Seize the Water: An Interview with Jake Downs

Currently studying as a music undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, Jake Downs has just released his debut single ‘Seize the Water’. I spoke to him about his music, inspiration, and negotiating the music industry.
When did you start performing, and what got you interested in music?

Strangely, I didn’t find music as an active interest until I was 10 years old, and I finally decided I should start to play the piano. I’ve always had music surrounding me, though never in a particularly ‘classical’ sense; my parents have an eclectic taste in music between the two of them, but neither have ever really played. My sister influenced me a great deal throughout my childhood in the ways in which I listened to music and what I chose to explore, and she still does now. I think a mixture of a growing excitement for listening to music and the inspiration of musicians and teachers around me during the offset of my teenage years caused my ever-increasing interest; I’ve never really looked back since.

Jake Downs 1

Who and what are your main influences?

It’s such a difficult question: I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by everything you hear or play. I have a really strong belief that the most important duty for a musician, especially a composer, is to be consciously exploring and discovering not only music of the ‘now’, but music of the past; it’s surely impossible to create something which is fully satisfying without finding out about the ‘dos’ and ‘do nots’ of the history of musical composition. At the moment, for example, I’m hugely interested in the music of the medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut, as well as the amazing contemporary composer Anna Meredith. Major ‘lifelong’ influences include Björk, Bishi, Arvo Pärt, Kate Bush, the Spice Girls… (Jake’s cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Oh England My Lionheart can be heard here

Where do you find your inspiration for your songs?

I think any artist finds their inspiration, more often than not, in either the extreme emotions which they experience, or in the completely abstract; it’s certainly all about a sudden sense of rapture for me. In fact, I tend to write the majority of a song in the first half-an-hour of its construction; I rarely deviate from this initial burst of ideas, with the rest of the writing process being more about channelling the song into a coherent, detailed work. It’s strange, actually, that it usually takes me an average of a year to finish a song, given that it’s more or less ‘all there’ in the first stages of its life; I guess I’m often just too nervous to put a song into the public domain without having lived with it for long enough. It’s like a good relationship: it’s pointless telling all and sundry that you’re completely and totally in love with a person after having only known them for a week, even if you feel like you are; you have to keep some things to yourself for a while to nurture your emotions and make sure that you’re completely certain of yourself.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest single?

My latest single, which is in fact my first, is called Seize the Water. On the surface (no pun intended), it’s one of those potentially angsty break-up songs. In actual fact, I see it as more of a conclusion to a period of almost a year of coming to terms with a loss of this kind. I’ve said before that I see the song as a description of a break-up as less of a soul-destroying experience and more of a rite-of-passage; it’s a journey towards maturity and acceptance of love’s more difficult twists and turns. It’s a funny one, really: lyrically, it’s a mixture of a sort of arrogance and a real sense of vulnerability, and it was a really definite decision of mine to attempt to display this in the music’s production and orchestration as well. The vocals, for example, which my wonderful sister Sophie, who also appears on the record, helped me to produce are consciously developed in a way which presents both strong and weak attributes of the song’s attitude; I’ve really tried to work with as much dynamic variety as a pop song of this type can house. There’s also this constant sort of ‘semantic field’ of the sea, which was another massive influence on the song; ‘Seize the Water’ itself means doing the impossible, I guess, as well as an almost mythical idea of mastering and controlling one of the strongest elements of nature – a sort of metaphor for an increase in strength, I think. I tried to develop this in the production: my favourite bit of the song (its interlude) includes sparkling piano slides up and down the higher registers of the keyboard, like the surface of the sea, to show off this positive, ‘new-found strength’ attitude; but it also includes a six-part choral texture, rich and complex like the depths of the sea, which signifies the more pensive, reflective qualities of the song. I guess (or at least I hope) that this all makes much more sense if you listen for yourself!

Has coming to university to study music changed the way you look at composition and performance? Why did you pick to come to Oxford?

Oxford’s always interested me as a university: its incredibly rich historical traits might put off a musician who is consciously writing music in a contemporary context (so as to say, not trying to replicate the music of the past exactly as it was before). For me, however, as I mentioned before, this is what attracts me the most: I want to learn about the past, the present, and the potential for the future all at once, so just concentrating on one segment of this would be unsatisfying for me. The Oxford course has so far been absolutely incredible: studying everything from Hildegard von Bingen to Queen Latifah and beyond has been so refreshing and so inspiring. I have the most amazing composition tutor, too – Deborah Pritchard – whose insights into the world of contemporary writing are really helping me to consider the experimental ideas which I’ve always wanted to explore, but have never really had the guts to embrace; I’m so, so lucky.

How accommodating do you find Oxford’s music scene, compared to where you live? Are there any things that you would want done differently?

I think Oxford’s music scene is so wonderfully diverse; coming from South Devon, it’s not quite as varied there as it is in a city like Oxford, but there are definite similarities. If I’m honest, over the past couple of months, I haven’t had enough of a chance to explore the music scene in terms of the ways in which I can get involved; I know I will do, though. The university itself is fantastic for organising and publicising musical events, and I’m hopefully doing a small, stripped-down concert in Christ Church Cathedral with a few performer friends of mine next term. I don’t think I can be a judge of the pros and cons of Oxford music life yet, as I don’t know enough about it – I’ll get back to you on that one!

