[INTERVIEW] Jordan Rakei

As it often goes, the quietest people have the most to say. Jordan Rakei is one of those types: polite, friendly, interesting. His Kiwi accent is still there, with a smattering of ‘man’ across our telephone conversation-warm and casual – but you can hear the recognisable London lexis creeping into his vocabulary (Many things are ‘sick’, or he ‘rinses’ albums). He doesn’t talk in complex soliloquies but his enthusiasm and passion says more than that ever could. Rakei is emerging as one of the brightest talents of the current jazz/soul scene, racking up collaborations with Disclosure, Loyle Carner and Tom Misch. When discussing the latter two he says, “it’s cool to know these guys and know that I can be part of their legacy in some way because they are both on this crazy trajectory.”

The Shepherd Bush show, his biggest to date, is the reflection of an artist on his own crazy trajectory. The evolution is clear from his Glastonbury set at the Pussy Parlour stage in front of 50 max six months ago, to last Friday’s show. He speaks more and seems relaxed; enjoying the moment. He reflects on how far he’s come, “my first show was in a tiny church in Kings Cross and there’s something special about those small shows,” he says, “but then playing Shepherd’s Bush…it’s quite special to see 2,000 clapping in time, singing my own lyrics…yeah it’s amazing man.” The show was in support of his recently released second album Wallflower, a follow-up to 2016s Cloak. Where that record shined in optimistic, jazzy abundance, Wallflower is more dark and sullen with flirtations with cool jazz and folk, a direct result of his discovery of the works of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and Fink. It addresses family bereavement (May), lucid dreaming and detachment from reality (Lucid, one of Rakei’s favourites) but most prominently, and what has been most discussed about this album, his struggle with social anxiety.

On the titular track, he croons I’m still trapped by the cage of my lips….It’s been 24 years. This was a starting point for the album; straightforward and personal rather than vague and poetic. The common perception of musicians is that they are confident, driven by ego (or the music) and a desire to be seen or heard. For Jordan Rakei to be so open about his life with anxiety, he has helped shatter this illusion and reached out to those for whom music is an escape from the persistent struggles of the mind.  “To write a whole piece of work about it….it’s very cathartic to do it for myself. Like getting it off my chest so I could overcome stuff like that,” he says. With statistics like 51% of young people feeling embarrassed about mental illness, yet one in ten suffering from it, more than ever it seems important for there to be a dialogue in society and especially in music in light of the recent suicides of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Jordan agrees. “I’ve feel like there’s so many more people who have it and don’t even realise they do. People will say ‘Oh I feel that way too. I get awkward when I meet new people too’ so I think it’s a good thing.” However, the anxiety does not crop up when Rakei is on stage. “Touring is actually easier for me, easier than writing lyrics. I have that space and there’s no time for anyone to interrupt me so I can go out and give it my all. Whereas if I’m getting invited to hangout with people at the merch stand it’s a different story”.

His solution was exposure therapy, something he recommends to any aspiring musician living with anxiety. This meant moving from his comfortable bubble in Australia to London. Rakei explains, “forcing myself to move to London opened so many doors musically but also personally.”  He chose London over any other large city for one reason. “ I love so many artists here. It creates this mood when you walk down the street and everyone is on a similar wavelength and there’s pockets of different scenes happening all over. It seems like the kind of place to me that is bubbling right now musically”.

Music is not something Rakei feels he was destined for, more something he enjoyed and was good at. The first album he remembers hearing and falling in love with was (forgetting Aquarium by Aqua) Bob Marley’s Natural Mystic, his father being a massive reggae fan. Jazz came to him much later, at the age of 19 at university when his class were put into bands. “At that stage my favourite kinda music was reggae and modern soul stuff like Usher and Chris Brown.” Groaning at the mention of the latter, Rakei laughs and offers, “I know man I’ve changed a lot. They (his band) were like ‘let’s learn this Herbie Hancock tune’. I’m like ‘what is this?’ and Boom! I discovered a whole new world and it is by far now my favorite genre.”

He has producing his own music since 11 starting with metallic, Timbaland/Neptunes – inspired beats which evolved with his discovery of jazz. He still produces his own music, but would love to work with Floating Points or Dave Okumu (who plays guitar on Wallflower) later on down the line.

So what now? Rakei has a collaboration lined up with Nightmares on Wax, and would love to record with James Blake (“I bring more of a jazz element, he brings more of an alternative element to it”) or Frank Ocean (“ He’s a tough one to get”). He would love to play Brixton or Ally Pally, but nothing larger so as to not lose the intimacy he has with the audience.

Once his current tour is over, he plans to start writing and recording with the aim of finishing a new album by September. “I want to write five albums and release them by the time I’m 30. I’m 25 now so I’ve definitely got time to pump them out.” Then after 30? “I don’t know, have some kids? Record with them.” He laughs, but for an artist who aims to have 25 albums released one day, his ambition and drive has to be taken seriously. Potential ideas for his next album could include something more conceptual to give himself a challenge. Whatever happens he no longer lives in the shadow of his anxiety,  the anxiety living in the shadow of his talent and his music.

Words by William Craigie

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