grammys 2021

Jacob Collier Is Proud to Shake Up the Grammy Nominations

“Something like the Grammys is tricky, because for it to function, you need to have these boxes, and you need to have these labels … But it it makes a decreasing amount of sense to say, ‘This belongs here. That belongs there.’” Photo: Jacob Collier/YouTube

If Jacob Collier wins an award at this year’s Grammys, the room he’s currently sitting in will deserve as much thanks as his team or collaborators. There, in the music room of his family home in London, the 26-year-old polymath musician began his career with split-screen covers on YouTube, arranging every part and playing every instrument; it’s where he has recorded and produced every one of his four albums since, from 2016’s fittingly titled In My Room (he covers the namesake Beach Boys song) to 2020’s Djesse Vol. 3. And now, with nowhere else to go during the pandemic, it’s where he has been holed up again, filming innovative live videos featuring multiples of himself and writing for SZA. “It’s crazy how little you really need to be creative these days,” he says, from the room where it all originally happened, on a December evening. He is staring at the four Grammys he’s won in previous years, all earned in the arrangement categories, where he has yet to lose, for songs made right at home. Weeks earlier, he was sitting in that same spot when he learned he was nominated for three more Grammys — not only another Best Arrangement award but Best R&B Performance for the song “All I Need,” with Ty Dolla $ign and Mahalia, and Album of the Year for Djesse Vol. 3.

The Album of the Year nomination was a surprising and massive feat for Collier — far from a household name like Taylor Swift or Dua Lipa, with an album that never charted on “The Billboard 200.” Djesse Vol. 3 is the third in a four-part series centered on Collier’s interests in harmony, global music, and collaboration. It’s the most accessible of the three, influenced by funk, R&B, and jazz, with a stacked list of features that also includes Daniel Caesar and Jessie Reyez. Yet while the album may be his favorite of the series, even he doesn’t know how it wound up with a nomination in the Grammys’ top category. Maybe, he says, “the musicians of the world find value in somebody who’s pushing it forward and stretching it in these weird directions.” But he’s not stressing over the reason. “As far as I’m concerned,” Collier adds, “I just make the music that I want to hear.”

Most forecasters and fans have counted out Collier, still a relative unknown in the U.S., for Album of the Year. But in a category full of left-field choices, from Grammy favorite Black Pumas to Coldplay (whose album Collier contributed vocals to), he could parlay years of industry respect into a trophy after counting Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock as early fans. Win or not, Collier hopes the Recording Academy’s embrace of a musician like him can further open the door for genre-bending, independent-minded artists to be recognized for their music as music. (So far, he has continued to fit more neatly into the Grammys’ genre confines than someone like Brittany Howard, who has songs nominated in three separate genres this year.) “It’s an exciting feeling to have been so thoroughly uncompromising and to be in a position like this,” he says. He’s charming and thoughtful as he discusses his career and position in the music industry — and if you’re still not convinced he belongs in Album of the Year, he just may be able to change your mind.

Since the album you’re nominated for is the third in a series, how would you catch someone up on the Djesse project?
I dreamed up this quadruple album, which essentially takes me on a journey through all these different parts of the musical landscapes around the world that I love and am passionate about and places me in the center of this big, collaborative process. And each of the albums is a completely different universe from the next. Djesse Vol. 1 is a huge, broad acoustic space, so it’s filled with an orchestra primarily, and there were choirs in there too. Djesse Vol. 2 was much more of a folk-based acoustic space. Djesse Vol. 3, which was always the one I was most excited about, embraces the funk more than the others. So it has lots of elements of R&B, and there’s some soul in there too, and also some crazy digital, electronic influences.

It seems like the collaborations really blew up on this album. How did you get everyone onboard?
I have to pinch myself sometimes still. I met Daniel Caesar more than a year ago. He was doing a session at Abbey Road Studios in London, and he’d been messaging me on Twitter a little bit, and he said, “Hey, Jacob, why don’t you come down and sing some stuff on this record?,” which I did on his [2019] album CASE STUDY 01. Since then, we kept in touch, so we got together and wrote “Time Alone With You.” I’d say the same is true for a lot of these people — I’ve made some friends over the years, and one thing leads to another. Ty Dolla $ign, I’ve been jamming with this guy for three years, but we’ve never actually sat down to write a song. I said, “Look, Ty, I’ve got this song [“All I Need”], it’s nearly finished, and I think it needs some secret sauce.” He sent me this crazy video back of all these tracks he’d been recording and all these vocal layers. I completely geeked out.

