Hayden James and his collaborators tell the story of Between Us
With the arrival of a career-defining debut album, Hayden James - and the people he worked on the record with - tell its story.
Hayden James is no stranger to Australian dance music, and is often considered one of the scene's defining names – and that's all without an album under his belt. Over the last ten years, he's grown from a Sydney club DJ making his mark pre-lockout laws alongside names like Alison Wonderland and What So Not, to a globally-dominating electro-pop powerhouse whose songwriting skills are amongst Australia's best; proving not just a festival favourite in his home country, but an act capable of selling out shows internationally - again, with no album to his name.
In 2019, however, that changes. Since his infamous 2013 debut Permission To Love, Hayden James has become a success story in songwriting and production growth, consistently adapting to a quickly-changing music industry without losing his distinct, signature touch. His 2014 single Something About You, for example, combines what proved to be an inescapable vocal sample with a lush, bouncy production featuring a certain synth quality that five years later, on this year's Running Touch-featuring album cut Better Together, makes a slightly modernised return that even without that updated touch, wouldn't feel outdated at all. Just A Lover, which followed the formerly-mentioned single in 2016, pitches down that lush synth quality into something more brooding and dark, while on Just Friends, that synth makes another comeback, this time jigsawed into place amongst Boy Matthew's strong hooks.
His debut album Between Us, out now via esteemed electronic label Future Classic, encapsulates this growth on a bigger-picture scale, providing strong, over-arching insight into how over the last six years, with a quality-over-quantity ethos by his name, Hayden James has grown and evolved to become one of electronic's best. In a sense, it condenses years of experimentation and refinement into a package of eleven tracks that doesn't just highlight his strengths but spotlights them, throwing them under the bright light of the centre stage as his woozy productions and intricate sounds meet guest collaborators that range from the old - GRAACE, Boy Matthews, Running Touch - to the new, in the UK's Elderbrook, Zimbabwe-raised Shungudzo and Australian dance music figure Panama. There are moments from early on in his career (2017's Numb, for example), moments that hint at a forward-thinking future for the musician, and moments that bridge these two sides together; the purpose of the album, in a sense, is to tell the story of Hayden James' rise through his music.
Sound-wise, Between Us' longer format gives Hayden James the room to establish himself as a multi-faceted songwriter in a way that singles don't. There's a lot he bites off amongst the album's eleven track duration, but nothing feels too much or out of his reach, and every sound he attempts is a success intertwined with that signature HJ flair. Feelin', for example, is a throwback to Permission To Love's sample-built funk-house in the album's only non-collaborative effort. Lost To You sees Hayden James take on woozy R&B vocal, matching them with a production that switches between subdued and cinematic to something more upbeat and driven by thick bass slaps. Between Us, the album's Panama-featuring title-track, almost feels like a ballad interpretation of Hayden James' sound with its open-aired feeling, while Remember You, which features Elderbrook, sees his signature synth replaced by melodies more sultry and reminiscent of Numb.
There's a lot more to grasp on Between Us than what Hayden James has offered through its many singles, and while the album largely feels like his work layered through different filters (in the sense that he's able to approach many sounds across the album, but keep his distinct flair across all of its tracks), there are moments in there that feel like nods to his older work - or are just his old work full-stop. There's the aforementioned solo single Feelin', which feels reminiscent of that glitchy 2013 electro-pop wave with its sampling and thick melodies, while Hold Me Back sees the return of Just Friends collaborator Boy Matthews for a track that feels almost like an extension of their first collaboration, welcoming back that bounce-synth and layering it amongst intricately-layered swells of melody and a crisp percussive backbone which keeps everything at pace. Then, there's the return of Numb, and his 2018 single Just Friends.
Through encapsulating his many sounds and many friends, Between Us feels like a defining record for Hayden James, and ushers in a new era for the musician that, if worked correctly, could see him become as much of an international heavyweight like fellow Australians and good friends RÜFÜS DU SOL; nothing feels out of his grip. A big part of this comes down to his collaborations, and how - on Between Us - he builds upon his friends for a record that establishes Hayden James as one of electronic's best collaborators. To celebrate Between Us' release - grab it HERE - we chatted to the man himself about collaboration, and talked to each of his album collaborators about the process of making their respective songs which together, may form one of 2019's defining electronic albums.
You’ve obviously become quite a mainstay in the Australian electronic music circuit over the years, mostly through your consistent run of top-tier singles. Between Us, however, is something much bigger. Was there anything that pushed you into moving into album territory? Or did it feel like the next natural step for Hayden James?
