Hailing from Sydney and now based in Paris, a builder classically trained in piano, Jack Grace is certainly cosmopolitan. He’s eloquent, humble, thoughtful, with a dry sense of humour befitting his diverse life experience. This pluralism also enters his music, which recalls his countryman Chet Faker in its electronic minimalism and emotive vocals, but it’s possibly even more indebted to the melancholy and yearning of classic soul; such a blend has been described as “neo-soul,” a phrase I was keen to ask him about. I met up with him while he was in London to promote his newest EP, If I Tremble, last month.

Let’s jump in! What's going on with you?

Well living wise, I’m in Paris now. Scenery has changed! That 2016 EP, even though it came out then, I made it in 2012, so it's kind of a fair bit of time musically and just general life experience, I got a bit older, and things changed. New influences and new ideas. All those general things that change with time.

For the new record, is there any new sonic or music directions? New tech and gear you're using which you didn't have access to previously?

I've always been very DIY in the process, and as soon as I signed I went out and bought a couple of synths that I've been looking at for like 10 years, and I bought a new mic and a freer amp. I was still using a really shitty mac that was crashing constantly, so I definitely upgraded some of my shit! I'm not gear heavy in my process, and I think that whenever I do get new gear it tends to sit there for quite a while until I work out how I actually utilise it in what I do. For me it's more about getting everything out of the little bit that I do have, and I've thought for a long time working out how to use what I had. So by the time everything came around, I was three quarters to actually finishing the record. I think that growth you'll probably see on the full record after this, more than on this EP.

You mention the gear isn't your process, so what would you say is your song writing process normally?

I'm a piano player.

Is that classically trained?

Yeah, I studied piano at university. I left school in year 10 and I worked as a builder for a year, and I just was like "I can't fucking cope with building, I need to like do piano" because I'd always done it growing up, I'd always played classical piano and so I went and studied jazz. So everything comes out of that. I write the song - the piano and the vocal idea - and then I sort of just record that, and then fit production around those ideas. The ideas sort of sit there and eventually I might develop something into more of a song idea, or I might just leave it as more of an idea and put more production around it. That's the thing that I'm experimenting with more, and I think this EP has gone some fully produced, and then it's got some other things that just are more of like an idea.

Once you have the piano baseline, one thing that's distinctive about your music is how textured it is, with a lot of layers and a lot of contrasting melodies and harmonies. When you're processing these, do they come instinctively to you in terms of you have the piano baseline and you know what you want to add next?

Whenever I'm adding stuff, it's all what I can hear and it's intentional. I’ll tend to build a track up and then I tenderise the track as much as I can, hope it translates in tone and melody. I think on this EP, like with ‘Downstate’, it was an experiment in maximalism for me. More than I'd done before. And when I hear it sometimes I feel it’s overboard, and some days I'm like "no this is what I want it to be". I think I'm playing up those ideas conceptually between the tracks there's one on ‘Row Me Home’ that's pretty stark. I think these EPs are ways for me to explore these ideas and form my sound. That's the way that I see it.

I'm curious to see what you learn following on from this. It's quite apparent from Google that one of your biggest champions is Pigeons And Planes. They used a phrase that I thought was quite striking. They compared your voice to Thom Yorke’s. And that's got me thinking, especially in a style of music as intricate as yours, do you see your voice as an instrument or a useful clog in the grand scheme of a track?

I guess for me, my voice doesn't carry a song. I hope the lyric and the writing carry it more than the voice carries it. I enjoy singing but it's not always something that I've been working on. I think there's more singing on this EP than there was on the last EP. The Thom Yorke thing is obviously flattering, but I feel weird about that, as he's an idol and it's sort of something that I don't really want to touch. Pigeons and Planes have been really generous, but I'm not a feature vocalist and I guess that's what they mean. It's as much of an instrument as a synth or the piano or the beat is in a process.

We're seeing that more and more in music, especially when people syncopate the vocals or over dub the vocals. Have you ever listened to any Sylvan Esso?

Yeah. Not much, but I've listened to it a while ago.

