From New Zealand to Australia and then halfway across the world to the UK—Jordan Rakei has done a fair bit of relocating. We caught up with the ‘Ninja Tune’ virtuoso on what was presumably a busy Thursday morning before he hit the studio. The man behind albums ‘Origin’(2019), ‘Wallflower’(2017), ‘Cloak’ (2016) talks to us candidly about the many different themes and elements that have helped shape his sound, one of which being London itself.
You’ve stayed in a lot of different places. It must’ve been confusing to identify from just one place. Would you say ‘Identity’ or lack thereof has made its way as a recurring theme in your life and your music?
It has. It has on many different levels. I spent the first few years of my life in New Zealand and then moved to Australia. I identify as a New Zealander because I have kiwi parents, and most of my friends are New Zealanders, but I also lived and gained all the benefits of Australian society. Well, what is identity, really? Is it what you consider yourself as, or is there some sort of rule about it? That’s always been a big thing in my life. Am I Australian or am I a New Zealander? (Now) Living in London, I’ve come into the man I am today and have learned a lot about myself. I feel like this is the city that has connected with me the most. Musically, it’s my home, and I connect with people here. I just call myself a citizen of the world with three different places to call home.
Has that impacted the kind of music you produce at all?
Totally. When I was in Australia, I was inspired by New Zealand reggae music, and my earlier stuff was more fun, summery, and reggae-influenced. Coming to London, the weather has an effect because everyone is indoors, and it changes the sound. There’s a big electronic scene here, so that had an influence on my music. Now, even though I’ve only been here for five years, I feel like my sound is very much a product of the British music scene, and I would personally say I am a British music artist even though I’m not British in that sense of the word. My sound is influenced by the London sound.
I think somebody that has quite a similar story to you is Ben Stokes from the English Cricket team. His parents are kiwi as well, but he identifies as an Englishman. Kind of crazy, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. There are so many people like that. For Example, Russell Crowe is a New Zealander. He learned acting in Australia, and now he’s off living in America. He’s always asked similar questions like “What’s your home?” and he’s like, “I live in Los Angeles. This is my home.” That sort of made me think that you don’t have to be tied down to one country for your whole life. You could move around the world and be inspired by all different parts.
I read in an interview that you used to work in a supermarket to fund and support your music projects. You also got a little bit of help from your dad and brother at the time. That was a very cool story. Have you visited that same supermarket as Jordan Rakei, three albums in? How did that feel?
I did. It’s still the local supermarket where we live. When I go back to Brisbane to see my family, it’s still the place that’s right next to everyone’s houses. When I went in and saw my boss, this wave of emotion hit me. Does he want me to see that he’s still working here, or do I want him to know about where I am now? I got too scared to go up and talk to him even though we developed a relationship over four years. I felt bad because I always knew he was a fan of my music and was always like, “I’m interested to see what you’re going to do and good luck in London” and now I’ve come back as a customer, shopping at his store and he’s still there. Yeah, I don’t know. It was quite a weird experience.
Would you say you’re a perfectionist?
Yeah, I think I am. I think it’s finding that fine line between working something up to make sure all the elements in the song have a fit. You don’t want to put things in there for the sake of putting stuff in there. When I was young, I would put five different rhythmic guitar parts when really, one would do. I try to make sure everything I put in there has intent and can perfectly fit. We meticulously edit it all. I feel like a good quality of mine is that I’m good at understanding when to move on, whereas the true perfectionists spend five years making an album and are never happy with it. They’re constantly like, “Oh, this needs to be changed.” I want to be the person that continually makes albums. So, in the initial stages, I treat it like going to a job or thinking of it algorithmically. What does this song need sonically? How many frequencies are being hit? I don’t have enough high instruments. Where’s the low end coming from? Once I tick all these boxes, I ask myself, “how is it all sitting?”. As soon as I’ve got this formula of my sound, I’m like, “Cool, let’s move on to the next track or next album.”
That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In terms of output and getting as much out of an album. The law of diminishing returns kicks in at some point.
Totally. Also, people will fall out of love with the album if they spend too much time on it. And I want to be able to like the songs. I have to play it for the next 6 months after It comes out. I want to be able to enjoy it.
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session from the past or present, whose studio session would you want to be a part of?
Good question. Personally, It would either be the recording sessions of Bob Marley’s classic songs where they were coming up with the rhythm section parts. Bob Marley is a hero of mine. So, watching him work where they were recording straight to tape would’ve been great to see. Were they rehearsed, or were they talking about stuff between takes?
Another one would be Radiohead. They go really deep in production and consider everything. I’d learn a lot from them.
There have been many collaborations you’ve been a part of over the years. Can I ask who has had a lasting impact on you?
That’s a good question. I’ve taken a lot from everyone, but I think the person who had a massive impact on my sound is my friend, Alfa Mist. When I moved to London, I was making funky soul music and then I met Alfa. His stuff is very dark and very emotional. We made this song together, which was on my first album (Cloak) called ‘Rooftop.’ I listened to dark music but didn’t know how to get it out into the world through my sound. Alfa helped me facilitate that. From there, I went and made my second album, “Wallflower,” which is darker and more straightforward; Not as groovy and funky. An album mostly inspired by Alfa Mist but also by London. Even now, I always think, “What would Alfa think of this song?”.
You guys are good friends then?
Yeah, we share a studio and are good friends. He dropped his album this year. Alfa went into a studio with musicians and came out a few days later with the album. I always spend months, meticulously editing, and layering, but he just captures everything live. That inspired me to go on a writing trip this year (for my next album) and do the same thing. I got musicians that I love and recorded everything live. Now, I’m working on my classic post-production editing. His process has inspired me to change the way I’m putting together the new album.
