Jon Batiste’s new album, ‘World Music Radio’, is an expansive listen. Moving away a little from the jazz that made him famous as bandleader extraordinaire on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show (he left after seven years in 2021), his latest sees him embrace musical sounds and styles from across the world, uniting communities through the power of music.
It features some high-profile collaborations – including a soaring new song with Lana Del Rey – and builds on the success of his last, ‘We Are’, which won five Grammys including Album Of The Year in 2022. We caught up with Batiste to get the low-down on his new album, what it was like working with Lana Del Rey, and how it felt to win an Oscar for his score to Pixar’s Soul.
NME: How did the concept of your new album come about?
Jon Batiste: “A DJ, Billy Bob Bo Bob, guides us through the album [laughs]. He’s the main character and this album is like a movie, it tells a story and the collaborators on here are like actors in a movie. It starts with this incredible introduction to ‘World Music Radio’, this radio frequency that’s broadcast across the universe and beyond. I was reading an article about this super-transmission that was discovered a couple of years ago in space and no one knew where it was coming from, or what it was broadcasting: it’s different to any other transmission that’s ever been discovered. That idea became an inspiration.
“I also was making music and thinking about how popular culture and world culture have become more and more synonymous with each other. The definition of what and who that can be is expanding in terms of age, race and demographics. It’s something that I was thinking about a lot.”
In terms of that world culture, the album makes us rethink what ‘world music’ is…
“Yes, everything that is said about world music is really wrong – it feels almost like a separate category but everything in the world is world music. Music that is made for everybody in the world, that’s what we’re doing. That’s not really to say that the music on this album is ‘world music’, it’s really popular music, but world music was the prompt for us creatively. And I think if you reinvented and reimagined what that term means, it’s a beautiful prompt, not a marginalising idea – it’s an expansive one.”
Does that tie into how many different genres you explore on this album?
“I’ve played so much music and experienced so many different styles but I just believe music is music. There are no real genres. We organise the music industry by genre and I understand that’s true only because we believe it to be true. I think the actual truth is that all music comes from people and communities and it expresses our ideas, desires and wisdom. And it can take any form that we creatively can imagine it to take. I made the music based on the idea of blending all these styles and creating a picture of how the world could coexist by showing how the different genres coexist.”
There are some incredible collaborations on the album, like one with Lana Del Rey…
“We had a great first meeting after our mutual friend and musical collaborator Zach Dawes introduced us because he thought we would have a great creative spark. We met and it just turned into a beautiful collaboration.
I met Rick Rubin in Italy and he suggested I go to Shangri-La [Rubin’s studio in Malibu, California]. I told him I was inspired to create a new album and I was creating with all types of different musicians and producers and in that creative spur, I had a lot of things that I was recording with Lana, and I recorded a lot of things with Lana that no one has even heard yet. But two of those things ended up on her last album [2023’s ‘Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd’] and ‘Life Lesson’ on my album is like the palate cleanser after the credits roll in the movie. It’s a spiritual relative of the album sessions.”
Will we get to hear these unreleased songs at some point?
“It’s some incredible, really great, beautiful stuff we’ve made together. We’ve talked about doing something together. But this music, I mean, hopefully, at the right time, I don’t want to say too much, but I hope one day I have more to say about what will happen with it [laughs].”
One of your first ever collaborations was with Prince…
“Oh it was so real [laughs]. I was literally in my dorm room in the year before meeting Prince and I was studying recordings. I was trying to dissect his album, ‘Dirty Mind’. I made a few songs inspired by that album and his approach to [making music], his own Prince style. The next year, I get the call. Prince had heard our band playing in a club: he’d been at the show the whole time – I didn’t know he was even in the audience! He said he wanted to take the band to do a collaboration on one of his tours and we ended up doing that. The first time I ever performed in a stadium aged 19 was with Prince and seeing how he curated his show, how he presented his music and just being around that was really inspiring.”
