Interview: Jamie Isaac

February 10th, 2017

We listen in on rising star Jamie Isaac, and his dad.

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Jamie Isaac, a 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist from Croydon was something of a child star. He first turned his hand to music aged seven, playing the piano and singing in the St. Philip’s Church Libera choir. After several television performances, he established himself as the choir’s lead performer and received global praise for his unique voice.

Isaac went on to join the lineage of artists who attended the BRIT School, there he met his best friend, roommate and long-term collaborator, Archy Marshall (aka King Krule) and it was during this period his musical focus began to shift. The young artist started experimenting with early versions of Logic and taught himself how to produce; he would lock himself away in his room and work through the night laying down and manipulating his choral vocal harmonies over sparse beats and piano lines. Last year, Isaac released his acclaimed debut Couch Baby, twelve brooding tracks of soulful downbeat electronica, since picked up by Marathon Records. The album is a journey into ambient lovelorn melancholia; Isaac like a modern day Chet Baker creates space and atmosphere that you can sink into and lose yourself.

In a builders cafe nestled in Peckham Common, we sat down with him for a special head-to-head interview with his dad, Chris Cully. According to Isaac, he inherited his ear for music from his dad, a music obsessed cab driver who brought him up on a healthy digest of funk and soul, and always encouraged him to follow his dreams.

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Why did you choose your dad for this interview?

Jamie Isaac: My dad seemed like a pretty obvious choice, he was the one who encouraged me to make music, he helped me with my piano lessons, pushed me to be creative and never settle for a normal job and to follow my dreams.

Cliff, why was it so important for you that Jamie pursued music?

Cliff Cully: Music is my life and Jamie’s always had an interest, he would play music everyday. My earliest memories of Jamie playing music was on a little battery operated Casio keyboard.

Jamie Isaac: My fingers were probably too fat to play one key, I wasn’t the most elegant piano player back then. I use to sing in a choir when I was young, and my dad was proper supportive. He would drive me to Norbury four times a week to my singing lessons, so not much football but I’m fine with that. The less physical work the better. 

That’s an impressive amount of practice, well done. I would just go home, draw pictures and eat spaghetti…

Jamie Isaac: No one has said ‘well done’ for that before, so thank you!

And how has music been part of your life, Cliff?

Cliff Cully: I’ve always loved music with a passion, and luckily I’ve been able to pass that onto Jamie.

Jamie Isaac: My dad is a cab driver, and we would drive around listening to music full blast. He’s into a lot of funk, soul, rare groove music and I have a lot of early memories of listening to Pluto Shervington. When I was younger I didn’t appreciate the music that I was being exposed to, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised how much it has moulded a lot of what I’ve done. My dad would turn a track up really loud and point out little piano lines, he’d be really passionate about small details and I find myself doing that to my friends now. I’m from a classically trained background – I sung in a choir when I was younger and I was totally immersed in classical music. But it was my dad who helped me discover the beauty in the simplicity of those funk, soul, rare groove records, it’s that simplicity that I now draw from.

Chris Cully: Can you trace those influences?

Jamie Isaac: Marvin Gaye, especially his vocal hooks. I’m really into layering up the vocals and having a top and bottom octave and following the line all the way through like he used to.

Cliff, what are some of your favourite records?

Cliff Cully: I love a lot of John Holts, SOS Band, Change, Mary Jane Girls… It’s funny, last Christmas Jamie played a set from his laptop and it was amazing, all my favourite tunes.

Jamie Isaac: I literally have a playlist on my phone called, “Dad”. It’s the party playlist, when in doubt just play “Dad”. It’s the records my dad used to play all the time, he used to have this massive CD case with pages and pages of albums. I bought him an iPod one Christmas and burnt everything onto my computer and then downloaded all the songs for him onto his iPod. I have all his music now, so I make compilations for him, my Dad’s uncle Steve would make compilations too.

Are you from quite a musical family?

Jamie Isaac: Everyone is musical in their own right, my Dad’s definitely the singer. He will sing and dance, he’s got a great voice. My nan played piano and had a fortnightly show on Burmese Radio with my great-grandad, who would sing. She always kept a piano in her spare room and she was the one who taught me how to play.

When did you start making your own music?

Jamie Isaac: Around 2011, I started thinking ‘I’ve really got to get my head down and make some music’. I wrote a couple of songs and noticed that people seemed really into it; I was writing these minimalist seven or eight minute pieces of music. Now my music is a lot more song based, more bass driven and rhythmic.

Is that when you started producing too?

Jamie Isaac: To be honest I’ve always been interested in production. Even when I was much younger, we had a computer and one of my aunt’s bought me this box with a CD drive and it was like this early version of Logic with a microphone that plugs into the back of the thing. I remember trying to recreate “Slow Down” by Bobby Valentino and I really tried but it didn’t sound good at all.

Cliff Cully: I was listening to the album today and the keyboard in some of the tracks reminds me of Stevie Wonder. There was just something about it that made me step back and go, ‘Wow’. He’s just so talented.

Jamie Isaac: Woah…

Cliff Cully: He’s not used to compliments from me.

Have you guys always lived in south east London?

Jamie Isaac: I moved out when I was 18, but I’m still close by. Around the area where I grew up, there’s a strong community and people share similar music tastes. Or, do you think that’s just our family and friends, dad?

Cliff Cully: Well I haven’t moved far from where I was born in Croydon, and at 54 years-old I’m still friends with all of my childhood friends. We still go to soul and reggae weekenders, parties and barbeques.

What are the soul and reggae nights like?

Cliff Cully: Absolutely brilliant! I took Jamie to a Roy Ayers show in Croydon, he must have been six or seven years-old and I think that was probably the first time he saw a live band. His face was an absolute picture, honestly, I was looking at him rather than looking at the band and you could just see it in his face.

Jamie Isaac: I went right to the front, and I remember standing next to the speakers and just being like, ‘Wow this is what loud is’. And, Roy Ayers had Vula Malinga from the Basement Jaxx on backing vocals, how cool is that. I remember my dad dancing like crazy, he still out dances everyone now – it’s insane.

Cliff Cully: It’s the alcohol Jamie, you know that.

Jamie Isaac: Yeah alcohol shaves 30-years off.

Jamie, you also have a tight circle of childhood friends – have they spent much time with Cliff?

Jamie Isaac: My friends love my dad, they think he’s a proper geezer.

Cliff Cully: They think I’m a gangster.

Jamie Isaac: They think he’s jokes but at the same time they are kind of wary and don’t misbehave around him.

And you’ve worked on music with some of your friends?

JI: I live with Archy Marshall, he’s like a brother to me. We work together on some stuff and collaborate but we keep our music separate. We both make music during the day and come together in the evening, also a lot of the rappers featured on my mixtape are all from this area. It’s such a tight-knit group, we chill pretty much every night, there’s probably not a single day that we don’t see each other. I’m sure in thirty years time, we’ll still be hanging out and going out together. Similar to my dad and his friends, and you know my Dad’s a massive joker. He blares music out of his car and is such a lovable character. And, as I get older that’s what I’ve tried to become, someone more like my dad.

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Words: Nazanin Shahnavaz
Photography: Rosaline Shahnavaz

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