Ryan Hemsworth on Quarter-Life Crisis, Finding Community on Twitch, and His Love for Gossip Girl (KEXP Interview)

Interviews
12/16/2020
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Colin Medley

It’s freezing in Ontario. Or so says Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, who was working out of an attic in the port city of Hamilton last month when I spoke to him. It’s interesting thinking of a superstar producer who’s graced countless festival stages to hoards of dancing fans being relegated to an attic in an obscure (at least, to me) Canadian city that is definitely not named after the man for whom the successful musical is based on. But it’s quarantine and, in some ways, we’re all stuck in a freezing attic (at least mentally).

The conversation takes place about a week before Hemsworth released his debut EP under the name Quarter-Life Crisis. The new moniker signals a departure from Hemsworth’s prior eponymous work which ranged in style from bombastic dance-pop numbers to glimmering electronic ruminations, all while still mostly being pigeonholed under that most egregiously vague genre title, EDM.

His versatility comes from his ability and willingness to collaborate with a variety of musicians, from R&B chanteuses like Tinashe, up-and-coming rappers such as Yurufuwa Gang, and glitchy electronic artists like Baths. His ability to fuse their style with his own, in a way that stays true to both artists, is what makes him stand out as a most skillful producer.

Quarter-Life Crisis is no different, in that regard, and yet miles away from the festival-ready dance tracks of past. Teaming up with indie artists Meg Duffy of Hand Habits, Frances Quinlan, Charlie Martin of Hovvdy, Yohuna, and Claud, the 6-track EP is a long-desired experiment at “going indie” (it’s a big year for that!).

And it succeeds magnificently, with every track pulling the unique qualities of each musician to make them all distinctive and special. Hemsworth cites his high school days of learning guitar and listening to Grandaddy and Bright Eyes as inspirations for his writing process on the EP. If he was called a “sad boy” before, the title’s certainly not leaving now.

Below, read KEXP’s conversation with Hemsworth about the making of Quarter-Life Crisis, how he found a community on Twitch, and, of course, his love for Gossip Girl.

 

 


So, let's talk about Quarter-Life Crisis. The latest single from the EP dropped yesterday, "You and Me," with Claud which, first of all, they're an artist I actually was not super familiar with. I'm a massive fan of Frances Quinlan and Hand Habits and Yohuna and Hovvdy, but they're new for me. How did you get connected with them?

That was I think actually the same week that I made the song with Hand Habits. I had a different session that I kind of lined up with Harmony from Girlpool. And Claud was in the other studio right next door. So they just came by and said hi. It wasn't even any kind of, you know, "Let's collab," type situation. I was just like, "Hey, nice to meet you. I love your stuff." And then, I think I followed up a few weeks later. I was like, "If you ever want to make a thing, here's something I just started with you in mind." And then I just sent some guitar parts and went from there.

That's awesome. Highly convenient!

Yeah, definitely! Honestly, I do miss that, you know, the way L.A. works in that way where you're just like next door to someone who's really awesome and you're a fan of. Whereas in Hamilton, or I was in Toronto before, I didn't really go to studios. I just hang out at home and make stuff.

 

 

Right. Which is also probably good as well, to have the time to bunker down and get stuff done.

Yeah. Especially in these last six months or whatever for sure.

Yeah, how have you been doing with everything?

Uh, it's pretty good. I mean, I can't complain honestly compared to a lot of situations that I know people are going through. I mean, it's just been a good way to kind of really recalibrate in a way, like figuring out what I'm doing, why I'm doing it. And especially with this project, it's been kind of exciting to...I generally before this would make music with clubs in mind and that kind of setting. And it's sort of been weirdly convenient to make sad guitar music and to pivot to that right now. So, yeah, I'm just trying to make the most of it, I guess.

Yeah, no, it's absolutely a good time for that. It's interesting because back in 2014, you mentioned in an interview that you were interested in doing something like this, like working with more guitar-based indie artists and kind of taking a step back from that classic producer works with a rapper dynamic. Why did it take so long to finally make this project happen?

