Jon Batiste is an American musician who defies genre. His pedigree is undoubted and he’s performed with some of the greatest artists around like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Sheeran and Mavis Staples to name a few.
Over the last year he has won a Golden Globe for his score of the Pixar movie ‘Soul’, received Grammy nominations for two separate and very diverse albums, led several protests for racial justice, given the Biden Administration advice on the role of arts in America. All this on top of arranging and performing music for dozens of editions of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he is resident bandleader. Oh, and did I mention an Oscar nomination for his ‘Soul’ soundtrack?
So, it’s quite amazing that on top of this he has also released a quite extraordinary record called ‘We Are’, an album which is hugely collaborative and manages to brilliantly mix musical styles. It tells stories of boyhood, joy, being able to overcome difficulties and love in thirteen wonderful pieces of art. The record involved Jon travelling deep into his psyche, his soul, his lineage and his life experiences. This is so much more than a new record, this is a reclamation, a personal journey of discovery.
“I just want to keep growing and keep evolving, the more that I keep growing and keep evolving the more I keep living out my god given purpose and finding the ways to enhance both my own gifts and those of the community around me. That will make everything better.”
I can’t remember coming away from an interview feeling such a sense of personal inspiration from an artist. When reading Jon’s responses to my questions , please take a moment and consider that these beautifully crafted answers to my questions were made to unseen questions and show such a depth of belief and balance that it’s easy to understand why this man can make such beautiful music.
EP: The new record has a really funky vibe to it and it’s quite a move away from your Jazz origins, what were the inspirations for this new album? I understand that there are appearances from members of your family?
JB: Yes, my life is really the biggest inspiration for me. I don’t get inspired by people as much as I get inspired by life and translating life into music sometimes requires you to bring the people who were in your life at the moments that were inspiring you to create into the actual music making so my parents are a big part of my life, obviously, so my dad is on the record, my grandad is on the record, my nephews are there. It’s also great that there are appearances from people I grew up with like Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton, Zadie Smith is on the record, the novelist, Mavis Staples, Quincy Jones, there’s a lot of great influences of people but it’s really more the fact that music is life to me.
EP: With it being such a hugely collaborative project Jon, with over 200 producers, friends, family all playing a part, how on earth did you manage to retain direction or did you want to just let the music grow organically from the seeds you were sowing?
JB: I always have a strong vision. I have a really strong idea of what I want to create and I’ve been doing it for long enough to know exactly how to get what I want. And then, the rest of it is like a painter. If you see a work of art and you think about how long it will take to get it to where it needs to get, sometimes it can take years, a decade or more and for me every person was a different colour on the canvas of what I was painting and I had it in my mind and then I would see “oh I need this colour” and so I would call this person or “I need that colour”, so I would call that person and eventually you have a full work of art.
EP: What a beautiful way to look at the creation of this wonderful record. I love the new album Jon and, for me, it’s a really bold statement of what you believe and of your conscience. Did you think it was important to make a record that draws heavily on your experiences as a Black man in America and was BLM ever a catalyst for the development of the music?
JB: BLM wasn’t a catalyst for the record but me and the defiance of genre. The thing that we really can draw from, as artists, is heritage. There’s not really a real genre. That’s a construct but heritage is real. Culture is real. Your spirit, things that you are born with innately in your soul, in your mind, your heart, your ideas…..that’s your identity. All these things are a part of what I was drawing from and as someone who has really been a leader in many different spheres in my country is something that I wanted to speak to because I think speaking to my own heritage and identity helps other people to affirm theirs.
EP: You bring to the fore something about the record that I think is great. It’s so refreshing that it’s impossible to pin you into any particular genre. I guessed that had been a conscious decision. Was it an effort to make sure you couldn’t be pigeon- holed or is that just a natural development of your music making, your life, coming from the diversity of your musical background?
JB: Well, I don’t think that I’ve ever really been able to be put in a pigeon hole. I think it’s just the nature of the industry that does it and then sometimes as artists we acquiesce to the way that everything is categorised. For instance, if you had a black singer singing one song and then you had a white singer singing another song, the black singer they would call it R&B or Soul, the white they would call it Pop. If a woman sings something versus a man singing something, it can be categorised differently. It could be Country music versus being Folk music. For some instrumental, people would start to call it Jazz if it’s not really Jazz. So, I think it’s a flaw in the way that we categorise our music and it kind of limits the creativity and the perception of the art that the artists are making. I think about the first song that we recorded, just as a test to get ourselves going, the band and I recorded a Justin Bieber/DJ Snake song called ‘Let Me Love You’ just to get us into a different headspace phonically as the first song we did in the studio when we were making this album.
