Photo: Ellis Scott / Courtesy of Grandstand Media

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Origin (Deluxe Edition)
Jordan Rakei
Ninja Tune
13 March 2020

As PopMatters sat down to speak with multi-instrumentalist and producer Jordan Rakei, neither of us had any idea of the havoc that the coronavirus would soon be playing on both our lives. It may seem like a lifetime ago, but at the time, the media was dominated by news of the tragic fires that had recently ravaged large swathes of Australia. Having lived in Australia from the age of three before moving to London to pursue a music career, this was a very personal tragedy. When we spoke, he was preparing for an acoustic set as part of a “Good Neighbours” benefit concert to help the aid effort. Although primarily, the gig was a fundraising event, it also gave him a chance to strip songs from his most recent album Origin down to their bare bones without the support of his normal, five-piece band.

Released in June last year, Rakei’s third album, Origin, was widely acclaimed as his most strikingly inventive and accomplished album to date. Musically it was much more ambitious than the previous album (2017’s Wallflower) as he deftly blended a mix of smooth jazz, classic soul, and cool funk with a sprinkling of 1990s R&B and hip-hop. However, it’s Rakei’s ability to tie the songs around a single unifying theme — that of our slow, submission to, ever more intrusive, advancements in technology — that raised the whole thing to another level. These broadly dystopian themes added a whole new layer to the vividly rich, hook-laden songs while also highlighting his desire to wrench himself free of his comfort zone.

img-247Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay

For an artist who rarely sits in the same creative spot for too long, it seems a little strange then that he should now be releasing an expanded edition of OriginOrigin, complete with two new songs, a reinterpretation of “Signs” and various live interpretations of songs from the album. Therefore, the most obvious starting point is to ask what was the thinking behind the release?” When I’m in the album writing process, I always write seven songs too many,” he answers enthusiastically.

“These songs were sitting there that I wanted to get out into the world, but I didn’t want to release as singles or put them on the next album as the lyrical narrative made more sense with what I’d talked about on Origin. Also, I had lots of live recordings of radio and acoustic stuff that I really loved as well. In the old days, people may have just put that on a B-side vinyl, but I thought it’d be cool to get all of these songs together and put them on a record with some new and exclusive material to give the album another life and hopefully it will.”

Usually, an artist will release an album, tour it extensively and then put it to bed before readying themselves to enter the next creative phase. For Rakei, the release of the expanded edition offers the chance to experience the whole thing for a second time. “It’s really fascinating. The whole modern-day album cycle thing. You release the album, and then you do that one tour in whatever territory and then go and write the new one. So this is my first experience of having that second wave.” In the immediate future, his live sets will see him continue to play songs from Origin but with a little twist. “Usually, I’ll just keep writing so I’ll have something to release when the cycle is done, but weirdly I have new songs that are 60%-70% don,e but we’re going to be going out on the road and playing these Origin songs. Things are going to sound completely different just for our own enjoyment.”

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the expanded edition is the superb, “Borderline”, a song that has existed in many different forms over the years. “I wrote it on my Dad’s piano about four years ago after just going on tour with Jamie Woon. So I wrote that song sort of acoustically then, but I was never able to find the right sound for it, and one day I sat in my studio and sort of totally changed it up.” It’s a song that was actually very close to making it onto Origin, but Rakei could never quite get it to fit.

“When it was originally in the tracklisting for it was a completely different version. It was more of a soulful, hip-hop beat that had lots of different chord changes, but I wanted to make it much more minimal and emotional. I already thought that a lot of the stuff on Origin was driving and funky, and I wanted a different vibe to that. I experimented with it. I made an acoustic ballad with strings, and I was like, ‘Nah, can’t do that.’ So this is like the final take on it. It’s had its twists and turns, but I think it exists in the best way it can now.”

“Now it coexists with the songs on Origin in that it has a similar message of craving someone but understanding the boundaries and “borderline” is about being in a dystopian world and understanding connection when technology. Where do relationships lie at that time? I can’t wait for people to hear it because it’s been in my head for like five years now.”

