Photo: Cybele Malinowski
Hayden James Dives Deep Into Debut Album, Feeling Inspired By Flume & Daft Punk
Hayden James released his debut album, Between Us, on June 14. Featuring nine powerful vocalists across its 11 dreamy, chill-house tracks, it explores the different phases of romantic relationships in a story of like and love. But the Aussie singer/producer isn't the new kid in town. In fact, he's been putting out vibey, warm-weather jams for several summers now.
— Future Classic (@futureclassic) June 14, 2019
James first released his self-titled debut EP in 2013 on Aussie indie electronic label Future Classic, home to a small but mighty group of talent, including GRAMMY winner Flume. He followed with a trail of big singles, including "Something About You" in 2015, which put him on the map in both Australia and the U.S., with American dream-house duo ODESZA releasing a firery remix that same year.
Prior to dropping Between Us Stateside, we sat down with James to learn more about his vision for the project, what goes into choosing his collaborators, putting out an album versus a single, and how he gets the finished product to feel so fluid. James also talked about his biggest musical influences, which include his labelmates (Hi, Flume!), as well as the group that first caused him to fall in love with electronic music: GRAMMY winners and dance-music icons Daft Punk.
You're about to drop Between Us, your debut album. How are you feeling?
Great, amazing. It actually is out now in Australia. It hit midnight a couple of hours ago, tomorrow. I'm already getting some people commenting and going, "Oh, it's worth the wait." Because it's been six years since my first release and yeah, people have always just gone like, "We need more music," basically. So to be able to give them this, it feels incredible.
I don't think it's really hit me. It kind of did this morning; I've been up since 5:00 a.m. and through flying around a lot and the different time zones, but seeing it on Spotify for the first time and Apple Music, scrolling through I'm like, these aren't just demos on my phone anymore, people can actually actively listen to them now. It feels really cool.
What did you tweet earlier today, like, "I'm not crying, you're crying"?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I think I will later. Absolutely.
I bet it comes in waves, right?
Definitely. Yeah, for sure. And it's the first time I've ever had an album out, so, I'll let you know. [Laughs.]
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It’s finally here... my album, ‘Between Us’. I honestly didn’t think this day would come. It’s been a long journey to get here and I’m so proud of what I’ve created. Between Us is about those intimate moments in your life.. that energy you feel with someone. It’s a look at different stages of relationships - love, loss and everything in between. I dreamed of writing a record that you can press play on the first song and just let it play all the way through... no fillers - every song belonging, fitting into the story and meaning something special. I hope I’ve done this for you. To everyone that listens to my music, comes to my shows and supports me, thanks for waiting so long for this moment. I’m so excited to share this new music with you. There’s so many people that helped me get here. To everyone involved in making this record with me, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’ve helped me realise my dream. This feels like just the beginning. Love, Hayden James.
I'm sure it's a different feeling from putting a track out that people really vibe with.
Yeah, one song and it's like, cool. But this is a whole story and it makes sense together so it's definitely... It's like I'm writing a book. And yeah, it nearly killed me. [Laughs.]
"I wanted to keep it very true to what I do, which I think is very simple production but very powerful, very summery style beats as well."
Going into that process of starting your first album, what was the main sound or goal you had with the project?
So the main goal was to not only tell this story of mine, but to keep the production the same. You know when a band or a group, they'll write a couple of singles or whatever, then they'll go for the album or they'll do the second album and there will be a change. It'll be like, "You know we're trying something different." I hate that. The reason I'm a fan of you is how you do something.
I wanted to keep it very true to what I do, which I think is very simple production but very powerful, very summery style beats as well. I've worked with a bunch of amazing feature vocalists on this, people who I've worked with previously too, so it kind of felt right to tell this story together.
I started the process about two years [ago]. I always wanted to write an album, but I actively said, "Hey, I want to do an album." That was about maybe two and a half years ago, actually. After I had written maybe 30, 40 demos, I kind of dwindled it down into 11.
What was that process like, of having to put your babies away in the corner?
I've still got them. But yeah it feels good to just choose the strongest ones, the ones that make sense together. I really enjoyed picking the order of the tracks as well, that's a huge thing for me. One of the big goals of mine as well with an album is, and you can't do this with many albums I don't think, is to listen, like press play on the first track and just listen through. There tends to be a lot of other filler songs or stuff that just doesn't make sense to the listener, which I'm sure that that'll be the case with this for a lot of it, but to me it makes a lot of sense. It was a lot of fun figuring out how they all fit together too.
Did having that "just press play and listen" qualifier help you find the sound of the album or the path of the songs?
Yeah, absolutely. These all fit together not just through the story, but also sonically as well. And they all kind of came effortlessly in that every single that I've ever done, it's been quite quick. It's often taken months to produce and make it what I want, but the actual writing of the song has always been literally a day or less with that vocalist, so that's what these songs represent too.
