Martyn Pepperell talks to New Zealand-born, Australia-raised vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Jordan Rakei about his shyness and his new album Wallflower, out now on Ninja Tune.
“I have a friend who thinks that being an introvert just means you don’t need stimulation from other people,” says New Zealand-born, Australia-raised vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jordan Rakei when we meet up in central London’s artsy Lambeth district on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in August. Jordan’s talking to me about introversion because, alongside anxiety, it sits at the heart of his second, fittingly titled album, Wallflower. “That’s me, and I feel like a lot of my friends would connect with that,” he continues, soy flat white in hand. “We’re lonesome people, that’s how we develop our craft. We are by ourselves a lot, and we don’t really need external input. We make our music in our own space. That is what my whole album is about, being a loner.”
Jordan is 25, with short preppy hair, empathetic eyes, and, after close to two years living in London, an accent closer to British than anywhere in the antipodes. The night before, Jordan and his tightly-poised backing band presented music from his album inside a cramped basement club in Shoreditch. It was an industry showcase for Ninja Tune, the legendary English independent label Jordan signed to earlier in the year, and through whom he recently released Wallflower. Playing guitar and singing with ease, spirit and passion, he won over even the most jaded attendees.
“It’s seldom you come across an artist who can write, play, produce and perform to the level Jordan can,” enthuses Ninja Tune’s international manager Nicky Wain by email. “We’ve been huge fans since he started to release music and after seeing his performance at London’s esteemed Jazz Cafe, it was clear we wanted the honor of releasing his music and working to get it in front of the world.” At 25, Jordan has the skills to do everything Ninja Tune credit him with precisely because his feelings of introversion and anxiety forced him to be a loner, but we’ll get back to that later on.
They aren’t the only people within his orbit quick to praise him either. Before London, Jordan lived in Brisbane, where he regularly collaborated with a generation of newer New Zealand, Australian and American musicians, beatmakers and DJs including Noah Slee, Louis Baker, Hiatus Kaioyte, Ta-Ku, Mr. Carmack and the Soulection crew. “Jordan’s music is deep and complex,” explains Noah Slee. “I feel blessed to know Jordan and experience his gifts… It’s a truly soulful experience.”
“Seeing his rise has been a joy,” adds Louis Baker. “I’m totally stoked to see his trajectory. He is very talented, and highly driven as well.”
Endowed with a voice equally informed by Motown and New Zealand soul, hip-hop production chops cribbed from studying A Tribe Called Quest records, and a love of the simplicity vintage reggae basslines, Jordan’s had a cult following since he released his first EP Franklin’s Room in 2013. Before its release, Jordan developed his production and playing skills as a teenager.
Music was a big part of his childhood, and when he showed an interest in taking it more seriously, his family were so supportive that, when he turned 14, his father bought him an AKAI MPC sampler and a Mac. Instruments followed. “I played guitar all the time in my room, and would post Stevie Wonder covers online,” Jordan says. “I kept my headphones on, and my head down. I never went out or partied.”
“Even today, after a big night last night, I’m up early and in the studio,” he laughs. After high school, Jordan started working at a supermarket. He was living with his mother rent free, so he saved up enough money to buy more studio gear, complete his first EP, and buy flights to the UK. His father and younger brother were working in the mines in Perth at the time, and in Jordan’s words, “getting crazy money.” They told Jordan that if he quit his supermarket job, and focused on music, they’d give him half his weekly wage, and he could pay them back when he could. Jordan accepted.
In the early days, Jordan’s support mostly lived within the beats, future jazz, and experimental rap underground. Once he’d relocated to London, Jordan connected with a new generation of electronic jazz musicians and dance music DJs. They included Yussef Kamaal, United Vibrations, Tom Misch, Loyle Carner, Richard Spaven, Alfa Mist, Bradley Zero (of Rhythm Section), and even pop future garage sensations Disclosure. Bradley Zero encouraged Jordan to try his hand at dance music, and a house music side project called Dan Kye was born. “Today I’ve been making Dan Kye remixes of songs off Wallflower, which is difficult because I already know what they sound like but I have to make them danceable now,” he laughs.
Not long after Jordan arrived in London, he received an email from Disclosure. A friend of theirs had seen him play in Sydney, and suggested they check him out. They made a tune together called ‘Masterpiece,’ which served as the coda to Disclosure’s second album Caracel. ‘Masterpiece,’ didn’t blow Jordan up, but in conjunction with the release of his first album Cloak, he scored some nice opportunities. He opened up for NAO and Jamie Woon, played at Pitchfork’s Avant-Garde Block Party, and began receiving radio support from UK tastemakers like Annie Mac, and Huw Stephens at BBC Radio 1, plus Mary Anne Hobbs and Gilles Peterson from BBC Radio 6 Music.
While Jordan was writing Cloak, he began to practice meditation. It was his way of dealing with feelings of anxiety that had long plagued him. “I had all these ideas trapped in my head because I was too afraid to say them in person,” he admits. ‘When I started meditating, I could analyse my subconscious.” His thoughts began to flow out freely as music. “Music is just an easier language for me,” he admits.
If Cloak was about looking inward, Wallflower was about dealing with what Jordan found there, and finding a way out. Part of this process was the opening up of collaboration, letting musicians like Dave Okumu of The Invisible, and Ahmad Dayes and Wayne Francis II from United Vibrations play on the record. Another part was verbalising his anxieties and fears in a suite of songs which interlace modern soul and jazz with touches of dark psychedelica and shimmering electronics. In the process, Jordan referenced every stage of his musical development. Stuttering MPC grooves borrowed from ’90s rap. Lush chords that riffed on the work of Robert Glasper and D’Angelo. Fading childhood memories of dub reggae. His love of, and affinity with, New Zealand-based hi-tek soul bands Fat Freddy’s Drop and Electric Wire Hustle, and the studied emptiness of mediation. All of these things coalesced into what is fast becoming his high watermark moment.
Jordan knew everything was on track for Wallflower when he stumbled across the photograph that serves as the album cover. Twenty-one years old, the image depicts a four-year-old Jordan holding an inverted umbrella. “It encapsulates the beginning of the anxiety,” Jordan reflects. “The story is my dad was taking the photo, and I was worried people were looking at me. When he told me that, I thought, ‘Yes!’ That’s exactly it. I’ve only realised now, but music was the only way to work with it.”
That same year, Jordan’s Cook Islands Māori father and New Zealand mother relocated the family from a small North Island town to Brisbane, Australia. Jordan doesn’t specify which country the photo was taken in, and maybe it doesn’t matter. They came in pursuit of a better life for the family, but Jordan’s father never let Jordan or his brother forget where they were from. “It was important to him that we were New Zealanders in Australia,” Jordan recalls. “It was a big thing, even with basic stuff like sports, dad would always make sure we supported New Zealand teams. It’s a weird one, I was raised in Australia, but I am the product of New Zealand culture. I was raised by Kiwis.”
Thinking back to his performance the night before, I ask Jordan how he feels on stage. “I always judge myself by this standard: Am I the same on stage as I am around my parents?” he says. “I think I’m getting there. Do you know that rapper Anderson Paak? He has an amazing show, but I’m sure that around his mum he is very different. I just want to be able to go on stage and play my songs with no bravado. My only hurdle is shyness. When I can open up, say jokes, and be cheeky, I’ll know I’m there. I’m close.”
Here’s the thing though Jordan, you’re far closer than you think.
We’re giving away one copy of Jordan Rakei’s album Wallflower on LP. To win it, be the first person to politely email email@example.com asking for it.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.