Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Ryan Hemsworth has just got off a long haul flight from Toronto to London and he’s knackered. He’s sat at a table in his hotel room, hands clasped tightly around a cup of coffee. Over the next couple of days he’ll be playing at Field Day and Parklife festivals, as well as hitting the Red Bull Studios to make a track with Trim for Oneman’s upcoming ‘Solitaire Vol. 3’.
In between all this, the Canadian DJ and producer has somehow found time to curate a new singles club called Secret Songs, which keeps up with a manic schedule of putting out a new release every other week. Secret Songs isn’t a label per se, but a place to put out the reams of music from new and lesser-known producers that he’s been sent over the months and years. “Inclusion” and “discovery” are the two keywords for the project, with each new, previously unheard release being given away for free online with no cap on downloads. It’s a refreshing antidote to the macho 300 copies, no digital, no repress attitude that a lot of labels carry.
Can you talk a little about your decision to launch Secret Songs?
Ryan Hemsworth: “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I always dreamt about having a label, but I don’t think I’m smart enough to run an entire label myself – and I’m not sure if I could financially support that. So it’s kind of like: Just keep it so simple and make a Soundcloud. Because that’s what worked for me as a musician.”
So I guess you were getting sent a lot of stuff? Or have you been digging it out yourself?
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah, I’m getting sent a lot of stuff. I listen to everything I can, but with the stuff I put out I want to feel some kind of attachment to it, and I want to feel like there is some serious potential with the producers. Everybody I’ve put out, and what I have ready for the next one, I feel really confident about.”
So you said you wanted to start a label in some form or other…
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah – so in my mind, I’ve made mixes for the past few years just as a way of sharing music that I love. And when you become a DJ, you start acquiring all this great music, and meeting amazing artists all around the world, and to me it’s insane and always inspiring. And I kind of want to share that feeling when you get sent a new song or album that someone has just finished that isn’t going to be out for a few months, and it’s like… ‘Aw, shit, I have this little thing that I probably shouldn’t have.’ But I want to give that feeling to other people by putting out exclusive tracks.”
"When you become a DJ, you start acquiring all this great music, and meeting amazing artists all around the world, and to me it’s insane and always inspiring. And I kind of want to share that feeling." – Ryan Hemsworth
It’s interesting that you said you didn’t think you could do a label properly, because all things considered this is a fairly original way to do things.
Ryan Hemsworth: “That’s good. I’m glad. I’ve got this buddy, Patrick [North], who runs this label Ácephale. I was brainstorming with him, and he was like, ‘Do it for free. Make a Soundcloud. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy, ‘cos nowadays that’s probably what people would react to easiest.’ And another friend was pushing Diplo to do the same thing with his ‘Diplo Recommends’ thing on Soundcloud. But I was like, ‘Okay, let’s take this a step further.’ I know all these awesome producers who are like hermits and can’t get their stuff out there for whatever reason, and I’ve got a following that I can share that with. So you get exclusive tracks, and they’ve done their own artwork, and you get a note from like, ‘Why did you make this song the way you did?’, or, ‘What inspired you?’ I feel it’s ultra personal.”
So you want to give something back now that you’ve had a couple of years to build a reputation?
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah, I think so. I think I’ve always had that feeling, but only now have I realised I have the ability to give back. Every time I’ve succeeded, there’s always been someone taking a chance on me – putting me up as support on tour, or putting out my EP, or whatever. I think that’s the most important thing for the DJ community or music community in general.”
What else are you working on at the moment?
Ryan Hemsworth: “I’m just finishing an EP of my own. It’s going to be a five or six track thing. I’m just about done. It should be finished in a couple of weeks, hopefully, if I get a bit more time to wrap everything up. I’m going back to the way I was working on my music for my first couple of EPs – more guitar and more singing, actually using live drums on stuff. A lot of the press I have been associated with over the last couple of years has been: ‘EDM dude Ryan Hemsworth’, ‘trap producer’, etc. I’m trying to show that there are elements of that, but it’s not just that.”
"I know all these awesome producers who are like hermits and can’t get their stuff out there for whatever reason, and I’ve got a following that I can share that with. So you get exclusive tracks, and they’ve done their own artwork, and you get a note from like, ‘Why did you make this song the way you did?’, or, ‘What inspired you?’ I feel it’s ultra personal.” – Ryan Hemsworth
So it’s a conscious thing to diversify?
Ryan Hemsworth: “I’m not trying to force it, but it’s also just that the shit I listen to is more rock bands than producers.”
What sort of stuff have you been listening to?
Ryan Hemsworth: “In a way, I’m going backwards, listening to Mew and Weezer and stuff like that. A dude called Tony Molina, who has another project called Ovens. And that’s super inspiring to me, making me care about guitar solos again. But I’m also fully conscious that integrating guitar into electronic music can be ultra cheesy at times, so it’s finding that balance.”
On the flipside, I saw that selfie you took with SOPHIE recently, who is pretty much as far removed from live guitar music as possible.