Where do you start when you work on a song? Is it the beat, is it an idea?
It's always different. I play piano and guitar and saxophone, so I'll just play and see what happens. I'll listen to friends' stuff and be like, "Oh, that's cool." I'll listen to older stuff as well, older electronic stuff. Or I'll have 10 or 15 demos, when I'm like, "Oh, I'm with Boy Matthews tomorrow, I'm gonna write a bunch of stuff quickly now." With literally just a couple of core progressions and maybe some different beat ideas, we'll get together and just start going and then it just evolves like that.
I was impressed by how you have nine different collaborators on the album and, even with those different inputs in the way they sound and their style, it all flows well so together.
Yeah, I think that's because I'm the one telling the story and they're helping me do that.
How did you choose the collaborators?
A lot of them through my label Future Classic. I met Shungudzo at the Future Classic x Dropbox studio [in Los Angeles] last year. I met Boy Matthews from a friend of a friend in New York the year before. Elderbrook, I toured with in the States, so there's all these different connections. Nat Dunn, who sings with NAATIONS on "Nowhere To Go" and on "Favours," she's an Aussie as well, but we had never met and have mutual friends. So yeah, it's all different connections. Some people I just reached out to on their Instagram and said, "Hey let's do something."
Were there any chance encounters, like someone introduced you to someone, but it felt naturally once it happened?
Yeah, the last song I wrote on the record is "Lost to You" featuring Farr, and the guy who sings on it is Romero. So I was in L.A. in January and kind of finishing up the album, but I felt like I needed a couple of more songs to choose from. And he is a friend of my manager actually, they manage him too but he hasn't really put a lot of stuff out yet. We had a session, I was literally flying out back to Sydney that night and I had like three hours, and we had a session near the airport, and within half an hour I was like, "This has got to be on the record." It just makes sense to me. Yeah so, that was very chance it was just like, "What?" And out here, the right time, the right place.
"Just Friends" with Boy Matthews was a really big summer track last year. Did you guys go back in the studio together to work on "Hold Me Back," or what was the process for the second collab together?
We didn't actually, because I haven't been here in the States for a little while, so we did that one just over the net and FaceTime. So I would rent out a studio here, like a Future Classic studio, or there's another one called Westlake Studios, and kinda just be on the phone with him, guiding him through what I was feeling and all that kind of stuff, and we would write together that way, just on FaceTime. And just send stuff back and forth. I think it wouldn't have worked if we didn't collaborate before and knowing how we work together. Everyone else I was in the studio with, but yeah the fact that we knew each other from before that and had collaborated very closely in the studio made it easier.
What was your hope going into that second song together? Were you trying to create your next summer hit?
Boy and I together equal pop music. So it's like the brother or sister of "Just Friends," a little bit darker. The theme revolves around the fact that you want to let this person go, but they're not leaving. So it's a bit darker and a bit sadder then "Just Friends," but I love it.
You talked a bit about being part of Future Classic, but I'd like to know a little more about what it's like being part of such a powerhouse indie label.
Yeah, it feels like a major label because of the incredible artists on it. It's amazing because they're an Aussie label and they've only just recently come over to the States.
The L.A. studio, I don't think it's a year old, but yeah they've been here in that office for maybe two years I think. They're Sydney guys and I knew of them because of Flume, Touch Sensitive and a whole bunch of people like that. So it's an honor to be a part of a group of such amazing artists that I look up to, and it's also great representing Australian music too, with an Australian label.
They're great people. They're so dedicated to what they do and they just got this idea of where they want to take things.
Do you feel like it enhances you as an artist creatively, being a part of that crew?
Yeah, definitely. I think because the music's so cool that people release, you feel... Not pressure, but just like, "I need to step up too and make my mark."
Like healthy sibling rivalry with your brother or sister.
Exactly, it's like "Oh that's good! All right, sh*t." I just heard Flume's song with London Grammar and was like, that's tight, I always wanted to collaborate with someone like her. It's great too because we're all actually friends. I think all of us kinda live over here [in L.A.] now, but, we all live really close to each other in Sydney. It's pretty wild. What So Not, Flume, Touch, RÜFÜS DU SOL, Flight Facilities, we're all within like 20 miles of each other.
Do you have a good summer barbecues together?
Absolutely, I had the ODESZA guys around last summer and they were like, "We need to move here, this is wild, you guys all live here together." And we've all got studios so we can all just hang out, and we send each other music all the time and demos.
That's cool, that sounds like being in a really good school for music.
Yeah, it's fully open, everyone trusts each other, it's good just to share other music as well, because we DJ as well, and just sharing what we're into.
What sort of music did you listen to growing up, and who are your biggest influences now?
