There's absolutely no reason whatsoever for 24-year-old Halifax, Nova Scotia-born producer Ryan Hemsworth to be really humble other than he absolutely wants to be that way. He's remixed tracks for Lana del Ray, Frank Ocean, Grimes and Cat Power, and just released his third full album, Alone For The First Time. Lead single from the album "Snow In Newark" features Dawn Golden and is as soulful as it is self-reflective. Thus, interviewing the diverse and soul/rap/indie rock-inspired creative involves a number of intriguing, honest and well thought out answers to questions regarding everything from his recording process, to big name remixes, the inspiration behind his growing in underground renown Secret Songs label and, yes, kissing and girls. Tonight, he hits Washington, DC to drop a headlining set at Washington, DC's U Street Music Hall (tickets available), and in speaking to Ryan, we realize that he isn't necessarily on the cusp of "something bigger," he's on the brink of feeling better about himself, his music, and just being himself every day.
Insofar as your progression between albums, what are some of the most significant production techniques that you've enhanced, and what have you added creatively to your sound?
Patience is a big thing that I've learned. I don't know. On my past few albums, songs, and remixes, I've tried to change things a lot in a quick way, and sometimes being unsure of what direction I want to go in with songs. I guess that's created a sound within itself that has made me more eclectic. With this new album, I feel like I have more real songs that fit in one place and while they may [thematically and sonically] move around a bit, they make sense together. This album is more cohesive and mature, I think.
You've collaborated with a long list of artists and producers. Is there anything that you look for in particular [when looking for a collaborator]? If so, what and why?
It's kind of more fun for me to send someone something that's a skeleton and have them fill in parts, and we go back and forth for awhile. [Whether] a producer or a singer, it's nice to have someone else involved in the process because there's always ideas that are better than yours that you would never think of, and that's something [to consider]. When it comes to albums, I have fun working with vocalists because it helps to get across a more solid message than doing a full instrumental album, in my case. I'll work on stuff and I have certain sounds and voices in my head, and I'll reach out to [someone whose voice corresponds to that voice] because I'm taking to people all of the time.
You have a pronounced interest in rap and R&B. Having listened to Canadian radio a bit, I know that pop/top-40 and urban are programmed a bit differently up there than down here. Was there anything intriguing about how you came into contact with the sounds that inspire you from how they were presented? How did that effect the way that you produce the tracks that you produce?
I never really was that attached to radio because there were no stations that presented programs [geared to the sounds I enjoyed]. We have some good ones for rock and whatever, but when I started to get into rap and R&B, there wasn't that much, so I had to rely on the Internet. I had to search out stuff on blogs and forums, going out of my way—which became part of the fun of discovering this music from different areas of the world and different scenes. It helped me realize there was so much more going on outside of my own city.
So, that answer only begs the question of who were the artists that you were really into when you were discovering all of this music? I'm presuming this is the early music on blogs explosion days, so who were you listening to?
I tried to find anything and everything I could. So when I was into R&B, it was Blackstreet, Mya, 112, nothing really crazy. I was saving a million different bookmarks, so I'd download all that crap and get into Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and whatever was out on Saddle Creek Records at the time. I was consuming everything that I could. That's still what I do to this day, I guess. That's probably why my sound jumps around a little bit.
So is this eclectic concept a bit of why the Secret Songs label is as diverse as it is? The tracks that you share with the world offer such a broad collection of influences...
Yeah, basically, I started [Secret Songs] to extend that feeling of discovering music. I have access to a lot of music now. People send me stuff and want me to put it in mixes and all of that—which I did for awhile—but then I thought, "what's the most natural way to keep that growing (and growing more)?" Basically, I wanted to put out my friends' songs for free, and make people obsess over them in the same way that I do.
I also wanted to make sure that I asked about the difference between producing tracks for an album versus having tracks on your album that you can play in a live set in a club. There's certainly a difference, you're in the middle of a tour, and I certainly would believe that this is on your mind. Is this correct?
