It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday in early April and I’m dialing the phone number Ryan Hemsworth pasted into an Instagram direct message a few hours earlier. The phone rings a couple times before a quiet, barely-there voice greets me on the other end.
“Heyyy,” Ryan says, almost breathing more than speaking, simultaneously flat and kind.
“Long time no talk,” I laugh.
It’s the first time we’ve spoken in six years, since everyone in our university graduating class parted ways (the way you do after your college years come to a screeching halt and you’re dumped on life’s doorstep). But ostensibly, with everything that has taken off in Ryan’s life in the past few years, it might as well be the first time we ever had a real conversation.
Since his emergence into the electronic dance music sphere, Ryan Hemsworth has achieved a level of jet-set success (and mystique) that most DJs—or any artists for that matter—only meme about. With a diverse set of sounds that range from seductive, ethereal escapism (see: “One for Me” feat. Tinashe), to bouncy, bulbous beats that bolster lyrics like “I can’t save a thot ‘cause they smell like some piss” (see: “Commas” feat. Adamn Killa), Hemsworth creates music with a level of versatility (both collaborative and solo) that’s so palpable, it’s become a defining characteristic of his style.
Aside from some recent singles, productions and remixes though, Hemsworth, for the most part, has been veering a little further from the limelight since his last full-length album was released in 2014. But that’s not to say he’s been slowing down.
“I guess this year I’ve just sort of decided to split my focus in whatever ways I can, and try to stay inspired in different ways,” he tells me, adding that he’s been working on a new album, producing for international artists (see: Chinese trap-rapper Bohan Phoenix), and directing videos (one for “Daylight” by fellow Canadians swim good now, and another he’s not able to comment on just yet). “[I’m] trying to kind of just extend my reach, I guess globally. […] I’m at a point where I'm just trying to push further than what I'm used to, or what I'm familiar with right now.”
Jonathan Lawless (a.k.a. swim good now) is a Canadian artist and producer who started working with Hemsworth a few years ago, after Hemsworth promptly replied to a message Lawless had sent him online asking for help with a song he was working on in 2015. “He responded right back with a bunch of helpful feedback and he asked me to sing on a song of his,” Lawless tells me. “He also bought a song I had just put out on Bandcamp — super sweet move.” According to Lawless, Hemsworth is constantly creating—searching for new sounds and conjuring up different compositions—and, like any storied artist, only pulls the public curtain off the best of the best. “I am convinced that he only releases around one per cent of everything he makes. We’ve worked on maybe close to one hundred song ideas together […] over the past couple years.”
Hemsworth’s shy nature is far from a gimmick. In fact, he’s so cautiously cognizant in his modesty—save for a few Instagram-worthy modelling posts here and there—that he doesn't even credit himself on many of the projects he’s part of. “He’s also really not concerned with ego. For example, he'll help out on a remix I’m working on just ‘cause he wants stuff to be the best it can be,” says Lawless, adding that Hemsworth contributed to about half of swim good now’s forthcoming album, however is only officially featured on a couple tracks.
The Halifax-hailing Hemsworth started producing tracks more than a decade ago when he was still in high school, but it wasn’t until about 2012 when his professional career really started to flourish. At that time, he was finishing up his degree at the University of King’s College—a small, 230-year-old university situated in Nova Scotia’s capital city—which I also attended and shared a few classes with him. He mostly kept to himself, however, and his quiet demeanour was somewhat intimidating (I also wouldn't have wanted to be friends with early-twenties me, either).
Every now and then, though, you’d see the real Ryan Hemsworth peek out, unabashed and authentic. This was clear when he’d play DJ sets at local clubs (one time, when he was playing at the now-turned-something-else G Lounge bar in Halifax), or the time he played our graduating class’ official year-end party at another classmate’s house in the city’s South End. It was in these performances—just before he really started to take off—that we all knew he was going to be, well, probably not a newspaper reporter.
