Interview by Paula Abu and write-up by Karen Chalamilla.
“I was in a session once and someone was like “you've got a half decent voice, ‘you should try singing.'’ And yeah, about two years later I was playing Glastonbury,” Jake Isaac mentions early on in the interview. The ease with which Jake skips over the years between the beginning of his singing career and his Glastonbury performance is almost believable when his lower register graces your eardrums. With a soulful voice that has just the right amount of grit to arrest your senses, it’s more than reasonable that he has ended up on some of the biggest stages in the country.
Jake grew up playing drums in church, and by 16 had taught himself how to play the piano and the bass guitar. His comfort with instruments means that his music often relies on them, but it also means he knows how to temper them to sit ever so steadily against his vocals.
For the singer/songwriter, most of the battle in his career has been internal. Carving a lane out of the barely existent UK soul and R&B scene is tricky. The evolution of his music clearly reflects this in the way the pop and rock influenced EP War Child is a far cry from the recently released Honesty. When a genre is as intimately linked to black culture, emerging out of it can feel like a reclamation of your identity. In this interview, Jake Isaac talks about embracing this intimacy with so much assuredness. Also, with so much humour- the kind that gestures a person comfortable in their skin.
On being a black man in R&B
In terms of my identity as a musician, and as a black man I used to neglect a part of me. When I started out it was only a few of us with guitars on our hands, like JP cooper, Jacob Banks, Michael Kiwanuka and myself. I remember we were the only soul type guys with guitars, but I also remember feeling like soul isn't popular in this country. It’s only in the past decade that everyone wants to come and do riff and run. When I started out I denied a lot of my soul, gospel and R&B roots because I thought I needed to play a game. I thought I’m British, no one is into that- when you go to Shropshire they don’t listen to Jasmine Sullivan. So I chased after what was considered mainstream and made music for that crowd. But then how dare I be surprised when I do 700,000 people type gigs and 95% of the audience was white? Who am I to kick off and say black people don't support my music? Bruv, be yourself and then we can talk.
I would sit in team meetings and would listen to some of the music I made and they would be like there is too much bass line on that, or too much groove there, and I would endorse and condone that stereotypical behaviour. It was stifling, and it was wrong and my own fault because I was seeing results and numbers in a different way. But that's not sustainable. I did a tour with Tori Kelly and for the first time I I saw a mixed room, like 50/50. And I could do my little riff and run for the first time and everyone was cheering and I was shook, like what? I’m allowed to do this. I finished that tour on the 4th march, and right after I started writing this album. I realised I can be holistically myself. I realised I've been gifted a following that isn’t into mainstream music and with that comes the creative liberty to do what I want. This is my lane, and I’m just trying to carve it out as best as I can, and actually be grateful for what I have.
And to be blunt, one of my boys texted me saying, " oh, so you're black yeah?" [laughs] and now we're in a time where people really appreciate black culture, as in it's not just the hype. I feel like we're a step closer, not all the way, just a step closer to all men being seen as equal and valuing what each culture brings to the table. And I think I've been tripping and I just need to lean more into who I am.
On leaning into authenticity
When I first started working with my new manager she said “listen, you've been doing your career so far, not showing people the real you and that is flukey, like now you gotta roll up your sleeves and give people an insight into what is really going on.” And that was a massive challenge for me. All of the songs are real life stories based on bits of my journeys, my insecurities, my sense of imposter syndrome when it comes to relationships. I’m trying to be honest, trying to uncover more, trying to dig deeper. I think people, especially in this day and age, they need what's real. and I'm just trying to do that as an artist.
I've been doing these little instagram live sessions called ‘Open and Honest’ and I interviewed her recently, and she said to me, 'I don’t even know if you got a following over there Jake, but I listen to your voice and I sing to it.' [laughs] And once I got over the blow, I was really encouraged because she was actually endorsing me. She was saying I'm here for what I've heard rather than who you are, which is massive.
I don’t like conflict or talking about my insecurities. But when I sing about it, I feel a sense of obligation to put my heart into it. Especially the voice notes (interludes in Honest), I just wanted to create context for the songs that people could identify with. But yeah, I definitely pour more honesty into songwriting than I do in real life.
On being an album kind of artist
It’s been a long time since my last project. I feel like I should have had like three albums out by now. Like my name's not Adele innit. So now I’m just like, alright Jake, c'mon plan ahead. And I think I did the EPs because I was still scared to lean more into what I was really about and what I really listened to and grew up on. But now I don’t really feel like the type of music I make should be like a singles type career, or an EP type career. I've always wanted to be an album artist, so now I'm like 'listen, just commit.' All of the people that I listen to, like PJ Morton and India Arie, they're all album artists. You don’t see them putting out a little four track EP. Bum that. Them man make grown people music. I feel like I just need to start committing to that.
On being a father
I think I’m more conscious of the decisions I make on a day to day basis. I'm more conscious of the decisions I make creatively. And what comes out of my mouth. I think I’ve always been conscious of that but even more when you realise that children are sponges. I just feel like if you don't let fatherhood inform your daily decisions, then are you really being a good father? Because any good father is aware of the responsibility they have, and I say that with my whole chest. In terms of legacy, in terms of...yeah you know what i'm trying to say. Of course it informs my decisions daily.
On what he anticipates for his music
I'm going further down the rabbit hole if I'm honest. I'm getting more and more excited about this lane I’m on. On the new stuff I've got a little reggae ting I'm messing around with and a little highlife ting, but all with acoustic guitar and live instrumentation. I’m talking like hard reggae, and hard high life and just go there but with an acoustic guitar, melodies, vibes and you know what i mean? So yeah, I’m going to go down the rabbit hole and keep making the music that I enjoy over this side of the world.