and we still do. Every Christmas Day, we sing Bach chorales in four parts, which is...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

COLLIER: ...Such a treat. It's still one of my most favorite things to do in the world.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

COLLIER: But I think I was just drawn to things that made sound. And that includes lawnmowers and babbins (ph) and rackets and saucepans and floors and marbles and guitars and double basses and pianos. And over the course of the last 10 years or so, I've been just collecting things that make sound, from traditional means to nontraditional means. And nowadays, you can make music out of anything. And I enjoy listening to and creating music that sounds like a person's life. And so for me, I think I like to use the materials around me...


COLLIER: ...To do so. And so I don't know if you'd count, you know, marble rolling across the floor as (laughter) an instrument.

SANDERS: I would.

COLLIER: If so, I guess I'd be playing instruments into the hundreds...


COLLIER: ...Just with all of the different things in my home. But...


COLLIER: ...I divide sounds into families. So you've got stringed instruments like guitars, mandolins and ukuleles and bouzoukis and things like that. You've got keyboard instruments like the piano and this red Nord over here to my right...


COLLIER: ...And things like melodica and accordion, to a certain extent, things like that. And then there are things that make rhythm and make groove, which is basically everything in the whole world...


COLLIER: ...Including...

SANDERS: The thing in your hands.

COLLIER: Yeah, including people's bodies and floors and ceilings and stuff.


COLLIER: And then there is - then there's the human voice. And I would probably say that the human voice is the most important of all those instruments...


COLLIER: ...Just because everybody has one.

SANDERS: That is true. You know, hearing you talk about how anything can be an instrument, there is a song of yours from earlier in your career where you are going about and recording, like, sounds of a shipping dock.


SANDERS: Which one is that?

COLLIER: That's a song called "Saviour."


COLLIER: So what you'll hear with this groove is I walked around Blakeney shipyard. And Blakeney is a place in Norfolk. It's one of my most favorite places in the world. There are all these ships, and there was this high wind. And so what you get with ships is the sails kind of (clapping) rattling against all of those materials above the ship. And so I walked around. I smashed my hand against some barrels. I listened to the sound of this (imitating rattling) thing, walking along, took those sounds home, recorded a groove at 45 BPM...


COLLIER: ...And sped the groove up to 80 BPM, which is the tempo of this particular song. And you got this strange sludge of sounds moving and grooving that sounds a little unusual but still kind of feels like a more traditional pocket.


SANDERS: That is - I mean, you must know how unusual that is. I and...

COLLIER: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...Lots of other people walk through the world every day hearing lots of different kinds of sounds. Few of us think to record. Oh, I'll make a song out of it.

COLLIER: Yeah. I only realized how unusual it was when I started talking to people about it and realized that other people didn't necessarily do it.


COLLIER: Because, for me, it felt quite normal.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: It was like, well, I've got an idea. And there are infinite sounds at all times around me. So why not just turn on the tap and collect them?


COLLIER: It makes a kind of logical sense. I mean, we all carry around a pretty decent microphone and a pretty decent camera.

SANDERS: That's true.

COLLIER: And that's kind of all the materials you need to begin an idea...


COLLIER: ...And even arguably have a career and make...

SANDERS: You're one of the few musicians I've talked to who seems to be intimating that, like, the smartphone is good for music.

COLLIER: I think it is. It's an amazing device, especially when it's on airplane mode.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: It's the most valuable it ever is.



UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I don't want to be a preacher.

COLLIER: (Singing) You don't want to be my savior.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I just want to be a man.

COLLIER: (Singing) You don't want to close that door.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I won't let you exaltate (ph) me.

COLLIER: (Singing) I don't want to hear your reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Just keep me as I am.

COLLIER: (Singing) Would you tell me what we're searching for?


SANDERS: All right. Time for a break. Coming up, more from very, very talented musician Jacob Collier. BRB.


SANDERS: When did you realize as a musician, as a person that you're different? You see sound and hear sounds differently. You process them differently. You are a virtuoso of many different instruments. You are gifted in a way that lots of people are not. When did you know maybe this music thing comes a lot easier to me than it does to a lot of other people?

COLLIER: It's an interesting question. I mean, in some ways, if I were to think of myself as different all the time it wouldn't do me any favors.


