Tom Cully, better known by his artist name Jamie Isaac, is South London born and bred. He made his way over to East London to chat about his musical influences, his insomnia, touring, and scoring movies. His laid back, melancholic music is one for late nights and headphones, but still manages to translate to the big stage with his close knit group of mates. With two albums under his belt already, and many collaborations, Jamie Isaac is on to good things and at the beginning of a very big journey ahead.
Alex Rorison: Hey Tom, how you doing?
Jamie Isaac: Yeah good, chill.
A.R: Where did you grow up?
J.I: London, South London. That’s always been important to me, but it’s weird when people don’t grow up in London and move here, they explore the city more. I don’t even know where we are right now.
A.R: Did you have quite a musical upbringing?
J.I: My parents love music. They are proper music fans, they’re not just people who listen to the radio to pass the time in between going from A to B. My Dad was always a big soul, funk and rare groove fan and my Mum always liked Eva Cassidy. They’re just really passionate about music.
I sang a bit in a choir when I was younger - I’m not religious or anything - it was just something that was like, ‘you like singing, do you want to do this more often?’.
A.R: I read an old interview of yours that you did with your Dad, and he seemed quite a big musical inspiration to you. Do you still get quite a big influence from him?
J.I: My Dad is definitely an inspiration in terms of the music I like to listen to now. But, the thing is when you’re at like the age of fifteen onwards you want to like anything but what your parents like. I think I did shy away from liking all that, but then you go to clubs or bars when you’re eighteen and they’re playing music, and it’s all the stuff that your dad listened to... I should have just listened to that old man.
But, he’s definitely an influence. He shows me stuff all the time, and I like showing him new music as well. Sometimes I call him up because I want to know a song, and I’ll ask him what the song is and hum the tune expecting him to know it.
A.R: Like human Shazam
J.I: [Laughs} exactly.
A.R: Other than him, where do the other music influences come from when you’re making music?
J.I: I liked a lot of '90s hip hop when I was younger, and then from that I was always interested in the samples, and looking for all the jazz samples, and I started really listening to jazz music. That was a really big influence on me, there’s this whole world out there of music, but I used to really like classical music when I was younger. I thought classical music was, like, the most “intellectual” and I thought no other type of music could compare to that. And then I heard jazz and it completely opened my mind in terms of what music could be, and how you can express yourself musically.
A.R: How would you describe your music?
J.I: t’s just kind of like whatever I like the sound of. I definitely keep a melancholy tone, but that’s just because I like writing about that sort of stuff. When you’re making music, you’re constantly thinking ‘If I wasn’t making this, would I like it’.
A.R: You mentioned singing in a choir and liking classical music, how do you think that has influenced where you’re at now?
J.I: I do a lot of harmonies and a lot of high ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ in my music and that definitely stems from choral music. Some of the chord changes are more classically based than jazz based, more in the new stuff that I’m writing. It’s definitely heading to more of a fusion with classical music in terms of the chord progressions.
A.R: What’s your creative process?
J.I: Normally I won’t write lyrics until really late on in the process, because the worst is making a song and then two years later it’s being put out. You’ve already gone through the process of feeling those feelings and you’ve come to terms with those feelings, and you’re over them. And then the song comes out and then you have to re-do that song and tour it for a year. I don’t want to be singing about something that I’ve already been over for a year. So, most of the time I start with the music - the drums and the piano and I produce the track and then the lyrics come in the last 3 or 4 months before the music comes out.
A.R: Your production has been praised quite heavily over the last couple of years, but nobody really talks about the lyrics. Do you have a favourite lyric of yours?
J.I: I appreciate the compliment man. That’s a tough one… The favourite lyrics I’ve written is from a song that hasn’t been put out yet, called ‘Places’, which is gonna be a new single. With the old tracks, maybe (04:30) Idler / Sleep.
A.R: Your sound changed quite a bit from Couch Baby to IDLER… You wrote (04:30) Idler between London and LA, do you think that had an affect on how it sounded?
