Say Something: Clash Meets Jordan Rakei

Say Something: Clash Meets Jordan Rakei

New Zealand artist on meditation, music, and slowly becoming a Londoner...

Jordan Rakei travelled half-way round the world to pursue his dreams.

Inking a deal with Ninja Tune, the producer and songwriter swapped his native New Zealand for London, a completely different environment to live and work in.

It all worked out perfectly. Speaking to Clash on the phone, he waxes lyrical about the city, and the music community which he has helped develop.

A fastidious worker - he also releases electronic material through Peckham's Rhythm Section imprint - Jordan Rakei contributed massively to Loyle Carner's second album, working alongside close friend Tom Misch.

Indeed, Jordan has developed close friendships with both of these artists - so much so, in fact, that he invited the pair of them to his wedding earlier in the year.

New album 'Origin' is out now, and it furthers Jordan Rakei's reputation as a songwriter, fusing his innate soul and jazz influences with club culture observations.

Perhaps his most accomplished, rounded album to date, it deftly picks apart the dystopian relationship between the individual and technology.

With his summer dates now unfolding, Clash speaks to Jordan Rakei about music, meditation, and the strange ways in which London gets under your skin.

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You do so much across all manner of different projects… how do you fit it all in?

It’s funny because weirdly I feel like I have a lot less time than most people, but I make sure that any day off that I have… for example, I have all this touring as well, which is hard to fit around writing. I know a lot of people that just write when they’re not touring, and then in times when they’re touring they’ll have like an off-day. But I just force myself.

If I know I’ve got a studio day in two weeks, I really try and write two ideas, or get some skeletons done. I always want to be writing music as much as possible, and releasing it as much as possible, to capture that moment in time for me. Rather than write an album and take three or four years. It’s not the way I want to do it.

Do you begin with a structure of the album in mind, or is it a more literal snapshot of various ideas and themes?

It’s both, actually. I had the idea. I knew exactly the sound I was going for – I wanted it to sound nostalgic but fresh and modern. 80S sounding. I knew the sound I was going for, and I knew the lyric concepts, I wanted it to be consistent throughout. I set myself these deadlines.

I reached out to the label, and said I wanted to release something alongside some shows in the summer. They’re like: we need it by January. And it was June, so I thought: oh shit, I’d better start writing this! It’s a vibrant, upbeat record, so it’s full of summer. I forced myself into the studio everyday, made some strong decisions. I didn’t linger on any ideas.

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Do those limitations help to inspire you to create?

Oh definitely. I even had a day where I had sent 15 of these demos to Ninja Tune, and they were like: this is cool, but we feel like you need more songs.

So I went to the studio, and for a bit of fun I called it ‘The Single Day’ and I tried to write singles for the album. I wrote, like, seven tunes in two days! Three of those tunes went on to be singles – I wrote ‘Say Something’ and ‘Rolling Into One’ all in those sessions. It was a nice challenge for me, to try and be pumping out song ideas, and not judging the process, and really getting stuff happening. 

How did ‘Rolling Into One’ come into place? Do you start with the beat?

Well, it’s funny, basically I was making a beat for my side-dance-project, and I was like: hey, I like this drum groove! Then I got a bass player to jam over it, and he came up with that bass line, which is integral to the song. I liked it too much to be a side project, it needs to be a Jordan Rakei song! So I slowed it down slightly… it’s still dance-able, but it all started around that heavy dance vibe.

Then from there I layered all the synths and keys. It started as an instrumental dance tune. I liked it, I started writing to it. It was one of those ideas when I was trying to pump out loads of ideas, and it came out of me really quickly.

Lyrically, the album returns to themes of the individual’s often troubled relationship with technology. Why do you think you were drawn to that area?

I was listening to all these podcasts, and I read a couple of books about technology’s integration, and how we will basically turn into this new species, how technology is going to be a bigger part of our lives.

At first I thought it was really fascinating, and really interesting, and then I started thinking about me worrying about the use of my phone – and how addicted I can be to it – and then I thought, well, this phone isn’t even that advanced as a form of technology, can you imagine what it will be like when it’s fully integrated, when it’s high speed? It’s hard to imagine.

The temptation is going to get even stronger to use that device and that’s what made me worried, and start thinking about the concepts, and the different ways in which technology may not be beneficial. We think space travel is cool, but do we think about the negatives? Every song is different topic, and it links to that.

Did that suspicion of technology inform your view on what kit to use on the album?

It does, yeah. In the past, I remember as a teenager being like: everything’s gotta be organic, bro! (laughs) And I never used synths, or presets. I came from more of a classic Motown background, where I just loved instruments.

But this record is by far my most heavily… I guess you could say ‘technology sounding’. There’s way more synths than ever, there’s interesting vocal processing, there’s lots of hybrid technology sounds that try to blend both worlds together.

