When electronic producer Hayden James slid onto the scene back in 2013 with his stupidly smooth debut single "Permission To Love", there was a serious case of love at first sight.
Australia fell hard for that simple yet inescapable vocal hook almost instantly and, before long, it was the song that rounded out euphoric festival sets, brought life to your boring commute, and featured in the playlist for every house party you threw that year.
Then it all happened again. In 2014, James released "Something About You" on Future Classic's 'Teen Idols' compilation, and the response launched this humble little Sydney producer into an extended season of international touring on an unprecedented scale. Glastonbury, Firefly, Roskilde – name an iconic festival, and Hayden James has played it.
After "Something About You" ran away with the #44 spot on the 2015 triple j Hottest 100, the pressure was on for James to back it up with something as equally appealing. Cue "Just A Lover", a follow-up that ticks all the boxes for a bonafide dance hit with its earworm hook, a bass-heavy beat that sits just right, and his own signature velvety croon sounding better than ever.
We caught up with the singer-songwriter just after he'd just landed back in Sydney, having polished off his first ever Asian tour in support of "Just A Lover". Still clearly buzzing from the experience, James touched on festival culture, the state of Australian EDM, his vision as an artist and how, in the end, nothing beats coming home to play Splendour In The Grass.
Best Before: Hayden! Welcome back to Sydney! Tell me a little bit about your week.
Hayden James: Thanks! I literally just flew in this morning. We came straight from Bali, where we wrapped up the Asian leg of the 'Just A Lover' tour. I'm actually straight back into the studio today to finish off a mix for triple j. I think that's coming out next week. And then I'm also working on a top secret remix somewhere in there too...
Will you have some time out with friends and family before jetting off again?
I think so. We're here for the next five weeks for the local tour, and then as soon as we play that final show here at The Metro, we'll be heading over to the states until November. The great thing about five weeks of touring in Australia is that there aren't that many dates to squeeze in, so we're really only playing shows around the weekends. I can definitely fit in some quality time with everyone at home.
Can you fill me in on the Asian leg of the tour?
It was incredible, man. I'd never been there before. It was such a shock; everything was amazing, and the people were really nice. We played a bunch of festivals over there. One of the highlights was playing my own show in Seoul. I think we had a crowd of about 200 or so people. It was packed. I've never had a reception like that in my entire career. They were really into it.
There I was – a guy all the way from the other side of the world, in a place I'd never set foot in before, and there were people singing every single word of my music back to me.
How different is the festival culture in Asia from what you're used to at home?
It's pretty different. Everyone there is very, very polite. People don't yell and go crazy quite as much. You'll play a track out right to the end, and then you'll say, "Thank you so much," and then they'll only scream and yell once you've said that out loud. It's like you're giving them permission to respond.
Permission to love, maybe?
Ha! Exactly. They're just so polite.
Did everyone sing along?
They really did! And that was just mind-blowing. There I was – a guy all the way from the other side of the world, in a place I'd never set foot in before, and there were people singing every single word of my music back to me.
You played some shows with Disclosure in Asia. How was that experience?
Yeah. Basically, they had a DJ set in front of 4000 or so people in this huge exhibition hall, and I supported them for that. That was really, really cool. Let's be honest – they always smash it. They're just really nice people as well. It was great to hang out.
I also spotted a photo with James Murphy from LCD Soundsystem on your Twitter. How the hell did that go down?
Oh, man. That was unbelievable. That was at a festival in Copenhagen called Roskilde. That's an absolutely mental festival, by the way. I think it's the second biggest to Glastonbury in Europe. Anyway, I was just minding my own business, eating dinner in the little artist dining hall with my crew, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted James Murphy himself. I had to jump on the chance and get a photo. He ended up being a really nice dude. He actually offered to take the photo and everything.
At European festivals like that, does your music draw a different response compared to large scale outdoor crowds at home?
It's pretty similar in Europe, actually. I'm really thankful that some of my music has circulated there on radio stations. People definitely know the songs because of that. I'll be honest, though – there's nothing better than coming back home for Splendour In The Grass. Nothing beats that.
It's funny, because your set at Splendour back in 2013 must have looked so different compared to this year. Was it surreal coming back and seeing the change three years later?
Absolutely. I honestly think I played in front of 30 people at Splendour in 2013. I remember I was on the Red Bull Select Stage, or whatever it was called back then.
It's funny seeing a lot of international publications declaring that you've "come out of nowhere," because the reality is that a lot of us Sydneysiders have watched you slog away in the local scene for years, honing your craft and building a name for yourself the good old-fashioned way.
Way too right! Haha. I honestly DJ'ed for years in places like Kings Cross and other local venues before I even started producing my own material as Hayden James. I mean, What So Not, Alison Wonderland, Cassian and I were playing week in, week out at a little club called Candys. We played there for a good four years before we even started writing and recording. That's a little slice of our history right there.
With that in mind, how do you feel about what's been going on lately in Sydney with the lockout laws and the state of our nightlife?