J.I: I wanted to make an album that I could definitely play live. The main problem with Couch Baby was after I made it, I thought ‘Great… How the fuck am I going to do this now’, I don’t like playing live with backing tracks, it really takes away from it. I wanted to definitely do stuff with live drums, that was the first thing I thought when I wrote the album. And then when I was in San Francisco touring Couch Baby, I found a Bossa Nova record in a record shop like an hour before getting on a plane, and that kinda theme fed into the album. I think that definitely helped.
A.R: I was actually going to ask how you transpose your music from album to live…
J.I: I get the same people on the record to play live, the people who are actually in my friendship groups and people who you can talk music with, and they understand music on a deeper level. I think that’s a really big thing. Especially Jake - Jake Long - who plays the drums, that’s really important.
A.R: The first track I heard of yours was Last Drip, and then you did the video with Rejjie Snow at the dog track. Do you like being on set and in-front of the camera?
J.I: I don’t mind it if I’m in a studio, I don’t like it when you’re on location. I dunno, I’m quite shy…
A.R: I’m the exact same, if I’m shooting on location I’m very aware that someone’s probably watching…
J.I: Yeah exactly! If a bus goes past, that’s like 50 eyes on you!
A.R: You’ve done a fair few music videos now, are you quite involved in the ideation and direction of them?
J.I: That’s important to me, to be quite hands on with it. There’s no way I would do a video that I wasn’t 100% onboard or happy with because it’s going to be out forever. If you’re doing the video and there’s a bit where the director tries to push on you, you need to really stand your ground. It’s easy to say yes, but you’ve got to say no sometimes.
A.R: Just going back to that track with Rejjie Snow… You’ve done a lot of collaborations in the past, with your remixed album and the project with Nosaj Thing. How do you like the collaborative process?
J.I: It’s weird because I never really think that I do that many collaborations, but I actually do. You just have to find the right person to do it with. Everyone has to have their own roles - if you’re with somebody who's a writer and producer, and I come on board as the singer and producer, it’s hard to say who’s doing what. But, with Nosaj Thing, that just clicked. It was one of those things where we were meant to do one song together and we just connected and wrote like ten or eleven songs, and we could release something by ourselves. I’ve always been such a fan of his.
A.R: You wrote 10 songs for that and only put out 3?
J.I: The harddrives went missing, and we had just had to start from scratch.
A.R: How does it normally work when you’re collaborating, do you throw ideas around and see what sticks?
J.I: Normally I’ll just play the keys and wait for someone to like it ‘yep’.
A.R: Is there anyone you’re dying to collaborate with?
J.I: SZA... that would be insane.
A.R: And anyone dead or alive?
J.I: Oh fuck! Johnny Cash. Big fan of Johnny Cash. Or.. Serge Gainsbourg.
A.R: What’s been your favourite so far?
J.I: The stuff with Nosaj Thing.
A.R: Is there anyone you’re listening to these days?
J.I: I am so bad at new music..
A.R: You just get it from your dad, thats why!
J.I: [Laughs] yeah exactly. You know when you’re a teenager and you’re like ‘music, music, music’ and you spend so long finding what your musical taste is. And then you get a bit older, and you’ve done all that work and now I know what I like and what I don’t like.
A.R: How do you find putting out new music? Are you quite chill about it or nervous?
J.I: I’m pretty chill about it, but as soon as you release the music it’s not yours anymore. It goes from being yours - something that you created in your room, something only you know the words to, the chords, the process - then as soon as it comes out it's only that product and it instantly loses the process behind the music and is just that MP3. The listener only hears the song, and they don’t know how long it took you to get that exact sound, and they make it something completely different. And that’s great, that’s the whole point of music. It’s fun to hear what people think of your music. You’ll go to another country and do a gig and people will know your songs, an I’m like ‘how the fuck do you know all these songs’, it’s so weird.
A.R: The title of your last album was a nod to your insomnia. How do you find insomnia affects your music?
J.I: I think writing at night is great, it feels like a protective cover. The daytime always feels a bit cold to me. At night it always feels like no one's listening, and you can be really really expressive.