Growing up, it was whatever my parents and my older brother would listen to. So my parents used to listen to Queen, David Bowie, Lionel Richie, the Beach Boys. I love the Beach Boys because of their harmonies and that's how I kind of got into music. My brother used to listen to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, but then he brought home Daft Punk's "Around The World." When I heard that it just changed my whole perspective on music, and I just started getting into dance music from there.
About how old where you then?
Sh*t, like, 15, 14. From there I was the biggest Daft Punk fan, even still now. There's a couple songs on my record, there's one called "Feelin'" which I'm singing on and it's got that very Daft funky vibe. And it comes from my love of my favorite album, [Daft Punk's 2001 LP] Discovery. That's [almost] 20 years old, Discovery. It's wild, I still listen to it, I'm like, if this was released now I'd still be in love with it.
It feels really classic without feeling super vintage.
Exactly. It's not so much the fact of they're telling story through their songs, but they're not relying on production of the time, which is what I try and do as well. If you can listen to a song that's five years old that you still love, that's great, it's a good song. I think for me it's important to be able to play a song on the guitar around a campfire, it doesn't have to be the electronic version of it. It's about writing songs first for me then producing at some point.
And you mentioned that the production part tends to be the longest part of the process for you. Are you kind of your own worst critic?
That's why it's taking me so long, yeah. Well, that's kind of the how of telling the story, we've got the why, with what the song is, and the how is that, well you can tell it any way you want, and that's the most difficult thing. I could've released this two years ago, but it just wouldn't have been anything like what it is now for me. So it's really important for me to be able to find that voice and get it right, through the production.
What do you think makes a good dance track? What about a good summer jam?
I mean, I love FISHER. I love just all that kind of massive builds into really simple drops. I don't write dance music really, but I love DJing so, yeah, lots of different dance music on my USB too, other than FISHER.
It's just all FISHER.
[Laughs.] It's all FISHER. But yeah totally different to writing songs, and summer songs.
For me it's like, there's a saying people say, "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." So it's just like, if there's a hook or something, I don't want eight bars of something before the first verse, it's like, let's go. I guess that's what pop music is for me as well, it's pretty immediate. And that's kind of what I figured out, when I wrote "Just Friends" and "Something About You" especially it's like, you are straight in, within the first five seconds, you're into the track you know what's going on immediately.
It takes a while to figure out, okay, why is this song so popular, what have they done? And a lot of people try and emulate that, unsuccessfully. And it's just about being unique but also figuring out, there are little things you can do, it's not a formula, it's a feeling. And the better you are at it the more you'll make it your own. So I feel like I've made a certain thing work for me.
It's kinda like your thesis statement as an artist, it can adapt and evolve but if you know, sort of the way you're going to go it makes more sense to the listener.
And it's got your DNA on it because you're writing it. And that's why there's a lot of other big pop stars out there that have people write their music for them, and you can kind of tell because it just doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel the same as what their earlier stuff felt like.
You have a big tour coming up: You're going to hit up Australia first, and then the U.S. in the fall. What are you most looking forward to about touring this time around?
Playing all the new music. When I was touring the last couple of years, it was off singles, and so what else do I play? Because when I played my live show I don't want to play anyone else's music, I like playing only stuff I've touched, so it's like remixes, edits of things. For years I've played demos of some of the songs that were on the album, I would just say "Hey, here's something new" and just see what the crowd reaction was. But now that I have an album that's probably the most exciting thing, I'm pumped about playing that live, but also bringing it to so many different cities in a new way as well. It's a new show, so I'm really excited about it.
When you would play demos and stuff did that sort of affect your creative process or editing process?
Definitely. I remember before "Better Together" was released with Running Touch I would structure it a bit differently live to make it build a bit longer and play some base notes on the SPD a little bit differently, and I'm like, "Actually, that's really hot, that's gotta be in the track." So yeah, playing something live changed a few things for me for sure.
Any hints you want to give to fans about the tour? What to expect, any special guests?
Yeah so I've got a couple of people. Especially on the West Coast I've got a whole bunch of people from the record. They're actually going to come and sing at the shows, which is cool. I love that, when I go and see a group and they've got the singers that actually perform on the track come out. So that's really fun. Brand-new production as well, the lighting thing that we've been working on with my Aussie guys for like six months.
What are you most excited about for next year?
I'm pumped for the album but I feel like there's a huge weight that's been lifted off me now. That's done and it's so exciting, and I feel way more confident.
I think that's one of the big things for me is, when you release something, there are people out there on the internet that will just shade you, and you're just like, "Aw, I feel horrible." Which is tough, and you've gotta learn just to say, "F*** off." Like, who are these people? So releasing the album, now I feel really confident because I'm so proud of it, no matter what anyone says or thinks about it, to be honest.
I'm just using that energy and writing a whole lot more. I'd love to do a couple of collaborations, first up. I want to release another two singles this year after the album. I've been speaking with the Gorgon City guys, the ODESZA guys. I have a whole bunch of stuff in the works already.