JACOB ANDERSON IN LONDON, MAY 2017. PHOTOS: JASON HETHERINGTON/SERLIN ASSOCIATES.
As Grey Worm on Game of Thrones, Jacob Anderson is largely silent, standing loyally behind Daenerys Targaryen and leading the Unsullied. In real life, Anderson is affable, forthcoming, and certainly not quiet; under the name Raleigh Ritchie, he makes playful pop- and R&B-inflected music. In February 2016 he dropped his first LP, You’re a Man Now, Boy, and since then the 27-year-old, who’s based in London, has released an EP (Mind the Gap) and started writing his sophomore album.
As Anderson explains of his various pursuits, “They all serve their purposes and hopefully balance each other out,” but music cuts to the core of it all. Since his childhood growing up in Bristol, he’s written as a means of getting out thoughts that were “jabbing” at him. “I need all of my songs while I’m writing them, because I need to get the stuff out of my body and out of my brain,” he says. “I write out of necessity, not because I want to be a pop star.” Though he’s quick to say he isn’t one, he perhaps looks up to rappers most of all. “A good rapper is an amazing thing to me,” he says. “It’s like a 17th-, 18th-century poet. It’s a genius thing to be able to do, and I don’t think that I do that,” he continues. “I use things that I’ve learnt from rappers to tell stories.”
In May, less than an hour before Anderson performed for the first time in New York, we spoke to him about being Raleigh Ritchie, creative catharsis, and, of course, Game of Thrones.
HALEY WEISS: Do you always get nervous before you’re on stage?
JACOB ANDERSON: Yeah, I’m always this nervous. Once I get on stage, everything is fine and I can just enjoy it. I quite like seeing what happens, so the idea of sound checks and all that stuff always makes me anxious. Once you’re on stage you’ve got no choice; it has to be fine how it is. I would just rather be on stage.
WEISS: Is that something that only happens with performing live? Or if you’re about to do a scene and you’re acting, is that something that happens as well?
ANDERSON: I never really get it when I’m writing; that’s different stuff, that’s not really nerves, because normally I would write a song to get rid of anxiety or stress. But when I’m acting, I definitely have my moments where just before a director says action, I do get a bit of, “Uhh.” Sometimes I have this weird thing where I can’t move my head properly. [laughs] That sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it’s like my head goes into Terminator mode—I’m not sure what it is. I’ve got a little shiver behind my back. But I can’t explain that one, so I’m just going to call it a little lucky charm.
WEISS: I’d like to hear a little bit about the stuff you’re doing now music-wise, because you’re working on the second full album. Does it feel different from writing the last album? What has your approach been?
ANDERSON: The difficult second album thing, I thought that was a lie. I thought that was just a thing people said, because I’ve had people say it to me as well, like, “Oh, you have a second album coming, how are you feeling about that?” It’s really hard actually. It exists; it’s a real thing. I’m not sure if it’s a mix of wanting to do better, but I’m trying to not focus on making it sound different. I don’t want it to be self-conscious because that’s not how I’ve done things in the past. I’d rather do that at the end, when you look back at everything and start putting it together and say, “I’d quite like to change this so it sounds more in line with this other thing.” I want the songs to have more of a relationship to each other than my first album did. I listen to a lot of different things, and I’d like to tie them in together and make one new thing, hopefully. I feel like with this next one I can find a way to distill it even better. I hate when an album feels like it’s the same song 12 times, but I do like it when it flows really naturally, so that’s my only goal. Apart from that, we have quite a fluid approach to writing songs. It all depends on how I feel that day, and we’re actually going to go away, go out to the countryside, and finish the album there. It’s the same thing with shows and the same thing with writing songs, where I find it a lot easier if it’s a spontaneous thing and it comes from how you feel at that time. It’s the thinking about doing a second album and the talking about doing a second album that makes me go, “Oh, what am I going to do with it?” But then when I’m in it, I know that I can do it. I haven’t told you anything about the second album whatsoever, but I think it’s because it’s not there yet. It’s not done yet. But I’m excited to go away and to do that. I’m going to go away for two weeks to work on that and nothing else.
WEISS: You’ve said you were a shy kid. Are you still shy? Would you consider yourself introverted?
ANDERSON: Yes. I have highs and lows. I’m definitely introverted, and I like my own company and I can keep my head down while I’m going about my day, but then I do have spells of mad hyperactivity. [laughs] I’m a bit of a contradiction in that way. I can be really, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and then I can be really, “I need my space. I need to be on my own,” which is why I write songs, because it’s my best way of articulating that stuff. … When I feel shit, I need to write a song, because I can’t really tell people why I feel shit. I’m not very good at explaining it, but I can explain it if I put it down. That’s what I did as a kid; I used to write in books, write on scraps of paper, “I feel sad and the reason I feel sad is because of this.” And then it was when I started to listen to music that was more confessional that I was like, “Oh, shit, I’ve felt like that before. I completely get what you’re saying, and the way you’re saying it is so to the point and so conversational and confessional.” I thought, “Maybe that’s something that I could do. I could use that as an outlet.”
