Album of the year contenders have historically included outliers, with artists like Sara Bareilles, Sturgill Simpson and Brandi Carlile getting major profile boosts thanks to surprise nods. Last year, H.E.R. and Bon Iver competed on the strength of projects that didn’t crack the top 20 of the Billboard 200; this year, the deluxe edition of indie psych-soul duo Black Pumas’ self-titled album is nominated after spending just one week on the chart.
Still, there’s truly no nominee in recent memory quite like Collier’s Djesse Vol. 3. (The title is a phonetic spelling of his initials.) As he himself proudly recites, it’s the first release since 1963 to squeeze onto the ballot without having appeared on the albums chart. The set has earned 20,000 equivalent album units since its August arrival, according to MRC Data — well below the 1.27 million average of this year’s eight nominees.“I’m not the kind of artist who has had a massive hit single or one video that blew up,” says Collier, mussing his hair in the direction of one of his keyboard stacks. “I’ve allowed people to come in on their own terms, and I’ve never particularly asked for a huge spike of a moment.”
Collier has, however, had considerable help reaching this breakthrough, beginning in October 2013, when he uploaded a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” to YouTube. By that point, the then 19-year-old had been using production software for over a decade, learned piano without any training and briefly studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where his mother teaches violin. In 2011, he started uploading clips showcasing his one-kid-band wizardry — feats of multitracking and harmonization that suggested a certain level of genius. His Wonder rendition made its way to Quincy Jones, via a friend’s emailed recommendation, the same day it was posted.
“It was apparent that this kid’s understanding of music theory, melody, harmony and improvisation was exactly where it needed to be,” says Jones. The legendary producer told Adam Fell, president of the Quincy Jones Productions management company, to find Collier and finalize a deal no matter what. Soon, Fell was on a Skype call with the teen and his mom, making the not-so-hard sell for why he might want to learn more from the producer who had worked with Miles, Michael and Aretha.
Mentorship from Jones proved to be the kind of golden ticket most aspiring musicians can only dream of: Collier got to jam with Herbie Hancock at the Montreux Jazz Festival and perform “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” during a private hang at the home of the man who had co-written and produced it. But Jones didn’t just lend his imprimatur to Collier — he has been a vocal advocate of his for years. “There was a period of time in Quincy’s life where he walked into every single meeting — it didn’t matter whether it was with Queen Rania of Jordan, Hillary Clinton or Donald Glover — and the first thing he would do is pull out his laptop and a Bluetooth speaker, and play Jacob’s video of ‘Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing,’ ” recalls Fell, who now manages Collier with Michael Peha. “And he would say, ‘Have you ever seen anything like this in your life? Because I haven’t.’ ”
As Collier’s recording career began in earnest — he harmonized with himself and played every instrument on his 2016 independent experimental jazz debut, In My Room — his circle of industry connections expanded accordingly. He hosted master classes at Berklee College of Music, teamed up with international orchestras while touring for In My Room, played with Pharrell Williams at Coachella and even helped Hans Zimmer finish the score to the 2017 film The Boss Baby.