Public Radio for Alaska's Bristol Bay
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jacob Collier on the four-album project 'Djesse'


What happens when a prodigy grows up?


SHAPIRO: Jacob Collier is finding the answer to that question. He burst onto the scene as a gifted teenager with YouTube videos where he played more than a dozen instruments and recorded all the vocals from his childhood bedroom in London.


JACOB COLLIER: (Singing) Thing.

SHAPIRO: He won Grammys for each of his first four albums. And earlier this month, he played piano to accompany the legend Joni Mitchell on stage at this year's awards ceremony.


JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) I've looked at love from both sides now.

SHAPIRO: His new record is the culmination of a four-album journey he's been on since 2018. It's called "Djesse Vol. 4," and it opens with a song called "100,000 Voices," featuring recordings of something Collier does in his live performances.


COLLIER: So over the last couple of years, something has begun to happen or has grown as a format of music creation, which is - I wouldn't exaggerate by saying it's redefined how I think about life.

SHAPIRO: Wow. That's a lot.

COLLIER: It is a lot. So I've always been interested in blurring the line between sort of performer and audience member. And what I began to do in the last few years has been conducting my audiences in song. One of my favorite ways to do this is to split the audience into between three and six different parts. As I say, I give the middle group F. I go, ooh. OK, you sing this note. And then the group to the left, I'll give them C - ooh. And the group to the right, I'll give them A - ooh. Where that's an F major chord, delicious, nutritious...

SHAPIRO: Delicious.

COLLIER: ...F major chord. And then so from there, the kind of magic of the audience choir is to guide those notes to different notes.


COLLIER: But without saying a word, without explaining what's going on, I look at the group of people, and I point up or down. And there's this amazing process that happens where the audience kind of realizes how to move, and they realize that they already know how to move, even though I didn't teach them.

SHAPIRO: That's what amazes me - is they get the interval. Like, you don't have to say, go up a third or go up a step.


SHAPIRO: Like, somehow there's this communication that happens.

COLLIER: Right. Right. It's very much like magic. It's certainly the closest thing to magic I've ever encountered.


COLLIER: And, you know, it's an amazing thing, I think, as an artist to begin to realize what you're chasing, what your North Star is. It's not immediately clear when you start. But what I've realized with this album and the process of conducting all these audiences, and then the process of recording all these audiences from all around the world and putting them all on this record, all on "Djesse Vol. 4," is just how much I love the human voice and how much of my fascination with music orbits it.


SHAPIRO: You say that the experience of making these four albums has helped you figure out your purpose, your mission, your sound. But this is not a narrow album. This is a sprawling album - in genre, in voices, in styles. Can you articulate what makes something sound like a Jacob Collier piece of music?

COLLIER: Oh, gosh. That's a big old question. Well, I do think about joy a lot. And I think joy can sometimes be misunderstood. I think some people think of joy as, like, being really glad and really happy all the time. I think joy is just about being alive. It's about waking up to what's happening around you and absorbing it and releasing it. And, you know, there are songs on this album that are, like, crazy joyous anthems. And then there are songs on this album which are really kind of slow to evolve and have an inherent stillness to them. But I think all of them have that quality of - absorbent of life. And, you know, some of these songs are like my sonic diary. You know, I've traveled so much around the world in the last few years. One of the things I'm most proud of with "Djesse Vol. 4" is that it features acclaimed and beloved artists from every continent. It's an amazing thing to get to absorb all these different stories and masters at work.


COLLIER: (Singing) Waiting, I'm patient. In keeping, I'm wanting more.

SHAPIRO: The album includes people who you have met over the course of your travels, and also one person who you've known literally your entire life, your mother.


SHAPIRO: ...Who is a renowned violinist in her own right, Suzie Collier.


SHAPIRO: She appears on "Box of Stars Pt. 2" because the more-than-five-minute "Box of Stars Pt. 1" just couldn't contain it all, I guess.

COLLIER: No, I guess not. Yeah. So Suzie Collier not only plays the violin, but she's also an astonishing conductor. She conducted all of the orchestra on this album. Some of my first-ever musical memories were watching her rouse music into existence. And when you see someone raise their hand, raise their eyes and throw energy around a room like that, it never leaves you.


COLLIER: And I knew with this album, you know, that she was the only person alive who could really - who really - who would really understand how to bring those colors out of an orchestra.


SHAPIRO: The last song of the album, the last track of this entire four-album project is called "World O World," and it returns us to the human voice.


THE AEOLIANS: (Singing) World, oh, world, you've been my home.

SHAPIRO: It's an a cappella choral piece, and compared to everything that came before it, it feels so traditional and conservative. Like, it reminds me of Aaron Copeland's interpretation of traditional American folk tunes. Why did you want to end the journey here?

COLLIER: So when I was about 19 years old - so about 10 years ago - I went to hear a choir sing in London. They called The Aeolians of Oakwood University, and I left that room a different person from when I walked in. And to my absolute delight, they'd seen some of my YouTube videos, and they knew who I was. And so the conductor said, you know, one day, you should write us a piece, Jacob. And I sort of thought, gosh, I don't know if I ever could. You know, that's a very tall order. And so it took me five years to kind of muster up the courage to do it. And one of the reasons I love it the most is that it's not me singing. I'm not on that piece at all. The first song on "Djesse Vol. 1" is actually the same. I'm not singing in that one either. And so I like the idea of bookending the whole adventure with the sound of voices, but not my voices, feels somehow accurate to all the things that I've learned.


SHAPIRO: Jacob, you've been described as a prodigy for so long. And you're going to turn 30 in August.


SHAPIRO: So what do you think happens when a prodigy grows up?

COLLIER: Well, it's an interesting question. In a sense, if you describe someone as a prodigy or a genius, it's not necessarily helpful to the person, but it's also not necessarily helpful to you. It's almost like saying, here's a person who is outside my understanding of what's possible or normal. And so I'm going to just let this person do their own thing and kind of not meet them in a place.

I think - over the last 10 years, I think I've really sought the root of what music is for, which I think to me feels far less to do with something being very fascinating or interesting or virtuosic or complex and anything like that. And it just comes down to, in a sense, something being very, very simple, which is just the foundational - kind of the root of being alive, the root of being human, which actually, if you look at it closely, is deeply complex, you know? But I also think it's deeply simple. So, you know, I suppose I can only really speak from my own experience. I'm growing up as a human, as we all are. And I still feel like I'm just getting started, honestly.


CAMILO: (Singing) Siempre, siempre, siempre.

SHAPIRO: Jacob Collier, it is always such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

COLLIER: Likewise. Thanks ever so much.

SHAPIRO: The final installment of his four-album project, "Djesse Vol. 4," is out now.


CAMILO: (Singing) La-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la en mi corazon. La-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la en mi corazon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.