Norwich-born Oscar Jerome’s debut album, ‘Breathe Deep’ - and most significant solo project to date - is long overdue.
The guitarist, who studied at London’s prestigious Trinity Laban, has been at the heart of the South London jazz scene for many years, often found playing alongside the London-based afro-beat collective, Kokoroko, as well as recently supporting saxophonist Kamasi Washington on his UK tour.
Not that Jerome is bound by one sound, though, his musical references vast and intricate. After his self-titled debut EP was released in 2016, Jerome followed this up with his second EP, ‘Where Are Your Branches?’ in 2018, blending hip-hop influences with soul, and melded together by his distinctive baritone vocals.
His latest album is just as layered, moving from the bebop of US Jazz guitarist Grant Green to a 54-second ode to George Benson, goats in Crete to sheep in Dorset. There’s a lyrical sharpness to this record, too, and a political sensibility that resonates throughout.
We spoke with Oscar Jerome about ‘Breathe Deep’, on how to make everyday issues tangible through music, the importance of collaboration, and learning about what self-care means when touring across the country.
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You’ve said before that artists have a political responsibility but at the same time music is a very “self-absorbed world” to exist in. In terms of your creative practice, did you get a chance to explore this tension more with ‘Breathe Deep’?
I think it is important if you have a platform to use it to elevate marginalised peoples voices. However, I do also think there is a tendency these days to put a lot of trust in the ideas of musicians and other famous people before listening to activists and intellectuals that devote their life to said cause and will have a much more comprehensive understanding.
Being a solo artist in a lot of ways is a very self absorbed path to take, more and more these days it becomes about the presentation of you as a personality as much as the art you create. But it doesn’t have to be, I think its just about creating balance in your life and not letting the industry change you. I didn’t go into this album with an overarching political motive or philosophical message.
Certain songs are about particular issue such as capitalism or discrimination, I think the best description of what I’m talking about is in the lyrics. To be honest I’m just writing down my thoughts about things and trying to continue educating myself. Hoping that they may speak to someone but also working out ways to turn this music thing into something of tangible use in day to day life.
You’re a gifted songwriter with a refreshing and uncompromising political sensibility. What’s your writing process like?
There is no one way that I like to write. Sometimes it will start with lots of poetry in no particular order when I’m thinking about something. Often chords and melodies within chord changes inspire me. Or maybe a funky drum beat that I come up with. I’ll then usually produce a demo before taking it to the band.
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I read that you prefer to be interviewed by musicians particularly as music journalists can get overly fixated on boxing artists into categories or a predefined sound which I think is true. Part of the beauty of jazz is its intangibility as an art form; it's as much rooted in the present as it is gesturing back to a rich history. It has relevance for everyone. How has this intangibility helped tease out other influences in your music?
I don’t really call my music jazz, it’s just music. There are definitely elements of jazz in there but equally I am influenced by other styles so that was always going to come out in this album. Jazz has always been an art form that evolves with times that’s true, and I think the training and foundation that one gets with learning it gives you the ability to experiment with lots of different styles.
It feels like collaboration is a big part of your creative practice whether it’s from your time with afrobeat collective KOKOROKO to projects with artists such as Moses Boyd, Yusef Dayes and Shabaka Hutchings. Collaboration is also clearly an important aspect of ‘Breathe Deep’. How have these friendships and communities shaped your sense of identity as a musician?
Collaboration and community is definitely a big part of the music for myself and many of the people around me. Now I am going down more of a solo path but I know that I will always value the input of others. Communication and improvisation with other musicians will always be a big part of what I do especially in a live context.
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How does the creative experience change from being part of a band to a solo artist? What have you learned about yourself as an artist in this transition?
It’s definitely different, in some ways it is so exciting because you can create things exactly how you envisaged. I think I have realised that as much as I have a vision for what I want to do, I also enjoy the process more when I get skilled and nice people to help me achieve something rather than trying to do it all myself. I think it’s important to work out your limits and maintain an enjoyable work flow.
‘Breathe Deep’ is an assortment of textures and layers: Latin-American-inspired soul; the bebop of US Jazz guitarist Grant Green; a 54-second ode to George Benson; sheep in Dorset and goats in Crete. You even manage to capture the pastoral beauty of John Keats on ‘Coy Moon’. How experimental did you want to be on this album and did you have a wider vision for what mark you wanted to make with your long-awaited debut?
My idea with this album really was to give some kind of introduction of me as an artist that went a bit broader than my previous EPs. Also to showcase some of the musical community I have come up with and have helped my growth so much.
This album is still just a small presentation of me as an artist. I definitely could have gone a lot more experimental but I didn’t want to hit people with something too out there at first. It was exciting to make a larger body of work because there is more space to go to different places with the music.
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You’re a musician who has been touring pretty relentlessly in recent years including a series of shows with saxophonist Kamasi Washington. How did it feel to be back in the studio and what did you learn from your time on the road?
Touring was pretty intense the last few years that’s true. I was with Kamasi in the UK which was a good learning experience seeing how they lived the road life.
Working on this record felt like a welcome space in my life to be in one place and to focus on the finer details of my music. Touring you learn a lot about patience and the limits of your body and mind. I have learnt a hell of a lot about self care from being out on the road, usually from my mistakes.
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'Breathe Deep' is out now.
Words: Tess Davidson
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