COLLIER: I mean, nowadays, people are doing many different kinds of creative things. A lot of those lines are overlapping, and I think we're also realizing in politics, between people, across continents - and I've certainly learnt this by traveling around recording these different collaborators across these four albums - but we're really similar to each other. And my outlook on the world, although unique to me, has things in common with a few different people in different areas. When I was growing up and learning about music, for me, it was more of a language than a skill set.


COLLIER: And so I collected as many sounds as I was fascinated by. I began to understand how to put musical harmony together, musical rhythm together. I didn't think of myself as set apart with those fascinations. I just wanted to make those kinds of sounds that I was hearing in my head come as true as possible.


COLLIER: And as I began to speak to other people and learn - and when I got into jazz music about 16 or 17, I guess that was when I realized that my approach was rather left field. It was a little unconventional. But the things I was fascinated by are the same things that many people are fascinated by - storytelling, narrative, gesture, poetry, groove, dance, movement. These are universal concepts, but I was bringing my own life to those concepts. And I suppose that and my determination to not do what other people felt to be normal in the face of what I believe to be right, I think that was one thing that perhaps set me apart. And it's something that I'm still fascinated by today, the idea of just staying with your own narrative and your own beliefs.

And I guess my realization early on in my sort of musical making was that nobody was going to be me other than me. It was impossible for anybody to approach the world with my sense of aesthetic and understanding. And that doesn't mean that I'm greater than another person. It just means that I have a responsibility to tell my own story.

SANDERS: I'm sure that there are many executives at many a label who would see someone as young as you that can play those instruments like you do and sing like that, they'd say, oh, I can package this.


SANDERS: They want to package you and make you a thing that is, you know, top 40 ready, commercially viable, go.


SANDERS: Have you experienced that?

COLLIER: I appreciate that as a vantage point because those guys can be amazing at their jobs. I just - selfishly, I've just been so stubborn against that from the word go. Even when I was 18 or 19 and I began to sort of get this glimpse into what the music industry looked like and the kinds of people that you would meet in that space, I was so turned off by the whole idea of even stardom, you know, being a star and that being more valuable than all the other people in the world and people looking up to that. And it is a rather strange thing to look at, especially if you're interested in creating things because it goes against some of the fundamentals. I mean, I think that the idea of being vulnerable in your creative space, it can only survive in a place where you're able to be yourself. But for me, I think that, yeah, the challenge and the joy about this period of time in the industry is that people with good ideas are able to package themselves in a way that feels natural to them.


COLLIER: And the reason I'm lucky with my current team is that I think that they understand that, and they trust me and they give me complete creative control and the space to do what's right for me. And for that reason alone, I can imagine myself still growing an artistic voice in 20, 30, 40 years rather than entering into somebody else's idea of what's right and wrong and ending up in their space, you know? I guess I'm crafting my own space, and it feels right right now. And it's definitely not that other people's ideas can enter into that process and help me grow and challenge me, which I love.


COLLIER: It's more that my baseline belongs to me, and that is crucial. It's crucial.

SANDERS: My space.

COLLIER: My space.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Speaking of your space and, like, following your creative impulses, I want to talk now about this project you're currently halfway through. You are - it's - what is this? - an epic four-album series called "Djesse" with a D - D-J-E-S-S-E.

COLLIER: For sure.

SANDERS: I want to play one track from, I think, the second album, which has been out for a few months. And I want to talk about that and talk about...


SANDERS: ...How you put the whole thing together.


SANDERS: Can we start at, like, 4:25, Josh, in "Feel?"


LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) But you...

SANDERS: So good, so soft.

COLLIER: Thanks.



LA HAVAS: (Singing) You make me feel so young. Yeah, you...



LA HAVAS: (Singing) You make me come alive.

JACOB COLLIER AND LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) This I do adore. Stay forever more. Take me to the floor. Leave me wanting more. Never felt this way before. You make me feel like I'm new.

SANDERS: That's what I'm talking about. You've got - those early chords are like, I get that. I know where that's going. And then you go crazy.

COLLIER: Into the darkness, yeah.

SANDERS: But I can still follow it.


SANDERS: Like right here...


LA HAVAS: (Singing) You make me feel. You make it real. You make me feel. You make it real.

SANDERS: Whoa. What do you even call that?

COLLIER: Magical mystery chords.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: It's a funny challenge, you know, because I've always loved musical harmony as a way of navigating one's emotions. It's just - it's so powerful what you can do by leading somebody down a particular road and then disrupting that road. But one thing I really like doing, and one thing I did in that snippet that you just played...


