We live in a rapidly evolving social media world of instant communication and snap judgements. A world where everyone’s lives are online and secrets are a thing of the past. Where each new meeting is a chance to document it for others, or where new friends and lovers can instantly be background checked via social media profiles. It’s this world your new favourite singer James Hersey explores on his new EP Pages, shining a light on how this new instant gratification can co-exist with instinctive human emotions. The EP is led by the unshakeable new single Miss You and Coming Over, Hersey’s delicate, summer-tinged ode to delayed desires, a song that’s since taken on a whole new life in the dance world. Initially remixed by Filous (18.5m Spotify streams and counting), it’s since been subtly reworked by Kygo & Dillon Francis (a staggering 58m Spotify streams and counting), who gave the original’s spacious production a delicate electronic revamp. Its success has led to dance legend Tiesto offering up a remix and Hersey touring Europe with Kygo himself. For Hersey this isn’t a case of his songs being taken out of context, but more the remixes being an extension of his own sound. “My voice is always going to be the line running through it all,” he says. “My dream is to be able to do whatever I want in the moment and then people will be like ‘that’s James Hersey’ because they’ll recognise the voice.”
That voice was given time to shine from a young age. Born and raised in Austria’s capital Vienna, Hersey’s childhood was filled with music. “There are diaries my mother kept when I was a kid and she writes in one of them from when I was three-years-old that I have a really nice voice and that I love to sing.” He smiles at the memory. “They had me and my siblings doing music lessons from when we were kids.” These guitar lessons were augmented by some impromptu family music concerts. “My dad played guitar so when we were kids he’d play us folk songs. We even had little hippy drum circles when we were kids, just me, my brother and my dad.” The house also reverberated to the sounds of Bob Marley, Grateful Dead and, in the mid-nineties, hip-hop. “Dad loved playing Cypress Hill and stuff in the car even though it wasn’t his music necessarily. He just wanted to show us, you know.” For Hersey himself, Michael Jackson was King. “I’d practice the dance moves and let my hair grow long,” he laughs.
Music also played a big part in his school life. As well as guitar lessons and obsessive guitar playing, he was also part of the school choir. This was juxtaposed with being the drummer in a punk band. “I played my first show with them when I was 11 and we rattled through five songs in ten minutes.” By the age of 16 the band had disintegrated, as most punk bands do. A short-lived stint as one of three songwriters and singers in his next band was then followed by him going it alone. In fact, it’s really always just been him and his guitar. “Literally before the teacher came into class I would be there playing guitar until they told me to stop and then when class finished I’d play it until they told me to go to the next class,” he says. “Then I failed that year and my parents were asking me what I wanted to do and it was only then that I realised I could do music.” Even his first ever recorded song was just him. Well him and Marilyn Manson. “I always understood the importance of verse and chorus and song structure. The first thing I ever recorded was a cover of Marilyn Manson’s version of Sweet Dreams when I was 10-years-old. I thought the first verse was so nice and I hated the parts where he started screaming and the heavy guitars, I just loved the riff. I would also make mixtapes with my favourite songs on them and then sing in-between on acoustic guitar, but most of those tapes are with girls now.”
Feeling hemmed in musically by Vienna and it’s reliance on its classical heritage, Hersey knew from a young age that he needed to leave in order to make the music he wanted to make. “I spent a lot of time in London, but that was super expensive and over-saturated, so then I moved to New York and Austin, Texas, just getting rooms month to month,” he remembers. “Visited a lot of friends trying to find something better because Vienna’s more of a classical music centre of the world.” By 2010 he’d started playing live as James Hersey, with the seeds of Coming Over hitting him suddenly during soundcheck in Germany. “The chord progression is what started that song,” he notes. “We were playing a show in Germany and in soundcheck I was playing this riff and I looked up at my tour manager and he looked at me and was like ‘what is that?!’. So he and I sat down backstage and I was vibing off this chord progression and he was like ‘you need to write something immediately’. Then the month after that I got back home and relaxed and was able to write some lyrics.”
From there the song took on a life of its own. The story goes that DJ and producer Filous’ sister sent him the song as part of a long playlist of new stuff he might like. Instantly obsessed, Filous stayed up all night before his well-earned vacation to finish the remix, his manager contacting Hersey while Filous was away to tell him the remix existed and that it was about to placed on a hugely influential YouTube channel. Then things got really weird. “So then Kygo’s manager asked me to go in and write with Kygo after hearing the remix and the original. So I got in contact directly with Kygo and he asked for any stems I could send so I sent him Coming Over. A few days later Dillon Francis’ Snapchat story is like ‘we have a new hit’ and it’s my voice and chorus in the background. I thought that was super cool.” The counterpoint to Coming Over is Hersey’s next single, Miss You, a similarly spacious and no less effortlessly captivating future classic, with nods to the dance world. As with all the songs on Pages, it’s deeply personal and deals with this idea of connections between people. “Miss You’s particularly relevant to me because I’m on the road a lot,” Hersey explains. “I have a lot of people in my life, especially female characters, who I just don’t get to see as often as I’d like to. There’s a ping pong between them singing to me and I’m going to miss them when they’re gone.”
Elsewhere on Pages – which was produced by Ed Sheeran collaborator Will Hicks and mixed by Stephen Fitzmaurice (Sam Smith, Disclosure, Wretch 32) – there’s the horn-assisted Tomorrow, inspired in part by Amy Winehouse, the lilting Everybody’s Talking (“it’s an old theme, it’s just that in the last three or five years it’s become so relevant what other people say about your partner or about your new friend”) and the emotional blood-letting of the low-slung title track. “Pages is one of my favourite tracks. I found a postcard that a girl I was seeing at the time had written to herself but from me. There was this special kind of military code for postcards that she learned at some point somewhere, and she wanted to test it, so she addressed the postcard to herself, put on the military code – no stamp – and then wrote ‘much love from the USA’ and signed it with my name. And it worked. I found it and just thought it was so full of meaning – she had wished so much for me to reach out to her when I was on tour and I didn’t.”
Recorded in just ten days, the instinctive Pages EP is full of these lovely little vignettes. Hersey calls his songs “collections of experiences over time”, a typically poetic description for songs that will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever experienced heightened emotions, i.e. everyone. Happy to explore musical genres, utilising that grounding in folk, pop and rock from a young age, Hersey’s songs work in different musical contexts because at the core of them is classic songwriting. Crucially, the thread throughout is always Hersey himself.