Collaj (Jayson Martinovich) called me from his bathtub at the scheduled time of our interview — which might seem like an odd thing to do, but it was actually an on-brand move. His new style of bubbly, island-tinged pop calls to mind images of fruity drinks, saltwater, and warm nights. In between studio sessions working on his forthcoming full-length album, the San Francisco singer and producer has developed the guilty pleasure of taking luxurious, scented baths to get into his sunny creative zone in spite of the current chilly weather.
In addition to writing songs for his next album, Collaj is currently overhauling his music career. Formerly known as 8th Grader, he released a well-received, self-titled EP and performed at the most recent edition of Austin’s South by Southwest before coming to the realization that he wanted to go in a new creative direction. As 8th Grader, he penned sultry R&B slow jams that were at times sleazy and kitschy, but he wanted to find a way to incorporate his love for Caribbean and African rhythms and traditional percussion into his work.
Even though he was starting to pick up hype as 8th Grader, he abruptly dropped the project and renamed himself Collaj to better represent the patchwork of sounds he seeks to incorporate into his music. Plus, he added, the name 8th Grader felt incongruous with the R-rated themes in his lyrics.
Under the new moniker, Collaj has released several singles with more upbeat rhythms, lush layers of playful synths, and a wide variety of percussion instruments from different cultures. There’s “Tropical Vacation,” a breezy, synth-driven dance-pop song with notes of funk and dancehall that — rather refreshingly — celebrates mutually satisfying, mentally healthy relationships. When I’m with you/I’m never seeking validation, I can be myself, he croons heart-meltingly in an earnest falsetto. “You Deserve It All” is similarly syrupy and devotional, with pulses of retro-sounding synths bouncing up and down like the folds of an accordion.
“I’ve been writing songs that are really celebratory and, you could say, ‘tropical,’ even through they’re more ‘world beat,'” he said. “Because, nowadays, ‘tropical’ is like ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber, and it’s commercial.”
Collaj recently quit his job as a social worker and currently splits his time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles as he vies for commercial pop songwriting work. He has begun shopping around songs to mainstream artists, though he won’t mention who quite yet. He did admit, though, that he wrote a track that was up for consideration for Bieber’s successful new album, Purpose, though it ultimately didn’t make the cut.
As far as his personal music project goes, Collaj’s jubilant singles draw from his background studying various types of African and Caribbean drumming. Over the years, he had dabbled with different instruments, including guitar, piano, synth, and drum machine, but he attributes his tracks’ complex rhythm structures to his interest in the traditional drumming of the African diaspora. He took up congas, which originated from Afro-Cuban music, and the djembe, a type of West African drum.
“Growing up in [Sonoma County], I was around a bunch of fucking hippies and drum circles and ate a lot of mushrooms and did a lot of weird stuff,” he said. “But after a while, the drum circles got kind of boring and I wanted to learn the actual instruments. … There’s definitely a pulse and a groove that is really important for me in all my songs that I think comes from African music.”
Collaj explained that his songwriting begins with laying down a drum beat and adding layers of melody on top of it through intuitive improvisation. He said that his process is roughly half analog and half digital, though he professed that he never uses a loop pedal, instead playing repeating phrases over and over on an 808 drum machine or a synth. Though he works with some recurring collaborators, such as Oakland’s Jackson Phillips of Day Wave, by and large, he plays the majority of the instruments on his tracks and considers himself self-taught.
“I love writing pop songs so I don’t need to get super technical with one particular instrument,” he explained. “Songwriting itself can be seen as a study of all the various elements that make up a song. It’s a lifelong study.”