While I love following certain producers, it's the curative nature of certain artists and DJs that gets me going. Damn near anyone can create a fire sound, but the ability to properly place it in between two tracks, or better yet, turn that skill into a dedicated series of great tracks? It's one of those skills that separates the shuffle-everything mindset from the people who can put together a beautiful mixtape.
Halifax, Nova Scotia's Ryan Hemsworth is one of those people who knows how to properly curate sound.
Back in May 2014, Hemsworth (a critically acclaimed producer and DJ who can sift effortlessly between the most turnt material from Young Thug and the indie sounds that that cutie at the library is jamming to) announced that he planned on sharing more music "from friends and artists that I trust and see amazing potential in." That announcement turned into Secret Songs, an imprint that has run the gamut on future sounds from a bevy of talented producers and artists.
While Secret Songs has primarily been a place for Ryan to share the succulent sounds he's finding and being sent, he's actually linked up with a producer by the name of Lucas and is set to drop their EP, Taking Flight, on the imprint on Oct. 9. We've fallen in love with "Angel," and shared "From Grace" with the world, and during a recent trip to New York, Hemsworth found a cozy space in the Complex office to give us the skinny not just on how Secret Songs came to be but his plans for the future of the imprint (which does include a CMJ show), how he met Lucas, and why his sound is falling back into the indie waters once again.
Before we get into the EP, I want to first just have you talk about the beginning of Secret Songs. It’s been, what, a year and some change since you’ve started?
A little over a year, yeah.
What was the idea behind starting up that type of imprint?
I guess it just came from me always being on my computer, trying to find music that I like. Which comes back to the foundation of what I love about making music and being a part of music. Just being obsessed with finding new stuff and putting that into mixes and then, you know, just enjoying sharing it. It reached a point where I was—a lot of people listen to my mixes to find these kids, whoever they are, who have like, 100 followers on SoundCloud and just realizing that I can actually just release these songs directly, give them to people as free downloads, and sort of create a community around it.
Were you ever thinking, “Maybe I should, you know, start up an actual imprint and start selling these first,” or was it always the mentality of giving them away for free?
It was always free and just like a biweekly kind of schedule. Just having something that people can rely on, and if they trust my taste they will probably like the song, so just having this thing that people can check every week or two weeks and find new music that they liked.
Is there anything deeper, in terms of the name "Secret Songs"?
No, I literally just kind of wanted to be releasing stuff that people had no familiarity with at all. A lot of the kids that I’ve released have no following sometimes. Some do. I guess it’s all from different places, but yeah. Just wanting to kind of bring them to my personal following, and also create their own following through the SoundCloud and everything.
How deep is your SoundCloud game? Is that something where like, when you’ve got a couple hours free you’re literally scrolling around for anything or is it more suggestions that you’re getting?
Yeah, nowadays it’s not just sitting there searching. But I definitely try to fall down a rabbit hole every few nights of just checking someone I like and seeing what they like and what they’re sharing and all this stuff. So keeping up to date with that. Mainly now it’s just a lot of submissions and a lot of stuff that I’m trying to keep on top of and, you know, it’s great to actually be able to be going through all these songs, and I enjoy that. Even if a lot of the stuff might be rough from certain artists, that might be their first few tracks, even just giving them a little “oh, this is cool, keep sending,” maybe we’ll get a track at some point.
Were there any producers or tracks that you put out and the reception was a lot more surprising than you thought it would be?
Yeah, I mean, the tracks that have done the best—like, [we put out] a Kero Kero Bonito track, and that’s done, like, the best by far. They got licensed for a Broad City episode. It’s usually the ones that I’m like, “People might not fuck with this,” and then everyone really likes it. It’s always that kind of risk and then, because it feels so different, maybe?
You brought up a really interesting point that I wanted to ask you about because of the conversation from all the DJs and producers I follow. It’s all about the future of SoundCloud and what’s going on. With licensing and tracks and everything, it turns it into a different animal. Have you ever gotten anything taken down whether it comes from your page or the Secret Songs stuff?
With Secret Songs I’ve tried to keep everything original, and so I haven’t had to worry too much about that. But on my own personal pages I’ve had shit taken down.
I can imagine. You’ve done a lot of remixes.
Yeah, that’s where it really becomes an issue, with mixes as well. But that’s just part of the evolution of all these platforms. There’s probably gonna be something else soon enough.
Now when I heard the new EP you did with Lucas, I remember hearing the track from Lucas that had come out originally. Where did you find him? Was he just a discovery on SoundCloud?
That one was him. He emailed me way before I released that track on Secret Songs. He was just like, “Hey, I have some demos if you wanna listen.” We started talking a lot about producing and different techniques and plugins that we’re using, kind of sharing that, and then we started realizing we sonically like a lot of the same stuff. It just made sense to start sharing stems, and after that we just had a shitload of songs.
Where is Lucas based out of?
He’s in Seattle.
So have you guys had any time to get in the studio?
No studio time, but I had him on some shows on my last couple of tours, and we’re gonna actually have a Secret Songs CMJ show, so I’m gonna bring him out for that.
