KIMI ZARATE-SMITH interviews JAMIE ISAAC on his influences, production, and creative process.
Jamie Isaac’s discography feels through the bittersweet nature of young love: wistful lyrics articulate both heartbreak and healing, and blissful melodies weave around arrangements of downcast chord progressions. Like a Chet Baker to the internet age, Isaac delves deep into modern romantic melancholy.
Last year saw the release of 3, a triad project with Nosaj Thing —the most recent of Isaac’s numerous collaborations. Artists such as Denzel Curry and Rejjie Snow made their way onto the revisitation of Isaac’s debut album Couch Baby, a year after its 2016 release. Earlier works also include joint projects with housemate and long-time friend Archy Marshall (King Krule), with Isaac appearing on ‘Ammi Ammi’ from the artist’s 2015 album, A New Place 2 Drown.
Isaac’s most recent album, (4:30) Idler, places the listener in a state of nocturnal escapism, sweeping up the early morning remains of last night’s party. Danceable beats always seem to settle down into a self-reflective place of calm.
After first hearing his 2018 COLORS performance of ‘Doing Better’, Jamie Isaac’s songs have always found a way to soundtrack the city’s buzz beginning to subside, as though they were timed perfectly to fit in-between stumbling onto a night bus and finally getting home.
According to Isaac, South London has always been important to his creative process. We talked through influences and inspiration both here and elsewhere, as we sat down in the green of Peckham Rye.
Did your upbringing affect your music-making?
I definitely knew I wanted to make music when I was younger. I was always the kid in school getting involved with music. My family were also kind of musical; my dad used to teach me about records and show me all this old, rare groove, funk and soul music. When I hear all these tunes banging out in clubs now I think, ‘Damn, this is what my dad played to me as a kid!’ Back then, I never thought it was that cool, but now I see that was definitely a plus of having my dad, listening to people like The Whispers, Roy Davis Jr. Those artists definitely inspired me.
For sure, the keys in your tracks have such a heavy jazz influence.
I actually got into jazz because I was really into hip hop. When I started looking closer into hip hop, I realised that all the samples came from jazz. I was like, ‘This is so exciting!’ I grew up with classical, so I needed that change. I used to be in a choir when I was younger, and I was always told that classical music was the most sophisticated form of music, that nothing can compare to how layered and textured the pieces are. Then when I started listening to jazz, I was like, ‘Oh shit – you idiot!’ It completely blew my mind.
London is kind of the perfect place to be for it, especially South East. There seems to be a buzzing jazz scene for every age group here. Did you then find yourself part of a scene like that?
Definitely. My friends used to run a group called Steez, and every Sunday night we used to go to the pub, jam, and then that would turn into something else. We all started knowing each other as musicians. It’s been helpful, now when I need to delve through records I can come back to that group of people and the music they made.
But at the same time, there was a limit to that inspiration because of how cliquey the scene was. I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing, I remember thinking: ‘I’m not going to make this. I’m going to make something I want to make.’ To be honest, I think the South London jazz scene is disappearing. It’s just a bit same-y now, I reckon there’s not much soul to it anymore. Maybe it’s just a label people wanna use, especially if they’re not from London. It’s like, ‘Oh, come to South East, it’s all here!’ That’s not to say that London’s no good though, it’s still important.
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Do you see yourself working anywhere else?
I love Japan – I’ve been loads of times over the years. It’s always been a high point.
The way that Japanese fans really took to the music I was making was exciting – people from the UK didn’t really seem to get it. In the UK and in America, there are radio stations for different genres of music. But in Japan that kind of gets skewed, you can play a lot more stuff, there’s a lot more freedom.
Are there any artists you look up to, or that you’d want to work with?
I don’t really look up to anyone outside of my friends, they’re the people I want to work with. It would be cool to work with an RnB singer, someone like SZA. When she released Ctrl, I thought ‘This has changed RnB music’, it just blew my mind. I love that record so much, it meant so much to me. The same goes for ‘Good Days’, it’s a sick tune.
I love that tune as well, it’s been playing on repeat. Bit of London jazz in there too, Jacob Collier co-produced it.
That’s kind of mad! I was listening to the beat, it’s really synth-y but just done really well. I always put him down with more intricate stuff, it’s cool to see that.
Same here, I’ve always seen him as quite a technical musician. But I suppose it shows how production can adapt according to different artists.
There are good musicians and there are good artists. There’s a difference. Musicians are technical, they’re really good at making music. But artists have to think about what they want, what their style is, how they want people to see them and how everything connects to their music. You see musicians feeling like they’ve got to do a certain thing because that’s what’s popping. Sometimes you’ve just got to ask, ‘What’s your style? You’re a great musician, but what is it?’
I read somewhere that you’d rather be seen as a producer who sings rather than as a singer-songwriter. How does musicianship vs. artistry fit in with production then, when that’s something pretty technical, or is there a certain artistry to production?
There’s definitely a certain artistry to production. Production itself tells a story, it can be something other than the music itself. For example, you can have the reverb sounding like you’re in the bathroom, or sounding like you’re in a big church. How does that make you feel, what does that place or setting sound like? Music can make you feel like you’re in a completely different world. That’s why I like production, I think I’m good at telling my story through my music. There’s a point in certain songs, usually at the end, where everything seems to grow and grow and grow, but the music is exactly the same, just everything around it is shifting. White noise, rumbles, a big pressure build-up, it’s like a scream. Production can do that.