That's something I'm super concerned with lately, just because I'm pretty much between both worlds. I'm focused on making all different kinds of music: album tracks, singles, remixes, EPs, and albums as full projects. When I'm booked for shows, most of the time it is at clubs and venues where people typically go to dance, so I have both sides on my mind. It's a battle between the two, which direction I want to go during a show. Sometimes there's ups and downs [in my sets]. I'll have "dance-y" moments, and then there's moments where you can vibe with it. As long as people are open minded and happy to experience it that way, the shows go really well. I think sometimes people come to a show at a certain club on a Friday night and they only want to hear intense trap, and [how I usually play my sets] isn't going to work so well that way.
You're many people's favorite artist's favorite producer, and you are absolutely the guy who gets name-dropped in interviews when these artists talk about the music they enjoy. So, I wanted to ask what happens when you get to remix one of said artists' tracks and you get their initial feedback. Is it usually positive?
I don't know. It's crazy. It's always surprising to me when people are into certain things that I do. When I'm making music, I'm making what I want to that day, so there's no master plan as to the sound I want to push. I've had remixes rejected and stuff like that, but it's only been a couple, and that was for their own personal reasons or whatever (laughs). When I've sent remixes to people in the past, it's been nothing but love. Whether it's Rhye or Lana Del Ray's team, they've all been happy to work with me. I just try to bring something different to their song—whether it's a different pace or a different mood, something like that. I just try to bring [the track] into my world a little bit. That's something I do that's refreshing for remixes because it's easy to do a "straight up, whatever sub-genre remix of a song," so instead I try to bring it into a different world.
Many female fans of dance music feel a certain idealized way about both you and your production style. How has this affected your work of late, and is it something you take in consideration in your current slate of released and forthcoming productions? Also, I was wondering about thoughts regarding bringing the romantic vibe into dance music?
Honestly, I grew up, and when I realized music was my favorite thing in the world, was when I was getting into Elliot Smith and music that wears [it's] feelings on [it's] sleeve. Even though I now make my music on a laptop, it's still what's most important to me. Songs about love, girls, kissing and all that shit, that's still what's most important to me. That's the reason for making music. Even if it's dance music, there's all those underlying human emotions. It's kind of the way it happens. Sometimes it's weird to hear music with more emotion in the club on a Friday night or whatever. [Making music with emotion] is what I like to do, though.
Who are artists from the past that you feel your productions would've worked well with? Oftentimes there's notes of things in your productions that will make a clear homage to any number of musical artists and trends—some of which are from the past. I wanted to get a sense from you who would have been a great artist for a Ryan Hemsworth production, in your mind?
I've always thought it'd be cool to work with Jeremih or R. Kelly and a lot of those artists. I mean, R. Kelly was someone that I was really into going through high school. He's one of those people who's a lot more brave than a lot of artists out there, especially in the steps he takes in music. Besides them, from the indie world, Ben Gibbard from The Postal Service, those kinds of vocalists, hearing their voices on [their songs] definitely inspired me to reach out to people like Dawn Golden and Lontalius [for the new album].
As a final question, what are your goals personally and professionally for the next six-to-twelve months?
After this tour finished mid-December, I'm going to take some time off and work on new music. I'm also going to start a side production thing with a friend named Lucas that I put out on Secret Songs. We started working on a few tracks, so I think there will be an EP in the new year. Other than that, I'll be focusing on Secret Songs and doing showcases. I'll also be putting out EPs and more full projects as well.
And personally? How's the workload and balancing everything coming along? Do you feel good about where your career is at and the work that you're doing?
Right now I'm really happy. It's hit a point where I'm doing all of the different things that I want to do. [I'm also] traveling to play shows, getting to meet more people, check out their music and maybe put out their releases. I also can make new songs with different singers that I meet on the road, and still have time to come home and work on my own shit, watch movies, I'm pretty happy right now.
Movies? What's the latest film you've seen?
I watched Big the other day for the first time. That was pretty amazing.
Next time you're in New York City, you have to go by FAO Schwartz and see the Big piano!
I know! I'm going there Thursday!