Yeah, I don't know. It's kind of something I always wanted to make but I think just starting to play guitar and making this sort of music back in high school was fun for me, but I think somehow I just sort of gravitated more towards making everything on my laptop and becoming like the producer and using more electronic sounds just because it was easier in the beginning. And then that became sort of my thing. But now with this project, it feels like I kind of finally go back to that, you know, the music that I listened to back in junior high and high school and sort of marry these worlds that I've also created in the last like 10 years for myself and stuff.

Yeah, you cite bands like Grandaddy and Bright Eyes and Sparklehorse as being foundational as your early loves and to your writing process. Were you revisiting these artists during the making of the album?

Honestly not a ton, it was more like I was just kind of obsessively listening to the people that I worked with on it. And I sort of had my bucket list of artists that I wanted to reach out to. The sort of creation of this thing was talking with Amber at Saddle Creek, who is my A&R with the project, and just like, "Let's make a bunch of music with a bunch of different people that usually wouldn't enter these kinds of scenarios." Like with Frances and Hop Along, she has a very, I think, specific way that she works that's worked really well for her for a long time. And, to bring her into this kind of world, I'm glad it worked out. Like, I think at first I was sort of realizing, I had a lot of responsibility in working with her or with Hand Habits. I don't think they ever did sessions in this way, so I didn't want to mess that up and make them not want to do this kind of thing ever again.

Right, absolutely. So when did this start, this process of putting it together?

Oh, man, it's kind of been a little while, I would say probably starting like the end of 2018, maybe, or early 2019. I think that was probably around the time of maybe the Hand Habits track and then I'm starting to talk with Frances and yeah, it was around then. So it's been kind of a while. Also, it started as a thing that I was already thinking about and then I connected with Saddle Creek and I was like, "Okay, let's make this an actual project." And I wanted to do a new name and yeah, it took a little time to figure out all these little logistical things. But yeah, I'm glad it's finally pretty much here.

 

 

Tell me about the name. Why Quarter-Life Crisis?

Yeah, I mean, when I thought of it, it was more relevant to my actual age, but I'm 30 now, so it's kind of past that. But I guess the original sort of idea of it was just from, at that point, playing a lot of specifically electronic, almost like EDM world shows and festivals and a lot of that stuff that I didn't super enjoy aspects of. I always enjoyed playing shows, but it's sort of I think you start with one sound and then I think everybody gets pigeonholed a bit regardless of how much you change your sound or do your thing. So, yeah, I was kind of getting stuck into situations that I didn't really love. And from there I was just like, I want to make somewhat the opposite, maybe it's not the absolute opposite, but very different music. And that's kind of where this all came from.

Why didn't you feel like you could just put it out under Ryan Hemsworth?

I was kind of worried it would be just adding maybe to the confusion that my career seems to already have [laughs]. Which is my own doing, and I like to surprise people, but sometimes that can cross over to confusion. Like, my last album was a similar mindset of working with a lot of different artists from different places, and then the next project I did an EP with these Japanese rappers and then technically this would have been the next thing, which is also very different. So it just felt like maybe I should be a little more organized with my career and life in a way. And also I'm excited for giving myself that sort of restriction of like, "Okay, this is what this project is going to sound like and work within those boundaries." That kind of excites me.

 

 

Yeah. You can kind of fit things into different boxes and see more clearly what each project sounds like.

Exactly. Yeah, because I think just up to this point, you know, I've always used my real name in the last 10 years and everything falls underneath that. But, you know, sometimes maybe not everything connects perfectly together and especially sonically. So, yeah, this is sort of my attempt, in my I guess my 30s, to be more of an organized human.

Absolutely. Was this form of collaboration, working with indie guitar acts, was that a vastly different process from working with rappers and R&B artists?

