Multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, producer, and songwriter Jordan Rakei is back with his fourth studio album, What We Call Life, released via Ninja Tune.
What We Call Life is Jordan Rakei’s most vulnerable and intimate album to date. Its lyrics concern the lessons that the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised, and London-based artist learned about himself during therapy, a journey that began two years ago when he started reading about the ‘positive psychology’ movement. Rakei, already a practitioner of meditation and mindfulness, was curious about the potential of using therapy for further self-discovery. During the process, he began to learn more about his behavior patterns and anxieties and addressed his long-standing irrational phobia of birds – a fear often associated with the unpredictable and the unknown, and something explored in the album’s creative direction and visuals.
“As we worked through it, it made me realise I would love to talk about the different lessons I learned from therapy in my music: about my early childhood, my relationship with my parents and siblings, becoming independent in London, being in a new marriage, understanding how my marriage compares to the relationship my parents had” Rakei says.
These themes manifest on songs like What We Call Life’s lead single, “Family”, which Rakei says is “the most personal” he’s ever been with his lyrics. “I wanted to hit my vulnerability barrier and be really honest. It’s about my parents’ divorce in my mid-teens but still having love for them no matter what,” he explains. On “Send My Love”, Rakei sends a dispatch from London (his adopted home since 2015) back to his family in Australia. “It’s a stand for my independence, like saying: I’m fine here, don’t worry about me, send my love back home.”
“Illusion” explores notions of determinism vs. free will. “The song is an argument about how much control I have over my mood, my attitude, or even my personality,” Rakei says. Similar ideas about nature and nurture, and the way one’s environment can affect the way they live, appear on “Clouds”, a song that Rakei wrote in light of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that erupted around the world following the murder of George Floyd. The track sees Rakei reflect on his own mixed-race heritage (his father is a Pacific Islander, his mother white) and the privileges that his light skin has afforded him in western society. “That whole movement made me think about this a lot, and then therapy enabled me to write about it,” he says. “I’d never been that open about this in the past.”
With so many artists being influenced by his style, it would be very easy for Jordan to stay in the same musical lane; but, as in life, he is determined to move his music forward. Such introspective subjects are a departure from Rakei’s last album, 2019’s Origin. Raising big questions about the way that technology and social media interferes with our sense of humanity, Origin received praise from The Observer, Mixmag, Complex, and GQ, earned an unexpected shout-out from Elton John, led to a collaboration with rap legend Common, and saw Rakei give a show-stopping performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Rakei attributes his shift towards a more personal subject matter to listening to singer-songwriters like Laura Marling, Scott Matthews, Joni Mitchell, and John Martyn while writing What We Call Life. “Their lyrics are usually very honest, and sometimes not even ambiguous,” he says. “I was jealous of how open they were, when my staff in the past had been more like commentary.”
Besides being a lyrical step forward, What We Call Life expands Rakei’s sonic vocabulary too. While the heart of the record will be familiar to fans of his neo-soul and hip-hop-infused work, here Rakei dives deeper into his sound world, merging electronic with acoustic, and rugged grooves with ambient atmospheres, to create something richer, more detailed, and more textural than before. Unlike previous releases which were crafted from Rakei’s own demos, What We Call Life sees him work with his full band throughout the writing process for the first time. Rakei laid down the building blocks of the record with his collaborators over two writing and recording sessions in Wales, before finishing the album with a lengthy solo post-production process at his studio in London over lockdown. What We Call Life casts Rakei in the role of an old-school producer, working with a five-person team of core collaborators (Chris Hyson, Jim Macrae, Jonathan Harvey, Imraan Paleker, and Ernesto Marichales all joined him for the recording sessions in Wales) whose own unique musical sensibilities bring Rakei’s vision to life.
While Rakei has never brought in a full band for his studio albums before, he’s hardly a stranger to collaboration. His name is closely associated with friends and collaborators like Loyle Carner (including co-writing, producing, and performing on “Ottolenghi” and the Jorja Smith-featuring “Loose Ends”), Tom Misch, and Alfa Mist. There’s also his tight relationship with the South London dance music scene orbiting Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section club night and label, with Rakei adopting the alias ‘Dan Kye’ to release an EP of house music in 2016. More recently he returned to the alias, offering an exclusive track for Bonobo’s Fabric presents Bonobo mix and releasing a Dan Kye full-length, Small Moments, in November 2020 while taking a break from producing What We Call Life.
He also covered Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade” for the Blue Note Re:imagined compilation, and earlier this year showcased work from his creative community alongside some of his favourite tracks (including his own covers of Radiohead’s “Codex”, and Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”) in his mix for the esteemed LateNightTales series. He continues to offer up production tutorials and behind-the-scenes insights into his creative process with his fan community on Patreon. This all follows shows from SXSW to Glastonbury, a support slot for Bonobo’s massive Alexandra Palace shows, and a sold-out date at London’s Roundhouse – not to mention co-signs and collaborations with some of his heroes (he joined Chic’s Nile Rodgers for a writing session and recorded with Terrace Martin, producer for Kendrick and Snoop Dogg, and Herbie Hancock).
What We Call Life’s artwork was created by Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based visual artist Justin Tyler Close, who resonated with the themes on Rakei’s album. The image was created in a remote photo shoot, with Rakei sending images over the internet that were projected onto a sheet and photographed by Close. The melancholic images reflect the title of the record, a question that Rakei would sometimes ask himself during a period of his childhood in which he suffered a great deal of anxiety: Is this what we call life? Rather than accepting defeat, the title is today a commentary on the more happy, confident, and assured person and artist that Jordan Rakei is today.