Published Jun 13, 2019"I feel like humans have this strength to move through it all," offers polymath singer, songwriter and producer Jordan Rakei, in interview from his home in London. He's reflecting on new album Origin, his third release, which the Brisbane, Australia via New Zealand musician describes as musically "vibrant and colourful," with lyrical themes that explore a dystopian futuristic world.
"I was trying to mend both worlds together," he tells Exclaim!, "something lyrically a bit darker or deeper, beneath the surface, and then the music — for it to be fun. I just wanted it to be fun to watch live, so it's really an album to be heard on stage."
Rakei developed greater recognition with his sophomore album, 2017's Wallflower, yet took a new approach when it came to writing Origin, a more immediate, hook-filled collection of songs. "I really wanted it to be more simple than anything I've done before, just really focused on making it easier to digest and not getting too carried away with making it way too musical," he says.
Accessibility and creating a "succinct musical idea," without sacrificing the depth of his writing, was important to Rakei. Origin finds him "outwardly projecting [his] anxieties about the future.
"I'm trying to retain the pure person that I am beneath the surface — beneath all of the technology in this fictional dystopian world. I'm trying to remain as human as possible, and to keep making mistakes and to have emotion."
Though the songs follow a vaguely sci-fi narrative, Origin was designed to connect and resonate with listeners' own lives, as on the warm, richly melodic "Oasis," a song written based on a narrative Rakei developed featuring a character who has been sent to a distant planet to try and create human life.
"Everyone on Earth is like, 'Wow, they're going off and doing this really beautiful thing.' However, the character in the song is waking up lonely and he's trying to lead this rebellion to stand up against the people that put him there," explains Rakei. The song centres on the individual trying to "come to grips with losing humanity," yet its lush descriptions of beauty allow the track to also be heard as a love song.
Elsewhere on Origin, Rakei combines what he has learned through his meditation practice with elements of jazz, which has been woven into his work since his debut. He sought to imbue the record with a sense of hope through "phrases [which] are affirmations to that future self," cementing the sense of resilience that runs through Origin.
"One of my friends was like, It's funny how you're in this world 60 years ahead or wherever, and you want it to be back like it always was, but where we're living in a world now where people are caught up in the device, or by the shortcut, or by artificial intelligence," Rakei acknowledges. "We're trying to find ways to — I dunno, lessen our human experience? It's about losing the origins of our humanity."
Rakei placed an emphasis on songcraft before developing Origin's production, a value he attributes to being raised on classic songwriters such as Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder: "I sort of said to myself, before I touch a computer, I need to write everything, like 25, 30 songs purely on a piano or guitar, so that the songs move lyrically and harmonically fluidly. Like, can the song carry itself, rather than having the really fancy production come in and disguise a lot of the bad habits?"
Embracing the hooks and catchy melodies that abound on Origin was a process of letting go for Rakei, who decided not to overly critique his instincts when writing.
"I'm a happy guy," he laughs, "but my last two albums were quite deep [and] emotional lyrically, and I was like, 'How can I represent my personality a bit more, like how can I be a bit more fun?' If I came up with a really hooky, really fun chorus, like in 'Rolling Into One,'" — a standout single on the album, led by an undeniable bass groove — "I was like, 'Yeah, that's the idea,' and then I committed to it."
A strict timeline enabled Rakei to work quickly and with heightened focus. He treated the writing and recording process "like a job," working 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in his basement studio before recruiting co-producer (and drummer in his live band) Jim Macrae, and a cast of musicians from London's cross-genre scene to assist with the record's cohesion.
But as Origin's release nears, Rakei is already looking forward. At age 27, he has three more years to go before he turns 30, at which time he plans to have released five records.
"I wanna be working with all the amazing songwriters and writing for big artists and producing, sort of like Pharrell," he says. "I'm not one of those artists that gets the lucky one-hit wonder; I just sort of need to keep putting albums and albums and albums out, and then develop peoples' trust that way."
Having collaborated with the likes of the Invisible's Dave Okumu, Rosie Lowe and Loyle Carner, Rakei is grateful for the community he has immersed himself in since moving to London in 2015.
"I've managed to find all of the really cool artists to make my friends [in London]," he laughs. Rakei values the role of these connections, which have helped him navigate fan interactions, growing crowds and, of course, his growth as a songwriter.
"It's crazy," he enthuses, "how much you can expand as the years go by."
Origin is out June 14 on Ninja Tune.