I think they were already doing that in the 80s – the integration of synthesisers in that must was already pretty prevalent. I wanted to have that sound, that nostalgic, 80s synth sound but make it in a more modern, pop sense. There’s a sense of nostalgia, but also a sense of something new. 

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How does that split inform a track like ‘Say Something’, then?

‘Say Something’ started as an electric guitar riff that I had been working around. And then I thought it sounded too standard, too much like a soul tune, so I whip out this Juno, and experiment for a while, trying to find an interesting sonic that can clash with the guitar sound, so it sounds slightly different, or slightly more in line with the rest of the album.

And also it’s synthetic drums, so that’s an element of blending both worlds together. At the end of it there are loads of different atmospheric layers that are hidden, that give it this colour, give it more of this futuristic colour, with this sense of nostalgia there, with old school synths like the Juno which blend both worlds together. It was fun to make.

I made it in that ‘Single Day’ as well, when the ideas were flying. I’m really happy with it.

Did you find that the vocals and lyrics were the last parts to be done on the record?

Basically, I feel like half the album is quite live band sounding, with some layers of synths, and then the other half of the album is very produced. Most of those beats started off as instrumentals that I sang over later. Then the live band stuff started off as me playing piano, and then trying to work out what instruments to bring in to extend it.

So a track like ‘You And Me’ I started on piano, then I was like: OK, this needs live drums, a bass player. I was thinking more as an old school producer. Whereas some of the other songs - ‘Say Something’ or ‘Signs’ - started very much around the beat, and I was trying to make a heavy beat, then I would sing something on top. The process went in both ways.

Has your experience as a band leader – especially given your touring – enabled you to approach the album with more confidence?

100% yeah. I even found that we were writing a section of the song, I was producing it, and I was thinking about the live show. I know what moments work, and what moments don’t work. You learn from it. With writing the record, we were really conscious of that in the production.

For example, with the dropout in ‘Mind’s Eye’ - it’s this driving, propulsive song, and there’s a moment where there’s a dropout, and it goes into this beautiful, soft-sounding bridge. That was a conscious production element that revolves around the live show.

We’ve played it live, and it really works as a big, epic, end of set moment. We’ve only been able to do it that because we’re toured for three years, with largely the same cast of musicians – it’s made a big impact.

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Last time we spoke you felt really settled in London, and it seems like that has only increased.

I’ve fallen even more in love with London. It’s become my home. I couldn’t imagine even thinking about leaving. All those relationships – I’ve been friends with Loyle since I first moved, as I knew him through Tom Misch – and then after still staying here we finally got the chance to work together, and then I became this integral part of the production on his album, which is amazing.

Just being here is so inspiring. People are trying to do stuff and you feel like if you sit around all day playing Nintendo Switch or something then you’ll look at the others and they’ll just be killing it! It inspires you to work harder. That’s why I really try to work as much as possible, and fill my diary as much as I can.

Do you find yourself complaining about the transport...?

Haha! I definitely do. When I first came I couldn’t believe how affected British people are by the weather, and I’m still trying to remain positive but there’s still elements of that in me! I’m gradually changing into this classic Londoner complaining about the tube or the traffic!

The album ends with ‘Mantra’, does this stem from the role of meditation in your own life?

Totally. Meditation has shaped the last seven years of my life now. I practice it everyday. Although funnily I don’t do a mantra-based meditation, I am aware of repeating mantras as a good tool to silence out thought.

That’s the idea of the lyric – each line of the lyric is like a mantra, or an affirmation, where this character is repeating these positive phrases in this dystopian world, and that’s helping him maintain sanity, maintain positivity.

Some of the lyrics are: I believe in humanity, I believe in love, I believe in trust, I believe in our history… and this person is just constantly saying these words, meditating on it, and trying to remain calm throughout this crazy new world that he’s living in.

I wanted to end the album on a more positive, all-encompassing ending, because the album sounds like a bright, colourful thing, but a lot of it is quite dark lyrically. I wanted a more positive thing – all the different instruments that come together in that song also represent all these people coming together. It’s a mixture of everything, with everyone coming together to end it.

That’s probably my favourite tune on the album, because it’s a slow-burner, it’s really long… it’s a meditative pulse.

Do you think music – and the act of creation – is also a means to disrupt that dystopia?

It does, yes. In the middle of this process I began to get a hold of technology’s grip on me, and began to have a freer mind, and then I was able to write really quickly.

Basically, I’m trying to inspire other people to even think about limiting technology in your life, and using it more of a tool. And how that can free the human in you to think more about human things – creativity, love, romance, friendship. That’s when you can be a better person.

That’s the whole concept, and I feel like I overcame that in the album-making process, and I’m going to try and maintain that in my life. 

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'Origin' is out now. Catch Jordan Rakei at the following shows:

10 Birmingham The Mill
11 Manchester Academy 2
12 Leeds Uni Stylus
15 Bristol SWX
16 Brighton Concorde
18 London Roundhouse

Photography: Ellis Scott

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