Millennial Mozart: The boundless creative genius of Jacob Collier
If we're to celebrate all forms of human endeavor here at New Atlas, then I don't want to go a minute longer without featuring a young man who seems to be pushing against every boundary of music, all at once.
The ferocious intellect and seemingly endless creativity of 25-year-old Londoner Jacob Collier is no secret to hardcore music geeks, but with a swag of Grammies under his arm and a growing list of big-name collaborations mixed in with his relentless recording output, he's poised to bring highbrow musical ideas into the mainstream like nobody I've seen in my lifetime.
Musical genius is an overused term, but beneath a cheerful, home-spun aesthetic peppered with fancy pants, bed hair and funny hats, Collier ticks nearly every box you could possibly think of to qualify for the title.
His understanding of the maths of music, and how it relates to emotional experiences in a listener, is pretty much peerless as far as I can tell. He has the rare gift of perfect pitch, but to a degree that lets him pinpoint the percentile spaces between notes as easily as the "notes" themselves.
I got my first hint of this through his #IHarmU videos, in which a 20-year old Jacob, already a widely renowned muso's muso, would grab short videos of his fans singing, in or out of tune and time, then fill them out with outrageously fun, complex and varied musical arrangements, editing it all together into short videos. This article will be an avalanche of examples you can dip into, and here's the first: the fourth IharmU compilation. You'll get the idea very quickly.
Depending on how much of that video you watched, you'll recognize another powerful string to Collier's bow. On top of being an extraordinary singer (if you can handle his odd and breathy tone), he's a monster multi-instrumentalist. Mainly self-taught, Collier is a highly inventive jazz pianist of the highest order, as well as a wickedly talented guitarist, bassist, double-bassist, percussionist and drummer.
To illustrate his proficiency at picking up and mastering new instruments, let's take the example of the Harpejji, a strange and wonderful electric hybrid between a piano and a guitar, with 24 strings tuned a tone apart and a full fretboard. Within a week of encountering it, Collier was making seriously beautiful music, and while I can't find an embeddable version of the song I'm looking for, this more recent interpretation of Norah Jones' Dont Know Why will give you an idea:
His 2015 debut album In My Room featured a cascade of Jacobs on every instrument, with battalions of additional Jacobs adding lead vocals and harmonies. In order to tour this show, Collier decided to take his favorite collaborator on the road: himself. He would fill the stage with instruments, and use incredibly sophisticated live-looping technology to build up extraordinarily rich soundscapes and songs, often playing a different instrument with each hand while singing.
I know a little about this kind of looping tech; my brother and I ran one of Australia's better a cappella acts for nearly 20 years, and at one point we came up with the idea of using Ableton Live to pre-plan entire-song loop sessions so we could turn four voices into 50, complete with live effects. The results were sonically pretty cool, and as far as we knew, nobody else had done it at the time, but the process was absolutely brutal.
Collier, of course, took things up several levels, allowing plenty of scope for improvisation and crowd work. He worked with MIT PhD Ben Bloomberg to create a vocal harmonizer device that would allow him to sing complex jazz harmonies all by himself, complete with live video representations of what he was doing, in between running back and forth between instruments like a mad scientist.
His 2018 TED performance is a fine example:
Collier's latest recording project is the Djesse series, originally intended to be four full records in the space of 18 months. This timeline has blown out somewhat, but I think we can give the guy a break, given that he's not just doing all the composing and playing the vast majority of the instruments on all his tracks, he's also rolled the sleeves up to become his own next-level producer and sound engineer.
The story goes that while Collier was an explosively talented 19 year old, production god Quincy Jones rang him up and offered to take him under his wing, produce him and make him the next Michael Jackson. Collier refused, saying "can we just be friends?" Handing over creative control of any part of the process, he figured, would rob him of opportunities to learn, develop, and most importantly, create.
As a result, Collier has become a grandmaster-level Logic engineer. And it's just as well; it's hard to imagine anyone else who could keep up with the torrent of ideas flooding out of this kid's head. His songs have exploded out to regularly contain literally hundreds of simultaneous, effects-laden audio tracks, to the point where Apple has upgraded its latest Mac Pro workstations because their processing limitations were putting a ceiling on him.
Never one to shy away from technology or exposing his process, Collier now frequently live-streams video as he writes, records and plays in Logic, and will often post multi-hour long YouTube live marathons in which he talks through every part of the creative, inspirational, mechanical and electronic means he's used to build his songs, switching between cameras and live-mixing the video as he goes. Every one is a complete masterclass for singers, instrumentalists, songwriters, producers and engineers, given away for free in his spare time.
Jump into any point in this one to get an idea; he keeps no secrets. Secrets are for people who are scared somebody might steal their ideas, and one gets the sense Collier might be delighted if somebody else could take some of his raging torrent of ideas away and execute them so he could get on with the rest.
