Jake Isaac is the kind of performer anyone would like to see on and off the stage. The singer-songwriter has been touring non-stop for the last two years, working the festival season and delivering his unique brand of soulful, rock-tinged folk to the masses. And while the South London native may be riding high on the latest wave of British singer-songwriters (his latest EP, Where We Belong, was released under Elton John’s record label, Rocket Records), he’s as down-to-earth as they come.
Isaac was all smiles when he met up with The Rhapsody in central London for a photo shoot and interview, just days before he embarked on his American tour. As he was tucking into his lunch of French fries, chicken and mac ‘n’ cheese, we talked to the singer-songwriter about his musical habits, preferences and journey.
So starting from the beginning, do you remember what your first encounter with music was like?
Yeah, [there are] two things I can remember. First one: my dad used to come home from work late at night and played Paul Simon, the Graceland album, and when he didn’t play that, the only other tape he had was Mozart… As I got older, he used to play Jim Reeves and that kind of stuff. From what I remember growing up, that’s what I used to [listen to], like on long car journeys. I loved it. I loved it.
And you mentioned another memory?
Um, yeah. The first time I heard Michael Jackson.
How old were you then?
I was probably about eight? No, maybe younger.
Do you remember the song?
Yeah, “Thriller,” it was the music video. I was scared. I was so scared but I remember feeling confused. I was so scared watching the video, like all those people turning into monsters, but at the same time I wanted to dance. And I’ll never forget that feeling. I taught myself to moonwalk, badly, and from then I realized that music could make you feel a certain way and that way all day. And there’s a part of me that makes me want to re-find that feeling.
You mentioned your dad. Was he the most influential person in helping shape your musical tastes?
Yeah. He bought me my first drum kit. He always supported me. My mom was like, “Nah, I think you should study more” and da da da, and he was like, [smacks lips] “Nah. Go on.” He was fantastic and really nurturing, musically and all that. He can only play three chords on the guitar but he still saw it in me and invested.
How long were you playing the drums? Because it sounds like you started very, very young.
I came out with sticks in my hands. [Laughs]
Um, like when I was four. I used to have a toy basket my mum gave me and I’d empty all the toys on the floor and that was it.
And I read that you only learned how to play the guitar relatively recently. So like six years ago, I think it was?
Yeah, that’s right.
So what made you kind of decide to want to pick it up?
‘Cause I can play a bit of keys, and I felt like with the guitar, [it’s] a lot more rhythmic. Seeing as drums were my first instruments, I kind of felt like [with the] guitar, you can groove on it. And also a lot of the musicians I was listening to at the time, they were playing guitar. So I was like, “alright.” So I taught myself.
Who were you listening to then?
I was in uni at the time and I was listening to Justin King, John Mayer, Paul Simon still, the Libertines… Those were some of the people I was listening to big time.
I read that your father was a reverend, right?
Did you feel like you had to hide certain albums or songs you were listening to?
Nah. He’s quite radical. He was quite open. As long as I wasn’t listening to stuff which was like rebel-y music continuously he was like, “go for it.” My dad used to be Rastafarian and so he grew up on everything. Everyone, everything: from Marley through to Jimmy Smith. Yeah, he was properly into the music thing, you know? I think at one point he was part of a sound system crew. He used to go around and play tunes at different clubs and at different parties. So he understood and appreciated good music so… Nah, he never put that kind of restriction on me. He let me find myself.
So what were you listening to while growing up?
On my own?
Yeah, on your own.
Honestly, I would, I keep listening to [my dad’s music]. I’d listen to, like, Take 6. Those were back in the days when tapes were about…I’d listen to a lot of my dad’s gospel records, the ones we had at the house. I wasn’t really big on pop music. I was more into music-music. I was really hooked onto Justin King. I got hooked onto Coldplay… I know they’re kind of pop-rock but it’s just more stuff that’s epic and really quite, quite immediate sonically. I did the Jill Scott, Erykah Badu kind-of-thing for a bit, D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. Sheesh. I played drums along to that in my room for ages. And then [because] I studied drums; I used to be big on jazz. I used to listen to quite a bit to Marcus Miller, John Scofield, John McLaughlin… So those were like big influences. Also, Jazz FM started when I was a kid so to listen to, like, Daily Jazz… I used to listen to everything but grime, garage and rap and hip-hop.