Yeah, I would say. I mean, every person I've worked with is different in their own way, and that's definitely what brings me back to doing it, even though there's always the challenges. It's sort of after the creation of the music, it can become really challenging in so many ways, working with different labels and publishers. And everyone has their own circle of people that they're around and then having to convince everyone that they should do this and put it out. And, you know, "This is how much money we have and these are the percentages you're going to get." I try not to get too involved in that because it can make things weird.

But at the end of the day, it's just always really fun to work with new people because they have ideas that you would never have. So in this case, I would say kind of everyone was way more hands-on from the writing to the production and everything. Like with Frances, she had a lot of really specific ideas and wanted to get like a children's choir on it and, you know, even down to the mixing and everything. I was really honestly into that, that she was like, "Okay, can you try this, change this?" Not in a bossy way, just like, "These are my ideas. I think it could sound better." And it did. So, yeah, I'm really happy when people want to get super involved in the, you know, grittier part of the process.

 

 

Right. It's a true collaboration versus them just like handing you a verse and you just do what you want with it.

Yeah and I think everyone's kind of accustomed to at least recording themselves, if not producing themselves like Claud was. You know, I sent kind of the whole guitar part in that entire song and then they stripped it down and took off certain layers, and it sounded way better after they'd done that. So I'm excited when people can do that on their own. Also because that song was actually done remotely.

You said there was a whole long wish list of artists, can you share some of the other artists that are on that list?

Yeah, I mean, it kind of ranged like from Bill Callahan to like Michelle Branch [laughs]

Oh, my God. That would be awesome.

Yeah, I mean, it's like a genuine bucket list that probably will never happen. I'm pulling it up right now because I'm trying to see who else was on there. But, yeah, I think my plan is to definitely keep this thing going and just to see how deep into all that I can get with, you know, more legacy acts, but also new acts hopefully people don't really know about, but will very soon. I'm looking now. Who else did I have? The Notwist is one of my favorite bands, so Marcus from that group. Tomberlin was on it and we actually ended up making a song, so I think that'll be sort of the catalyst for the follow-up project.

Oh, yeah, that's awesome. So, this isn't just a one-off thing, it's a project that you want to keep going.

Yeah, I've been feeling, you know, motivated to do this for a long time and now to see it's been kind of a nice, slow growth. Like I think at first people were like, "What is this? I don't know what you're doing." And another name and all that, that's kind of hard to just change what you're doing. But it's been sort of a nice, slow growth and the Hand Habits song seems to be doing really well. And yeah, to get the whole thing out, I'm really excited to see how this is all going.

Yeah. And the Frances Quinlan one as well. I feel like people are loving that. I love that one! And people just love Frances Quinlan so much, she's really blown up.

Thanks! Yeah, before Covid fully hit and everything, I was like planning to go down to Philadelphia and actually work on a bunch of stuff with her in person. So, you know, maybe 2021 we'll be able to actually do a full thing. That would be exciting for me, for sure.

 

 

Oh yeah! And you're releasing the EP through Saddle Creek instead of Secret Songs. Is that more just because of aesthetic reasons or because some of the artists are on Saddle Creek?

Yeah, I guess like a combination of all that. But I started talking to Amber over there first, it was actually around that time just before I was working with Hand Habits and I was going to be in L.A. and then I think I responded to one of their Instagram stories and they're like, "Hey, come meet us." And I was like, "Oh, shit. Saddle Creek wants to meet me." So I just went there and talked to them for like two hours, just about everything. And yeah, they were all super nice and I was just like, "Oh wow, that was really cool." And then after they're like, "We're really interested in the next thing you're talking about doing if you want to get involved at all." And it just kind of snowballed from there. And they've been great to work with. Like the Secret Songs thing is kind of my label and I do everything myself so this sort of seemed like a nice opportunity to get more people involved and, you know, not be alone in the entire process of getting it out [laughs].

Yeah, get a little help.

Yeah, yeah. Everybody needs some sometimes.

Absolutely. What is going on with Secret Songs right now? Do you have any exciting releases coming up?

