Hayden James Is Getting His Moment in the Sun With New Album: Interview

Cybele Malinowski
Hayden James

When Hayden James arrives on the rooftop of a posh West Hollywood hotel, he immediately goes in for the hug. The producer is warm that way.

This secluded, ivy-covered retreat feels far from the midday rush of Sunset Boulevard, and it’s even farther from home for James, who hails from Sydney, 7,500 miles away. Nearby, hotel guests tan poolside as indie music trickles from hidden speakers; rather than bake in the sun in his black t-shirt, James opts for a cozy, canopied booth filled with plush pillows.

Over panzanella salad, he says he stays at this hotel whenever he visits Los Angeles, which can be up to five times a year, mostly for short songwriting trips. He’s thinking about moving his family here permanently as soon as next year. “I think it’s really important career-wise to be here,” he says. Given his success here in the last few years, his observation feels right. 

Years before James started making music as a solo artist, he came up as a DJ at a small venue called Candys Apartment in Sydney’s famed Kings Cross district. The hotspot holds many great memories for him, including late nights performing alongside then-emerging and now headlining artists like Alison Wonderland, Emoh Instead and Golden Features.

“My set would start at 5 a.m. in the back room that held 30 people,” James says. “We did that for a couple of years -- it was amazing and so much fun. We were very young so we could just do it, bounce off the walls and be back the next day. I’d probably die if I did that now.”

Candys was also where James met Jen. His now-wife is currently back in Sydney, but her presence is felt when he shows off a new tattoo on his forearm—his infant son’s first and middle name inked in her delicate handwriting.

“You don’t know until you have a kid just how much you can love something—I don’t really know this guy yet, you know?” he says. “And he’s just the most amazing thing in my life. But also I’m scared shitless, because it’s my job to shape and mold this guy and make him into a beautiful human being.”

Becoming a father is a lot to process, and the life event is coming in tandem with another major milestone—the release of his debut album. Between Us came out on June 14 via James’ longtime label, the venerable Australian imprint Future Classic. The LP radiates a distinctly Los Angeles energy, rippling with a warmth and breeziness that feels suited for walking along the Santa Monica Pier, cruising the Pacific Coast Highway or just lounging on a WeHo rooftop.

James wrote much of the album in L.A. with that versatility in mind: something just as welcome in a club as at a restaurant at 2 p.m. It also helps that L.A. and its perpetually excellent weather are similar to his stomping grounds in Sydney, where he resides less than a hundred feet from Manly Beach. “It’s very peaceful, very summery," he says. "The environment I live in has a huge role in shaping not only my music, but my life as well.”

But there’s another special element to this album. Like Stan Lee with Marvel, or Daft Punk with Interstella 5555, James created a complete universe for this project. Between Us paces listeners through the stages of a fictional couple’s relationship from love (“Nowhere to Go”) to loss (“Between Us”) to renewed hope (“Weightless”). The album sounds like summer, capturing both the euphoria of staying out all night with no consequences and the subsequent malaise of sunset on the Sunday before vacation ends. It’s a push-and-pull love story, a bit like Romeo & Juliet if that couple had iPhones, cars and a happier ending. James spent years perfecting the components of this album, making each song a chapter to a larger story while also on his own journey of figuring out who he wanted to be as an artist.

Here on the roof, he's silent for a moment as he considers what he’s become: “I think I’m that person now, honestly. Looking at the record and what I wanted to create, it’s exactly what I wanted. That’s why I’m not nervous… I’m excited more than anything for people to hear the music, because I’ve been true to myself.”

James is a romantic at heart. He made what would become his first solo single, 2013’s “Permission to Love,” after asking his now-wife’s parents for her hand in marriage. Slow, silky and groovy, the song’s only vocal refrain —“I give permission to love”—emotes a poignance even for those who don’t know the backstory. “I think I proposed not long after [I made the track] actually, but I couldn’t show her until I did, because she would’ve asked, ‘What’s that mean?’”

Audiences were feeling the love as well. “Permission to Love” reached well beyond Australia, garnering overseas coverage from dance media outlets and topping the HypeM charts. After releasing his self-titled debut EP in August 2013, almost 16 months passed before James returned with a new song, “Something About You” in December 2014. The lyric-heavy track presented a more polished version of James and started solidifying him as more of a pop-dance artist than solely a DJ/producer aiming for the dancefloor.

Listeners latched onto the single on Spotify, where it currently has over 60 million streams, and even dance tastemaker Pete Tong and music industry scribe Bob Lefsetz shouted him out. “Something About You,” as well as its 2016 successor, “Just A Friend,” were nominated for ARIA Awards, Australia’s version of the Grammys.

As streaming numbers skyrocketed, so did the pressure to maintain, if not exceed the expectations of managers, fans and James himself. He points to his perfectionist streak when explaining why his release schedule was so sporadic. “It wasn’t until recently that I learned how to let go mentally and just let it flow, and work on more than just one song. After ‘Something About You,’ it was really hard to think about what was next.”

What actually happened was as equally hard to anticipate. When Katy Perry’s team reached out to ask if James could fly out to Santa Barbara, just north of Los Angeles, to write with her, his manager assumed it was a prank. It took them a week to realize the invite was legit, at which point James prepared roughly 40 demos and jetted across the Pacific to work with Perry at her home. The pair sat down for dinner each evening before heading to the studio until early morning. “We wrote so much music. She’s incredible, and so hands on,” James says. Two months and another trip later, they’d finished three or four songs, one of which, “Déjà Vu,” landed on Perry's 2017 LP Witness.

The experience left James with a lot more than just a co-writing credit on a high-profile pop album. His time with Perry gave him a new creative imperative: to be quick with his work. Inspired by their sessions, he now uses a sand timer while writing in the studio each morning. The process might clash with his innate perfectionism, but at week’s end there are seven new ideas, any of them potential hits when treated with James’ careful touch.

“Now that the album’s out there’s a weight off my shoulders, and I just want to create even more now,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”

A lot can change in six years. In 2013, James was a new Future Classic signee watching hometown peers ascending to the dance music stratosphere. Now he's feeling the love as a husband, father and artist finally poised for his own breakthrough moment.

“To see where people like Flume have gone... I’m from that place, and I think this is kind of my beginning, my launchpad," he says. "This is just the start for me.”

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