The headline-grabbing addition to the re-release is undoubtedly Rakei’s collaboration with US rap legend Common on a reinterpretation of “Signs”. To snag a genuine hip-hop superstar who has worked with some of the biggest producers in the game, including Kanye, Pharrell, and Questlove, still seems incredible to someone who remembers listening to his albums walking around the streets of Brisbane. “I think I was on tour in America when I got that email, and I just lost my mind,” Rakei explains, evidently still wildly excited by the whole thing. “It hasn’t sunk in yet just how famous he is. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, so the fact he’s on one of my songs will be one of the highlights of my career, probably.”

So, did he consider asking any other artists before Common? “I had two people in mind, either Common or Q-tip from A Tribe Called Quest and we got in touch with Common’s people, and they were like “we love the song so much, we’d love to do it.” Considering Common’s status in the US, Common’s participation in the track was surprisingly easy to arrange. “There were quite a few mutual connections,” explains Rakei. “Robert Glasper is managed by the same people, and there were a few other people.” As Rakei explains, Common took a very personal and relatable message in the lyrics. “He heard it, and he said it connected with him. He was like, ‘I’m getting the sense that everyone is imperfect and so just embrace being human’, and I was like ‘exactly’.

My lyrics were more themed around embracing your imperfections in that dystopian world when things are falling apart. Finding your journey in yourself and discovering who you are kind of thing, and he got that straight away, and he connected with the lyrics. His lyrics were aligned with what I was going for, which is cool because I think sometimes you get rap features that don’t seem to make sense. Rappers just rapping their verse without any real thought of the lyrics or the content of the other artist. I was slightly worried about that, but he clearly tailored his verse to fit my verse.”

Alongside the new songs, sit fascinating interpretations of songs from Origin taken from various radio and web sessions. It’s a chance to hear how the songs have evolved since the studio when they were meticulously arranged utilizing studio technology. “For the live track, I don’t like to use computers or tracks to disguise us playing as a band.” He says. “We try to recreate every element with the five of us the best we can. We’re constantly having to think and rethink so that the sound stays big and full without using any tracks. That’s the constant struggle, but it’s one I always look forward to. Making the sound big with just the five of us.”

With Origin having been released in June last year, it comes as little surprise that work is well underway on the follow-up. However, don’t expect anything close to Origin part two. “The one I’m writing now sounds the most different out of all my releases.” He says, before reflecting, “I felt like Origin was an accumulation of my creative habits. When I made my first album, Cloak, I was discovering all these ideas in how I could arrange and Wallflower was a growth on that and then I discovered writing on guitar and melancholy sounds. Origin is like a collection of all of my sound out into one. I feel like I’ve achieved my sound in what I can develop myself.”

Creatively, Rakei finds himself at something of a crossroads. Having steadily worked towards crafting his most realized album to date, now is the time for him to lose himself down new musical avenues. However, that comes with its own pressures especially considering his fan’s perception of him “I’ve kind of defined myself as a soul singer and soul artist, but I like all types of music, so I feel like now is the time. If I released another soul album, I’d be pigeonholed as a soul singer. I think that’s the main challenge that’s been in my head. That’s driving me. I feel that is how I can only grow as an artist. I need to push myself to change. Otherwise, I’ll be stuck in that box, and it’s a box I’m not ashamed of, but there are so many other facets to my sound. I don’t know what the sound is yet, but I want it to be different so people can understand me differently.”

As a result, his approach to writing new material has been markedly different so far with him taking on a much more collaborative role as well as being inspired by the disparate musical tastes and backgrounds of his bandmates. “I’m basically trying to utilize their talents to come to this unified sound. So, in a way, I’m challenging myself to be this kind of old school external producer collecting people’s talents, vibes, and sounds. Trying to be a driving force rather than this person playing every instrument.

For now, the next album is going to have to wait a little longer as he breathes new life into the songs on Origin. With retrospective tours having been a consistent draw for several years, it raises the question of how he thinks he’ll perceive the album in the future. “It’ll be interesting to see where I am musically in ten years cause I feel like I’m always changing. I just have more fun when I’m doing something different. In ten years, I could be making folk music with a banjo, who knows!”