Yeah, yeah. Life stuff has slowed all that down but yeah I'm actually finally lining up a bunch of the new ones that I've been planning for a while. So, my buddy Giraffage will be probably the next single just at the beginning of January coming up. And uh...yeah, I'm trying to think now, I got a big list of people that I'm coordinating, but I think I need someone else to help me because it's this is all more work than I ever thought it would be.

 

 

Yeah. You're still doing it all by yourself?!

Yeah. Yeah. Basically, I have a distributor that I that, you know, does the boring playlist pitching and all that stuff, but yeah, still finding everyone and you know, coordinating and helping them find the artists for the artwork and the videos and all that stuff so.

Wow. That's massive, especially considering you've been releasing a pretty steady amount of music in the past year. Like how do you balance everything? What does an average day look like?

Um, yeah, I don't know. It's just I'm doing a lot of things like 20 minutes at a time, especially because last summer I had a baby, so I have like a 15-month-old here. And so that just adds to the chaos obviously. So I just felt like learned to own that I can't do anything for more than an hour at a time, which at first is frustrating but now I can sort of do everything in 20 minutes or less.

That's impressive! Probably keeps the day going fast, you know, you're just on to the next and on to the next.

Yeah, definitely. And it's like something new every day. And, you know, like I said, it kind of has slowed down certain aspects, like doing my label stuff. But in other ways, I sit down, I have thirty minutes to work on a song and that's it. So I've realized I've actually worked better with that time limit because before I just could do something for four hours and not actually get anything done.

Yeah, absolutely. It must be kind of a nice thing to be able to be home while you have a young child right now and not touring.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, otherwise, my year would have been totally different. I would have had to have, yeah, been away a lot more, which would have been really frustrating. So I don't want to complain about anything that I'm going through right now so.

Right, right. So you've recently been doing this "imaginary college radio show," you're calling it, on Twitch. I watched last night. It's fun! It's cool, it's chill! What spurred you to finally kind of get on the Twitch wagon this far into the pandemic?

Yeah, I felt like I was a little late getting into it, but I don't know, I think I was overthinking it like I do with most things. And I just started actually using Twitch, like following people and checking out people that I am a fan of. And I was like, "Oh, they're just like hanging out at home, playing music or talking to people or playing video games. Maybe I don't need to make this the most, you know, high production thing." So, yeah, I've taken that method of just making it very low key. But I've never had, like, any kind of studio situation at home so I hired these guys nearby to build a shed in my yard and I'm going to kind of turn that into like my broadcast zone studio situation. So that's been something I've been figuring out.

 

 

Cool! Do you spend a lot of time preparing your sets ahead of time or are you just kinda freewheelin it?

Yeah, well, now I'm just sort of into a rhythm of constantly if I have my laptop open that I'm emailing and I've got like 20 Bandcamp pages open and just a lot of tabs on my browsers.

Yup! I feel that.

Yeah, like I'm sure you are and everybody else is right now. But it's fun! I think especially with Bandcamp now, I just feel like the culture around it is exciting. Like everybody is very anti-Spotify understandably [laughs]. And so I think it's really nice to have that alternative. And I feel like it's, you know, connected in the way that SoundCloud used to be for me, that used to be like my number one. So, yeah, I think it's nice to have something outside of Spotify and Apple.

Yeah. Like a community.

Yeah! That's, that's honestly it. I mean there's no such thing on the DSPs in that way. So I think I was starting to get a little down about that a while ago and it feels like I don't know, maybe we're coming back around a little bit. Like at least with the Bandcamp Fridays, you know, all the money goes to the artist type thing that's going on. And I don't know, I'm trying to be positive about the general state of music.

Right. It's...tough [laughs]. Especially when you're thinking about whether certain venues are going to be able to afford to come back after this and all of that.

Yeah, yeah. Big time. Every week I'm seeing a place that I've played in the last five years close and that's disheartening for sure. But, you know, I think there's no way that we're not all going to go through a ton of changes through this. And hopefully, you know, we'll be as excited as ever to come out and, I don't know, put our money and our ideas into something new.