When I started writing music the goal was always to eventually release an album. Lots of people say the album form is dead... I think it’s more about a personal decision as an artist. I needed to put out an album for me. I dreamed of writing a record where you can press play on the first song and just let it play all the way through... no fillers - every song fitting into the story/theme of the album and meaning something special on its own at the same time. I also wrote this album for people who listen to my music. Having released only singles up to this point it’s a really great feeling to give a lot more this time.
Creating your debut album is obviously such a learning curve for so many artists, because it’s completely new terrain. Were there hardships in the making of the album and if so, how did you overcome them?
Absolutely. There were moments where I doubted if I could actually finish the thing. I have a very high standard. I’m a perfectionist. I put a lot of pressure on myself and that definitely hindered the process. What helped is spending a bit of time away from the studio and reconnecting with the why I love writing and what I want the record to say. It feels amazing that I’ve finally finished an album. I’m so proud of it.
The album is obviously quite heavy on collaboration and collaborative songwriting. Was that always your intention from the start, or did it happen naturally as the album’s creation progressed?
I really love writing with other artists/vocalists to tell my story. I’m obviously heavily involved in every process of every song and all these songs were written with the feature artist in the same room as me. It wasn’t my intention but definitely something that felt natural to tell this story with these specific feature artists.
What would you say makes a good collaboration between artists in your eyes?
Capturing something really special isn’t easy and it’s not going to happen every time you’re in a session with someone. You can’t force it, it just happens. Besides that feature artist having the right voice/tone/vibe for the song, it’s also about that ‘X factor’ that brings a collaboration to life. You never know when it’s going to happen, but when it does it’s so powerful.
There are a few different sides to collaboration, for example, throughout the album, you have artists co-writing alongside you, co-producing alongside you, just doing toplines and so on. How does the process differ between them?
Every song on the album came about in a different way. They all started differently and sometimes took two weeks to finish and others two years. Everyone featured on the album has their own strengths that I would harness and build on for that moment.
Many of the guests on the album are new friends, but there are some – like Boy Matthews – which stretch back from your earlier work. Does the album serve as a bit of a ‘closing the circle’ for Hayden James thus far, and if so, do you mind expanding on that?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it actually. Not so much of a ‘closing the circle’ but definitely finishing a thought, telling the full story. Every song on the album is there for a purpose - a chapter. It was always my intention to include Just Friends, Numb and Better Together on the album to help tell that story. They’re all pivotal in telling the story of Between Us which is about those intimate moments in your life. That energy you feel with someone.
Obviously enlisting guest collaborators brings difficulties, which are often not talked about – like changing time schedules, over-dominant collaborators etc. Were there any you faced throughout the making of Between Us?
I was so lucky to have amazing people to work with and I didn’t really run into any issues at all with conflicting release schedules etc. I think honestly it was the fact that every one of us spent time together in the studio working, writing, telling stories that made this work.. a personal connection that I think shows itself in the music.
Your live show has come along way – from back when you solely used to DJ, right through to now. How are you incorporating Between Us into the live setting, and how do you foresee your live show evolving as a result?
Performing live is not only one of my favourite ways to have fans experience my music, but it’s also one of the most important and difficult things to get right. My live show has seen many changes throughout my career and it will continue to do so. Evolving the show and building the theatre that surrounds it is something I think about every day. It’s pretty special to be able to create moments that make people feel a certain way. I have a brand new live show to bring you for Splendour in the Grass and the world tour starting in Australia this August. This is definitely my favourite and most exciting live show experience to date.
Hayden James' debut album, Between Us, as told by his collaborators:
1. Hold Me Back feat. Boy Matthews
The second song Hayden and I pulled together is Hold Me Back [fact: it originally started as Please Don’t Call Me Back]. I’d written it in London with a great guy called Sebastien and it instantly just felt like it was Hayden to me. I shot the original over to him, he pretty instantly got back, took the parts, and turned the track into what it is now. The original demo was a little more phone-centric. Together, Hayden and I chopped some of those lyrics and made it a little more open-minded, I then re-cut - and here we are.'
- Boy Matthews
2. Nowhere To Go (Hayden James & NAATIONS)
Nicky and I wrote Nowhere To Go in Sydney a couple of years ago as just a demo then, inspired conceptually by the lock-out laws. When we met up with Hayden late last year in Santa Monica to do a writing session together, he played us some instrumentals that he had been working on and we thought we should try singing our Nowhere To Go demo over the top of this instrumental of his that stood out in particular. So after a while of reworking the song together, changing the key and the BPM, we now have Nowhere To Go as you hear it today.
