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'I have low expectations': Ryan Hemsworth on staying grounded amid all the hype

Holly Gordon

Ryan Hemsworth does not expect the spotlight. The Halifax-born DJ has collaborated with the likes of Tinashe and Mitski, hung out with Diplo and Skrillex and won a Juno Award for his debut solo album in 2014, but name-dropping and star-chasing are not his bag.

“I don't know how to say it in not an offensive way, but I have low expectations,” Hemsworth says over the phone from his Toronto home, laughing. “I don't expect anyone to be stoked on me or my music.”

But on Hemsworth’s new and third solo album, Elsewhere, it’s clear that he has some fans. The album’s list of collaborators is longer than the 12-song tracklist itself, with Hemsworth changing genre lanes — and locations — between R&B artists Ambré Perkins (New Orleans) and Marco McKinnis (Virginia, Maryland), Afrobeat artist SK (London, U.K.), singer-songwriter Robin Dann (Toronto) and Daniela Andrade (Montreal), singer/producer Joji (Australia/Japan) and more. It’s a list of names that seems disconnected at first, but the ranging songs on Elsewhere sound at home in the way that they aren’t from any one particular place, and mainly only have one person — Hemsworth — in common.

Related: Ryan Hemsworth will throw his first-ever album party in Montreal on Sept. 22 at the Red Bull Music Festival. Get more information here.

“It's like working with a rapper on an anime sample with a trap beat and then working with an R&B singer and using like goofy little video game sounds or whatever,” he says. “It's kind of combining the worlds, and I think in the end that's what I've realized is my thing — which maybe on paper is weird and doesn't fully make sense, but I'm hoping that the project is kind of like a roller-coaster experience.”

“And I think a big part of it is creating my own, but also through collaboration, pushing the people that I work with in a different direction,” he later adds. “In the end making something that I think only I can make.”

Hemsworth started working on Elsewhere as soon as his 2014 album, Alone for the First Time, was finished — the same year he started his Secret Songs label, quietly releasing “free downloads, friends only, bi-weekly” by creating a platform where musicians Hemsworth admired could share their work. The new album has been a four-year process of making songs and scrapping them. ("I make a lot of songs and then slowly they kind of show themselves to me.")

There is no typical collaboration process for Hemsworth, but he says conversations often start because he sends the equivalent of a digital thank-you card before working together is even part of the equation.

“If I like an artist, I tell them that they're awesome or something ... for producers it's pretty normal just to be like super complimentary to each other and I think it's because we're all kind of nerds and sit at our computer all day,” says Hemsworth. “But I think in other worlds it goes a long way just to show some love to people and yeah, show them some support. And if anything goes from there, then that's great; if not, it's nice to know you have a fan somewhere.”

With the meditative “Animal,” which closes Elsewhere and features Robin Dann of Bernice, Hemsworth reached out to see if Dann wanted to collaborate, as he was already a fan. Since they live in the same city, Dann wrote the track and Hemsworth recorded and engineered it in what he calls his apartment's “faux studio." But a lot of his work is done online, of course. “Think About U” featuring Joji was done entirely through text and email.

“[Joji] sent the vocals to me and then I kind of picked away at them and sent them back and yeah, I mean even if we're separate or working on it remotely I try to make it as personal as possible and make sure it's not like, I make an instrumental, they send me an a cappella, and that's it,” says Hemsworth. “I think it's always important to have a back and forth.”

While Elsewhere is a clear evolution of Hemsworth’s sound — and his most single-ready, acccessible sound so far — it feels like the relationships Hemsworth has cultivated through the album are almost, if not as, important as the music he’s making. There’s a humility to the way he talks about his work that feels outsized by his success, as if the journalism graduate from Nova Scotia can’t quite believe where he is today.

“I think I'm always going to be pretty insecure in that way, which probably keeps me grounded, I think? I try to think of it that way,” he says.

It’s a groundedness that bleeds into all of his work. Hemsworth published a Secret Songs book this summer via Sapporo, and in it he included interviews with big names like L.A.’s RL Grime and Sydney’s Flume with more emerging acts like Edmonton’s Tennyson and Drumbo, Ontario’s Merivale.

“A name and status doesn't really matter, that's why I kind of wanted to throw in Flume and RL Grime, who I've known for a long time, with an artist that maybe has like a hundred followers or whatever,” explains Hemsworth. “I think to me it's always important just to show that, you know, certain artists can't get their work out there as well as others for whatever reason, which doesn't mean it's less valuable or less important to listeners in general.”

Catch Hemsworth in Montreal for his album release party on Sept. 22 at Red Bull Music Festival.


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