Some of these people I’ve never worked with before. With Kiana [Ledé], it was very much just me DMing her, saying, “Yo, you’re so spectacular. Would you be up for making something together? Here’s a song I wrote.” I wrote a big list of musicians I wanted to collaborate with at the beginning of the process, and it’s been astounding to me just how many of those have come into fruition.

You’ve won four Grammys in the arrangement categories. How would you explain that part of what you do?
A lot of the skills that I learned about how to produce music were based in arrangements. I made these YouTube videos from home with multiple Jacobs playing different instruments. I would take a song that I loved, like Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,” and I would take the melody and transform it. I would put it in a different context. I would change up the groove, or I would reharmonize it, pick some stranger chords to go with it, or I would add some different flavors. I did that particular song, and in the middle, it gets kind of Brazilian feeling and then there’s some crazy jazz chords in the earlier part of it, and it gets kind of funky at the end and then I’m singing in this extended barbershop harmony. Really, all an arranger is is somebody who takes the materials of something which exists in music and organizes them in a unique way.

That approach seems to influence how you blend genres. It was interesting to see “All I Need” pop up in the R&B category. How did you decide to submit there?
I guess that song made sense for R&B just because Ty Dolla $ign is such a giant, and so is Mahalia. Up until this point, I haven’t really written something that’s eligible for that world, but so many of my musical heroes growing up were in that world. You take a Stevie, or someone with that kind of voice and style, that has that pocket and that harmonic language — all of those pillars were very strong for me growing up.

Did you submit the album as a whole in a specific genre as well?
This is a difficult thing to come up with, [laughs] but I believe the album, in the end, was, on average, R&B. [Editor’s note: Per the Recording Academy, an entry in Best R&B Album must contain “at least 51 percent playing time of new R&B recordings.”] I am a strong nonbeliever in genre, as you can probably imagine. It’s so 20th century. So many of my favorite musicians combine forces rather than define forces, and I just think this is the time. The only people whose lives are made easier with people put in genre boxes are music-industry folks, like people who put playlists together or who write press articles. Something like the Grammys is tricky, because for it to function, you need to have these boxes, and you need to have these labels. But in terms of the music, which drives the industry forward, I feel like it makes a decreasing amount of sense to say, “This belongs here. That belongs there.”

As you were celebrating your Album of the Year nomination — rightfully so — there was this other conversation going on at the same time about snubs. The Weeknd was a big one, but it felt like this year, there was more talk about snubs than usual. How did you take that?
I create music from a place that is in some ways separated from pop culture, in the sense that I don’t really follow very closely, you know, who’s up for Album of the Year, who are the likelies, who are the favorites. I saw a lot of headlines about the Weeknd, and to be completely honest, I was flabbergasted that he wasn’t on the list, seeing the impact that that crazy album has had. I think that regardless of the Grammys, art stands for itself always anyway, and that guy has changed culture. You’ve got a system with the Grammys where a few people get to vote in the world, and those people are a particular set of people, and it’s always going to be full of surprises because that’s how the world works. As far as where I stand within that, I’m just honored to be a part of it. It is important to recognize that a Grammy is not the be-all and end-all for a musician. I think it’s far more important to make music that’s meaningful, and the Weeknd has done that and so much more.

Your press release said that Djesse Vol. 3 is the only Album of the Year nomination not to have charted on “The Billboard 200.” What’s your case that the album of the year can be something that is still under people’s radar?
I tend to take music at face value. And I would hope, for something like the Grammys, even in a category as grand as Album of the Year, that people do the same. It’s easy to say, “We have our metrics here for what makes music successful, and here’s a guy who’s nominated for Album of the Year who doesn’t really fit the mold.” But I think that there is a different community that’s not the music industry that’s actually just the musicians, who listen to music from a different perspective and think about what it sounds like rather than what it stands for. Popularity and success, these are the traditional ways of measuring something, but I think that there are ways in which you can understand music, or you can be stretched by music or challenged by it or excited by it, that are to do with qualities that the music may hold, which stands alone in their own right.

What does Djesse Vol. 4 look like, form-wise, for you?
It’s morphing every day. I embarked upon the mission of a quadruple album with a vague idea of what they’d all sound like, and every time I’ve arrived at actually finishing an album, it’s always changed slightly, which is part of the joy of the process. I think the idea with Vol. 4 will be to somehow bring them together. I’d love to think of it as a celebration — a celebration of all music, from all walks of the earth, with all of these extraordinary musicians and choirs, orchestras, rock guitar legends, folk pipe players, banjo players, R&B, rappers, trappers, you name it.

It’s been this fire that’s kept me going for the last few years, and I love the challenge of it. It felt impossible when I dreamed it up, but it’s been such a privilege to see it come to life a little bit and to work with so many amazing people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jacob Collier Is Proud to Shake Up the Grammy Nominations