Everything that’s supposed to be popular in South London, right?
Yeah, I stayed away from that. And a lot of the stuff my peers were listening to I wasn’t interested in. ‘Cause, for me, there’s no longevity in it where as with good songs, there’s longevity in it.
Was there any other way that growing up in South London shaped how you viewed music?
Yeah, like, I didn’t listen to that stuff on my own accord but I was around it quite a bit. So group-wise and energy-wise that affected me big time. And also in the performance way, when you grow up in South London and nearly everyone is an extrovert and you go to an all-boys school—[where] the testosterone is through the roof—you learn how to be extroverted as a performer and a communicator. So that really impacted me big time. And I find that now when I do festivals, it’s like, “HELLO, EVERYBODY!” You just go for it, you know what I mean? I feel I learned that kind of stuff partly from growing up in South London.
You mentioned Jazz FM. What other ways did you discover music back then?
Jazz FM, other musicians—a lot of my mates were drummers and musicians, bass players. We’d swap tapes, we’d do long-term borrowing [laughs]. That was mainly it, really. Hanging out with other musicians.
Has discovering music now changed for you?
Yes and no. I got Spotify on my computer but I don’t use it enough. I don’t go, “Oh! Who should I check out? Blah, blah, blah,” just type in a name. I don’t even pull out some of the old records. I like what I like to hear and I just click on it and I go for it. I’m quite old school when it comes to it. Unless someone introduces me to something, I don’t fancy listening to that right now. You know? That’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it? [Laughs]
No, it makes sense to me! Because I’m the kind of person that sticks to what’s already on my iTunes, then goes to Spotify only if someone mentions someone new.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Otherwise, it’s more of what I like.
So when you’re listening to new music, what’s the first thing you notice? Is there a certain element you pick up on right away or are looking for?
So I was on the NPR “Tiny Desk” website and I was just flipping through all the videos. I was doing that yesterday. I prefer to do that than [to] go on Spotify. And the first thing I look for when it comes to, like, checking out new stuff is performance. You know the saying “it’s not what you say, it’s how to say it”?
With some artists out there, their songwriting is amazing but everything is so monotone, everything is really “ahhhhh,” really quite dull. Then there are some performers, they’re just singing about rubbish but their performance is amazing. So I feel like stuff like that is a really good way of finding out. Also like “The Mahogany Sessions,” like certain online platforms, online channels and YouTube. I prefer YouTube videos rather than going on Spotify.
So it seems like you’re very into the performance aspect and I know that you’ve been touring non-stop and you’ve done a lot of festivals. I understand that schedules for musicians during festival season are a bit insane but do you have time to go check out other bands play?
The beautiful thing about festivals is you get to check out other artists while you’re there. So before I go on, I’ll go watch another artist. When I finish, I grab a beer, meet the boys and we mark down who we want to go see and go see them. I love that. That’s the perk of festival season. Festivals are the best times to kind of feel the music community [and] just to bond with each other again.
Do you listen to music while you’re touring? Is it a set playlist or does it change during the time of year?
I find that sometimes, a lot of the times, after a gig at a festival or wherever, I just want silence just to reset. I also got into the habit of listening to something completely different to what I do. So early in the year, I was doing a lot of gigs in Europe, like I was listening to Diplo, there’s a song by Jack Ü with Diplo [and Skrillex]—
The Justin Bieber one [“Where Are Ü Now”]?
No, the Justin Bieber one came second but there’s one before that with Kiesza [“Take Ü There”].
Are you talking about the remix with Missy Elliot?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I used to listen to the one before that and the Missy Elliot one!
