Reaching Tech's Limit, YouTube Phenom Jacob Collier Seeks A Human Touch

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Jacob Collier performs at MIT in 2016. (Courtesy L. Barry Hetherington)
Jacob Collier performs at MIT in 2016. (Courtesy L. Barry Hetherington)

In a stuffy studio at MIT’s Media Lab, Jacob Collier and Ben Bloomberg are squeezed in front of a small desk flanked by big speakers. Bloomberg, a sound designer, is helping the musician prepare for his upcoming performance in Cambridge. Right now, they're on the hunt for electronic samples.

"Wood block might be nice," Collier says, as the speakers emit a hollow thunk. "We're going to have real wood blocks," Bloomberg points out.

Collier is a British YouTube phenom who has been hailed as "jazz's new messiah." He's especially well-known for his elaborate one-man live show, which he developed with Bloomberg at the Media Lab a few years ago. Now, as Collier gets ready to release his sophomore album, "Djesse," he's adding a new element to his musical world: other people.

Collier and Bloomberg's partnership goes back to 2014, when Bloomberg stumbled across a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” on YouTube. A split screen showed Collier, then 19, singing and accompanying himself on about a dozen instruments, in a multi-track style popular among YouTube cover artists. But Bloomberg says Collier's cover stood out.

"It starts out with just six Jacobs, and he’s singing a cappella," Bloomberg recalls. "But then all of a sudden, he starts to throw in these harmonies that are just like — it’s so rare for anybody to come up with harmonies like that."

Bloomberg was so impressed that he sent Collier a message, asking if the musician was interested in collaborating. For Collier, the timing couldn't have been better.

"It was a really critical moment for me because I'd just actually accepted the first ever performance for this mysterious kind of one-man show in my head," Collier says. "I didn't know what I was going to do for it."

Bloomberg set to work building a sound system that would help Collier perform his intricate arrangements solo. He even designed a custom synthesizer that samples Collier's voice in real time, allowing him to execute those dazzling vocal harmonies on the fly. (They call it the "Harmonizer.") When Collier released his debut album, "In My Room," in 2016, he was able to tour it exactly as he wrote it: by himself.

Bloomberg says their partnership is guided by the belief that tech should be a tool for extending human capabilities, rather than a crutch to lean on, like auto-tune. “Instead it’s like, 'Well, you really could play 14 instruments if you had 14 arms, so let's think about ways of doing that' — sort of the bionic approach," he explains.

The bionic approach served Collier well. On tour, he bounded joyfully from one instrument to the next, never stopping to fuss with knobs or look at a laptop.

But even with all that tech at his fingertips, Collier eventually hit a wall.

"We pushed the one-man show pretty hard, and we felt it hit its limits at a number of points," Collier says. The setup worked great for audiences of 2,000, but not so much 20,000. "I just [couldn't] create something that [was] big enough."

So for his new album, Collier did something different: He invited other musicians to play with him. "Djesse," a 40-song opus that will be released in four parts over the next year, features soaring orchestral arrangements and impressive guest appearances. (The first volume drops on Dec. 7.)

And for the first time, Collier plans to tour with a band. (Bloomberg will, of course, design the show.) Collier says that, as successful has his one-man show was, there is really nothing like communing with other musicians. "You realize that a lot of that magic is only possible when you meet somebody in the middle. Hopefully the magic that will come out of it is greater than the sum of its parts."

The magic — and frustration — of human collaboration was on display at the Monday night rehearsal before the concert. MIT's Kresge Auditorium was the site of controlled chaos. An orchestra sprawled across the stage, while members of the chorus milled around in the aisles. Collier ran the group through a few of his songs. Things were a little rough — tempos were still being set, parts still being learned. But the choir sounded glorious inside the hall.

For the show, Collier planned to utilize pretty much every ensemble at MIT, from the orchestra to the Senegalese drumming group. Collier's new band would also make its debut. In fact, the concert would be as unlike a one-man show as possible.

But Bloomberg says it's all in line with their philosophy.

"Technology should do things that technology is good at, and the people should do things that people are good at," he says. "And we don't necessarily need to bang our heads against the wall trying the make the technology really emotional, or be [human], because humans are humans, and that's what's special about the whole thing."

In other words, sometimes it's just nice to play with other people.

This segment aired on December 5, 2018.


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Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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