Hayden James photo Cybele Malinowski

The Six-Year Slog: How Hayden James Lost His Fear And Found His Voice

Inside the making of the biggest, and most anticipated, Australian dance album of the year. Words by Jules LeFevre

By Jules LeFevre, 17/6/2019

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It’s a little before 7.30pm at Sydney’s Carriageworks, and Hayden James is backstage in his dressing room, cracking open a pale ale.

There’s about an hour to go before his headlining set at this year’s Curve Ball — the Vivid dance event put on by promoter Fuzzy — and the producer is relaxed and easy, circulating around the packed room to give out hugs and say hi to old friends that have come through for the show. Trays of tacos and tortillas are scattered across the tables, and in the corner sits an overflowing esky, out of which pokes a bottle of Moët.

“Help yourself, but please don’t take the champagne,” James’ manager tells us, waving a hand towards the esky. “We’ve had a couple of incidents on tour where people have gotten stuck in before we’ve had a chance to start celebrating.”

We heed his words — after all, there’s plenty for James to celebrate tonight. Apart from headlining one of the year’s biggest dance parties in his hometown, in a few days time James will release his almost comically long-waited debut album, titled Between Us — which lands six years after he first burst onto the scene with the single ‘Permission To Love’.

It’s been a long road to get here, but James has finally arrived.

Hayden James backstage at Curve Ball. Photo: Pat Stevenson

A day before he takes to the stage at Curve Ball, James and I are sitting in that same dressing room in Carriageworks, although this time we’re not surrounded by beer and chips. It’s a cold and rainy afternoon in Sydney, and James’ tall frame is wrapped in a long, black raincoat. He’s disarmingly friendly, possessing that enviable ability of making any conversation feel like a chat with an old friend.

But then again, he has every reason to be comfortable in the public eye now, having been firmly at the centre of Australia’s dance scene since he released his self-titled EP way back in 2013. Alongside artists such as Alison Wonderland, Flume, What So Not, and Golden Features, James cut his teeth on Sydney’s then-fertile dance circuit, DJing regularly at iconic clubs like Candys Apartment (which is also where he met his future wife).

Having just asked his girlfriend’s parents for their permission to ask her to marry him, he sat down and pulled together the threads of a song called ‘Permission To Love’.

He was DJing as a way to make money to get through his finance degree — but also as a way to give himself ample time to mess around with songwriting. “It was a big deal to be a DJ [at that time],” he says. “It wasn’t a big deal to be writing music because it wasn’t really as accessible to write at the time. It wasn’t like, ‘Turn on your laptop, Ableton’s there and you can just start writing’. It was more about DJ-ing.”

Drawn increasingly to intricate melodies and harmonies, James got firmly stuck into writing while studying at audio school SAE, but it would be a few years before anything resembling a Hayden James track would come together. In the meantime, he bounced around within around a few musical projects — including a band called Cadillac, and an early solo guise called Universe. Eventually, he became confident enough with Ableton to have a go with seriously producing something; having just asked his girlfriend’s parents for their permission to ask her to marry him, he sat down and pulled together the threads of a song called ‘Permission To Love’.

Feeling quietly confident that he had something, he fired it off to tastemaker label Future Classic, who uploaded it to their SoundCloud. Barely two hours after it first appeared online, it was picked up by triple j. The track was a curveball into the dance scene: where producers around him were splicing up sugary synths and upping their BPM, James’ cool and airy sound provided a much needed reprieve. It was addictive, and Australia fell hard.

Alison Wonderland, Hayden James, Golden Features, and What So Not at Candys Apartment. Photo by Pat Stevenson/Hobogestapo

James’ star rose quickly with the release of his EP in August 2013 — he was dotting festival line-ups around the country and notching up support slots for established acts — and it was generally assumed that a full-length release would appear before long. But James had other plans — or rather, James didn’t really know what the plan was at all.

“I would always just work on one song at a time, which is just stupid,” he says now, shifting in his seat. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to write, which was the big problem. And I didn’t know how I wanted it to sound, and so it took me a while to figure out my voice.

“I would ask people, like my fans, or my wife, or just friends…I got them to describe like, ‘What do you feel?’ Or, ‘What’s a Hayden James record to you?’ And they would just tell me things, and I’d be like ‘That’s exactly it. Keep it really simple, keep it dark, sexy, summery.’ And I just needed that in my mind to continue.”