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah, true! I say this, and at the same time I am super into what he’s doing, and I’m also always really into mainstream pop music as well. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to fully create one single, consistent sound… which I hope is a good thing.”
Yeah, I’ve read a few people say it’s great that not everybody has a signature sound, it’s great that everybody’s experimenting with ideas. Which is an interesting viewpoint, because I’ve only ever read that as a criticism before.
Ryan Hemsworth: “I think also, listeners are digesting so quickly now that if you are able to move with whatever’s happening – not following trends, but just changing yourself – you’re likely to be a little safer than if you have one sound and everyone is like: ‘That sound is dead now.’”
So you don’t want to be associated with one sound too long, or wrongly.
Ryan Hemsworth: “There is a short shelf life for a lot of sounds.”
It’s pretty bleak isn’t it? To think that you can start and finish an entire music career within 18 months.
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah, it’s busy, especially for producers and rappers. If you create a new sound, you’re top of the world for a minute, and then the next sound is the new thing.”
It’s a shame. That’s the downside to the fact that anyone has the capability to create a new sound quite easily and well.
Ryan Hemsworth: “That’s why I just try and jump around as much as I can now.”
Do you feel you’re being misperceived as ‘the internet guy’?
Ryan Hemsworth: “I think if I’m seen as ‘the internet guy’ then it’s definitely my own fault. It’s fully there. I think it’s easy to see it in me because I’m fully present on every social media, so I think you quickly associate that with me, this person who lives on the internet.”
I was thinking this because of the way that Secret Songs is working. You said ‘hermit’ earlier and there are a lot of people who may be like that, but with this you’re actually taking it out of the internet and releasing it to people, and DJing it out and things.
Ryan Hemsworth: “Yeah, exactly, and that’s fully what I’m trying to do. I’ve got the first Secret Songs showcase this month in Toronto. It’s just a bunch of producers who don’t really play outside of their own city. Again, it’s just trying to bring them into the world that aren’t really in that much at the moment.”
So who would you say you’re most excited about right now? Who have you heard who the rest of the world hasn’t?
Ryan Hemsworth: “I talk about them a lot, but PC Music is a really exciting label that I’m completely following. One of the Secret Songs is from Maxo who I’m already biased towards because he is a video game nerd and completely brings that to his own music. I see a lot of versatility in him. In all the artists I’m putting out, I think I’m projecting myself a little bit. I see elements that I like, and that I’d put into my own music.
“I guess I’m approaching Secret Songs as a listener first and foremost. I’m attracted to that Tennyson track that I put out because there’s a lot of emotion in the soft synths that he uses and the weird little sound effects. It’s all the little things that subconsciously I try and put into my music as well.”
So let’s talk about your DJing recently. Are you trying to push or change anything about how you’ve been playing?
Ryan Hemsworth: “It’s constantly changing. The mixes I record are different from the sets I play because with the mixes, I picture someone on the bus listening to it on headphones, or throwing it on in the background at a party. I don’t think that would quite work for a DJ set, but people expect that from me, so it’s about finding a balance – entertaining people and making people dance, but also with the level of sadness in my music. It’s like two worlds butting heads when I work out how to play, but that’s what keeps it interesting for myself when I’m preparing a set.”
What’s the best reaction you’ve had recently?
Ryan Hemsworth: “Honestly, I’m still getting better at festivals. I’m trying to enjoy festivals.”
I hear so many people who say they have to learn to like playing festival sets.
Ryan Hemsworth: “I think it’s because producers or people like me, who come from making shit on their laptop, get really comfortable with a 200 capacity room. That’s like a party vibe. But getting used to playing in front of 20,000 people, who are expecting the drop… you have to mentally prepare yourself for what’s going to happen if you don’t deliver.”
How long has music been a full-time occupation for you? I don’t know if that kind of thing is something you can easily get used to…
Ryan Hemsworth: “I’ve been playing shows for a while, but as soon as the day I was finishing university – which was three years ago, I guess – I was going to Toronto to open for Shlohmo, and I just kept getting booked for shows after that. That was the point that it started.”
So after that time, are you getting used to doing these gigantic sets at more mainstream festivals?
Ryan Hemsworth: “No, it’s still all a little strange to me. It’s always a bit of a learning process for me, but that keeps it interesting for me. Some go better than others, and that’s what makes it fun.”
I interviewed Evian Christ a few months ago and he said he had to spend so long getting used to playing after an indie band, or before an indie band, or before Diplo – just the most bizarre programming. And that reminded me of your Secret Songs showcase, because he was excited about being able to control the environment he was playing in by putting on his own trance parties.
Ryan Hemsworth: “That’s why I’m super excited for that. You have a bit of input. Whereas with the festivals… I did Sasquatch, which is a really big one, but I played after a stand-up comedian. And then the next day, I did Movement, and that was just full-on techno. But Sasquatch was the best set experience I had in a long time, so you can never tell.
The next Secret Songs instalment drops on July 2nd 2014