COLLIER: ...Was - the melody makes sense to everybody's ear.


COLLIER: The melody is reasonable.


COLLIER: Very reasonable. The harmony underneath is most definitely surprising, but it's controlled in its release of tension. And so you have a melody that feels inevitable. (Vocalizing) - that's absolutely fine. We all understand that.


COLLIER: But underneath, you've got this...

SANDERS: (Vocalizing).

COLLIER: ...This skullduggery going on, all this...

SANDERS: It's almost chromatic...

COLLIER: Well...

SANDERS: ...In a way.

COLLIER: It is chromatic, yeah, in some ways. And so I think for me, just having concentrated and fascinated over what chords can do...


COLLIER: ...And stretch that to the limit. I've always stretched that to the absolute limit. I've always enjoyed that feeling of controlling that dissonance...


COLLIER: ...In the ultimate way because I think that it's that thing of understanding, first of all, what the notes are that makes sense, what the notes are that fight each other and then where those notes are placed in time, you know? Is it, (clapping) you make me feel, or is it, (clapping) you make me feel? Are we behind the beat? Or is it, (clapping) you make me feel? Are we ahead of the beat? And that whole gravity - like, the gravity to time - which, in this particular song, "Feel," was something I was obsessed with.

SANDERS: A thing you're doing on these four albums, "Djesse," is working with other people, like Lianne La Havas, who was in the song "Feel" that we just played.


SANDERS: But your early stuff and your first album - it was just you. You did all the vocals. You played all the instruments. It was a one - literally a one-man band. Your first tour was you as a one-man band.

COLLIER: One-man show.

SANDERS: Yeah. What made you say, all right, for this four-album series, I will collaborate? Because you could have just not collaborated.

COLLIER: I could have. It was logical. It made sense.


COLLIER: It felt like the natural step forward. I had spent, well, 21 years at the time studying music in the sense of listening and becoming fascinated and becoming well-acquainted and learning how to record sounds, learning how to create sounds. I wanted to begin a dialogue with the music world at large, I suppose, and I wanted to be in the center of this journey - essentially, a selfish journey just to learn as much as I could from all of my heroes...


COLLIER: ...To be completely honest. And in so doing, I began to map out what this huge project might look like, and it began as one really, really long album moving between all these different musical worlds, navigating these things. I then realized that this was ludicrous. There'll be there were too many ideas to make a coherent pathway, so it became two albums.

SANDERS: OK. And then...

COLLIER: Yeah. I began to think about each of those two albums as sort of like an A-side and a B-side. After a while, I realized this made no sense to be two. It had to be three or four. And I started with three, and I realized that there were kind of three distinct worlds that I wanted to explore. There was the orchestral, huge acoustic space with choirs and the orchestral sound and the Big Band sound and all of that - the epic ballads, the great big stretching, yearning chords that come with an orchestra. Then there was the much smaller space, which was, I guess, based more in world music, jazz music, folk music, songwriting, that smaller acoustic sound. And then there was the absence of space altogether. There's the negative space, the electronic inner wonderlands...


COLLIER: ...That we all operate within many times a day...


COLLIER: ...Which is what goes on inside our heads, what goes on in the darkness, what goes on within the electricity and within the bizarre.


COLLIER: And those were the three spaces I laid out, and I realized that it wouldn't make sense to end in the darkness. I had to somehow combine all these different sounds and celebrate them at the end altogether, and thus the four volumes of "Djesse" emerged. So it moves from gospel church music to English choral music to, actually, this idea that I'm beginning to grow, which is, you know, working with audiences...


COLLIER: ...At shows and getting these thousands of people in rooms to sing multiple chords at once and multiple harmony parts at once and the feeling of singing - the feeling that the average person of the world gets with singing and framing that within "Djesse Vol. 4."


COLLIER: It's something I've just loved recently on shows at the end of my concert. And so I'll split the crowd into three or four or five different parts sometimes, and using essentially just my hands, my arms, I can control them. Without singing, I can control what they're doing - notes up and down, notes quieter and louder, different sounds, different...

SANDERS: With the audience?

COLLIER: Just the audience. I'm playing the audience. I think right now they're my most favorite instrument to play.

SANDERS: What are you making them play? What kind of songs?

COLLIER: Well, triads, three-part songs, four-part songs, but most of the time, it's improvising. It's like, well, what...