It's worth taking a peek into some of the really geeky stuff. For music nerds, Collier is an endless rabbit hole of this kind of thing, but I'll limit this bit to a single example involving microtonality. I mentioned above that Collier's perfect pitch isn't limited to the keys on the piano; he's got a first-principles, physics-level understanding of harmony – and the insanely tuned-in ear not just to hear things that are five-hundredths of a semitone sharp or flat, but to sing them and create with them.
Musical notes are, of course, simply frequency waves in air, with arbitrary frequencies given names. Within this infinitely divisible spectrum, there are as many shades of G as there are shades of blue in the rainbow. Chords are the harmonic interactions between these frequencies, and instruments like the piano give musicians a palette of notes to paint with. But in the choice of pitches, there is always compromise, because there's no way to divide the scale such that every note you play can be perfectly in tune with the harmonics of every other note.
Thus, as any good barbershop singer knows, a major third should be sung 14 cents (14/100ths of a semitone) flatter than it sounds on a piano tuned to equal temperament if you want it to really "ring," maximizing the maths of the harmonic series to create perfect overtones. A dominant seventh needs to be a whole 31 cents, or nearly a third of a semitone, flat, to "ring" in the same way. Get it right, and it'll sound much more magically in tune than a piano can, unless you tune the whole piano separately for each chord you play.
So much is well known, and such maths problems are an endless source of visible delight to Collier, who sees them as further opportunities for creativity. One of his most famous pieces to date is the following arrangement of Henry Mancini's Moon river, an a cappella tour de force in which upwards of 200 Jacobs present an attention-deficit cavalcade of harmonic stylings on the way to an absolutely spine-chilling finish:
The first time I heard that tune, I was lying down with my eyes shut, and it made me so dizzy trying to keep up with what he was doing that I had to literally hold onto something. But in the Logic session breakdown, he talks about how some of his chord movements in this song use the kind of microtonal tuning we talked about above to sneakily modulate into half-sharp keys that can't be played on a properly tuned piano.
He does it by using those bits of harmonically-correct sharpness and flatness to create chord changes that "add up" to quarter-tone 50-cent shifts in the average pitch of the chords while the listener is completely unaware that anything weird is happening. Ethan Hein breaks this kind of technique down beautifully on his blog. The end result can best be measured in the number of hairs raising on your arms; it's an unbelievably nerdy concept used to exceptional emotional effect.
This is just one example; as a former drummer, I see the same level of exploration going on with his use of polyrhythm, tempo, odd time signatures, "drunk" subdivisions and the slithery spaces in between the standard divisions of a beat. Whatever small slice of music you geek out on, he's sure to have something for you. The point isn't that he's doing any one particular uber-geeky thing, it's that he seems to be doing all of them, trying to push boundaries wherever he can find one.
Naturally, that extends to video production, such as the 16-minute multi-Jacob "live" concert he put together for NPR's Tiny Desk Home concert series last week. Take a moment to think about the degree of planning that went into this:
Personally, I found a lot of his stuff absolutely unlistenable to begin with; nobody likes a show-off, and after attending one of his shows a few years ago I walked out feeling like I'd just been beaten about the face with a cacophony of genius. It was exhausting and overbearing and just not fun. But I've come to see him as a volcano of ideas that can't and shouldn't be plugged, a unique and frighteningly evolved human being with abilities far beyond the rest of us, that needs to be given limitless space to explore, because he just might pull the rest of us forward with him.
And as my personal views have softened, Collier has begun to reach out to wider audiences, filtering his hyperactive imagination through a pop music lens that has made his recent Djesse Vol. 2 a lot more approachable. He's teamed up with a series of performers from Daniel Caesar, Kimbra and Coldplay to Snarky Puppy and Herbie Hancock, to Hans Zimmer, Take 6, Pharrell Williams, Ty Dolla $ign and Steve Vai. Each of these has broadened his church, and it's my selfish hope that Collier will take his endless vocabulary and boundless ideas to the top of the charts by whatever means necessary, touching as many people as he can along the way.
This is a generational talent to my mind and many others, a combination of savage intellect, explosive energy, broad appetites and fearsome productivity wrapped up in a grounded, generous, open, whimsical and quirky human being who feels like he's only just getting started. I doubt I'm telling anyone who's followed Collier anything they don't know, but for those who haven't, here's a very deep rabbit hole to explore.
The worst part about writing an article like this is the utter certainty that Collier could do it fifty times better himself if he put his mind to it – but on the other hand, despite his brilliance, Collier himself never seems to strive for a perfect aesthetic, and perhaps there's a lesson in that, too.
Jacob Collier's upcoming Djesse Vol 3 record is due out August 14.
More information: jacobcollier.com