He worked a few odd jobs, including at Coles. “I gave that up pretty quickly,” he laughs. “I do remember, actually, the moment [I decided to quit]. It’s like a real movie moment. I was stacking milk and I caught my reflection and I was like ‘You only get to live once, and what the hell am I doing? I’ve got to give it a go. I’ve got a really supportive family. I’m going to be okay. Let’s just try this.'”

Hayden James at Curve Ball. Photo by Pat Stevenson.

For the next few years, James would release a single at a rate of about one a year, lifting his profile exponentially. His dark, propulsive sound was singular and instantly recognisable: these were tracks that could soundtrack both the night out and the come down.

But the slow release schedule, instead of alleviating the Where’s The Album pressure, only served to bring it down on James’ shoulders. “The pressure of releasing just one song a year is ridiculous,” he admits. “Because it’s got to be a hit or otherwise that’s it. You know, you’re kind of done — or maybe not done, but you’re back-stepping.”

He didn’t completely fall off the face of the earth — he still toured relentlessly, and also found time to work with a little known pop artist called Katy Perry. Perry had come across James’ music on Spotify, and asked her management to reach out to get him in some sessions for her album Witness. When James received the initial email from her management, he assumed it was a prank.

“The pressure of releasing just one song a year is ridiculous. It’s got to be a hit or otherwise that’s it.”

“They emailed me, and said ‘Hey, we’d like Hayden to come work with Katy for a week in Santa Barbara, we’ll fly you across, we heard ‘Something About You’ and ‘Just a Lover’ and we want you to write something like that for Katy’s record’. And I was like ‘Okay, fuck,'” he laughs. “At first we thought it was a prank…like ‘She’s a huge superstar and why would she be involved with me?’ I still think that.

“I think we let a week pass and then we were like, ‘Hold on a minute, let’s figure out…what’s the name on this email’ and we looked it up and was like ‘Oh shit, this is legit.'”

James flew over there and knuckled down with fellow producer Thomas Stell (Golden Features) and Perry at her studio in Santa Barbara. The work schedule was brutal: James would rock up to the studio around 9am to prep some tracks, then Perry would come in around 6pm and they would work until the early hours of the next morning. James would crash out around 5am, then wake a bit before nine and do it all over again. They ended up writing about five or six complete tracks, with ‘Déjà Vu’ ultimately landing on Witness.

With the elusive debut album still hanging tantalisingly in the distance, James shifted gear in 2018, releasing two (!) singles within a calendar year — ‘Just Friends’ and ‘Better Together’. Suddenly, that album was now a realistic prospect.

“I had like thirty or forty demos and I started going ‘Okay, there’s something here, they work together as a jigsaw puzzle,'” he says. “It wasn’t until literally a couple of months ago that I was like ‘Oh, these songs work together, and these ones that are already released also fit in this story and make sense.’

“I always want to put a record on the first track and not skip any song. So it’s more of a lifestyle album, I guess, where you can just do what you do, put on this music and have the album play out. A lot of people don’t or can’t do that these days, so that was a huge goal of mine to do that, and I think I’ve done that. Well, I can listen to it…so that’s a big thing.”

Gradually, the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place, and Between Us began to materialise as a complete body of work — not just as strands of songs threaded together. With a dedication to mood and flow born out of his DJ days, James was fastidious about the tracklisting and journey of the record; it needed to tell a story. His story.

Curve Ball. Photo by Pat Stevenson.

The resulting record is about as pure a distillation of the Hayden James sound that you could get — which was entirely the point. James wanted a definitive statement of his music, and intentionally avoided any experimental grenades that would throw off his fans.

“It’s usually the second or third record of an artist where they’ve just gone off on like ‘All right, now it’s time to branch out'” It’s like, ‘What the hell is this? This is not why I like you.’ So the first album, for me, needed to be stuff that people were in love with already,” he says. “It was definitely deliberate for me to keep with that very simple songwriting, nice smooth sounds, again where I live it’s very calm, very beach-y, very chill.

