Making the case for music that is both progressive and slightly wistful
Jamie Isaac has a background in classical piano and grew up in a lively musical household. His dad exposed him to soul and funk from early on, the SOS Band and the Mary Jane Girls being staples in the family's record collection. But this producer and singer-songwriter also rummages in a different past for inspiration and isn’t scared of infusing South London’s music scene with a little balladesque nostalgia. His new album ‘(04:30) Idler’ combines electronic undertones with soothing melodies laced with elements of jazz and bossa nova—convincingly making the case for music that is both progressive and slightly wistful.
We caught up with Isaac during his stay in Berlin and had the pleasure of a little Kreuzberg stroll, ice cream and synth shopping included...
Hi Jamie, have you been to Berlin before?
No, it’s my first ever 24 hours in Berlin!
What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new city? Any wired ritual?
Probably trying the coffee, you can tell a lot about a place based on its coffee culture.
True! Do you have any Berlin expectations?
Well, I guess there must be a reason if so many people in the art world and music industry are moving here. I just know it’s a really fun place, so I’m very intrigued.
What are your impressions so far?
It’s beautiful, the architecture is so rough and I like it a lot.
Is there a piece of musical gear you always like to have with you?
Sometimes I carry around a dictaphone with a build-in mike that can pick up loads of sounds. It’s really cool, you can turn street sounds into drums and things like that.
I heard you had quite the musical upbringing—what kind of music was played around your parent’s house?
There was always a lot of soul, funk, and rare groove. My dad and I would always turn up the volume in his cab—he was a cab driver and used to play the drums when he was younger—but my mom was a bit different, she loved Eva Cassidy!
What is the first genre you remember being into? Most of us have teenage memories of awkward music phases, did you ever go through a death metal phase or Woodstock obsession?
(Laughs,) well no. Actually, when I was younger, I was really into classical music.
You still play the piano, is that right?
Yes. And I used to love it so much. I never really listened to anything else for a long time and then when I was a teenager I started listening to weirder bands like Slowdive and a lot of shoegaze. But I guess that’s as awkward as it gets. After classical music I kind of went on to jazz.
Solid foundations! I also know that you taught yourself Logic and began producing at a very young age. Are you still producing your own music?
Yes, so my new album is the first time I let others help me with it. Before I was always kind of, “I wanna do everything”, but I realized that in some ways it was stopping me; you learn so much by surrounding yourself with other musicians. Other than that, I still do most of the work at home in my bedroom, then I take it to a studio and finish it up, touch it up a bit.
Jamie Isaac - Wings (Video)
Directed and edited by Ashley Rommelrath
What does the process leading up to this studio visit look like? What comes first: the music, or the lyrics?
Most of the times it starts with me at the piano... So the first steps are piano and vocals because if the song is there then the production just adds to it, whereas if the song is too heavy on the production too early in the process it won’t be a good song, you know? I feel like it has to work well just you and another instrument first. Nowadays everyone makes music on their laptops, no one is buying hardware anymore...
Why is working on music, literally “hands on” so effective?
Because it takes me out of my brain! And it’s not just the music making, it’s important to listen "hands on" as well. You know, 30-40 years ago, listening to music implied having a physical collection of vinyl. You would buy a record, you would think “oh I want to listen to this”, then you would search for it in your library, take it out, dust it off, etc. So there would be about five different actions attached to the ritual. Today we basically just click and skip, and I think this is affecting people’s appreciation of music and sound...
Yes, it’s important to cultivate these rituals, not just out that nostalgia. À propos “nostalgia”, what inspired you to explore the bossa nova sound in your newly released album '(04:30) Idler'? I’m thinking of songs like ‘Wings’.
I was in S Francisco and I was touring my last record and we had like an hour before catching the next flight so my band member was like “let’s go and find this record store”. We went and I bought ‘Getz / Gilberto’, an album from 1964 by Stan Getz and João Gilberto, and became obsessed with it. It’s such romantic music, so relaxed! I wanted to challenge myself by working with that, and trying to make it a little more electronic.
Do you compose out of an intuition or is there an upfront concept?
I feel like the theme develops itself quite subconsciously, I usually realize that I’m writing around the same topics and then I kind of hone in on that. Once the theme starts developing, I go back and adjust the lyrics, make sure that the theme is carried out through the whole album.
Are your lyrics autobiographical?
Yes, they always are. I don’t make political music so I guess that makes it music that I create for myself. I write it to ease my own stress and anxiety. If people relate to it, they relate to it.
Tell us a little bit about the story behind your recent single ‘Doing Better’.
So that was a song I wrote after having split up with a girl I met in NY. I wanted it to be a quite romantic song but also, because we weren’t in contact, I remember writing it to let her know I was okay, as she knew I had problems with sleeping and stuff. It was sort of meant to reassure her.
Is that what you aspire your listeners to be left with once the song is over? Some kind of reassurance? There’s something calming about it. It reminds me of a lullaby.
Yes, a sense of just feeling okay with yourself. Actually I think I’ve never written a song like that before, because despite the lyrics being quite dark in some places, the overall theme of it is quite uplifting, and that’s what I like about it: there are moments where you can smile in it and there are moments where you are like “oh...”.
The back and forth between the smiling and the frowning that make up most people’s reality, really translates.
I’m glad to hear that!
You are still very young. What do you want to do when you grow up?
Maybe write music for film. That’s something I always had a passion for. When I was little I used to turn the sound down on some movies or TV shows and create my own music for them. It sounds really geeky now but it was fun. Creating proper tension for film is such an interesting thing. I would love to make movies as well once I’m older, but only to then create the music for it them!
Music can make a huge difference when it comes to our perception of images and the other way around. Is there an image or visual experience that has inspired your music making or sound lately?
I’m really obsessed with the sight of water and I always reference water in my music.
What about your own outer image, as an expression of your work? For example: is there an outfit that represents you as an artist, like a uniform?
I have a yellow jacket I like to wear a lot. There’s even a little in-joke on the album; one of the songs is called “Interlude yellow jacket”.
Who is someone you’d like to work with in the future?
Do you know noname? She’s a female rapper from Chicago, same crew as Chance the Rapper. She makes amazing music. Something was gonna happen and hopefully will in the future. I’m also a big fan of Lianne La Havas.
Jamie Isaac - Maybe [Video]
Director: Alexander Rowland
1. Concert venue
Perfume, Patrick Susking
3. Comfort food
Cookie crunch cereal (with double cream)
4. Podcast / radio show
This American Life
Robert Doisneau & Henri Carter-Bresson
Rope, Alfred Hitchcock
7. Instagram account
8. Cartoon character
Rick from Rick and Morty