Jake Downs 2

Do you see a large divide between popular and classical music?

This is ‘the’ question, isn’t it? I put so much thought into this one. It’s difficult, because up until the 20th century, classical music was the popular music of its day, in many ways; especially throughout the 19th century, with the growth of the ‘concert’ as it eventually became, there was no real divide. I’m always interested in the role of folk music in culture; indeed, these sorts of divide in the medieval times would have been between, say, the sacred and the secular. Now, however, I’m a bit upset with the state of things: a great deal of people, especially young people, aren’t consciously dismissing classical music in exchange for pop, but are instead not being exposed to enough of it. The contemporary ‘classical’ scene (should I say ‘art music’?) is a particularly hard one to crack, but with ‘crossover’ artists (I hate to use the term, but it makes sense) like the aforementioned Anna Meredith, now signed to the predominantly ‘popular’ (if alternative) independent label Moshi Moshi Records, inspiring the youth in other ways, I feel positive about the future. I personally don’t like to divide the two in my own mind – for example, I’ve already planned the first track of my first album (if it ever gets made) to be a reworking of something which would be deemed to be music written in a very ‘classical’ (as opposed to ‘popular’) style. It’s a hard one. I hope one day, people aren’t as confined in their tastes; there’s so much amazing music which people are missing out on. Also, I think it’s just as important to feed ‘classical’ music into pop as it is to incorporate ‘world’ music; I’m always so inspired by artists who do this.

How important is image in creating your niche in the market?

Image is an interesting thing to consider: people love to compare artists to other artists, not only musically, but even in how they look. It’s interesting how much it affects the nature of your success as an artist, with it going one of two ways; we’ll always have the Susan Boyles and the Cheryl Coles of music. I personally like to try to base my ‘visual’ on my songs of the moment; I think ‘Seize the Water’ has its very own ‘look’, which will probably dissipate as I move onto another song. I’m currently, for example, working on ways to make visual sense of the single’s B-side, ‘The Prince’; I’m working with the same director of the ‘Seize the Water’ music video, Ben Leggett, who is drawing up some film ideas based on the title. I think ‘The Prince’ has a lot of links to the A-side, but it has a different feel. I guess I’m just trying to make myself impossible to pigeon-hole into a niche just yet; it’s too boring to stick to the same things all the time when we have such amazing facilities with which to experiment.

Jake Downs 3

What do you feel are the greatest challenges for a young musician trying to make it in the music business?

It’s not an easy industry; we all know that. However, people are very often struck by my age, almost disbelieving (and sometimes even envying); I’ve been called ‘mature beyond my years’, or words to that effect, a lot since the release of the single. I was picked up by my record label completely by chance: I didn’t go searching for it; there was no bombarding labels with demo discs involved. I think it’s half about luck, and half about getting people to listen; if you’ve got music which you feel you are confident enough to share with the world and present for people to enjoy, then it’s not usually the problem of getting people to ‘like’ your songs, but more just getting them to ‘hear’ your music. The Internet is a wonderfully diverse tool for the modern young musician, but it’s also a minefield; you can’t easily ‘stick out’, as there are so many other young artists fighting with (or even against) you for people’s attention. I think you need a definite sense of commitment to get into this industry, and you need to be able to appreciate the fact that your exposure to the world will probably not have the ‘Justin Bieber effect’ you’d dreamed of. I’m growing from nothing, and I have done since I started seriously writing my own music when I was 14; I like to build on what I have and encourage the future to be another step in the right direction. I suppose the best advice I can give to another young musician like myself, trying to start up, is that you should never be afraid to grow and change. I find that the most attractive trait in musicians is a confident, but humble nature; we have enough show-offs, and if your music’s good enough, it will speak for itself in the end. Sure, have fun and be exciting, but there’s no need to big yourself up arrogantly; it’s the start of a downfall. Learn from those who have come before you!

Where and when are you next performing?

Starting to perform live has been a fairly recent venture of mine. I’m playing at my most exciting venue yet (for me) this month: the Troubadour Café in Earl’s Court, London, at a sort of ‘new music’ night on December 18th. I’m really excited, as artists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan – two of my heroes – have performed there before, and it’s such a gorgeous venue. Other than that, I’ve got two small shows in my hometown of Torquay with one of my best friends in the world, Zoe Bailey, at my favourite café, the Blue Walnut, which is run by two of the most encouraging people I know; I’m so grateful for all that they do. Those shows are on the 17th and 19th of December. Then it’s my birthday on the 22nd! Drinks on me!

Leah Broad

‘Seize the Water’ is available for download from iTunes, or on vinyl from Vox Humana records for £5. To find out more about Jake and his music, please visit http://jakedownsmusic.tumblr.com/ or http://soundcloud.com/jakedownsmusic. He is also on Twitter @jakedownsmusic

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2 comments

  1. It is easy to be encouraging to Jake, he is very generous in sharing his talents and performances while obviously working hard and enjoying what he does. We hope that he continues to enjoy his studies, takes comfort in everything he achieves and hope that one day we get to welcome Jake back to The Blue Walnut. Gary & Debbie

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