Any idea of who’s gonna be at the CMJ show?
Yeah, it’s gonna be me and him playing basically a back-to-back set, kind of. And Lontalius, this kid from New Zealand who I’ve been following for years, and DD Elle who I released on Secret Songs as well.
What’s his story? Is he just a dude in Seattle?
Yeah, he’s my age as well. I think, he was telling me his first project is from well over five years ago. He [was making a lot of] very different-sounding music from what it is now. But he’s always, yeah, he’s got a crazy ear for melodies that feel nostalgic, even if they’re original.
Nice, nice. Now, in talking about the EP, I don’t want to call it a companion piece, but you can almost feel the progression from your last album (Alone for the First Time) to the EP. Was that something that you specifically wanted to do, switch it up a bit?
Yeah, in my mind I’ve been viewing it as this transition phase of moving into what feels like I want to be the next stage musically for me: a lot more live instruments and going back to the sound that I really loved in high school when I listened to a lot more bands. Kind of taking that world but not fully ditching everything that people may like about my stuff already.
Like a real indie, electronic type.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely coming from that. And also, I was really happy with my Still Awake EP, and I kind of wanted to go back to that sound as well, like a full instrumental project. Something more of like a soundtrack to people’s days.
How long did it take you guys to work on this?
It was sometimes a bit slow back and forth, but it probably took in total six to seven months, I’d imagine. I’m sure if we were actually sitting in a studio it would’ve been like three weeks, but you know.
With a title like Taking Flight, is there any back story in regards to that, thematically, in terms of the EP?
I feel like we both just randomly really like bird sounds, and the sounds and the imagery just kept coming up even when we were coming up with the placeholder titles for the tracks. It was always something a bit more flighty and transcendent. So I guess that’s why a lot of the tracks appear and sound that way.
Do you think a project with Lucas and you could turn into something bigger? Will you guys be collaborating more often?
I think so; we’re definitely both going to be continuing our solo, but you know, when you find that groove with someone you collaborate with, we wanna now work with more vocalists. We should make a pack for Kehlani, or something.
That sounds perfect. You’ve already worked with Tinashe, so...
—yeah, exactly. [Lucas] hasn’t worked with vocalists in original tracks, but I can tell his sound would lend itself to that kind of music. R&B leaning.
Are you planning other dates as well in support of the EP?
Right now we’re just looking at that one as the next Secret Songs show, but I think we’re probably going to do a small tour in the beginning of the next year, early 2016, together.
Could that be accompanying any new music from you two?
We’ll see, yeah. We just finished that EP, and I’m working on my 2016 solo album, so slowly moving into that and trying to figure out how to make something refreshing and new.
Is that a situation where you’re trying to making something bigger?
Yeah, I’m gonna try to make something bigger than usual. I’ve kept it pretty close to home with the past two albums that I’ve put out, and it’s always been with Last Gang as the label, so I feel like it’s time to try and do something a bit bigger and different, so I’m taking my time with that and am actually going to be spending more time in a real studio instead of on a laptop.
Any plans for any Kehlanis or any Tinashes to be featured?
Definitely going to have some features on there. Nothing fully set in stone, but I’ve been working with Mitski and a lot of different kids as well, like Eskimo and people more from the indie world, which is fun. It’s a good challenge to get these artists out of their element and produce something for them, ’cause if you try to collaborate with a producer or a rapper they’re super eager to make anything happen, but I’m trying to make something different.
Are there any rappers that you think would be able to move in the way you’re transitioning right now?
I don’t know. I’ve been working with Tory Lanez a bit more. But that’s still kind of using that side of my brain that’s keeping myself grounded in the rap world.
Let’s say, hypothetically, Secret Songs turns into a big behemoth. Could you see yourself taking a step back from your own artistry to kind of try and move that to something bigger?
Yeah, it depends. I’m always going to be making music in some form or another. I’ve always messed with the idea of creating my own little side projects and stuff, so there might be a bit more of that in the next couple of years, but I do really want Secret Songs to become a bigger and better thing. Being able to make friends money would be awesome.
I don’t want to get too depressing, but we were briefly talking about the current state of electronic music. How are you feeling about 2015?
I’m excited for this point on, pretty much. I feel like a lot of kids are really starting to approach producing, and specifically electronic and EDM, in a more creative way. A lot of kids are actually picking up instruments and making their own sounds, and relying a little less on the cool stock sounds. It’s reached a boiling point, so there’s gonna be a good reaction in people to try to move away from that.
Would you ever be in a situation where you would want to pull out a guitar in a live show?
I’ve been thinking about it for so long, yeah! It’s weird. I’m too all over the place to fully commit to that yet, but it’s a 2016 goal to actually have more of a live show. Up to this point I’ve been running pretty much off controllers and everything, so I would love to do that. That’s how I started off. It’s always hard to find that middle ground so it’s not a cheesy jam electronic band.
Exactly. Outside of music, is there anything outside of music for you when you’re not working?
Just solo Netflix and chill. [Laughs.]