As the final months of 2017 wind down, it’s nearly time for critics and fans alike to begin taking stock of the year-in-music that has been. While there’s still quite a bit of new music to come between now and December, one certainty that has already been cemented is that Jordan Rakei’s sublime sophomore song suite Wallflower is sure to appear in the top tier of Albumism’s year-end tally of 2017’s finest albums.
Galvanized by a more mature, more kaleidoscopic sound than its precursor, his excellent 2016 debut LP Cloak, the exquisitely crafted Wallflower finds Rakei inviting and encouraging the listener to mine even greater depths of his musical mind, heart and soul. Eager to learn more about how Wallflower came to be and what drives his penchant for stirring songcraft, I recently had the pleasure of connecting with the man himself. And as our conversation below affirms, Rakei’s candor, passion and modesty are signature qualities both on and off record.
Justin Chadwick: Congratulations on the release of Wallflower, which is truly a remarkable set of songs. Also remarkable is that its arrival follows your debut full-length album Cloak (2016) by just over a year. What prompted you to get back into the studio so quickly, without the typical gestation period of 2 to 3 years between recording albums?
Jordan Rakei: Thanks so much. I'm so happy it's finally out. I just love making music, and I feel I will always be in the studio. Luckily we finished Cloak well before it came out, so we were able to jump straight back into the studio before we had to start touring Cloak. I had a lot of these ideas already finished, and they just weren't the right vibe for Cloak, so I held on to them for this album.
JC: What would you say are the musical parallels between both albums? And the differences?
JR: Hmm. Good question. I think if you press play from the start of Cloak it flows really nicely into Wallflower. I tapped a lot more into darker textures and production techniques, which allowed me a space to write so much personal stuff. Lyrically they are very different albums. Wallflower is about me dealing with anxiety and overcoming it. Cloak is about introspection and analyzing the power of the mind.
JC: The title Wallflower suggests a certain reclusiveness nurtured by someone who is more comfortable playing the spectator or introvert role than being an active participant. To what extent does this reflect your self-identity, whether professionally and/or personally?
JR: I think it reflects it more personally. My whole life I've always been more of an outsider, particularly regarding social situations. Whereas in music, I feel it's a lot easier to express yourself without feeling judged. That's why I'm so happy with Wallflower. I was able to speak about things I've been holding back on my whole life.
JC: Many of your songs are brave, boldly introspective and confessional. Are you more comfortable expressing your emotions, your fears, your dreams on record and on stage?
JR: Definitely. Like I mentioned previously, I don't judge the creative process. What comes out in those songwriting sessions is a pure expression of the subconscious. I'm not sitting there analyzing each lyric, each line. It usually flows really quickly and then I reflect afterward. It's quite a surreal experience.
JC: I love the image you selected for the album cover, as it seems to capture the boy—who I presume is you in your younger guise—discovering that life just isn’t fair sometimes. Is there a story behind the photo, and why did you select this one to represent the album?
JR: It's an image that's very personal to my family and me. It's a picture of me that used to sit in our house when we were growing up. Visitors would always comment on it. Because the album is so personal, I wanted to make sure I didn't overcomplicate the artwork. I was focused on portraying as much vulnerability as possible, and this photo definitely represents that.
JC: The Dave Okumu supported “Nerve” is one of the many standouts on Wallflower, and it exemplifies the shapeshifting, non-linear quality that many of your songs tend to embrace. Does your penchant for experimentation derive from a conscious design to try new things in the studio, or does your sense of adventure occur more organically or improvisationally for you?
JR: No it definitely happens improvisationally. Typically I'll start with a loop and then play my guitar through some pedals. As soon as I'm happy with a sound there, I record it and move onto the next part and instrument. I continue to do this until I have about three different sections and maybe fifteen to twenty layers of instrumentation. Then the hard part is making sure the song flows smoothly and that each part complements each other!
JC: On the poignant and powerful “May” you examine the loss of your grandmother, to whom it seems you were quite close. Did writing and recording the song act as a form of solace for you and your family in trying to process her passing?
JR: Yes, so May was the name of my grandmother. I initially wrote the song because a friend of mine had just recently lost her grandmother and it put things into perspective for me about family. The song clearly explains the events that happened the night we found out about the passing of my grandmother, and I was just channeling my own mother’s pain, because she was going through a lot that night. I've performed it live a few times already, and have found it quite difficult to get through, because I always envision those early memories.
JC: Ninja Tune has quite a storied history of cultivating some of the most dynamic, genre-bending artists around. How does it feel to now be a vital part of shaping the label’s legacy?
JR: It's insane. I consider myself so lucky. I've been a massive fan of so many artists on Ninja Tune for the past five or so years, but that's all heightened since moving to London and discovering more artists from the UK. Listening to Jono McCleery and Fink has shaped my own songwriting recently, and they are both on Ninja Tune as well. I'm so happy to be alongside all these amazing artists and hopefully I can create my own legacy on this label too.
JC: I understand that you’re a long time hip-hop head, with a special reverence for legendary producers like Pete Rock and 9th Wonder. What is it about their artistry that resonates so profoundly with you? Are there other artists that you consider to be major influences on the evolution of your songcraft?
JR: Hip-hop was a massive influence in me learning production. Those two are big, big influences, but also the likes of Q-Tip and even early Kanye stuff. Even now you can hear a lot of my music is loop based. These are all techniques that I learned from making hip-hop back in my pre-teen era! I've obviously moved on from that sound, but still find ways of making sure the drums and bass have the punch that I originally fell in love with!
JC: Since moving to London from Brisbane a few years ago, you’ve immersed yourself in the city’s vibrant, ever-evolving music community, and it seems that you’ve found quite a few kindred spirits there. How has this transition to London impacted you and your music?
JR: In a big way. It's just a place of solitude. It's cold. The hustle is real, and so many artists are on a similar path. Just being surrounded by the markets, the music scene, the commuters and the weather has had a big impact on my personality. Personality always spills itself into the music, so that's why the music has taken a darker turn.
JC: You’re currently touring stateside before heading back for your UK and European tour next month. What can audiences expect to experience during your live performances that they may not gather from your studio work?
JR: More dynamics and different arrangements. Learning the stuff for the live show has been really fun, because it seems we are recreating the album all over again. There is going to be six of us in the band, so we are going to try and create the best “Wall of Sound” possible!
JC: In keeping with the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
JR: Wow, tough. I'm not going to be a cop-out, but there have been so many albums recently that I've fallen absolutely in love with. But I always think those early albums from childhood are the ones that have stayed on through. Radiohead’s In Rainbows, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Fat Freddy’s Drop’s Based on a True Story, Jeff Buckley’s Grace. These four are always non-negotiable. And Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
SEE Jordan Rakei on tour | Dates