Jacob Collier
Awards

Why All Your Favorite Artists Love Album of the Year Nominee Jacob Collier

With a mentor in Quincy Jones, co-signs from R&B’s cool kids and now a game-changing Grammy nod, the 26-year-old polymath leads a pack of refreshingly unexpected nominees.

Jacob Collier knows what you’re thinking. He has heard it all: the memes, the think pieces, the “Who’s Jacob Collier?” tweets that flooded the internet following his album of the year Grammy Award nomination. “I saw a lot of it,” says Collier, his posh British accent slightly elongating. “And it’s fair.”

The 26-year-old is sitting in his home studio, surrounded by stacked keyboards, bass guitars, a ukulele and a Wurlitzer in the back room of his family’s North London home. It’s the same spot where in November he heard his Grammy nominations announced, first for best arrangement (instrumental and vocals), then for best R&B performance. After that came the shortlist for the most coveted prize, album of the year — a mix including massive commercial successes from Taylor Swift and Post Malone, as well as year-end-list darlings from HAIM and Dua Lipa. And then, sneaking in where odds-on favorites like The Weeknd’s After Hours and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica were expected, there was Collier’s Djesse Vol. 3: an electro-R&B magnum opus from a self-trained British prodigy who had previously won a Grammy for a jazzy a cappella arrangement of the Flintstones theme.

Collier’s team certainly wasn’t anticipating this; one of his managers was at a doctor’s appointment during the announcement. But Collier himself was the most shellshocked, and says he needed a few days to fully process the news. “I mean, I would have expected The Weeknd to get nominated way before I would, and Gaga, and... everybody,” he says unflinchingly.

Nicole Nodland
Jacob Collier photographed on Feb. 12, 2021 at Glebelands Park in London.

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.

Nicole Nodland
Jacob Collier photographed on Feb. 12, 2021 at Glebelands Park in London.

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.

In 2018, Collier signed to Interscope in partnership with Hajanga and Decca for a four-part album series crystallizing his musical journey across genres. (“It’s rare to meet an artist who has a vividly clear understanding of what they want to do for the next four albums,” says Nick Groff, senior vp A&R at Interscope. Meanwhile, Tom Lewis, co-managing director of Decca Records, describes Collier as “one of the warmest, most engaging musical ambassadors on the planet.”) Djesse Vol. 3 is its most accessible installment, the first time Collier’s jazz-centric sound veers toward a more recognizably neo-soul approach. It’s also his most collaborative and mainstream-leaning album to date, with Tori Kelly, Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez and T-Pain among the guest stars. “Jacob is the real GOAT,” says Ty Dolla $ign, who features on “All I Need” with Mahalia. (The song got Collier his R&B performance nod.) “He plays everything, sings his ass off and writes incredible songs.”

Nicole Nodland
Jacob Collier photographed on Feb. 12, 2021 at Glebelands Park in London.

That kind of reverence from the artist community, one in which Collier is increasingly embedded, could partially explain his seemingly out-of-nowhere album of the year nomination. And although Jones says he didn’t lobby for Djesse Vol. 3 — “As with any registered Grammy voting member, I voted!” — he had certainly set a crucial foundation for the wider industry to champion Collier’s virtuoso appeal.

“I don’t think a lot of people quite realize that the Grammys is not a popularity contest,” says Fell, pointing out that in order to vote, Recording Academy members must have credits on at least six commercially available tracks on a physical release or 12 on a digital album. “That group of musicians — engineers, producers, musicians contributing to the music ecosystem — they are who decides. Where does Jacob resonate? I think it’s with that audience.”

And that audience will likely only grow from here. SZA discovered Collier one night scrolling through Instagram and ended up spending hours watching his YouTube videos, awestruck. She soon asked him to co-write and provide backing vocals for her single “Good Days.” “I knew he could elevate it because he did that with everything,” she says. “I asked him to section it, and he sent it back literally in no time. He was like, ‘I don’t know if this is what you were thinking of,’ and I was like, ‘Ahhh! Don’t do anything, it’s perfect!’ ” It became the R&B star’s highest-charting solo single to date, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January.

Regardless of what happens on Grammy night, those kinds of collaborations could become a regular thing for a wunderkind previously unknown to the pop world. “Partners had been like, ‘We love him, but it’s not the right time to make this happen,’ ” recalls co-manager Peha. “That obviously has changed. Now they’re like, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ ”

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.