SANDERS: Collective audience improvising?

COLLIER: What's going on in the room right now, you know?


COLLIER: And people sing. People shout. People stand up, and people wave their hands around. But I'm sort of controlling that tension of release. Again, it's like this continuum of sound, and using my fingers, I can move those notes up and down.

SANDERS: Wait. When you're signaling, what are they going - what do they do when you signal? Like, if I go to your show...


SANDERS: ...And you put me in whatever...

COLLIER: You should come through.

SANDERS: I sure will. But how do I know what your hand motions are going to be telling me what to do?

COLLIER: Well, that's my job.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: And that's what I've spent the last couple years figuring out.

SANDERS: Do it on me. Go.

COLLIER: Do it on you now? So if I go - (singing) whoa.

SANDERS: (Vocalizing).

COLLIER: And then I go...

SANDERS: (Vocalizing, higher).

COLLIER: OK. That's fine. Excellent. So you knew to go up when I went up.

SANDERS: Because you were doing the up (unintelligible). OK.

COLLIER: I wouldn't necessarily have expected you to go up a whole octave, but that was on you.

SANDERS: Well, yeah - got the range.

COLLIER: Yeah, for sure.

SANDERS: (Laughter).


SANDERS: All right. One more break right here. When we come back, Jacob walks us through how he actually made a song in the studio with another artist - not just by himself - and how he collaborates with dozens of people and even dozens more instruments.


SANDERS: You start as this musician who is making everything on your own...


SANDERS: ...All the instruments. You're in this phase of your career where you're doing a lot of collaborating with a lot of different people. Which is easier? Which is harder? And which do you like best?

COLLIER: It's so hard to say. I mean, they're not separate enough processes at this point for me to judge them against each other. I'm still very much involved within the collaboration of controlling the different musical elements - even with the orchestra. You know, I'm not recording 300 tracks on top of one another and recording all those sounds myself as I was used to doing before. I'm writing 60 different orchestral parts and handing them out to 60 musicians. But those ingredients, those elements are still within my control to an extent because they're part of my narrative.

And so the challenge that's come is bridging the gap between my universe and another person's universe without just superimposing mine. Because I have so many ideas at all times and I have such a keen understanding of what I feel is right and wrong musically, that sometimes my nature will be to go into a scenario and say - OK, do this exact thing, and I know it's going to work. And often it will work, but the magic won't be there that could have been there were they to have brought something to the table from their own wheelhouse.

And you know, it's been a huge lesson for me. And in some ways, it's the lesson I wanted to learn myself. And the reason why I did this whole thing was just to figure out how to marry my space with other people's spaces and for other possibilities to have made themselves known to me. On "Djesse Vol. 1," there's an amazing musician called Hamid El Kasri, and he comes from Rabat in Morocco.


COLLIER: I had never been to Morocco before, but I had been obsessing over Gnawa music, which is the music of which he is a master. And it's a kind of street music in Morocco, and it has this pocket. It's like (vocalizing and clapping rhythmically). That, immediately for me, was like - Jacob is hooked. There's a little - it's like rolling like an egg. I think of it as rolling like an egg. (Vocalizing rhythmically).

SANDERS: (Vocalizing rhythmically). Yeah.

COLLIER: Right. And Hamid - I mean, I did lots of research. I grew up in the era of YouTube, and it was wonderful to be able to search Gnawa. So OK, who are the Gnawa legends around right now? Who should I be listening to? I trawled through many a Gnawa musician. And it turned out that Hamid El Kasri, this guy, was the legend. He was the living legend of Gnawa.


COLLIER: And he didn't speak a word of English. And his manager, Hicham, who's awesome actually - he spoke enough English for us to communicate well.


COLLIER: And we created this song. We wrote these words together, which are in his native language, which is Arabic. So the way that Gnawa works is that there's a lead singer and then there's four koyos surrounding him who play these metal castanets. And they sing the responses to the lead, which is Hamid in this case.

We sat in a room, and we jammed out some ideas. We messed with some bass lines. And I brought this idea in where there were three beats in every beat and three beats in a bar. So it was (vocalizing and clapping rhythmically).

SANDERS: (Vocalizing rhythmically).

COLLIER: (Vocalizing and clapping rhythmically).

And Hamid...

SANDERS: You made it a waltz.