The Roots’ Questlove is another. Were you close before you were both band leaders on US television?
“In those years between me joining The Late Show, Quest and I would do these incredible secret events and shows where we would take over warehouses in New York, All types of artists and creative forces would come: the French artist JR, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, Lenny Kravitz and Questlove. [Quest] would play with us and he would invite folks to come by. And that’s how we first really started to connect, he would come to our shows. This was like a time where we were really underground. We were like in that era of being not on television, but we were more your favourite band’s favourite band, which was cool. We didn’t know what it would lead to.”
How did Questlove support you?
“Quest was in an article once talking about us and he literally told the interviewer in the segment his top shows of the year. He said it was ‘a three way tie between Beyoncé, Prince and this kid called Jon Batiste. Google him and thank me later’ [laughs]. So then imagine, three or four years later, I’m on The Late Show, he’s on The Tonight Show. I had a seven-year tenure…it was a very special trajectory. Even now, we have game nights and you know, we live in [the same] neighbourhood. It’s just a beautiful thing. I’m really such an admirer of what he’s done with the platform and obviously, back in those early days, we connected musically and as a musician, I love working together so it meant a lot. We always talk about how we’ve made the history books together.”
You’ve always created music from what’s around you and your latest feels like your most personal album yet…
“‘World Music Radio’ is the first album I’ve made where it was just me living my life and making an album. But that’s not to say my life was easy at the time of making this album. My wife, who had leukaemia, was going through a second bone marrow transplant at the time. The lyrics have [multiple] meanings. One of the most literal meanings is in the song ‘Butterfly’, which is written to her. She made it through. These are things that happen in life that go into art.
“When she was in the hospital, it was a great place for us to have a creative dialogue. She’s an incredibly prolific, award-winning writer who couldn’t write when she was having treatment, so she took up painting for a time. She painted in hospital and I would write lullabies that were connected to her paintings, and we would share them with each other. This is also the same time I was making the album. Sometimes, creativity becomes a means of survival… I’m actually sitting here in this room, looking at the paintings that she made in the hospital, we put them on the wall when she came out. But now, you know, she’s back. We’ve just come back from a month of travelling together. And it’s been beautiful to see how much after a year, she has just come back to herself.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement was happening, that was another example of you being inspired creatively by what was going on around you. You took your band into the protests and played…
“I am always channelling life into art. I’m more influenced by life than I am by listening to other music. Being an artist is not being a politician and is not making political statements, although art can harbour a political sentiment and have a voice in the conversation. But I believe how you live your life and how you show up for others is the greatest political statement you can make. For me as a public figure, at the time of those protests, that felt aligned with how I see myself, how I live my life. Me showing up was more in line not with my activist self, but more with my humanity and my human self.”
And that links into your concept of ‘social music’…
“Yes, I really came up with that moniker in 2013 and it’s my musical philosophy…It’s a philosophy of using music for more than entertainment and connecting the dots with all of the different cultures out there, with communities…and bringing everyone together.”
In 2021, you won an Oscar for Best Original Score for Soul alongside co-creators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. What did that experience mean?
“I still feel so grateful to be not only the recipient of the award, but to really have made the music that I wanted to make and stay true to what it is that I’m all about. For that to be rewarded, it was an inspiration not just for me, and the lineage of great Black musicians and the history of that great lineage, but also for all artists to see that trusting your artistic instinct and vision is not something that anyone can predict will lead to that type of success, but you should trust it anyway.”
Are you excited to tour the new album?
“‘World Music Radio’ will be my first tour and the goal is literally to go all over the world…People have heard my scores or my albums, have seen me on television or in a movie, but many have never seen me live, have never met me in person or connected. We’re creating this incredible show, I mean, this show is going to be something that I was put on the earth to do [laughs]. I’m so excited to share it!”
Jon Batiste’s ‘World Music Radio’ is released August 18