Speaking of your new project, what surroundings and thought processes do you deliberately put yourself in when you make a new album, or is it different every time?
It is different. The thing that changes every time is the lyrics. All of the songs within my albums are aligned with one concept. I first really think, “What lyrically will this be about? What sonically will this sound like?” Right now, I’m at quite an integral part of my career where, If I make another soulful album, I could potentially be pigeon-holed to being just a soul artist. I love soul music, but I like making lots of different things, and I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into being only one sound. So, I’ve thought about it tactically. Where can I exist in the world of music and how can my legacy continue differently? How can I continue to change my sound without alienating my audience? This is tough to do for a lot of people. I know a lot of people with ego that can totally change their sound by coming out and making a country album without considering the people that have bought and supported their music. You’ve got to think of that, but at the same time, you want to keep re-inventing your sound. My next album is probably going to be the most different out of all the ones I’ve released. This will be the biggest diversion among all of them. That’s exciting for me, and I’m excited to see what people will think and for them to come on a journey with me.
Dan Kye or Jordan Rakei, who would you rather spend the day with?
(Laughs) It’s funny, because, I was telling my friends, “I don’t know if I, Jordan, would be friends with someone like me because I’m usually quite shy & awkward and when there are two shy and awkward people in the same room, it’s not a good situation.” I always joke and say that Dan Kye is this really cocky, funny guy that everyone likes. He’s really extroverted, and even though that person doesn’t exist, I always give him this character of “I’m a DJ, I make Dance music. I’m really easy to talk to, I’m really funny “…all that stuff. I think in a sense, I hang out with Dan Kye in my head every day because that’s my alter-ego. I think I’d rather hang out with him.
It’s ironic because Jordan Rakei has more fans than Dan Kye.
Haha, yeah, I know. I don’t like famous people, just kidding 🙂
Have you dealt with performance anxiety? If so, how do you circumvent it?
Well, I did, but only when I was like 13-14 performing in high school because I hadn’t done it before. At that stage, I was really shy and anxious. Ever since I’ve been a professional musician, I don’t get nervous. I think being nervous is a situation where, potentially, you don’t feel prepared. For example, having social anxiety(this was what my second album was about ‘Wallflower’). When you’re socially anxious and are approaching a social situation, you will naturally be nervous because you haven’t been in many social situations before. You don’t have the skillset and aren’t prepared for these environments. This is the same way I think of live events. If we’re well-rehearsed and we’ve spent thousands of hours honing our craft, it’s just about going on stage and doing what we do. My band and I, we talk about this a lot. Sometimes, they get nervous and I try to understand how. I never get nervous, weirdly. My biggest show was at the Roundhouse (venue) in London. We were backstage, and I was like, “Come on! I can’t wait to get on”.
The feeling you’d like to leave fans with after listening to your album or at a show?
At a show, I always want it to be like a coming away from watching a big play, musical theatre, or emotional movie. I want to take people on a journey of hopefully three or four different emotions through the show. Usually, the first emotion is one of Euphoria. People going “Oh, there’s Jordan, he’s on stage. He’s finally here, and we get to see him” So, at the start, I play crowd-pleasers and fan favorites. I then start playing the stuff that I connect with a lot. They see into my soul and into that darker place. We bring it right down, the lights go down, all the songs are emotional and really slow; Not danceable. It’s all about introspection. I would like them to go on that journey with me and think about how that song might’ve affected them when they first heard it or how it’s affecting them now. Are they thinking about their family and is it taking them on an introspective journey? We then bring back up the funk like they’re at a party, and they’re all having fun. The ending changes all the time. There’s a sense of community where everyone is singing together. I just want to take them on a whirlwind of emotions, and when they come away from the gig, they’re not like, “Oh, he’s a cool keyboard player and singer” or “that band was tight.” It’s more like “I went on an emotional experience” unlike any other show. That’s sort of the dream.
What’s the last record you bought?
The last Flying Lotus album (Flamagra). I wanted to get it on the day it dropped. I consciously didn’t listen to any singles because I wanted to listen to the album the way he did it. He’s always the guy pushing the envelope. “What’s he going to do this time?” I’ve been on tour since and haven’t been able to crate dig, I guess.
Any advice you want to leave people with?
There’s a lot of advice. There are things I’ve learned from the friends that have succeeded and the friends that haven’t, and it’s sort of what I touched on earlier. Having extreme attention to detail and making sure that your music or product or your website or artwork is of the highest quality possible with no shortcuts. Also having the mindset to understand when to progress from the initial idea and when to push yourself forward to get it out there. Some people have amazing ideas and insane talents. They could be amazing singers and guitarists and may have written albums. But they have this anxiety of sitting on it and waiting for the right time to do more. If you’re proud of a high-quality product, I think you should get it out there as soon as possible.
I know you played in India twice, I think. You did ‘Echoes of Earth’ in Bangalore, and you also did another tour as ‘Dan Kye’ a few years ago. Do you remember any of them?
Yeah, I did. I remember landing in New Delhi, and I couldn’t believe, flying in, how many trees there were in the city. There are trees everywhere. I also went on this beautiful drive. I think it was Mumbai to Pune, down south. This was a four-hour drive through the mountains and that was amazing. I didn’t realise people out there knew my music, which is really humbling. I don’t check my analytics online. They were like, “We didn’t even know you were coming” because it was under Dan Kye, obviously. They said, “Come back next time with your band, and we’ll get lots of people down for the gig.
Words by Akhil Hemdev