Meeting up with someone at Grand Central Station is always an adventure. No matter the time of day, this NYC landmark is endlessly filled with tourists, wandering around the concourse, looking for their train, looking up at the ceiling, or like me - looking for someone. This old train station has the potential to be an anxious nightmare if you don't know where you're headed. Our plan was to meet at a cafe called the Great Northern. I ran around looking for the cafe - but was unaware of just how many restaurants were in this building. Thankfully, James Hersey is impossible to overlook. Sitting at a small cafe table, sipping his coffee - with his guitar case in arms reach, the Austrian-born songwriter seemed to be soaking it all in.
One of the first things that you notice upon meeting Hersey is how incredibly tall he is. Shooting up out of his chair to greet me with a handshake and a smile, he immediately towered over me. But within minutes, his immense stature was counterbalanced by his warm, inviting vibe. James Hersey has steadily become a name to know in the past few years. His recent popularity is, in-part, the product of his music landing in the hands of all-star EDM producers like Kygo, Dillon Francis, and filous. These DJ's remixed and reworked his melodies into hit dance tracks, which then exploded across the internet, bringing Hersey into the spotlight. The most notable remix of one of his songs was "Coming Over" which Dillon Francis and Kygo turned into an electronic dance masterpiece.
His next hit came in 2016 when he released "Miss You," a song that talks about the pain of leaving people behind when you hit the road. It acted as the first single off his upcoming EP, which he recorded in 10 days with producer Will Hicks (Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen). The song shows that he will be a force to be reckoned with, not only as a singer and a guitarist, but as an EDM producer in his own right. While he seemed excited that his music was reaching so many people, this did not seem to be the original plan. And when I was given a preview of his EP, I realized that he is now doing things his own way.
Throughout our conversation, amid the white noise of Grand Central Station, I got the sense that James was still a DIY artist at his core. We spoke at one point about when he lived on a couch in Brooklyn a few years back, "I lived there for like two months and ran out of money because it was New York City. I wasn't working because I was like 'I'm just gonna be famous.' I just played open mics and organized shows." This story stayed the same for every city he lived in, whether it was LA, Austin, or London. Hersey has traveled around the world for years, connecting with musicians and music scenes everywhere he's gone.
And it's hard not to connect with James Hersey. From our conversation, it was apparent that his eager charm was based in a deep passion for his work and the people around him. At one point, after he discovered we were both Cancers, he immediately high-fived me and declared that I would be "best friends" with his publicist because "she's a Virgo." Then he realized we were set to be born on the same day, July 4th, and he recounted the story of his birth to me, "I wasn't there yet and my dad had to leave on the 16th. So my mom induced medically and I was born on the 15th. She was so sorry because my whole childhood and youth I was like, super urgent. Everything was always urgent." It now made sense to me why we were meeting in Grand Central of all places. James must have felt at home around all of this urgency and motion.
JACK LABBE: Where's your home base at the moment?
JAMES HERSEY: Right now I live in Berlin. I grew up in Vienna, Austria but I moved around a lot, starting in 2011. I lived everywhere, London, L.A., Austin. I lived here in New York, too, but now I'm in Berlin - first apartment since 2010? Started in August, so I'm pretty fresh in the "having a place" thing. But Berlin is amazing... The last bastion of anarchy!
JL: Vienna has always been a capital for arts and music, do you think Vienna has any influence on what you're doing now?
JH: Certainly early on. My parents always wanted me to have music lessons, and I started playing the cello and playing piano, and that could have been an influence of the city. But also my parents are both very musical. Everybody was always singing.
JL: Have you always written your songs in English?
JH: Only in English. I speak German as well, my mother's Austrian and my father's American. But I was in an American school so I was writing stories as a kid, writing poems and lyrics and everything was always in English. They asked me to do a jingle once in German and I tried, but I gave up pretty quick. For me the tradition of songwriting with guitars and even producing beats and stuff like that to me is an American thing.
JL: Who would you say your main influences are for songwriting?
JH: I really loved James Taylor, Bob Dylan... I guess all the Beatles stuff was very important for me to learn about form and melody and like how can you use certain parts, chord wise, to open the door to new emotions, and then take advantage of that lyrically. Then when John Mayer was doing Continuum stuff with heavy beats and cool guitar parts, I heard that and just thought I would take it one step further.
JL: Listening to your music, and the remixes that people have made of your songs are very electronic and dance influenced, but you're also a guitar player --
JH: Yeah, first and foremost. I write everything on guitar, if something doesn't work just guitar and vocals, it's not gonna work in a production setting either.
JL: So tell me about that writing process?
