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Grammy-Nominated Artist Jacob Collier Defies Genre With 'Joyous' Sound

Jacob Collier at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
Jacob Collier at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

The Grammys all come down to the most anticipated announcement for Album of the Year.

Eight artists, including Taylor Swift and Post Malone, are in the running for the most coveted prize of music’s biggest night. But one artist on the list you may or may not have heard of is 26-year-old British musician Jacob Collier.

The award-winning artist has been dubbed a lot of things — a music phenom and a jazz prodigy, to name a few. Although he’s quite familiar with the Grammy-winning club, he says having his 2020 album “Djesse Vol. 3” nominated for the prestigious Album of the Year feels “utterly surreal.”

“Honestly, an Album of the Year nomination is just bananas,” he says.

It was never about winning, he says, but rather making music that brings him happiness. He’s consistently dreamed of assembling “colorful,” “joyous” sounds since childhood.

“I’ve been sponging up all sorts of different musical influences and different sounds and genres from all over the world since I was very, very small,” he says.

Watch on YouTube.

“Djesse Vol. 3” is the third part of a quadruple album. Collier’s full collection has been described as representing different parts of the day.

Each album is unique in feeling and sound, he says. “Djesse Vol. 1” explores orchestral music and boasts a choir, and in the second album, Collier says he dives into the folk and acoustic space. “Djesse Vol. 3” explores electronic sounds and digital manipulation within pop and R&B.

“Djesse Vol. 4” is a blank space — for now.

“There’s about 30 or 40 collaborators spread across all four albums, from choirs and orchestras to Northumbrian pipes players to rock guitar legends to R&B singers, hip-hop artists, rappers and trappers and folk fiddlers,” he notes. “I’ve always been a bit of a shapeshifter.”

A master of shapeshifting, Collier follows his goosebumps as he takes risks to produce a precise balance of sound.

“When I get goosebumps, I feel like I’ve done something right,” he says.

It’s easy to overthink what works while genre-blending, he says. One of his artistic challenges lies in painting a sound that feels the very best to him.

“For me, I’ve been amassing all these different flavors for quite some time. And in the creation of them, I begin to understand them slightly better,” he says.

His first major appearance to listeners worldwide — what he describes as creating a music career “by accident” — was through social media in 2013. At 19 years old, he posted a YouTube video of himself performing an arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s hit “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.”

Watch on YouTube.

The video turned out to be a game changer. Iconic names in the music industry began reaching out, including legendary record producer Quincy Jones and celebrated pianist Herbie Hancock.

Before eyes and ears paid him any attention, he’d already “fallen in love with this process of arranging,” he says, “which is basically where you take a song that exists already and then you kind of twist it up and make it into something that is brand new.”

It was a “crazy moment” and felt “out of the blue” when famous artists began taking notice of his work, he says.

Quincy Jones, whose career in the music industry spans decades, told Billboard he had been waiting for someone like Collier. “I’ve never heard anybody like that before,” Jones says.

Jones, “a maverick” and “gentle giant,” has focused his music on global human connection and “the balance of science and soul,” Collier says.

Learning from Jones has taught the young performer to take a leap of faith in himself and his craft. Jones told Collier to lean into his imperfections and imagination “to tell the most compelling stories that you can,” Collier says.

Watch on YouTube.

Shapeshifting artists are rare because the music industry reinforces genres for their own selling power, he says. As a “staunch non-believer” in genres, he thinks categorizing sound ultimately hurts the artist.

“It’s a way of degrading something’s infinity in a certain kind of way by saying this is all this is,” he explains.

The industry is evolving to defy genres, though, he says. It’s a change that he’s enthusiastic to be a part of.

Collier is working on the fourth and final installation of his “Djesse” project. While he can’t give away too much, he says he’s bringing back the orchestra and the choir and mixing in parts of pop — all in celebration of how music breaks down walls between humans.

“I think music can do that. I think it can reach into the hearts of people in a way that nothing else quite can,” he says. “And I can try and give myself as many goosebumps as possible.”


Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.