Now living in Toronto, Hemsworth has been steadily climbing the ladder to a sprawling successful career. With three studio albums ( Distorted, Guilt Trips, Alone for the First Time), a JUNO award (2014 Electronic Album of the Year), a record label (Secret Songs) and a plethora of singles, remixes, mixtapes, EPs and productions to his name, the producer, DJ—and, as of recently, author—is readying the release of his latest album. According to him, the forthcoming album takes inspiration from all over the globe. “I've been kind of piecing it together for a really long time, [...] but I'm finding a place where I'm super happy,” he tells me.
“It kind of represents what’s going on in my head, which is sort of all over the place. So that would be like, some artists I'm working with in London on some Afro-pop stuff, and a couple rap songs from Atlanta and L.A., and some R&B stuff, and it’s really kind of how I've approached mixes in the past.” Hemsworth’s travels are often encapsulated in his music, with the collected pieces (singers, sounds and rhythms) woven together to form the masterful EDM tapestries that play out in his head.
Hemsworth—who’s posted the odd Instagram photo or story while hanging out with the likes of Diplo, Skrillex and Flume (to name a few) over the past year or so—says the new album is going to be “super feature-heavy,” but won’t hint at any collaborations. “I guess it’s just become a global project. [...] It became this bigger thing than I had planned for it to be.”
The production of his forthcoming album comes on the heels of his new book Secret Songs The Book, a compilation of mini-interviews he conducted with some of his favourite artists from around the world.
Released in partnership with Sapporo Beer after they approached him asking him to undertake a creative project of his choice, the book “was something I thought about for so long,” Hemsworth says. “I just wanted to basically interview a bunch of my favourite artists and ask them all five or six of the same questions. And kind of find where the relation is between all these different artists—whether they're in Australia or China or Norway, it doesn't really matter—just finding that middle ground, I guess. [That’s] kind of the theme in my life, maybe.”
In North America, he is straddling the thin, indecipherable line between homegrown success and big league fame. But overseas, he’s already reached celebrity status which, he says, is still a little weird to digest sometimes.
“People react differently to music and to what they're a fan of in different countries and it’s amazing to see. I never expected to play Korea or Japan, but to go there a few times and to see the same faces over and over—the fans over there really go the extra mile, and give you gifts and make sure they know exactly what you like and go and buy it and bring it to the show, so it’s really next level in that way. […] It’s overall a very strange feeling.”
But when asked if he gets starstruck himself, Hemsworth, who largely credits the internet (specifically SoundCloud and Twitter) for the level of social networking and success he’s been able to achieve over the past number of years, says he’s always been more of a fan than a musician. “It’s still weird for me to approach people to work with them,” he tells me over the phone, pacing and eating tortilla chips. “It’s hard not to just fan out while you’re trying to be, like, ‘hey I’ll produce something for you.’ I feel like everybody I've worked with, at some point, I’m kind of freaking out a bit at the beginning of sessions because I’m just a fan first, really.”
Canadian singer-songwriter Daniela Andrade, who has a more than healthy fan-following herself, started working with Hemsworth two years ago through Lawless’ connection, however she’s only ever worked with Hemsworth online. “I have to admit I’ve never actually met him in person,” she says, adding that their cyberspace collaborations have only existed via email. “However, Ryan’s impression makes waves that have met my ears in many different ways. People say great things about him. That his demeanour is shy and his work ethic is admirable. I find it really interesting how everyone I’ve met in the music and in the film industry say the same things about him—his kindness and his shyness.”
Hemsworth is always searching for ways to reinvent himself. And it makes sense. Cultivating a career in one of the most competitive, ever-evolving and volatile technological landscapes (let alone technological musical landscapes) that’s ever existed, can lend itself to the odd intimidation.
“I think at the end of the day, people really notice when you're trying something and when you're committing to something that feels right to you. So I try to always just stay in my own lane, whatever that is at the time.”
“I guess everything at the core, it’s still about finding new sounds—whether it’s new producers from different countries or new singers, or just in my own production. I feel pretty lucky that I can kind of still be in the position I'm in. I know the internet moves so fast and people’s interests change so quickly nowadays, but I'm still surviving. Which I never really expected to be at this age—making music—so I should be happy.”
Hillary Windsor is a writer living in Halifax. She went to journalism school with Ryan and they both went on to lead very successful, almost identical careers. Follow her on Twitter.