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Playing to your strengths

11 April 2023, 10:00

Jake Isaac's tenderly confrontational music challenges toxic masculinity while embracing vulnerability. The South-London artist tells Jen Long about the introspective journey that helped him find his feet as a songwriter.

“I used to play tennis and I got quite good at it,” laughs Jake Isaac, shaking his head. “I remember my coach saying to me, ‘Jake, you’ll never know the weak hand of a good tennis player because they’ll always play you so you play them back to their strong hand.’ It’s a great mindset for me and I feel like the same thing with art and figuring out what’s important. When you grab a hold of what’s important, it’s easier to go, I’m gonna focus on this.”

It’s a cold spring morning, but Isaac brings the sunshine from the other side of our Zoom call. Bursting with charisma, he switches from introspective insight to bright belly-laughs with a seamless nonchalance, roaring as I congratulate him on what turns out to be a healthy-looking but very plastic cheese plant.

Born and bred in South London, he’s calling from his home studio in Manchester where he moved with his family during the pandemic. “I still tell people I’m South London,” he laughs. Over his slowly built career, Isaac has carved a niche with his rich vocals, intimate storytelling and modern take on the classic soul sound. He’s also established himself as a writer and producer, working behind the scenes with artists such as Gabrielle and Blue.

Growing up around South London, his father is Rev Les Isaac OBE, the founder of the Street Pastors network and an honorary Ecumenical Canon at Southwark Cathedral. While his upbringing was encircled by his father’s work, it wasn’t something Issac found confining. “Faith was always a part of our house,” he explains. “It’s just a way of life, and if it’s a way of life that enriches you and helps you to enjoy life and embrace life a bit more then it can’t be bad for you. We were of the mindset, if Jesus turned water into wine then come on then, let’s have a drink.”


It also meant that music was central to his formative experiences. Issac’s main motive for attending services was for the break after, when he’d have a chance on the in-house drum kit while the adults drank tea and ate biscuits. “I tell my dad to this day, I say, ‘Dad, there was a lot of my life when I wasn’t interested. I was just there for drums,’” he laughs. “He knows it.”

Before the days of YouTube tutorials, Isaac taught himself to play, picking up on what he’d observed during services. “Growing up, there would be five kids sitting behind the drummer while the drummer was playing in church. It was a buzz, who’s gonna get on first?” he smiles. “I feel like in that kind of community you learn different musical nuances and intuition really quickly because you’re surrounded by it.”


Rather than restrict his son, Issac’s father, a “former rastafarian,” supported his passion. Not only did he allow after-hours access to the church drum kit, but he opened up Isaac’s world to music from a young age, from motown to gospel to the likes of Paul Simon. “This is why I think my dad is one of the biggest inspirations on this planet. He’s a man who’s so much about social justice and what’s right,” he says. “So when he grabbed the Graceland album, I think what moved him was this white guy from New York has gone across to recovering apartheid South Africa, connected with musicians and exposed beautiful music to the world. Not just in the name of social justice, but in the name of collaboration. If that doesn’t ooze faith and love and community, what does?”

Not only did it impact Isaac’s appreciation of what a record can embody stylistically, but the depth of Graceland’s story is something he still carries and references as a central guide. “As a result, I’ve always looked beyond music,” he explains. “I’ve always looked for what moves a room, what changes the room. Back in the days, that’s what they used to make music for - the feeling.”

By the time Issac was sixteen he was grade eight on the drums and had begun using his lunch-breaks at school to teach himself everything from the bass guitar to piano, picking out instruments from his school’s stock. “It was like the Harry Potter cupboard, under the stairs,” he laughs. “It was that vibe. But no one else was using it!”


He chose to study marketing at university in Cheltenham, but still his passion for music and playing endured. At weekends he would hire a rental car and drive back to London to play sessions with small and independent artists from a broad spectrum of genres, establishing himself as a go to player. While still at university he landed his first big gig as the musical director for Duffy.

However, Isaac’s mum wasn’t so sure. She asked him if music was a real career, one he could build a living off and support a family with. Instead he chose the security of a paycheck, focused on his degree and upon graduating, landed a job doing non-profit marking at a charity.

But his passion for music still prevailed. “As a result, I ended up writing love songs on my own. No one heard them,” he says. “I would take on unsigned artists and write songs with them from like, nine until one in the morning and then go back into the office the next day. That’s where I hooked up with Cynthia Erivo, she’s a good mate of mine. I was exercising my pen with independent artists until someone heard me singing in a session and said, ‘You should try your own thing.’”

