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Proms 2019

On 19 July the BBC Proms plays host for a second time to Jacob Collier, a young musician who has forged a lightning-quick path through the musical world with a series of mind-blowing YouTube videos. In 2016, Jacob performed as a guest of his mentor, Quincy Jones; this time, the Prom is all his.

If you haven’t yet encountered Jacob’s music, sit back. It’s time to meet the incredibly talented composer, arranger, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist at the centre of the show.

In late 2011, a 17-year-old musician called Jacob Collier started posting homemade split screen, multi track videos to his YouTube channel. The videos may have been simple: the content, however, was anything but. Each one featured multiple Jacobs, armed with a variety of instruments, performing complex, brilliant arrangements of songs that he liked or had written himself.

Fast forward six and a half years.

Jacob is now a bona fide online phenomenon. He has hundreds of thousands of subscribers and followers on social media. His most popular YouTube videos have been watched more than three million times. He’s still making music at home, but these days his YouTube channel is the showcase for an eclectic mix of live shows and covers, alongside slicker versions of those signature multi track arrangements and originals.

Did he have any inkling of where those early videos would take him?

“Not in the slightest,” he admits breezily, as he waits in the shadow of the Albert Hall for a soundcheck. “I was just doing what I loved to do, and I was trying to make it as beautiful as I possibly could. In some ways, nothing has changed too much.”

Jacob is being quite modest here. He has actually just finished a 200 plus-date tour of Europe, the US and Australia. His debut album, In My Room (recorded, you guessed it, in his room) won two Grammys last year. He is mentored by Quincy Jones (THE Quincy Jones) and hangs out with the kind of music legends that most of us can only dream of.

And then, of course, there’s his Prom (Jacob Collier and Friends, 19 July).

“This has been a beacon in my diary for about a year,” he says. “The Proms are everything life is all about: people coming together, and joy and music and celebration and togetherness... and London, which is the best city in the world.”

"Genius" young musician to play Proms

What will Proms audiences make of this 23-year-old ball of energy and his unique sound? Look Jacob up online and you'll see him associated with a bewildering variety of genres, from jazz and funk to folk and and neo-soul.

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that classical music is in his DNA. The son of professional violinists, Jacob is a deeply cerebral musician. His knowledge of musical theory is famously off the charts, and he’s as comfortable composing and arranging as he is singing or playing a huge number of instruments. The Proms director, David Pickard, has compared him to the young Leonard Bernstein.

Jazz, too, is a ruling passion, just as it was for Bernstein (whose centenary the Proms marks this year). “I suppose technically I could say I'm based in jazz, just because it's the school of thought that I've been encouraging myself to operate within,” he says. “But I don't think that these days music is too much about ‘it's this’ or ‘it's that’ – it’s more about what feels really good.

The Proms show that music is a universal language, one that everyone can speak

“Music is one whole force. And I think the Proms have always represented very clearly that music is a universal language, one that everyone can speak. I've just followed my goosebumps in every direction and have found a recipe for what my music feels and sounds like.”

Those goosebumps have good instincts. Jacob's Prom promises a higher-than-average ratio of dancing to sitting, with everything from jazz and funk to disco, folk and Gnawa, a sacred Moroccan tradition. As with previous live shows, Jacob will be bringing along the contents of his music room at home, complete with an array of instruments and the unique vocal harmoniser he has used since 2014 to create complex chords using just his voice. Proms audiences won’t, however, see the “multi-Jacob” visual technology he’s used in the past to evoke a split screen style on stage.

“Because there are so many other people in this Prom, luckily I can be just one Jacob,” he says. With him on stage will be Jules Buckley and his Metropole Orkest (with whom Jacob appeared at 2016’s riotous Quincy Jones Prom) plus a number of special guests.

The Proms show that music is a universal language, one that everyone can speak

These include the legendary gospel/jazz a cappella group Take 6 (“my all-time crush as a teenager”), jazz-folk singer Becca Stevens (“a beautiful singer-songwriter”), folk artist Sam Amidon (“such a charismatic, unique voice) and the Moroccan guembri player and Gnawa master Maalem Hamid El Kasri (“the king of his genre: this crazy, royal bundle of energy”). Together, they’ll perform material from Jacob’s next album (release date TBC) along with songs from In My Room and a hubbub of music from other genres.

Such collaboration is remarkable for someone whose career thus far has been founded on solitary creativity. As a solo artist, Jacob is fiercely and famously independent. From his trademark videos (on which he is responsible for every sound you hear) to his debut album (self-recorded, self-produced and released without the backing of a major label), he epitomises the figure of the bedroom musician.

At last year’s Grammys, he used one of his acceptance speeches to pay tribute to “people who are creating music just for themselves, on their own terms, and creating wonderful things just for the sake of it,” claiming that “these are the people who will lead our generation forwards”. Does he still think self-determination is the future of the music industry?

“It's hard to say that one way of doing things is the best for everybody all the time,” he says, diplomatically, “but I do think there's never been a more necessary and exciting time to be creative. And that if there's any reason why that particular force was unable to happen for any creative person, I think that would be very strange. So I think right now, it's important that I can retain every bit of freedom that I have, so whatever incarnation [of my music] I end up with is at the centre of the whole thing.”

Jabob's debut may have been entirely self-recorded, but ever since his solo tour came to a close he has been, in his own words, “scampering around the world” recording material for a second album with some of his musical heroes. He remains politely tight-lipped about the identity of most of these collaborators, but will reveal that Jules Buckley and the sound of his Metropole Orkest feature prominently in his next album.

One thing’s for certain: whatever's coming next from Jacob Collier, it's worth getting excited about. And this Prom should be one hell of a party.

Jacob Collier teams up with conductor Jules Buckley and his Metropole Orkest in a special collaboration for the Proms, featuring a host of new tracks and a smattering of special guests. Listen live on BBC Radio 3 (Thursday 19 July at 7.30pm), and watch the concert on BBC Four (Friday 20 July at 7.30pm).

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