An artist’s relationship with identity can be a tenuous one, particularly for producers, who have the option of making a name for themselves without ever having to leave the house. Burial remained anonymous until last year, Jacques Greene keeps himself as hidden as it is possible to be without performing in a balaclava, and then there’s PC Music, a collective that came along and proved that it’s totally plausible to land a deal with XL by packaging yourself as a fictional energy drink. But regardless of approach, an artist’s identity is usually either a conceptual projection or an extension of the self. In the case of imaginative beatmaker Ryan Hemsworth, it is very much the latter. And now he’s found himself at the centre of a new wave of digital producers approaching music without compromise, creating a Soundcloud generation built on the kind of DIY attitudes typically associated with underground punk.
“I’ve been watching a lot of Downton Abbey lately,” he tells me from across the table in his hotel room. He’s wearing a t-shirt with the artwork from Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other emblazoned across the front and socks with dogs on. “I usually hate period dramas but the gossip is great. It’s super digestible TV, like Sex & The City. You can watch an entire season in one sitting and not even notice it.”
Whether he’s talking about TV shows in interviews, tweeting props at Neil Buchanan or blending blink-182 into a BBC mix, Ryan Hemsworth’s online presence and musical output are almost like two halves of the same coin. Both are incredibly intimate, highly personalised, and inclusive to the point where it’s possible to feel like you know him before you’ve even attempted eye contact. Although these feelings of familiarity do sometimes have a way of spilling over the boundaries of social media. “I talk to people after shows and sometimes they weirdly know a lot of stuff through following my Instagram or something,” he says, “They’ll come up and give me a bottle of blue Gatorade or a certain type of cookie that I posted about a year ago.”
Borderline-catfish though it may be, it takes a certain kind of artist to attract that level of devotion. You have to be so open and genuine that, particularly in their darkest hours, people often feel more of a connection with you than with their own parents. Ultimately, all Ryan Hemsworth (current Twitter name “big hero 6 god”) does is share the stuff he likes as well as the stuff he’s doing, which makes him feel like a real, relatable human being. An artist with album artwork as a profile picture and a feed exclusively filled with praise RTs and iTunes links just doesn’t quite resonate in the same way. And though he may not be the only artist approaching social media like a regular person, he definitely has a quality that people from all walks of life seem to find loveable. Maybe it’s because he does things like announce tours by running around in the snow with a dog but, as Complex pointed out, he’s “like that person at school no one has a bad word to say about.”
It’s partially off the back of this loveable personality that Hemsworth has been able to push his musical interests through a passion-project-cum-record label Secret Songs, which lives entirely on Soundcloud. “I’d been doing mixes and stuff for a while and was starting to use that as a way to share my friends’ music that they couldn’t really get out in a big way,” he explains, “Then I was talking to my friend Nina Las Vegas, who’s a Triple J radio presenter, and she said why don’t you just release these songs? I’ve always made my own stuff and I’ve always liked sharing other artists so it made sense to keep growing in that way.”
Since its inception last May, Secret Songs has become a veritable coven of weird undiscovered producers. From the sugary 8-bit aesthetic of Kero Kero Bonito to the the heartstring pulls of Ricky Eat Acid, the label acts as a Hemsworth-brand filter on a database of infinite sound. “I guess as much as I try to keep it balanced and versatile, it’s still what I like. So if people like what I’m putting out then hopefully they can trust it.”
So far, this has lead to the release of 22 singles and two compilations. As the label name suggests, most of the artists were discovered the same way most of us discover all our best obscure shit: in the midst of a digital K-hole, scouring Soundcloud at 3am in a softly-lit fortress of snacks. As a result, the tracks supported by Secret Songs are more like states of mind than compositions. The collections are loosely organised by feeling and named after the hex-code for the colour of the artwork - shh#ffb6c1 and shh#000000, respectively - but generally Hemsworth tries not to be too much of a creative director. “If it’s someone that I’m putting out, I know what they’re gonna do and I trust them. With the compilations I just decide the mood mostly and reach out to ten or twelve producers I know will make a song that sounds really dark and evil or whatever. Everyone always comes back with something crazy. That way it’s a nice surprise for me as well.”
Much like his own releases, Hemsworth’s approach to Secret Songs is to take intimacy and turn it into a shared experience. Throughout our interview, he talks about music he listened to as a teenager (“I’m always going back to emo shit that I loved in high school and trying to fight the temptation to work in those juicy tracks”), his affinity for video game sounds (“The harps in Final Fantasy games are my ear’s favourite thing”) and EarthBound - an RPG in which the player travels the world to collect melodies to defeat an evil alien force. “I love that kind of surreal playful vibe, but how there’s still a darkness to it and it’s also a love story, in a way. It’s encompassing of all these different emotions but also childishness,” he says, referring to the game but at the same time accidentally stumbling upon the perfect analogy for his own music and most of that on Secret Sounds. With each release, Hemsworth invites you play his own private RPG where each level is a slumber party set in a different club and all the bosses are increasingly intense emotions.
The reason for the Hemsworth brand of hyper-personalised intimacy is that he has a large amount of control over what he’s doing, which seems to be a recurring trend with current producers. From Ricky Eat Acid to PC Music, it seems like many young producers are taking DIY ethics typically associated with punk and utilising the internet to apply them to a primarily digital realm. “I think for the most part how I’ve come up has been through my own connections and really trying to reach out to artists myself,” he says, reminiscent of a pre-internet world where teenage misfits would go to punk shows alone to make friends or riot grrrls would put up flyers for meetings as feelers for like-minded people. “Pretty much all my connections started through Twitter and Facebook. My remixes are what really started getting attention and that’s always been me just really fighting to get acapellas from people and getting closer to certain people who can help out or support me in whatever way. I definitely think the internet has helped so many artists to make it on their own instead of needing a huge label or budget.”
Both Secret Songs and Hemsworth’s solo career are examples of a changing market. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the role of management, record labels and the support of massive amounts of cash, though still significant, have shifted in importance. “I think now it’s more of a support system and just filling in the blanks that you can’t on your own,” he suggests, “I guess in a way that’s always been the case but now it’s like the budget and all those things aren’t as necessary. You can shoot a video with no money and put out vinyl with a tiny advance.”
Even so, Secret Songs has taken on all the sentimental traits of the indie record label without necessarily conforming it’s traditional role. “With each single release on Soundcloud I try to have a little note or something that I write for it,” he says, “With the EPs, one of the next ones is going to be this band called Happy Doghouse and I got the main artist to do the sheet music of all the songs so I can release the guitar tabs with the EP. It’s trying to create that personal feeling of when you get vinyl and it’s hand-signed by the artist, but in a digital form through personalised notes, videos, tabs, video games and stuff like that.”
Whether it’s attaching a quote from each artist about their song or exchanging zip files full of music with friends on Facebook “in that old trading cassette tapes kind of way”, there’s a strong sense of community around Secret Songs despite the fact that it exists primarily online. Many of the producers in Hemsworth’s circle will be meeting IRL for the first time at the label's showcase at SXSW next month. “It’s gonna be most of the artists from the first compilation,” he tells me, “which is cool because most of them know each other but they’ve not played together. It’s really exciting for me to take all these people I know work together musically and probably would get along and force them into a room.”
I ask what he would like the label to grow into over time? “A family, I guess. The most fun I’m having on this tour is being able to choose all the openers that make the shows flow better and make more sense musically. I’d like to be able to have more and more control over that type of thing until maybe like I can just start a huge travelling band. Keep it all friends at all times.”
Follow Emma on Twitter.
Ryan Hemsworth's new album Alone For The First Time is out now on Secret Songs / Last Gang.