Two years later he was playing Glastonbury. Having signed with a manager at Elton John’s Rocket Entertainment, he began releasing EPs on the in-house label, spurred on by the man at the top. “He’s amazing,” Isaac smiles. “Forget the iconic pop history and journey that he’s had, he is a man who is incredible. He’s salt of the earth type people. The way he champions people is stunning. If ever I was to hit his level, I’d love to be like that and just champion everyone else.”

He eventually signed a deal with Virgin and released his debut album Our Lives in 2017. However, his new partnership wasn’t a golden ticket and Isaac still found himself navigating the tides of the music industry, albeit with a good head and strong work ethic. “One of the main things that motivated me was I wasn’t always signed. Besides that first album, a lot of my journey was me having to make strategic decisions with my management team and learning how things worked, whether it be money stuff, whether it be touring,” he explains. “I think that honestly helped me to graft even more and appreciate the journey. It’s hard, and there have been many times I’ve wanted to give up, but I think because I’ve had to do quite a lot myself, I’ve learnt so much more and I can look back and appreciate how far I’ve come.”


Another period of work and hustle followed the release of his debut record until Isaac was ready to sign with a new partner. Having built himself momentum supporting the likes of Elton John and Sting, he was fresh from a tour with Tori Kelly and ready to ink a deal at a time some may have seen as inopportune, March 2020.

The Saturday before lockdown Isaac supported Kelly at The Roundhouse in London. “It was sold out, but only 50% turned up,” he shrugs. “Then on Tuesday we were told we couldn’t leave our houses and then the following Thursday I signed a record deal. I literally ended up in my spare room making that whole album. But it was stunning. To me, it was probably one of the best times of my life, I enjoyed it so much.”

His last album, 2021’s Honesty, marked a shift from the pop sensibilities of his debut, leaning his sound into modern and neo-soul and embracing a more reflective position. Writing during a period where introspection was inevitable, Isaac reckoned with his identity and how it related to his creative process.

Touching on issues of masculinity, race, love and equality across the album’s ten songs, he collaborated with the likes of Samm Henshaw, India.Arie and Wildwood Kin. The record also marked a shift in how he found himself fitting within the wider industry. “If I’m really honest, I enjoyed embracing the vulnerability,” he explains. “I think because up until about three or four years ago I was still trying to seek validation, to be in the music world machine. Ironically, the more I’ve leaned into my vulnerability and doing music I like to do, now there’s BBC playlist and all of that stuff. It was a great time for me to learn to do me and start to do me, because nothing was happening. Everyone was tucked away.”

For Isaac, the period of introspection was positive and something he values to this day. But he’s acutely aware it wasn’t the same for everyone. “I think that learning about yourself either caused people to want to aspire to be better, or it caused them to hit recall and go into a state of depression. It was hard on many levels. I remember saying to some other creative friends of mine, we’re never going to get a time like this (hopefully) ever again in history. So what’re we going to do with it?”

Accompanying the record, Issac co-wrote and directed the short film Brutal Honesty. “We shot it in a day during lockdown in Margate at a museum hotel which was really creepy, but stunning,” he explains. “We shot it on a two-thousand pound budget and it ended up winning five awards at film festivals. How it came together was crazy and it was also a great collaborative process and crazy outcomes with those awards.”

The success of Honesty, not just critical but from fans alike, gave Isaac the impetus to lean further into his vulnerabilities and the openness in his writing. “I think that last record and the way it was received, it was almost like the people who listen to my music gave me the thumbs up, like - keep going, mate,” he smiles. “With this record I’ve just taken that conversation a bit further.”

"We all have our crap, but I think the more we’re willing to identify and embrace the fact that we all have our own issues, particularly as men, the more we can own it."


Isaac’s third album, For When It Hurts, continues his journey into confessional self-reflection. Out this week, it’s a record that enriches the tropes of pop writing with soul and enlightenment. It’s confronting at moments, Isaac playing with voice recordings to create an atmosphere of intimacy. First single “Start Again” is a strident statement of intent. Pensive then explosive, his voice is deep with emotion, delivering modern pop with a soulful refrain.

Central cut “When it Hurts” is slick and yearning. Clipped beats and nuanced production move the track forward into a powerful response from guest collaborator Jack Savoretti. Awash with sentiment, it’s a standout moment that informs the greater tone of the album. Across the record there are radio-ready cuts, like should-be single “Remedy”, all hook-driven with piano chords ringing and a propulsive pace that leads the way to an eruptive chorus.

One of the main themes of the record is challenging toxic masculinity and finding the strength to be vulnerable. As exposing as that kind of honesty can be to share so publicly, Isaac feels it’s an important message. “I’m OK talking about it because I’m on my own journey, trying to be a better human. I’ve witnessed some stuff. We all have our crap, but I think the more we’re willing to identify and embrace the fact that we all have our own issues, particularly as men, the more we can own it. It’s almost a bit like therapy,” he laughs. “The beautiful thing about music and communicating it in this way is that it reaches out to other guys who don’t have the words and also comforts women who are like, so it’s not in my head. It’s that beyond the music thing.”