A.R: Do you think that’s reflected in your music?
J.I: I think so, it has that lonesome quality to it.
A.R: What are you working on at the moment? You mentioned a song called ‘Places’...
J.I: Yeah it’s a whole new 8 or track project, I’m hesitant to call it an album, but it’s not an EP - somewhere in between. It’s all new stuff, I’ve written a couple tracks with Archy Marshall and it’s been really exciting to collaborations like that.
A.R: You guys live together don’t you?
A.R: Do you do quite a lot of music, even if it’s not going to be heard by other people?
J.I: We did when we first moved in, we couldn’t get enough of doing it. Sometimes we’ll get the other to play guitar or piano on something, and sometimes we’ll chill and make music, but we’re very good at knowing the boundaries. Not everyone wants to make music all the time just because you’re a musician. So, when I lived with other musicians in the past, they’ve been like ‘let’s make music now’ and I just want to watch some shit on TV.
A.R: What do you reckon the best bit of your career has been so far?
J.I: When I went to Japan. I did the shows in Japan that was the weirdest experience, it was just something you would never expect - the shows were sold out for two nights running.
A.R: I’ve never been, it’s always been on my list though.
J.I: You’ve gotta go man. Japan is like a parallel world. Everything is so close to what you know, but everything is so different.
A.R: Which do you prefer doing - recording and producing or getting out there and playing on stage?
J.I: I don’t see myself as a natural performer, but I see myself as more of a natural recording artist. Recording and being in a studio is really exciting because you can do anything in there with the equipment. That’s why it takes me so long to put anything out.
A.R: Just geeking around
J.I: Yeah exactly!
A.R: Has music always been what you wanted to do?
J.I: Yes. Always. When I was younger I got a keyboard and turned the sound down on the TV and play music to it.
A.R: I always wanted to pick music for films.
J.I: Everyone used to say doing the music for Top Gear would be the best job. Because it would have the most random collection of music.
A.R: If you could re-score any film, what would it be?... Not Top Gear…
J.I: That’s a really good question, maybe No Country For Old Men because it has no music in it.
A.R: Ahh yeah, I always pick one that already has a great soundtrack, but then should I be messing with it?
J.I: That’s what I’m saying, I can’t think of a film that’s got an awful soundtrack because I would just forget it - I only remember the good ones.
A.R: How would you do No Country For Old Men, keep in your style?
J.I: [Laughs] no, I think it would have to be low drones and horns, because the silence really works in that film.
A.R: Do you have any plans for the rest of the year? Start touring again?
J.I: Touring again, for sure. I do wanna play shows, but I desperately desperately want to see shows. I really want to be at a gig. I just miss the sweat. I was touring when this all happened, I was with King Krule and we were in Berlin and we had to come home really really quickly. And I think doing shows like that, which are completely different from my own music and really sweaty and loud; I really enjoyed doing that and I want to get back to it.
A.R: Have you played many festivals?
J.I: A few. I’m not a big festival lover. I love going to them, because there’s no pressure. But, playing is a different set up - you don’t get to soundcheck, you just go onto stage and you're just at the mercy of the sound guys. The music I play doesn’t really fit festivals.
A.R: Do you think it translates more to a small venue?
J.I: I would be so happy playing shows to like 600/700 people forever, because I don’t feel like the music is made for bigger spaces, it’s made for you and your girl just feeling the music.
A.R: Yeah, it’s a shame when you’re a fan of someone and you catch them live a bit too late, and they’re in that massive venue. And all you can think is you wished you’d seen the like two years earlier.
A.R: There was one comment that I saw on YouTube on one of your music videos, that said ‘before Billie Eilish there was Jamie Isaac’. It got me thinking - who is it in the industry that you look up to?
J.I: I think Billie Eilish is a good one, I like Billie Eilish. I think her brother Finneas is a great producer. He really knows what he’s doing. In terms of pop music, it’s the best pop out there.
A.R: One final question, what is your favourite F Word?
J.I: Ermm… Fuck. That’s it.