Jon Batiste on New Album ‘We Are,’ Grammys and Oscars Prospects: It's 'Beyond My Wildest Dreams'

Jon Batiste
Justin French

Jon Batiste

If you gathered every hat that Jon Batiste wears, you’d have to open up a millinery shop.

He’s a singer-songwriter (his new album We Are is due March 19), a phenomenal live performer (aside from being the Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader, he regularly tours with his band Stay Human), and now a composer (he just scooped up a Golden Globe for his work as a co-composer on Pixar's Soul). And yes, the dapper artist is also occasionally known to rock literal hats in fashion campaigns for brands like Coach and Frye.

Next on his busy calendar is the 2021 Grammy Awards (March 14), where he’s nominated twice: his live recording Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard is up for best contemporary instrumental album, while the raw, improvisational Meditations -- a dual effort with Cory Wong -- garnered a nod for best new age album. 

Additionally, nominations for the 2021 Academy Awards will be announced one day after the Grammys, and Batiste is expected to land one for best original score, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, for Soul. On top of all of that, he’s also starring in a new Lincoln ad, which features We Are lead single “I Need You” and will premiere during the Grammys telecast.

Ahead of Music’s Biggest Night, Billboard caught up with Batiste about his busy awards season, what it’s been like to adapt his live performances to fit a pandemic, his new album, and more.

Congratulations on your Grammy nominations! How are you feeling headed into Sunday?

I'm feeling happy. I think we have a lot of stuff to be concerned about in this time, but it's good to have something to be happy about. We're flowing with it.

You’re also regularly making awards-related headlines for Soul. How has that been?

We put a lot into that film. There's way more of myself in that film, beyond just the music, and it's very, very important to me. So I'm glad that people find that the film is something that resonates with them.

Your hands are in the film, too...

Yes, my hands are in the film! A lot of my story is a composite of the story of what came to be [protagonist Joe Gardner’s] narrative, and even some of the dialogue -- which I'm not credited for, but it was such a collaborative process that a lot of my contributions seeped into the final work in a way that I'm really proud of. I think there's a lot of life in the narrative.

You’re on the shortlist for an Academy Awards nomination as well. What would an Oscar win mean to you?

Again, we feel that the film was something -- over two years of working on it for me -- it was something that we didn't know how the world would respond to it, given that it's a film about, essentially, death and the origin of the soul and jazz. And it's animation. So to have so many records broken with streaming, and to have the Oscar shortlist and the Golden Globe [win], is beyond what we thought would happen. The film got pushed so many times, and it didn't have a theatrical release. We were just happy with what we created. All of this is beyond [my] wildest dreams.

What has it been like to see the response to the lead single for We Are, “I Need You”?

Oh, my goodness. The song has been such a joy-giving, life-affirming presence that's come back to me, in the form of people sending me videos from all over the world of them dancing to the song, and choreographers putting whole routines together around the song. 

They’re even encouraging me to do things that I'd never done. Seeing all of those dance videos, I started doing this dance Sunday hour on Instagram, where I'll do a dance with one person from across the world on Instagram Live. For an hour, I'll end up dancing with 30 or 40 people from different countries around the world. So the song is the birth of all of these things.

Again, I couldn't imagine that that would happen when we were making it. We just wanted to make something that combined that joy of what I imagined the 1930s, 1940s Chitlin' Circuit was in the black community, and the juke joints when they were Lindy Hopping. I tried to combine that with a pop song.

In your new ad for Lincoln, typically, you expect a car commercial to just be a vehicle driving on a scenic highway -- but this one is city-centric, and you and “I Need You” both play a big role.

Yes, it's a song that I think captures what we all were trying to get at with the "sanctuary" concept, the [feeling] of that safety and that comfort and that joy. The song is a perfect soundtrack to me getting out of the car after being absorbed in the sanctuary of the car inside, and going into the crosswalk and expressing that joy.

The crosswalk piano moment reminds me of the movie Big.

Yep, that was the vibe! The notes on the piano are represented in the crosswalk, and also in the Piano Key Shifter that's in the car, so there's all those nods to the piano, like Big.

Courtesy of Lincoln
Lincoln x Jon Batiste

We Are features contributions from Mavis Staples, author Zadie Smith, PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty and many more. What do you look for in a collaborator?

Authenticity. It has to be bigger than just the names on the advertisement and the marketing potential. A lot of people feature people because of name recognition -- and I don't really like doing that, because I think that for me, collaboration should be born out of life. With Zadie Smith, for instance, she's not even publicly known as a singer, but we jam and we sing on Zoom. We've been doing that over the pandemic. Before that, we did it in person, obviously. There's a history behind it. 

With Mavis Staples, there's a history behind her being on my album. There's a history behind Quincy Jones being on the album. Every person I could point to on the album, I could tell you a story about how they were instrumental in me becoming who I am today.

Did these collaborative sessions happen pre-Covid, or during?

A lot of it -- with Zadie for instance, the Zoom sessions that we were doing -- were done during the end of the process of finishing the album. Much of it was completed in the first wave of the pandemic. That was why a lot of the stuff, like with Mavis for instance, was via phone call. She wasn't in the studio. The track "Mavis" that's on the album of her talking was literally taken from a phone conversation that we were having. She said something that was really profound about freedom, and I was finishing the track "Freedom" at that time.

I said, "Could you repeat that, and could I record us right now? I want to use that in the album." She was like, "Great, of course." So that was all pandemic-related communication.

What are some of the challenges of creating and releasing music during a pandemic?

It's hard to be influenced by your environment in the same way. In the times prior to this, I would love to travel and go to different studios and try different instruments, put on different sorts of environments -- put environments on almost as if they were clothes. Just feel the energy of that environment seep into the work. You can't do that if you're not able to gather socially, which also is a big part of that. You get a group of people together in a specific studio, it's like getting Mavis to go into studios where she used to cut her records when she was my age. Imagine what that could breed. 

But we can't do that now, so you have to figure out different ways of tapping in. I think it's just a spiritual practice, almost, to try and find it internally, because you can't find it externally.

You recently performed with your band to launch the “NY PopsUp” series, playing for essential workers at the Javits Center in New York City. How have you adapted your live format, and what are your general thoughts on the state of live performance?

I've always been someone who's about being for the people when it comes to live performance -- and trying to really obliterate the separation that sometimes the live performance industry can create between the audience and the performer -- just making it more communal, almost as if it was a form of folk music or indigenous music. That entails taking it to the streets and doing our Love Riots, and doing our things that we've cultivated over the last 10 years in different forms. 

Now, in the pandemic, it just felt like the perfect time to bring that sense of love, joy and community to people in the way we had been doing it prior to the pandemic -- through marches and street performances and voter registration rallies before the election. So things like that, I've always done, but now I feel there's been a primary focus, and not just part of the experience. 

How do you see live performance evolving in the future?

I think once we go "back," I'll probably make it even more a part of the entire experience, or more the focus of the live performance experience. These times are a time where we can really bring that in a great way. Let's get the joy energy out there more and more.

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