“I wanted to write songs first and make them dance music later,” he continues. “My mum would start really enjoying these songs, and I’m like ‘Oh, okay, my mum and her friends and my younger sister like these songs. That’s really cool because I’ve got a huge audience now.’ I always thought I was just writing music for this specific group of people at a nightclub and that’s not it at all, in fact — most of my music doesn’t really work in nightclubs because they’re like pop songs. That was a big turning point in my head actually, just figuring out what I wanted to write, and it was writing stuff that you can put on at Sunday lunch with your family, or, you know, soundtracking pre-drinks and stuff like that.”

When I ask him if there’s something he’s particularly proud of in Between Us, he bursts into laughter. “That I fucking finished it,” he sighs.

James gets particularly animated when talking about Between Us — he gesticulates more, and leans forward to passionately talk through each of the tracks. His personal favourite is the title track, which he wrote with Sydney act Panama (Jarrah McCleary). At five minutes and 23 seconds, it’s the longest track on the record.

“We started writing that about two and a half years ago. His vocal is just transcendent, it’s unbelievable,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve played that demo to friends for two years, in all different styles of production and stuff, they’d always just go ‘Oh my god, this vocal’s amazing’. That’s a real draw card for me, but I really love the fact that it’s a journey song on the record. Everything I’ve ever released has always been quite short — you know, three minutes thirty pop record, chorus comes in at this point, drop at this point. That’s just how I write, and I really enjoy writing, but for this I was like ‘Let’s kind of extend that and build something.'”

“I forget that people have heard the album,” he then says excitedly, before asking me what my favourite track is. When I answer with ‘Hold Me Back’, which features Boy Matthews, he beams and nods.

“That was effortless, it really was,” he explains. “It came about literally within day. I mean it took quite a long while to produce them, but the actual songwriting process didn’t take long at all. We just vibe off each other.”

James’ attention to detail is obvious: The album flows effortlessly, from the gentle crescendo of ‘Nowhere To Go’ and ‘Just Friends’ to the airy interlude of ‘Feelin’ and the icy ‘Lost To You’. The obsessive evenness makes it hard to pluck out any one standout — but the steady drive of opener ‘Hold Me Back’ and spacious closer ‘Weightless’ make for particularly excellent moments.

When I ask him if there’s something he’s particularly proud of in Between Us, he bursts into laughter. “That I fucking finished it,” he sighs.

Hayden James at Curve Ball. Photo by Pat Stevenson.

The cavernous hall of Carriageworks is heaving when James steps out on stage. Tonight is also the premiere of his new live show, created with Melbourne production masters Colourblind — who’ve created live shows for Flume, Alison Wonderland, and basically everyone else in the dance scene in Australia.

Giant white LED cubes throb and shift behind Hayden, who’s joined on stage throughout his set by a roll call of his collaborators. NAATIONS appear for the thumping single ‘Nowhere To Go’, GRAACE shows up for ‘Numb’, and Nat Dunn rocks out for ‘Favours’. The album tracks — which no one in the crowd has heard — slip in easily between favourites like ‘Just Friends’ and ‘Better Together’.

On the VIP viewing deck at the back of the crowd, James’ family watch on and dance — at one point his mother holds up her phone to FaceTime a relative. “I can’t put into words how proud we are,” his sister tells me a little later in the dressing room. “And if I try I generally end up crying, so I won’t even try.”

“Next week I release my debut album,” James proudly tells the crowd towards the end of his set, having just wrapped up a thunderous remix of Duke Dumont’s ‘Ocean Drive’. “It’s been a long time coming, so thanks for sticking with me.”

The crowd roars, and James brings out his guests for one last bow. A short time later, the Moët pops backstage.

Curve Ball. Photo by Pat Stevenson.

Our interview is nearly at an end — James needs to finish signing dozens of records and posters for fans, and he needs to get back to his wife and newborn baby. As we walk out through Carriageworks and weave through the dozens of roadies who are busy rigging up lights, I ask him: Is it going to be another six years until the next album?

He laughs — as does his manager, who quickly mutters: “It better not be.”

James pauses. “Now that I’ve done it, it’s not as scary anymore,” he says. “I know now that I’m going to be okay. I know that people are going to like it. I’ve taken the training wheels off, and it feels good.”

Hayden James’ debut album Between Us is out now through Future Classic.

Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Editor. She is on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Cybele Malinowski/Supplied 

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