WEISS: Do you write anything other than songs? I know you’re interested in directing as well.
ANDERSON: I don’t think I have a very novelistic brain. I like to read, but I don’t know if I could ever write a novel. But me and my friend are writing a film, a feature film, and I’ve got lots of ideas. So yes, I would like to, but I want to write so I can direct things. The writing part of it is a means to an end. But I’m a bit of a control freak, so I don’t want to get somebody else to write something that I can see in my head. I can see it, it’s just getting it down. I need to finish things. That’s my problem: it’s finishing things. Even with writing music, when it actually comes down to finishing an album and putting it together and the mixes, I can be quite tough.
WEISS: Yeah, I read that you finished your last album multiple times. How do you get to a point where you say, “Okay, I have to let it go.” Is it giving it to someone else to look at?
ANDERSON: I think when somebody else tells me to stop. I trust my manager, and I really trust my girlfriend. I feel like both of those people know me well enough to be like, “Okay, you’re obsessing over this now. Make peace with it, sit away from it for a while, and then listen back, see how you feel. If you feel like you’ve said what you wanted to say, done what you wanted to do, then do it.” But also, for the first album, the label were like, “You have to give it to us. Now,” basically. [laughs] The first album they gave me a deadline but I found it really satisfying. I thought, “Whatever happens, whatever the album is today, on this deadline, is what the album is regardless.” It’s out of my hands then. That was a really good thing for me, I think, and we self-imposed that for the last EP.
WEISS: Music predates acting for you. Would you consider yourself equally interested in both? What does one give you that the other doesn’t?
ANDERSON: Music is, as you can probably tell, me just in my head. It’s very much that I have to dig in and pull stuff out, whereas if I’m acting, it’s like putting a mask on. It’s the opposite. I don’t have to think about anything to do with myself; I can just be something else. That’s equally as cathartic as writing is in the opposite direction, and it’s fun. I really like making things, generally. Like I said, I want to direct. I don’t want to direct myself, because that’s hard—I’ve done it twice now and it’s really difficult—but I just need to get the confidence, I think, for that. That’s something that I’ve wanted to do since I was little.
WEISS: Do you have to carve out time to write on set?
ANDERSON: I record things on my phone basically every day, melody ideas or lyric ideas … but I don’t tend to write when I’m on set, and that’s because it’s fun. Writing can be a lonely thing, I think, or it’s being lonely with the producers you’re working with. Also when I write lyrics, I’ll leave the room, I’ll go off on my own and write somewhere for however long I need to. But with acting, it’s all these fun people I get to play with for the day; it’s like going to play school, so I wouldn’t want to isolate myself. I enjoy everybody’s company, just messing about. You’d be surprised how much we mess about on Game of Thrones.
WEISS: Tell me a story. I’m sure the internet would be thrilled to hear about how you messed about.
ANDERSON: There’s probably nothing I could tell you. It’s not spoiler stuff; it’s stuff where I’d get other people in trouble. I’ve got way too much energy during a shooting day. Okay—there was one day, it was particularly quiet, and I hid behind—when you get big sets, there are slats in the scaffolding—I basically climbed the scaffolding and hid in the darkness and jumped out at crewmembers, which is not funny. It’s just childish. [laughs] I don’t think they found it funny. They’re like, “I’m trying to do my job.”
WEISS: “This is a union gig.”
ANDERSON: Exactly. Peter Dinklage and Conleth Hill, it’s a sport to them to make me laugh, because I’m not allowed to laugh, so they do their very best. And I’m weak. I can’t hold it. [laughs] We have a lot of fun though, genuinely.
WEISS: This may be a stretch, but because you’re not always speaking English on the show, is musical ability helpful in that and having to memorize lines?
ANDERSON: It’s really helpful, because you can hear the melody in a language and then copy it, and that comes more naturally to me. I have the worst memory in the world; I’m a really bad memorizer. I have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. So in one sense, it’s a melodic thing, but that’s a bit later on. But another way that I learnt how to memorize was from JAY-Z, because JAY-Z said—it’s similar to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing—if you repeat anything 18 times then it’ll stay in there, so I repeat things 18 times. But I do try and act it as well—I don’t just memorize it. But I’ve got to memorize it first and then think about what it means afterwards.
WEISS: It’s a lot of facial communication, too.
ANDERSON: It’s been harder the last few years because they’re trying to make him more human now, but in the first few years it was, “Play a robot. You’ve got to be like walking trauma. Don’t play anything.” Now I have to be a human. The hardest bit of acting I’ve ever had to do in my life was smiling, because it was, how does a person smile when they’re never smiled in their life?
FOR MORE ON JACOB ANDERSON’S MUSIC AS RALEIGH RITCHIE, VISIT HIS WEBSITE. GAME OF THRONES AIRS SUNDAYS ON HBO.