COLLIER: Well, I kind of made it a waltz. It was an alt Gnawa waltz.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: Hamid was rather confused by this, and it wasn't through his own lack of musicality. It was because the style of music that he was used to playing would never have dreamed of playing 3/4 - because why would you do that? Because 4/4...

SANDERS: Is what you do.

COLLIER: ...Are where all the stories are being told, so why remove yourself from that?

So you know, I immediately learned that my construct of what was possible within his style of music didn't make sense to him. And so we disregarded the 3/4 thing. We stuck with 4/4.

Then there's a section of the song where it moves to 5/4, where I sing on my own. The style...

SANDERS: So 3/4 was too much for him. But 5/4 - he's like, yeah, sure.

COLLIER: No - well, kind of. I mean, I wanted to do the 5/4 thing, really, for myself.


COLLIER: And so the dialogue between the two of us was Hamid stays in 4/4, does the thing that only Hamid can do that I can't dream of doing, which is his whole thing. And then I move into 5/4. And that's when the orchestra come in. And so it's this...

SANDERS: Surprise.


SANDERS: (Laughter).

COLLIER: It's this amazing balance between this kind of five - this great big broad, kind of brushstroke orchestral ambling in this broad space and then Hamid's, like, streets of Morocco vibe in 4. The thing is crazy. I wrote a lot of this music for a concert that I was gifted at the Royal Albert Hall in London.


COLLIER: And they have a concert series called The BBC Proms. I flew Hamid over, and it was his first ever U.K. show.


COLLIER: He'd never been in London before.

SANDERS: It's a very fancy venue.

COLLIER: And we performed this song live with the Metropole Orkest and with Jules Buckley, the conductor...


COLLIER: ...Trying to figure out how to do these threes, fours and fives.


COLLIER: And it was such a special moment because having it on stage - no one had ever heard about Gnawa music before.


COLLIER: But check this out. This is "Everlasting Motion," the song that we performed in the Albert Hall, the song that we recorded in Casablanca and the result of a lifetime of Gnawa fascination...

SANDERS: I love it.

COLLIER: ...And a bridging of our two worlds.



HAMID EL KASRI: (Singing in Arabic).

COLLIER: So right now we're still in 3/4 - two, three, one, two, three...

SANDERS: (Vocalizing).

COLLIER: And now Hamid's melody starts, and we move into four, one.


EL KASRI: (Singing in Arabic).

COLLIER: The responses...


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing in Arabic).

EL KASRI: (Singing in Arabic).

COLLIER: And the words Hamid is singing about are about how, essentially, music is the force that can unite these nations and unite the people. In music, we are equal, which is simple enough but fundamentally important enough to describe exactly what this is. It's a meeting of our two worlds. He comes from an incredibly rich musical tradition which still, in the music world at large, is rather unknown.


COLLIER: For me, just as someone who's fascinated by his sound, I'm bringing to the table, I guess, my own understanding of rhythm and call and response and musical harmony, and so there's this sort of amalgamation of these different musical voices...

SANDERS: This is you now.

COLLIER: ...When we join together. This is me right now, yeah.


COLLIER: (Singing) The sky up above make the river flow, river flow, river flow.

EL KASRI: (Singing in Arabic).

COLLIER: And you got some orchestra things going on as well.


COLLIER: Here we are. We're going to move into 5/4, into the expanse of the orchestral plains.


COLLIER: May your love...

Five, one, two,


COLLIER: (Singing) Shine through the deepest, darkest moments.

(Vocalizing) four, five, one...


COLLIER: (Vocalizing).


COLLIER: (Singing) May your smile bring light to my deepest, darkest ocean. May your love shine through...

It kind of cleanses the palate, I suppose...


COLLIER: ...After the intensity.


COLLIER: You can't look away from Hamid singing.


COLLIER: I love - as you say, I love chopping and changing these...


COLLIER: ...Different scenarios, and my job as the producer/arranger/composer is to marry those spaces...


COLLIER: ...Successfully.


COLLIER: (Vocalizing).

SANDERS: How do you know when you've got just enough ideas in a song or one too many?

COLLIER: It's an excellent question. I think for me, it comes down to what the raw materials of the song are. And sometimes, in order to find the raw materials of a song, to figure out what the song that you're writing is actually about, for me, the best thing to do is to get every idea under the sun on paper out so I can consider them and I can judge them all against each other and I can figure out what feels right.

