Jacob Collier – the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist YouTube sensation

Jacob Collier

Jacob Collier is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist whose YouTube videos have gained him a huge online audience. His most recent video is a cover of Michael Jackson's 'PYT'. Jazzwise is always on the lookout for the brightest young musical talents, and Mike Flynn spoke the Collier about his musical passions and aspirations back in December 2013 just as he was about to truly take off...

When it comes to comments left on most YouTube videos, there’s a tendency towards the puerile, inane or insane. Yet few self-produced videos get messages like; “The most talented kid on earth today,” from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter k.d. lang, or “blown away” from guitar icon Steve Vai. But these are attributed to the extraordinary work of Jacob Collier, a 19-year-old Londoner currently studying jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music who has clocked over a million views since he began uploading his own distinctive self-produced videos just two years ago. Filmed, edited and recorded with a single SM58 microphone and his laptop, the videos feature six Colliers each singing baritone, bass, tenor, treble and soprano vocal parts alongside myriad instruments particularly acoustic and electric bass, piano, melodica, percussion and drums.

His hybrid style is equal parts post-classical Take 6 gospel rhapsodies, Django Bates-ian melodic whimsy, Zawinul-esque keyboard solos with a dash of soul and dubstep on the side. Initially posting radical re-workings of such traditional fare as ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ and a gloriously off-piste re-harmonisation of Jerome Kern’s ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’, his breakthrough version of ‘Pure Imagination’ from the 1971 Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film was the one that went viral in a big way. Another video is a six-minute a capella opus that takes Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’ as its starting point but soon spins out into a wild polyrhythmic latin jazz suite of Loose Tubes-ian proportions with Collier playing everything bar the kitchen sink. Yet amidst the complexity there’s a striking clarity and precision to his vocals while the multi-layered ideas flow with an effortless groove that’s as infectious as it is impressive.

We meet in a busy pub near the Royal Academy of Music where he’s studying jazz piano, to talk about his wholly contemporaneous route into today’s ever-changing music scene. In person Collier is a ball of youthful energy, speaking quickly as he unravels his packed, albeit short, musical life so far. He tells me it’s the first time he’s left his home studio in two days, as he’s deep in production of the aforementioned Stevie Wonder epic. I wonder if he ever expected the kind of response his videos would create especially ‘Pure Imagination’?

“That was just the craziest 48 hours. I just pressed ‘go’ and then went to sleep. When I woke up I had 200 messages in my inbox, and it just exploded exponentially. At two o’clock that afternoon Peter Erskine sent me a message saying ‘I love your stuff’, Liane Carroll got in touch, so did Jonathan Kreisberg, Will Vinson all these incredible people I’ve admired for a long time – and then to top it all that evening I’d just had supper and went to check it again – and looked in my email and there was a message from Pat Metheny. I thought it was a mate having a laugh, but it was all written in lowercase and he said ‘Hi Jacob, I really love ‘Pure Imagination’, you’ve really taken it up a notch and I’m a huge fan… it would be great to great to meet you in New York sometime.’ I just sprinted up the road and back after that! It was crazy but so gratifying.”

With his mother Susan being a highly respected music teacher, violinist and conductor, music for Jacob has always been a way of life; “I’m the eldest of three children – Sophie and Ella are my two younger sisters and they are amazing, we sing Bach chorales together as family – it’s just so much fun.” Refusing his mother’s offer of piano lessons in favour of working things out himself, he did however take singing lessons from the age of eight, and by the time he was 14 he attained the highest mark in the country for his Grade 8 singing.

The seeds for his adventurously wideangle harmonies were sown through formative experiences performing both Britten’s ‘The Turn Of The Screw’ and Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ in Spain, Italy and London when still a school boy, saying of Britten’s music, “the harmonies are so, so cool that my mind was shattered outwards.” As his concepts began to form he had private lessons with Gwilym Simcock (“his playing is like Britten harmonies with improvisation,” says Collier) and Kit Downes (who first showed him how to improvise) to further his knowledge of both the piano and indeed jazz, and it was the latter pianist who suggested he audition for the Purcell School Of Music (that Downes himself attended), which he did, before auditioning for and attaining his current place at RAM.

With such an organic buzz online both Universal and Sony approached Jacob with the offer of a record deal. Yet it’s a sign of the times that he’s chosen to sign a ‘demo’ deal with Universal that funds some new recordings but doesn’t tie him to the label, allows him to retain all the rights to his music and complete artistic freedom. They clearly need him more than he needs them. His overriding concern now is that he’s allowed the time to develop and progress. All of which will be documented on his website and whatever comes of his recording deal he intends to create a solo multi-voice, multi-instrumental live show and keep pushing the boundaries with more videos. Session work is also coming his way including a featured vocal on the new Jason Rebello album. But for all this he remains excited about harnessing people power to further his music: “The whole YouTube thing is really eclectic you get tons of different types of people getting in touch and it’s all good if you can balance it and it doesn’t overwhelm you – it’s just so joyful. The thing now is just to do more and more stuff, and things could go like this, or like this,” he says gesturing upwards and sideways. “I definitely don’t want to close any doors I just want to keep opening them.”

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