January 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Jacob Collier counts Lizzo and Grammy history on his side

Like many other twentysomething musicians today, Jacob Collier has spent 2020 barricaded in his childhood home.

The 26-year-old singer-composer and multi-instrumental polymath decided early on to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic at his mother’s place in London, where he’s passed the days in their home office and music studio, working on tracks and slipping back into the routines of youth.

But unlike other homebound late-millennial peers, he got the news in that very room that he’d been nominated for album of the year at January’s Grammy awards.

“It’s been ridiculous,” Collier said a few days after “Djesse Vol. 3” came up for the top nomination. “I was just looking at the computer screen in here watching the nominations come in on the livestream, and I was just interested to know what was going down. I was blown away to have already gotten two nominations, so I was wondering who got the big ones. It was a heart-stopping moment to see it and go, ‘Wait, that’s actually me.’ I was flabbergasted.”

Collier, by his own admission, is a surprise pick for an album of the year nomination, alongside the likes of Taylor Swift and Post Malone. Though signed to Decca/Interscope, and managed by legendary producer Quincy Jones’ firm, he didn’t see this coming.

Collier, who is also up for R&B performance and arrangement, instruments and vocals, is no stranger to the Grammy stage. He has four career wins already, a perfect win-loss record since his 2016 debut, “In My Room.” His velveteen tenor and blend of old-soul balladry and YouTube-friendly loops of live arrangements straddles generations. He’ll cover a standard like “Moon River” but splice his takes together for a clip that plays well on TikTok.

While he’s made waves on Billboard’s jazz charts (hitting No. 3 with his debut LP), performed with Hans Zimmer at Coachella, played his own night at the BBC Proms and this summer recorded an eye-popping NPR Tiny Desk concert where he played every instrument, he’s far from a pop star in the U.S.

But just ask The Weeknd: The Grammys can surprise even seasoned pros. Collier’s a longshot to actually win album of the year, but Herbie Hancock (with whom Collier is close) proved it’s possible for progressive jazz artists to take home the top prize. Given 2020’s chaos, that’d be only a medium-rare Grammy shock.

Collier attributes his nomination to an ultra-passionate fanbase of fellow musicians in the Recording Academy, where his autodidactic instrumental and arranging prowess (his mother is a professional orchestra musician) is obvious and compelling.

“The Grammys are in part voted for by musicians, the people who love music and produce it and take it on the road. Even 10 years ago, when I started to upload songs, I really noticed that musicians were the first people who got me, who spoke the same language about trying to stretch harmony and rhythm and melody,” he said. “I’d probably say it’s a testament to the fact that musicians are the ones who decide the Grammys, more than how many records you’ve sold or how you’ve charted.”

“I don’t think any of us know what this means yet. It was a surprise to us and to Jacob,” said Adam Fell of Quincy Jones Productions, Collier’s management firm. “The Grammys are voted on by musicians, producers, engineers and others who have creative credits on professionally released albums. In that community, Jacob is incredibly beloved. Notice the way other musicians react to him.”

It’s true. When his nominations were announced, SZA said on social media: “NOTHING BUT THE BEST IS WHAT HE DESERVES!!!! A king I say a king!!!” Lizzo proclaimed: “I screamed when I saw u on there bro!!!” And Jamie Cullum wrote: “In the biggest company on the ACTUAL SHOW!!! Right where you belong. Awesome!”

More than any album in Collier’s already-prodigious catalog, his “Djesse Vol. 3” made a real play at a broad and potentially pop-chart audience. The collaboration-heavy album — one completed during the pandemic via email — sports R&B-stalwart guests Ty Dolla Sign, Mahalia, Daniel Caesar, T-Pain and Jessie Reyez. Songs like “Count the People” and “All I Need” use a contemporary palette of electronic production alongside Collier’s instrumental and vocal intricacies. “Djesse Vol. 3” wears its virtuosity lightly.

While there are no silver linings in a pandemic that’s left almost every artist off the road and nervous about the future, Collier said the time to himself helped him focus and find the sound that won Grammy voters’ acclaim over much more well-known artists. But to get an R&B-specific nomination, alongside his big look for album of the year, is especially meaningful as a nod of approval from Black peers rooted in that sound.

“I’ve loved R&B my whole life, and while I’ve never been a big believer of genre as label, I found collaborators who are all giants in that scene,” said Collier (who is of British and Chinese descent). “R&B is Black music first and foremost, and I owe all my education in it to Black musicians around the world.”

Collier, like nearly every other musician, pines for the chance to play live again, even if he’s made the most of appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” where he can flex his instrumental gifts and indefatigable good spirits. He’s working with a novel ticket service, Lyte, that lets fans prepay for concerts even before they’re booked at any particular venue, in hopes of bridging that “desolate gap,” as he put it, between independent clubs and corporate-owned venues.

No one quite knows how a pandemic-era Grammys ceremony will be staged, but Collier’s not holding his breath for a chance to hang with Beyoncé backstage.

“There are gifts and curses. I probably can’t get all dressed up to go, which is definitely a shame,” he said. “But without this window of time off to record, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this award. I just hope we can all get back to business soon.”

With this album of the year nod, he’s got good reason to think the crowds might be notably bigger once he can get back on the road. In the smoking crater of the live music business at the end of 2020, that’s a sentiment any Grammy voter can hope for.

“This shows you can make a record on your own time and terms and it can be recognized,” Collier said. “I’ve had to draw on resources I hadn’t done before. I try to look at the world with a sense of humor and optimism, and this has taught me a lot about that, about how hope can make life worth living in extraordinary circumstances.”