Absolutely. I mean, New Zealand's already throwing shows again. And I think it's like Taiwan or somewhere, they're throwing shows again. So they are coming back for the countries that have done it right. So, eventually, we could maybe...possibly get there [laughs].

[Laughs] North America is just somehow messing it up.

Messing it up for everyone! But I was actually curious about that since you play electronic music and I saw, I can't remember where it was but I want to say Taiwan, there was this big EDM show recently, they're already back to that. Have you gotten any offers from any countries that are back up and running?

No, I haven't. Yeah, it's just been sort of a ghost town in that department. I feel really bad for the agents and, you know, the good ones [laughs]. The good guys, who I have. Now I just text with my agent about like the Gossip Girl coming back and photos of our cats [laughs], like there's been no show talk for a long time.

Right. Uh..so you're watching Gossip Girl?

Well, I think there's some kind of reunion coming soon. Oh no, it's not a reunion! It's kind of like Degrassi where it's like the next generation in a way.

Oh! I did hear that! I wasn't sure if it was for real or just a rumor.

Yeah, I saw a photo and then it made me feel really old because they look like sixteen and then I realized they should because that's...

They're in high school!

[laughs] Exactly. So I don't know if I'll actually be tuning in, but yeah, I was a Gossip Girl fan. For the record.

 

 

I'm a massive Gossip Girl fan as well. Actually, I'm doing this column called 'Sixteen Again,' where I like delve into the soundtracks of different teen shows and Gossip Girl is definitely going to be one of them because that soundtrack was so killer.

Yeah. That was the first job that I really, really wanted was like The OC-era when you realize like, "Oh, a person chooses the songs, like there's a music supervisor. What's that?" You just like have good taste and say like, "Well, let's get this Brian Jonestown Massacre song on the soundtrack" or something.

It is a literal dream job. Like c'mon!

Yeah, it's amazing, and I've dealt with some of those now, like through my music and I'm just like, "I'm jealous of you!" [laughs] But it's okay.

[laughs] Yeah, can you remember what shows your music has been placed on?

Broad City had a couple. Um, yeah, the supervisor there was actually he's a really great guy and he licenses like a ton of stuff from my label as well. And yeah, that's always been a goal of mine, like just to have your music on a movie or a show or a video game or something like that. I don't know why. I've just always been a consumer of all forms of media in that way, outside of music.

Absolutely. So the EP comes out next week. You've shared all but two songs on the EP. Are you not a fan of mystery?

[laughs] Well, yeah, it's like, you know, no one ever hears the conversations between the label and everything, but I think the idea was like this is a new thing under a new name. Let's sort of very slowly roll the whole thing out. Yeah, I don't know. I feel like it was a good idea in the end and it was something different because, yeah, usually they would just do like two singles, two videos and then drop the project. But I was honestly, coming from like the electronic world as well, which is so single driven, I was like, "I don't mind just putting these songs out one by one and it's a different person each time. So it's not really like ruining what the next one will be because it's going to sound fairly different with a different singer." So yeah, I mean, initially it was, "Let's make it very mysterious," but I think that was probably hard to maintain over time.

Yeah, I think it was probably a good idea, especially since we kind of live in this playlist world, to get it all out there.

Yeah. Unfortunately, that is always part of the conversation as well. It's not really why I decided it in the end. But yeah, unfortunately, you do have to think about those things.

Yep, you sure do. So at KEXP one of our mottos is that we're "the station where the music matters." And so I'd love to know why music matters to you.

Oh, wow, I would say music matters to me because it's a distraction in whatever form that you need. Sometimes that's if you're having a really shitty day or you're making dinner or whatever it is, I think I really love having something to, you know, turn my brain off a little bit. And I think music helps that a lot.


Quarter-Life Crisis is out now on Saddle Creek. Below, listen to "Waterfall" featuring Charlie Martin of Hovvdy.

 

 

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