We live in a rapidly evolving world where personal connection has given more and more ground to digital communication. It is this world that Austrian-born singer James Hersey explores on his new EP Pages, shining a light on how a modern landscape of instant gratification co-exists with instinctive human emotions.
Recorded in just ten days, Hersey calls his songs "compilations, or culminations 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.
With that in mind, the EP is led by Miss You, a spacious and captivating record with nods to the dance world. As with all the songs on Pages, Miss You is deeply personal and deals with expectation in relationships. "That song's particularly relevant to me because I'm on the road a lot," Hersey explains. "I have a lot of people in my life who I don't get to see as much of as I'd like to."
The counterpoint to Miss You, is Coming Over, Hersey's delicate, summer-tinged ode to delayed desires, a song that has 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 expansive production a powerful electronic revamp. Its success has led to dance legend Tiesto offering up a remix, and Hersey touring Europe with Kygo. For Hersey, the remixes are 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 musically, and for people to recognize my voice."
That voice was given time to shine from a young age. Born and raised in Austria's capital Vienna in a house filled with music, Hersey took guitar lessons with his siblings and participated in impromptu family jams. "My dad played folk songs for us when we were kids." The house reverberated to the sounds of Bob Marley, James Taylor, Grateful Dead and, in the mid-nineties, hip-hop. For Hersey himself, Michael Jackson was King. "I practiced all his dance moves and let my hair grow long," he laughs.
Music also played a big part in his school life, as Hersey was also part of the choir. This was juxtaposed with being the drummer in a punk band. "I played my first show with them when I was 11 – we smashed through five songs in ten minutes." By the age of 16 the band had disintegrated and James felt compelled to go at it alone, just him and his guitar. "The first thing I ever recorded - on cassette tape - was a cover of Marilyn Manson's version of Sweet Dreams when I was 10-years-old. I loved the first verse vocal and guitar interplay, but hated when he started screaming. I just loved that opening riff. In those days I made mixtapes of my favorite tracks and would play love songs in-between on acoustic guitar."
Feeling hemmed in musically by Vienna and its 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. "I spent a lot of time in London, but that was so expensive and over-saturated. I tried New York and Austin, just getting rooms month to month for a year," he remembers. By 2010 he'd started performing songs as James Hersey, with the seeds of Coming Over hitting him suddenly during soundcheck in Germany, early 2014. "The chord progression is what triggered that song," he notes. "We were at soundcheck in Nürnberg and I played this riff, looked up at our tour manager staring at me like 'what is that?!'. He sat down with me backstage as I was vibing off those chords - he couldn't stop telling me 'you need to write something on this immediately'."
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 things he might like to work on. Instantly obsessed, Filous stayed up all night to finish the remix which garnered even more attention after it was featured on a hugely influential YouTube channel. "Kygo's manager asked me to go in and write with Kygo after hearing the remix and the original. I got in contact directly with Kygo and he asked for any stems I could send ahead, so I sent Coming Over. A few days later Dillon Francis' Snapchat story is him dancing to an amazing beat with my song as the hook! That was unreal."
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. "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."
Hersey's instinctive Pages EP is full of these lovely little vignettes. Happy to explore musical genres, utilizing his grounding in folk, pop and rock from a young age, his songs work in different musical contexts because at the core of them lies a deep, intuitive passion for classic songwriting. Crucially, the thread throughout is always Hersey himself.