When it comes to production, what does your creative process look like?
It’s all based on instinct and what feels good at the time. When I first started writing as Jamie Isaac, I was making six, seven-minute-long pieces. I thought it was the best shit ever because they were such long pieces of music. But then others asked me to write three or four-minute-long songs, and I realised that I’m really bad at writing music as songs. So that’s taken a lot, and I’m still not even there. I feel like my songwriting is not as good as it could be. But I am good at not sticking to one genre. I want to be known as someone who can do a lot of different things — the project I’m working on at the moment actually has more of a surfer pop vibe to it.
What kind of changes can we expect between your last record and your upcoming one?
The last record was made to be easily transcribed live, with a lot of drums and bass, but this one was made all last year in lockdown so I couldn’t get in any live kit. I really went back to the basics; it was much like the process of making my first album, using more programs instead of live instruments. It’s in-between an EP and an album, with eight tracks. Some are quite 80s sounding – I was listening to a lot of Phil Collins, so I used a lot of those style keys and reverse reverb. Some of the lyrics are a bit more tongue-in-cheek, also.
Are you the type of person to fixate on one project?
I like to work on one thing because otherwise, I can’t sleep. I literally finished the record yesterday — it honestly felt like I’d lost five years of my life! When you listen to a song over and over again, you lose all aspects of what’s good and bad – I had no clue if I even liked the music, I just had to trust my gut instinct. I show other people, but it’s really difficult for other people to give feedback when you’re in the same room as them. I hate it when I get shown new music and someone is looking at me for a reaction. Even if it’s a great song it can be awkward. I’d much rather listen to it on my own.
So music is more of a private experience then?
For me it is, especially the stuff that I make. My music is something that’s good to listen to in the way I like to listen to music: get comfy, plug your headphones in, sit in your bed, a little fucked, and just listen to it.
It seems like a bit of a cycle, the way you listen to music privately translates into your songs. I can really see it in your lyricism, that kind of melancholy feeling.
I make a lot of my music alone. I also love movies — that’s the main thing I’m inspired by. I love how the dialogue and the score intertwines. You get to those big, emotional, amazing bits, it can be just ten seconds — I try to capture that in my songs.
I also like reading books and poetry. When I was like 17, I was just reading loads of Satre and Bukowski like, ‘Oh my God, what is life, I’m having an existential crisis!’ I guess I just liked how personal it was. If I’m writing a song about a person, I want them to hear it. I’m not going to tell them to listen to it, but I try to think about how it would make them feel if they stumbled across the song.
It’s really all about feelings!
Romance is something that I’m very passionate about, as are personal struggles personified. I don’t have a big message or anything, I’m not trying to be political in any way. I’m just not trying to go down that route. Friends of mine really relish in it, but it’s not something that turns me on. I’m about it in my private life, as I am with a lot of other stuff that interests me, but that’s just what I listen to and it’s not the music that I’d make.
You’re kind of treading a tightrope there, being inspired but also making sure you keep to your style and your artistry.
I definitely don’t stick myself in an old cabin and let zero sound in. I’ll listen to music that I’ve listened to a lot before, I won’t put any new things on during the writing process. I listen to some music and think, ‘This is great, so what’s the point in me making music?’ Sometimes I can be quite a jealous person in that sense, although I can become inspired through other ways. Some of my friends are visual artists, for example, and I look at their work and feel happy that they’re killing it. But if it’s something kind of related to what I’m doing, I get jealous, I’m just being honest. God, I can’t even think about writing a record right now!
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You must be exhausted.
I am! I don’t like giving others too much control over my music. I know artists that’ll give someone a guitar and say, ‘alright, off you go!’ — but I can’t do that. Every little minute detail I am so aware of. For five nights in a row, I’d stay up until six in the morning, and then get up at ten with bloodshot eyes. I can be such a perfectionist and it’s something I need to work on. I need to learn how to let go, but the thing is you’ll never be happy with what you make, I’ll never be happy with my music. I’m so attached to the process of making music that I’ll remember exactly how I wanted something to sound. It was only with the first record that I can remember finally sitting back and listening to it as a listener, not as a producer. I’d surprise myself, I wouldn’t remember how I made certain sounds.
How does that translate when you’re performing live? Do you have the same approach?
I’m not very good in front of crowds, I’m one of those people who are better at home. Performing live is a different thing. At the beginning of your career, when you’re making music but you’re more of a supporting act in the line-up of a show so no one’s paid to see you, there’s an added insecurity. You have to perform and try to make people like both me and my music. When you perform in front of people who have bought tickets to come see you, half of that insecurity is gone. But sometimes there’s some insecurity about whether it’s worth the money. I don’t want people to leave shows and think it wasn’t worth it. Some of my friends tell me to shout at the crowd, get the energy up — but it’s not really in my character to do that. I just want people to have a nice time.
One of my favourite shows that I’ve ever done was probably when I first performed in New York. It was crazy — I remember seeing, among so many people, a couple dancing together and singing the words back to me. It was so weird thinking about how I had made this music alone in my bedroom.
Featured image courtesy of Marathon Artists/Jamie Isaac.