(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: So I’ve reached you at your home.
A: Yeah, you have. This was a family music room and the portal to my imagination for a lot of my life. Basically, the room is just packed with musical instruments. And I just adore it. It’s my favorite room in the world. The piano has been there for a long, long time. Most of the other things in this room are quite new. But it’s my wonderful haven space, and I’m really, really grateful for it. Now in quarantine more than ever before.
Q: I hear about these brilliant musicians starting at age 6 or 7. How old were you when you first picked up an instrument?
A: I remember picking up the violin when I was 2 because my mom’s an incredible violinist. But if I recall, by 4 I had given up the violin. I just wasn’t patient enough for it because it really takes patience to play the violin properly, whereas it doesn’t take that much patience to play the piano because you just go bang and it makes a sound immediately. I was quite drawn to things that gave me some instant gratification in a musical way. And then I started to apply those sounds to stuff I was making.
Q: A lot of us, as parents, have to say, “Hey, get in there and practice the piano” or whatever. Was there ever a point where someone had to say, “Jacob, get in there and do the damn scales.”
A: It was a funny balance for me because I was never really told to practice. There was no obligation to do anything with music, but it was omnipresent. So I think what that meant was that I was able to just muck around with it a bit, and I would hear something and I would think, “Oh.” And then I’d hear something else and I’d say, “Oh, how can I put those two things together?” And I sat at the piano with no idea what I was doing, you know, just putting random notes together. But I was excited because it gave me an immediate reaction. I didn’t really have lessons on anything other than singing when I was a child.
Q: You have worked with Quincy Jones. There’s nobody like him. What have you learned from him that has led you to think differently about how you compose or work or perform?
A: One of the things that Quincy often says is that you can never be more or less as a musician than you are as a human being. And he brings this up often because I think for him, he has nothing more to prove. He’s done everything. He’s produced for Michael Jackson. He’s arranged for Sinatra. He’s hung out with Picasso. Everything. And so for Quincy, it comes down to who you are as a person.
Quincy also talks about using your imperfections to your advantage. A lot of young musicians often think, “How do I find my own sound? What’s really me here? What can I bring to the table as me?” I think Quincy is one of these guys who has learned how to dance with, figuratively dance with, all sorts of different musicians from different landscapes and extract something magical, something of worth.
Q: Creativity is a very mysterious thing. Like Keith Richards being asleep with a tape recorder next to him and he wakes up with the riff for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Do you ever have writer’s block?
A: Yeah, I do get that. I get it every single day. I’m trying to write music for other people to fit into other people’s idea of good. And I get blocked because ultimately it’s difficult to do that. And I find that to unblock, sometimes I just have to do my own thing for a little while and stop trying to please those voices. But everyone has those voices. And you have to listen to them in some way. So I tend to go back and forth on it. But there are days when I can’t do anything. I have to go back to sleep. And that’s cool, too.
Q: I think about the difference in how people sing musicals and people sing at folk concerts and operas. It’s a hard thing to find your voice. How did you find yours? Is it something that you’ve thought about or was it just natural?
A: I think I found it from using it a lot, and I experimented with all sorts of different kinds of things. So when I was doing these experiments, I would try shouting and I would try singing quietly or with a really breathy tone or try being super high, super low. I stretched it around. Ultimately, you find a set of aesthetics you like.
One of my favorite singers is David Byrne, and he says this thing about the voice, which I really like, which is that the better the singer, the more difficult it is to understand what they’re saying. I don’t know if you’re familiar with David Byrne, but his voice is so weird. It’s really a strange, strange animal. And I really love that. I love that he’s able to use it in such a weird way. He writes these crazy songs and people kind of fall in love with them. So sometimes I think about the voice a bit like that. Sort of as a human being would use it rather than as a computer would try to use it.