JH: The best songs that I write come off of amazing chord progressions on the guitar. But one of my favorite tracks off the EP is one that is based off a poem - and then I came up with a chord progression afterwards. Sometimes I'll just have a hook in my head and I will just sing it into my phone, like in an airport in Oslo. Then I'll sit down at the hotel and try to cut something. I like to work alone as much as possible. Like "Miss You" happened in two days and I only slept like four hours in those two days, because I had to really focus to get the production done.
JL: Tell me about the the experience of having someone remix one of your songs?
JH: I wrote "Coming Over" in April of 2014, I didn't think it was very good. I wanted to show my label but I was embarrassed because it was short and didn't make much sense. So I made a video for it, put it online, and there's a video of me on a rooftop that a friend filmed. I didn't have any money, so I gave him a GoPro that someone had given me for Christmas and that's how I paid him. It got some views and then this kid Filous out of Vienna found it and did a remix of it.
So then Kygo's manager heard that, called up my manager and said let's put these guys in the studio. Then Kygo wrote me an email like "Do you have anything you could send ahead?" and I had a pretty cool recording that I sent him stems of. Then 3-4 days later they made a remix that I saw on Dillon Francis' snapchat, where he was freaking out like, "We just got the new hit!" And I was like that's my track! But I'd never written for anybody else and it was never my intention to. It was just kinda taken from that video... I don't think people should sing somebody else's lyrics, and I would certainly not sing something that somebody else wrote, unless it's a cover.
JL: You're putting out a new EP, are there any themes?
JH: Yeah, certainly. The themes have been sung about before, love is always the frontier of where we're at in our consciousness. Everyone's trying to figure out, "what does it mean to fall in love with each other?" And in the past 5 years, a lot of relationships, even friendships, have changed because of our social media addictions. I have all of my friends, and girls I have a crush on, girls who have a crush on me, and even my family all in this black box [holding up his iPhone]. So I wrote songs just about how things have changed. How it's important to be close to one another nowadays. How it's important not to judge people by the very little information that you find online.
JL: It's become such a huge part of our lives. Do you feel a responsibility to keep your lyrics honest to what you're going through?
JH: I don't go to the studio 3 days a week and try to write hits. I literally live my life. I live in Berlin - I'm out at dive bars every night meeting new people and hanging out and going clubbing. Just having fun. Then when a song comes around, man, a song comes around. I don't believe you should be like "We gotta write songs and sound like Milky Chance." That's not music man, that's business. That's industry. I think if the charts reflected what people were actually feeling and writing, it'd be a much more interesting landscape.
JL: Where is one of your favorite places to play?
JH: When I was on tour with Milky Chance, we played Dallas which was really cool. Generally [venues] in the US. Americans just get it completely. I feel like they understand every word I'm saying. They really understand it's emotional and supposed to be authentic. It's very important to me to sing songs that are honest. I really love playing in the states in general. The House of Blues in Boston, that was also really cool.
JL: Oh yeah? That's where I'm from.
JH: Yeah? My dad's from the Boston area. His family was from Melrose. He's a science teacher, a thinking man. My mom's a journalist, my older sister actually studied as well and became a journalist.
JL: So she's a writer - do you think that influenced you and your process?
JH: Definitely! My mom always put a very high value on the fact that we speak well in German and English, and not like go into accents or anything. To be able to articulate. And also in writing she would correct and edit our writing.
JL: She's not editing your music?
JH: No. [laughs] But she loves the lyrics, because I love to take complicated thoughts and bring them down to the essence so that everyone can understand them.
JL: Do you have any favorite moments from last year? Were there any highlights from 2016? Or low points?
JH: The whole "Miss You" moment was really crazy, like writing it and getting called into the studio right away. Flying out to England and getting picked up in a Porche! The A&R guy up there understood the moment and was like, "I got a Porsche from my dad's friend." The studio was an epic countryside barn, it was Ed Sheeran's producer and friend Will Hicks. He did my EP and was a really cool guy.
JL: You mentioned earlier that you were inspired by hip-hop, which artist were you into?
JH: As a kid I listened to Cypress Hill and Tupac. I still listen to Nas' Illmatic on my phone. My best friend in high school was winning competitions scratching and I was a punk. I had a mohawk and played in exclusively punk bands for seven years as a kid. Drums, bass, guitar, screaming into the microphone and drinking beer. And was writing like cute little songs alongside the whole time. I've done a lot of different music.
JL: Punk's a very political genre, do you ever consider taking a political stance with you music?
JH: No, I don't want to, but it's important to me that people are close to one another. I did a refugee benefit in Austria last year, but I don't really care who you vote for: left or right. The point is that people should be where they're safe and where they're comfortable. Just because we're born here does give us the right to tell other people they're not allowed to come.