And so many times, when I write music, I will string together these different musical scenarios, sometimes from different parts of my life. There'll be old seeds mixed with new seeds of ideas, and the whole thing is joined together. And that becomes a string of different spaces that I try to organize, and then oftentimes, I'll lose a couple of sections. It'll be like, well, this will be good for this other song, or, this will be good for my pot of ideas that I may never look at again or whatever. For a song like "Everlasting Motion," I think it made sense to be ambling between these two different spaces. But I think in answer to your question, you feel it.


COLLIER: You feel when there's too much going on. That said, my idea of too much going on is usually far beyond most other people's idea of too much going on. I love songs with, like, six or seven or eight different things going on at once, and that's just me. But...


COLLIER: I think - yeah. My job is to present these different spaces, whether it's within one song or within four albums, in a way that doesn't feel disingenuous to the story I'm trying to tell, most importantly. And also, it's not just too much going on so that you can't enter the music and see yourself in it and approach it in a way where you can understand one space and stay with it long enough for it to move you, I suppose.

SANDERS: Yeah. That is so cool. Who in Top 40 land is doing that kind of thing for you right now?


SANDERS: A lot of ideas in a song...

COLLIER: That's such an interesting question.

SANDERS: Because I heard you talking about it, and, like, there have been a few rappers now that are, like, making songs that will feel like three songs in one, like Travis Scott, to a certain extent.

COLLIER: For sure. Yeah, he's definitely good at bridging these different gaps. I would say - I mean, not exactly Top 40, but somebody like Kendrick will always understand this.


COLLIER: And if you go to his iconic "To Pimp A Butterfly" record...


COLLIER: ...And just check out what's going on there, he's got - he's marrying all these different spaces, you know, from more traditional kind of trap zones to...

SANDERS: Like, straight-up jazz.

COLLIER: Yeah, to more jazz-related things to poems to spaces where there's no rhythm at all. There's just chords and harmony.


COLLIER: And then there's some things where it's real dark, and there's some things where it's real bright, and obviously, lyrically, he's moving within those spaces as well. But he's always had a very keen understanding of how to marry those spaces, and obviously, he has ventured into the Top 40 territory and has brought with him that wheelhouse...


COLLIER: ...That way of thinking. For me, that's also really important - just the idea of, you know, all of these different ideas and different philosophies and different theories and different elements of different musical areas coming together not in the name of technique, not in the name of complexity, even, but in the name of musical expression and in the name of joy. And I think for me, the alchemy of music, the wonder of music is that you can turn these different spaces into something which is coherent and tells a story, you know? And that can be as rich and multilayered and kaleidoscopic and incandescent as you like. It can also be really stripped down, you know, when I just play the guitar and sing or just play the piano and sing. And there are plenty of moments like that across "Djesse, Vol. 1" and "2" as well.


COLLIER: And for me, the only reason why I do music at all is because I feel it so much, and I want to explain those feelings in a way that's articulate. But, man, Gnawa meets hip-hop - it's happening. It's happening right now.


SANDERS: Thanks again to Jacob Collier for joining me in studio at NPR West and singing for me as well. You're hearing right now a cover that Jacob loves to sing, the classic song "You've Got A Friend" by Carole King. Jacob says he loves to sing it because his audience actually sings along to this song when he performs it.


COLLIER: (Singing) When you're down and troubled and you need some loving care...

SANDERS: His newest album "Djesse, Vol. 2" is out right now. "Vol. 3" and "4" are on the way very soon, and Jacob announced this week that he's doing a "Djesse" world tour next spring. Go look for it. He might be in your town. Special thanks to our engineer Josh Newell, who helped us record Jacob in the studio performing those songs for us. All right, listeners. We're back on Friday with our Weekly Wrap. Going to leave you with some more of Jacob's cover of "You've Got A Friend." Till next time, talk soon.


COLLIER: (Singing) I will be there to brighten up even your darkest night. You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I'll come running, running, running, running to see you again. Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you got to do is call. I'll be there. I'll be there. Yes, I will. You've got a friend. You've got a friend. Oh, if the sky above you grows dark, dark and full of clouds and that old north wind begins to blow, keep your head together and call my name out loud. Soon I'll be knocking on your door. You just call out my name, and you know, wherever I am, I'll come running, running, running, running, run, running out to see you again. Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you got to do is call. I will be there. Yes, I will. You've got a friend.

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