Jazz prodigy Jacob Collier: ‘Quincy Jones told me jazz is the classical music of pop’

When Jacob Collier completed his debut album a few months ago, the first people to hear the mastered version were his manager and his manager’s pal. The manager is Quincy Jones, and his pal was Herbie Hancock.

“I was excited and terrified in equal measure,” says Collier. “Luckily, within a few seconds, the pair of them were relaxing on the couch, getting into it. Then Herbie started hooting: ‘Oh man! What the hell was that chord? Wind it back!’”

Collier’s music is full of moments that elicit reactions such as this, particularly from musicians. He has recorded dozens of dazzling videos on YouTube: staggeringly complex versions of jazz and soul standards in which he multi-tracks himself singing multiple vocal harmonies and playing multiple instruments. Since posting the first film when he was 17, they have been viewed millions of times, earning him a call from an impressed Jones (who ended up signing him to his management company, Qwest), along with rapturous praise from artists as diverse as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, kd lang, David Crosby, Raphael Saadiq and Leslie Bricusse.

All Collier’s music is recorded in the small back room of his family home in Finchley, north London. It’s an Aladdin’s cave of musical instruments. Ukuleles, basses, tenor guitars, bouzoukis, banjos and mandolins hang from the ceiling. A Bengali ektara and a balafon stand atop an upright piano. A drum kit and a double bass are surrounded by tablas and djembeles. Synthesisers are piled on top of synthesisers. Collier, sitting cross-legged on the piano stool, is like a pig in clover.

“This room is my instrument,” he says. “If I want to produce a sound – a boom, a crash, the certain kind of reverb – I know exactly where to go.” A case in point is the album’s title track, a version of Brian Wilson’s In My Room. “The bass drum sound is me hitting the back of the double bass and pitch-shifting that sound down an octave. And the snare sound is me rolling a marble along these floorboards, and panning the sound left to right. So the breakbeat goes ‘BOOOOM… wooooOOOOOSHHH!!’”

Collier’s musical upbringing was unorthodox. His mother, who teaches at the Royal Academy of Music in London, would give violin lessons in the house, and Jacob would sit in. By the age of just four, he had abandoned his mum’s tuition and started exploring instruments on his own. Aged seven, he started arranging music on computer-sequencing programs. Before his voice broke, he had sung in several operas, including three high-profile productions of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. He taught himself to play piano, double bass and drums to an astonishingly high standard without any formal training until he left his local comprehensive school and earned a place at the Purcell School. Aged 18, he embarked upon a jazz piano course at the Royal Academy of Music, dropping out after only two years.

I talk to Quincy a lot, and one of his pearls of wisdom is that jazz is the classical music of pop
“It was fun, but I probably learned more by listening to music on the commute,” he says. “Each day, I’d listen to a new album. Everything by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Radiohead, Beck, Hendrix, Sting, Dylan, John Martyn. I’d work through every Beatles album, then read that Pet Sounds influenced Sgt Pepper, and move on to the Beach Boys, and then the a cappella bands that influenced Brian Wilson, such as the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo’s. Then I’d find out that Clare Fischer, who wrote arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s, worked with Michael Jackson and Prince in the 80s. And then I’d start working through Prince, and D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu, and J Dilla …

“The thing with music education is that it is good at teaching technique, but not texture,” he continues. “You only learn about that from listening to music and experimenting on your own. For me, it’s about feeling an instrument. For instance, I was given a double bass when I was 14. I’d never played one before, but I’d sung bass parts, I’d played basslines on the piano, I’d listened to bass players. I understood how the bass felt before I’d even picked one up. Same when I started drumming. My skill on those instruments needed to catch up with my understanding of them. It’s a backwards way of doing it; most people start learning an instrument, and their playing is governed by their technique. But, for me, I knew what sounds and grooves I wanted to create, I just had to find out ways to achieve them.”

To this end, Collier is now inventing his own instruments. Two years ago, his YouTube clips attracted the attention of Ben Bloomberg, a pioneering sound engineer at MIT Media Lab in Boston, who had previously worked with Björk and Imogen Heap. Since then, Bloomberg has become the Tonto’s Expanding Headband to Collier’s Stevie Wonder, devising, among other things, the Harmonizer, a synth that enables Collier to sing harmonies live by sampling his voice in real time. It’s become the centrepiece of his gigs, which combine live looping, audacious harmonies and a multimedia show, in which multiple Jacob Colliers scurry around a screen, moving from instrument to instrument.

Collier is still only 21 but his is the kind of talent that one could imagine being employed in dozens of settings, from orchestral arranger to cutting-edge R&B producer. Rather like his manager and mentor. “I talk to Quincy a lot, and one of his pearls of wisdom is that ‘Jazz is the classical music of pop’. As someone who started out arranging for Sinatra and Ella and Sarah Vaughan and ended up producing Thriller, he’s shown that you can apply a knowledge of jazz harmony to pop. For me, jazz is an understanding of music, rather than an end in itself.

“But there are so many things I want to do. I’d like to make an album of collaborations, where people will throw me in at the deep end. There are a whole bunch of instruments I’d like to build. I want to make more beats. I want to write orchestral music. I want to get a group of singers together and sing William Byrd songs. Most of all, I want to practise all the instruments I play,” he says, gesturing around his home studio, “and actually get good at them.”