Anyways, I’ll do an acoustic set… I remember one thing clearly: we were knackered— me, my sound guy, my manager—and I had two days worth of gigs back to back, and this was like one of the last gigs I did. And the room was full, about 800 people. It was just me doing an acoustic set for about 45 minutes or whatever. And I literally said, “guys, leave me alone,” put on my headphones, and I blasted Jack Ü, like, fully for maybe like 10, 15 minutes solid. And I went out just as I was singing this song, just as I was opening up the set, but I needed it, I needed it. But sometimes it helps, just going to the other end of the spectrum and to like good music just to inspire you, you know?
Because your life is music, how often do you find yourself unplugging from it?
So like on a journey or what not, I don’t really listen to music that much. I find that when you listen to too much music, for me, I lose inspiration to make my own. I find [that] more inspiration comes from when I’m alone with my thoughts. You know?
So what artists or songs are you loving right now?
I’m loving Nick Hakim, Lucy Rose, Saint Raymond, Kwabs… [Long pause.] I don’t know.
It’s good. Anyone you can think of off the top of your head is good. It’s a good sign. And so a couple of quick questions: what are your go-to songs for getting out of bed in the morning?
Ben Howard, “Keep Your Head Up,” “Old Pine” [by] Ben Howard. My song of all time, which I have as my alarm clock, is “Suite Bergamasque III [Clair de Lune]” [composed by Debussy]. It’s a classical piece. It’s like one of the main pieces in the film Man On Fire with Denzel Washington. It’s one of my favourite films. And, um, it’s my song now.
What about working out?
I try not to listen to music when I’m working out.
Because usually people need music to workout. No? Not for you?
Nah. I just don’t need it.
Is that one of your required quiet moments?
Sometimes. Sometimes I need it to think.
What about getting ready for a night out?
Hm. Royal Blood. They’re rock n’ roll. [Taps on table]
What was the first album you’ve ever had? Like one you called your own.
Hmm… [Long pause.] Normally people could remember that… Well, I remember the first tape I’ve ever owned.
Yeah, first tape.
Are we really going to do this?
It was a single. The first tape was given to me as a Christmas present and I was just pumped that it was actually my first own tape. It was a Teletubbies single.
You’re not supposed to hear this!
How old were you when you got that?
Dude, I was like [blows raspberry] [in my] teens, early teens.
Yeah. Maybe like 14. It’s bad, right?
Was it one of those albums you had to hide from other people?
You know what? I think it was a little bit of a dig from one of my first girlfriends that I needed to grow up and she gave it to me in front of my mates. So I kind of like wore it proud was like, “Yeah, what?” You know how you have to do like reverse psychology?
That’s what I did.
Pretty ignorant. [Laughs.]
That’s really funny. That’s actually a really good pick. Yeah, ‘cause usually people are like, “yeah, it was the Spice Girls” but that was a better story.
[We get off-topic and start talking about the exchange of influence between America and the U.K.]
I’ve been reading a book called “How Music Works” by David Byrne from the Talking Heads. Crazy. Check it out. It’s amazing and I think as a result of that—oh there you go! Last thing: I think next year, I’m going to apply for like a part-time masters in musicology. After reading that book and just from a performance element and understanding people’s reactions, and going beneath the surface of what music does and how it impacts people, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and those kind of aspects.
I also read there’s a point in time when people just stop paying attention to music. When I was a teenager, I was like, “Oh no! I’ll never ever stop getting into it.” I think it happens in your early twenties.
I’ve had the complete opposite happen. The reason why I don’t listen to music at the gym or when I’m working or—even this has been hard because that’s been going on, like the background music—I find it hard to not concentrate and go, “oh, what was that? That was a good sound. Ooh. What was it?” You know what I mean? It’s bad. It’s really bad. I’m learning to embrace not being able to multitask. That’s why when I’m going to the gym or doing something, I can focus on it. Or when I’m reading—it baffles me how people can read on the train and listen to music. I cannot do that. That’s bizarre. How can you do that? You know?
Listen to Jake’s interview mix here.