I think they're someone who does it wonderfully in using the vocal as the foreground but not to express meaning, but to express atmosphere. As you say, there's no expressed intent there but it's something you do quite well.

I think the issue is that sometimes I'll write a song, and what sometimes pisses off people that are close to me and other peers is that if I write a song that I think needs a big vocal I'll give it to another artists and I won't do it myself. I think that sometimes you second guess. If you don't have a voice that's like a classical pop voice, sometimes you second guess what you can and can't do, because what we've been conditioned to think about voices as being very specific. If you're not going through the scheme of heavily processing your voice and tuning it within an inch of it's life - which is cool, it sounds great on some stuff - sometimes if it's not what you want to do you feel like "maybe this song isn't for me". That's been a bit of an internal battle. Like if there is a snippet of a line of a vocal and it sounds edited, typically the phrase isn't edited, it's just been cut from a longer phrase. I try and play up that contrast.

Your discography so far, there's always been distinctive signatures, is there any hook or pattern or arrangement that you've had across your tracks that you're particularly proud of? That you're really satisfied with how it works?

I think that you get a moment of clarity in the studio and you're like "Ahh this is what I wanted to do". But then asking me after that point is more difficult. For this EP, the one track that I'm really happy with is ‘Row Me Home’, and the way it ends. And I think that's because it's a song in the most pure form, and it's a song I wrote 7 or 8 years ago now, and it's been something that I've played at home for fun. I've recorded it a bunch of times, because it's essentially just a synth. It's two takes, and I've spliced them together, but I've never really got it completely right. And when I listen to it now I like that and I think that that's something that I want to do, not that concrete sound so much as something that feels natural. But it took a long time for it to come to fruition. It's not a very sustainable way of making music, writing a song and then sitting on it for 7 years.

That's interesting. I really like that stuff. That's my favourite stuff to talk about. The nitty gritty of everything being taken apart.

I think it's particularly tough because off the first EP there's music that aged not so nicely, and there's some stuff I listen back to now and I'm like "ahh if I put this out now it wouldn't even be that bad". It's really difficult. Production moves in fashionable cycles and this is what sometimes is not very satisfying. There are songs that outlive those cycles.

I'm keen to chat about your style and what people make of your style, because it's quite extensive and broad. But one label that I have seen come up recently again and again, ever since FKA Twigs and Chet Faker became prominent, is this concept of neo-soul. I think it’s a loaded term and quite a modern term, what’s your take?

I think I understand it? That's sort of as much as I can give you any more insight on it. It doesn't make sense to me. Like you say, just the fact that they called Chet Faker neo-soul and FKA Twigs neo-soul is odd to me. I think about genre very much in lineage of chord progressions, beats, tempos, melody stylings though obviously the culture behind it has a big part. All I'd say is I don't really care what people want to say to be honest. And not in a stand-offish way, I like using genres when they actually go to describe the music that is specific, and using them as labels that help you categorise in a library. Like what we were talking about before. I think you can say jungle and know what it means. If you say neo-soul it can mean that someone’s reaching for a word to describe something that they're not so sure about.

My theory on this is that neo-soul is a word invented by the media, whereas jungle is a term invented by the people creating jungle.

I don't understand neo-soul I understand soul. I understand there's all different types of branches. I understand deeply the lineage of gospel and soul and Motown. But neo to me...

It's a catch all phrase isn't it? You could say "Bruno Mars" is neo soul because its literal definition is music vaguely linked to soul. And that's all neo really means.

That's what I would get out of that as well. It's lazy and it's broad. I had a conversation with a mate the other day about these problematic genre names that we throw around now. Even like today, people are still using words like "urban" and even R&B is problematic in a lot of ways. If we could trace the lineage of the influence, and the music and the harmony, and so it makes sense. But there's just a laziness around it, and I think there's a lack of clarity, but I think getting too academic about it isn't the answer either. It needs to be open and something people feel like they can have access to.

Alongside the EP, what are your plans for 2018 and beyond?

Playing some shows in Australia and hopefully might be able to get one more release out before the end of the year and come over to the UK and play hopefully a couple of shows in September and some shows in the US. Apart from that, making more music and continuing on with what I've started now.