Writing from his experience as a black man from South London, Isaac feels that this personal approach gives him the freedom to be both confronting and conversational. “There is a slight element of representation, but the thing about representation is there are so many different colours and variants in the rainbow, as soon as you say I’m representing this, you either limit yourself and exclude others or offend others,” he explains. “I think my perspective on toxic masculinity and that whole narrative is to unpack my own experience and my own journey in the hope that people can identify with the art and the music. I think my voice is an option to other voices, and I’m always grateful for that and it will always be a privilege to me to be able to talk about this, particularly from the perspective of love and journeying and loss.”


From the record’s first breath it’s arresting. “How are you? No, really?” asks an isolated voice. A collaboration with spoken word artist Joshua Luke Smith, it’s an opener that sets the tone for the eight tracks which follow it. “He’s a friend of mine, Josh. I asked him to start it like that, in fact that’s the only thing I gave him. I said, ‘It needs to feel like you’ve woken up and that’s a conversation you’re having, first thoughts in the morning,’” Isaac explains. “I think he did it stunningly, but again, I think the idea with any art is to grab attention. Art is not meant to be passed by. Good art is meant to stop you in your tracks and make you feel something, whether you like the feeling or not, that’s up to you. But I think that question is often walked past in conversation.”

Another key influence was the loss of one of his best friends to cancer, and to whom he dedicated the project, closing out the record with one-side of a touching conversation. “When there is life, there’s still hope,” he states as a soft guitar fades out. “I think a lot of, particularly that track, was keeping the memory of him alive, grabbing ahold of the bigger picture of what’s important and what’s not. A massive thing for me is, is this important? Even in conversations, especially as I get older, is this worthy of a response? Is this worthy of the emotional draining that’s about to happen? I think when we start to ask those types of questions, particularly as creatives, it almost forms a greater sense of discipline, because then you play to your strengths.”

The bulk of Isaac’s new record was made at home, writing late into the night in his kitchen by a whirring washing machine while his family slept. “I had inspiration for this record at different points, but a lot of the time if I’m on my own late at night, the house is quiet, everyone’s sleeping, that’s my time,” he smiles.

Featuring collaborations with Savoretti, Jacob Banks and Joss Stone, Isaac sent them the music from his Manchester home, giving them space to add their own touch to his tracks. “There’s a great saying, collaboration breeds innovation. When you collaborate with someone you get way more than you get on your own,” he smiles. “There’s like a Christmas morning excitement because you send off the backing track and you go, do your thing, I’m a big fan, do your thing. Then you think, ahh crap, what are they gonna send back!?”

“It’s exciting doing it that way, rather than being in the same studio together. Sometimes you get the best out of someone when they bring their whole feeling and then you just manage it. Nothing extraordinary happens without risk. When you’re willing to risk that level of collaboration you get something you might not even have thought. I enjoyed that process, big time,” he says. “It’s almost like you’re reminded, you’re not the only artist in the world. Get over yourself, you know?”


Producing and mixing the album himself, Isaac exercised an easy self-discipline to stop from getting lost in the tracks. “I’ve learnt over the years to build a process of reviewing the songs,” he explains. “So if I make a record, I’ll leave it for twenty-four hours. Then the next time I listen to it will be on my good headphones. Then I’ll listen to it in the car on the school run and I’ll ask the kids, what do you think of this? Then I’ll come back in a day after that, hear it with fresh ears and then I’ll make the edits. I try not to knacker my ears when producing.”

A true polymath, not content with mastering music, Isaac has recently turned his attention to the world of acting. Having studied TV production as a minor to his marketing degree, and building on his experience with Brutal Honesty, he took a part in an upcoming series with Dutch production company Topkapi. “I just thought to myself, Idris Elba mode, let’s do this. I’ll have some of that!” he laughs. “The best storytellers I’ve read about or observed in my life never limit themselves to one medium. They can always tell stories or communicate stuff in other ways. The best speakers that I’ve witnessed are always great writers because they know how to get the thing across and they do whatever it takes to communicate it well, no matter what the medium. I think part of that has always been in me,”

He may be diversifying across mediums, but with the strength that comes from honesty and the ability to be vulnerable at his core, Isaac is confident and excited for what comes next. “I’m actually writing my own film at the moment,” he smiles. “It’s just a little bit crazy but I’m here for it.”

For When It Hurts is released on 14 April via Oil + Water

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