EP: Jon, I read somewhere that if you’re travelling anywhere by plane you’ll watch the same documentary both on the way there and back. I thought this was great; so many things take more than one watch, more than one listen. With than in mind do you think it’s important to make multi layered music?
JB: I make music that’s meant to be listened to throughout the course of your life; it’s not music that is made just for a moment, which is why, when you were talking about my influences, it’s life, it’s heritage, it’s not just specific things that are going on today whether or not they are important to me. You know, the protests, the Black Lives Matter, different things that are happening in the world, don’t tend to inspire me as much as the things that are going on internally, inside my life, inside my heart and soul and in things that I’m processing within my internal world. So, when I’m making music I want people to listen to it the same way that you would watch a great film over and over, or read a great novel and not skip chapters and every time you read it you discover something new.
EP: Talking about great films, congratulations on your Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for the music you made for ‘Soul’. I love the movie, and the music was obviously such a massive part of it, how did you get involved in doing the soundtrack? Is that something you want to do more of?
JB: Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a few different films doing music. Obviously TV & music I’ve been doing over the last decade. I had the opportunity to work on ‘Soul’ and really get to know Pete Docter, the director, who has become at great friend of mine and we’ve worked on this film over the course of the last two years and now the world has really connected with it so I’m very, very happy about that. There’s a lot more stuff in the works that I can’t talk about just yet but it’s really great.
EP: That’s good to hear. The pandemic has really affected the art world but I’ve noticed when I’ve chatted with other musicians that the solitude has helped to hone their craft and really created some searingly honest lyricism. Do you think that this has been a hidden silver lining to the pandemic? Has it enabled you to take stock as after all you are still a young man with such a bright future?
JB: I think that it’s really great one way and really terrible in another way and I don’t know if I would call it a ‘silver lining’ but I would just call it the nature of all things. There’s always something that you can learn from anything. I try to keep an even keel about many things so I can see the lesson in it; there’s a lesson in everything even when your facing the shadow of death you can find value in it. I find that that’s really important to know in good times and in bad times. This time in particular, I don’t know what I’ve learned fully until I have more distance from it since we’re still in the midst of it.
EP: Jon, please don’t take this as patronising in any way but you seem to have a very old head on young shoulders. Is that something that comes from your upbringing and family do you think?
JB: I think it really just comes from being a quiet kid and having a big family, for sure, and having a lot of different people to observe and, kind of, learn from, learn what to do and what not to do and feel this process of synthesising everything around me. I feel like every four or five years I undergo an evolution that helps me to continue to create but also to just become more of who I am. I think that’s what we’re always doing, we’re constantly creating who we are in the world. Constantly assuming the position that we’ve been born to assume and the more we synthesise our experiences and become anew, kind of like a rebirth, ever time we’re growing more into who we are and that’s really what I think my life has been like since the beginning in those early years when I was very quiet, very observant really helped me to accelerate that process in a lot of ways.
EP: Finally, congratulations on your Grammy nominations recently. You were nominated for two very different pieces of work. Does it excite you to be nominated for such diverse projects at the same time?
JB: I think it’s beautiful to experience the recognition for your work, particularly these projects which were very much passion projects that really were important for me personally to create. I didn’t think about the recognition that would come with them and I didn’t think about trying to defy genre with these projects, not even as consciously as I thought about it with ‘We Are’. I just wanted to create these two projects and they were in my heart at the same time and I felt that when they were received so well by the public, and then by The Grammys, it really taught me to value those passion projects even more. Even if you’re not a musician….I’m talking to everybody out there, just do it; do the thing that you feel you need to do at the time you need to do it, no matter if it doesn’t line up with the plan because it will resonate with the right people.
EP: What a great way to finish Jon. I love the record, thank you for your music and your inspiration and for your time.
JB: Thank you so much. Have a good one!
SOUL is out now on Digital, Blu-Ray™, and DVD.