- Nat Dunn, NAATIONS
3. Just Friends feat. Boy Matthews
I met Hayden back when I lived in New York almost two years ago now. I remember the day - I was wearing the shortest shorts ever and pretty much instantly apologised for them [I already hate myself]. If you’ve been in NYC in the thick of summer, you will understand. Hayden was instantly warm - and excited, the kind of energy you hope for always from an artist/producer in the room on a first meeting. We got along instantly - it felt easy. We met twice within seven days - the first day we started something great I intended to finish, until the second day when he played me this insane instrumental I had to work on. The song wrote itself in a half hour or so - that was Just Friends. It instantly felt special to me, and I’m sure to Hayden as well.
- Boy Matthews
4. Feelin’ (Interlude)
5. Lost To You feat. FARR
Our track with Hayden came together really fast. I (Roméo) was in LA at the same time as Hayden was and I stopped by the studio for a really quick hour and a half session. We put down all the melodies for the track then and there and left the session that day with a solid idea. After the session Linden and I went back and forth on a few melodies and he helped me arrange the vocals, we sent it to Hayden and he wrapped up the track back in Australia. It’s always nice walking into a session that instantly feels comfortable, Hayden and I hadn’t met before that but we immediately started working on arrival and it came together so easily - I barely even remember writing the song!
- Roméo, FARR
6. Better Together feat. Running Touch
I'd been wanting to work with Hayden for a while after meeting him a few times. I had two ideas that I thought might be a perfect fit. We worked on the first idea over the course of 6 months... but something about it just wasn't adding up. I don't think either of us thought of it as something special, and we both were silently not looking for a filler track. I brought up this second idea again and it just reignited everything. I would imagine a year passed before we ended up using the first ideas chorus in what we had of the second song... so it ultimately came full circle.
We went through countless intricate adjustments and vocal changes with Cassian (who was an irreplaceable player in this song) in the US and Australia. That's what I’ve loved so much about this process, There was so much chance and coincidence involved that at points it seemed almost too perfect. We never rushed the creative process and I think that's a testament to one of Hayden’s strongest creative qualities - he has a vice grip when it comes to standards, I think he would quit before he puts something out he doesn't hold higher than his previous release.
He doesn't rush and rather than try and punish himself on trying to be holistic, he focuses all his efforts on what he knows are his strengths and listens to people in places where he knows their strong suits lie. I trust Hayden's vision like no other, and it turned out incredible.
- Running Touch
7. Between Us feat. Panama
Hayden and I have known each other since his first EP, and also being on the same label, we’d be at the same Future Classic parties. We started working on Between Us initially I think in early 2018, so it sort of grew over that time with Hayden working things out and then sending over to me, and then I’d also try a few things and send back. I’m super proud of the song, the structure is special in the way that it builds, The whole song has a lot of attention to detail going on without losing the feeling - I love that sort of thing.
8. Remember You feat. Elderbrook
I first met Hayden when I supported him on a US tour in 2017. We went all over the west coast and other places together. Since then we ended up playing a load of the same festivals all over the place and kept on saying how we should make something together. I sent him this rough idea of my voice singing Remember You and he made it sound amazing like I knew he would!
9. Favours (Hayden James & Nat Dunn)
I wrote Favours with a couple of mates Trey Jean Marie and Cory Sanders in a stately home in the countryside of England. I wanted to write an honest, sensual, hook up, club record. Once we’d written and recorded the lyrics, melody and the basic chord progression, I sent it to Hayden for a listen because he and I had been wanting to collaborate again on a record. He loved it and made it his own production and arrangement-wise. I re-cut the final vocals back in London and sent those back to Hayden for him to slot back into his tasteful soundscape that is now Favour as you hear it.
- Nat Dunn
10. NUMB feat. GRAACE
It was my first time ever collaborating with an artist. Hayden sent me through about a full track and I ended up really liking the outro so I was looping it in my room to write half of it then wrote the rest in the taxi on the way to his place. I walked in nervous that I had only written to 30 seconds looped but he straight away loved it so much so he started everything from scratch with me. That day he showed me Jasmine by Jai Paul, and we both kept referencing BTSTU and the sounds in there. I then found out it was his next single and I couldn't believe it because I went into it being a huge fangirl. This song literally changed everything for me, and to this day, Hayden is my favourite producer I've ever worked with and I'm super lucky to call him like family now. He's been a big brother throughout navigating my way through the industry since 2017, just by his nature of wanting to see me succeed. The love and strong energy the song holds is so special and I carry that on stage with him whenever I sing it live.
11. Weightless feat. Shungudzo
I use my journeys to the studio to observe everything around, and within, me. It helps calm my nerves and often inspires the songs I write that day. Outside of the studio where Hayden and I met for the first time, I passed a woman adding what looked like finishing touches to a beautiful painting in the most calming shades of blue — like the reflection of a cloudless sky on a still sea. It turns out that woman was Jen, Hayden’s wife, and in a way, Weightless is a reflection of the weightless quality of her art and energy.
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