Man. It sucks! I had so many opportunities in my formative years to play in so many different venues, and it hurts to think that there are young DJs and producers in Sydney who don't have the chance to develop like I did. There's so many big Australian acts going around right now, but these are artists that were born in the clubs of Kings Cross. It's so shit. At the same time, I think there's one thing that hasn't changed in Sydney, and that's the fact that people are still keen to go out and hear good music. That's why we're seeing little underground raves and curated events popping up that weave their ways around some seriously strict licensing. People will always find a way, and that's great.
There's a reason why I don't have any tracks with vocal features. I'm trying to create a character.
It's funny that you mention some of the big Australian acts and their formative years here, because I wanted to ask you: why do you think Australian electronic music is enjoying such a golden era on an international scale? Where is this influx of pioneering Aussie EDM heavyweights coming from?
Honestly, I think at first, it used to be about the coveted 'Australian sound', but I don't think that's really the case anymore. I think that people have latched onto the image and sound that Australian labels like Future Classic are cultivating, and crossover artists like Chet Faker, Flight Facilities and Flume have all led the charge. I'm thankful to be included with them, because as soon as people see that I'm on the Future Classic roster, they instantly know what I'm about before they even speak to me or hear my music. A lot of artists like Alison or George Maple are moving over and working extensively with people in L.A., and that really helps with our representation in that market as well. I think it also helps that in the U.S., it's just so easy to tour. That's what has really propelled the RÜFÜS boys into popularity overseas – touring relentlessly has helped them so much.
How integral are other Australian artists on that scale to your creative process? Do you find yourselves bouncing off each other and sending ideas back and forth?
All the time. I shoot stuff over to the RÜFÜS boys, the Flight Facilities guys, Golden Features, the Peking Duk boys... if we're all in Australia, we'll end up crossing paths every month or so at a party or festival. We always end up going back to someone's house and playing each other demos.
How did "Just A Lover" come together?
Well, I've actually been playing "Just A Lover" in my set for a while. I actually finished it quite a while ago. I had so many people come up to me after my shows and beg me to release it. The problem is that I'm a massive perfectionist. I take my time. I'd rather pull together a few really solid tracks than just quickly polish off an album. That's always been an aspect of my career, and I'm proud of that. "Just A Lover" is a bit darker than "Something About You", so I was definitely nervous about it when we were working on it. The first time we played it here at home was actually at Splendour, and the crowd were singing it back to me louder than other big tracks I was dropping in my set. That was a really, really cool moment.
How did that melody come together?
I can thank George Maple for that. That's hers. In the middle of the song, there's also some little extra vocal touches courtesy of Ben from Safia. We were working on a bridge together for another track that didn't really work out, but I ended up holding onto that recording and incorporating it here. I really liked his tone there.
I want all of my singles to tie into a narrative or story. I see them all floating around in their own inner world.
The Australian scene is definitely all about helping each other out then!
Absolutely, man. We keep it in the family.
In terms of your own voice, do you find that you're learning new things about singing and vocal production as you lay down more tracks?
Yeah. I was actually saying to a friend earlier this week that there's a reason why I don't have any tracks with vocal features. I'm trying to create a character. I'm trying to tie all my music together with that sensual deep-voiced persona.
So many of your fellow Australian electronic and dance music artists are churning out these sprawling EDM bangers with face-melting drops and stabbing hooks, but you've always taken the more restrained road. Why is that?
For me, it's more about writing a good song within itself, rather than pushing the limits of how crazy or massive I can make the production. I try not to let the production get in front of the hook or melody. I always find myself stripping back layers and taking out half of what I've written because it's just not necessary.
I think all of your biggest hits – songs like "Something About You", "Permission To Love", and "Just A Lover" – all have vocal hooks that crawl under your skin without you even realising it. Suddenly, you're on the way home and you find yourself singing it over and over again.
Perfect. That's what I want!
Did you feel any pressure coming up to the release of "Just A Lover" after the international success of "Something About You"?
Totally! Especially because it was a bit more chilled out. I also took a really long time to finish it, so I was worried that people wouldn't care anymore. I am so, so excited that people are enjoying it, and that it's getting radio play and racking up streams online. If anything, that positive response has given me confidence to release more of the material that I have in the wings that sounds like "Just A Lover". I've actually got 15 to 20 songs with the same vibe that I didn't really think would be embraced before, but I think we're going to release them now.
"Just A Lover" definitely does tread that darker route, but it's still unmistakably a Hayden James track. Is that familiarity important to you?
It's actually one of the first and main things I consider. I want all of my singles to tie into a narrative or story. I see them all floating around in their own inner world. I want people to hear my songs and not even have to ask who it is. I want them to just know straightaway that it's me. It's been that way with every new single so far, and that's pretty damn special.
"Just A Lover" is out now via Future Classic.
For more information on Hayden's 'Just A Lover' tour with Dena Amy, head right this way.