Ryan Hemsworth has spent the past several years doing exactly what a young producer working on the increasingly blurry border between dance music and hip-hop should do to advance his career: playing for an adoring underground fan base while also booking bigger and bigger EDM festivals and assembling a portfolio of high-profile remixes for clients like Cat Power and Frank Ocean.
According to the producer playbook, his next move should have been to cash in all the professional capital he’s accumulated to pack an album of expansive, dance-friendly pop and rap with enough guest stars to attract attention from mainstream listeners. Instead, next week he’ll release Alone for the First Time, a collection of subdued pop songs with a decidedly organic feel, created alongside cult artists like Dawn Golden and The GTW who many listeners have probably never heard of. It’s a decision he’s extremely happy with.
“When I started telling people I had a new project,” he says, “people were like, ‘Oh, who do you have featured on it?’ I could tell they were anticipating some big-name rapper or something, but I don’t really look at features that way. I want them to be the perfect fit for that song, and for them to have emotion in their voice that fits the tone of my production. They aren’t all huge names, but they’re amazing artists to me, and they’re all my favorite artists right now.”
Most of the songs on Alone for the First Time take more time to sink into than Hemsworth’s past releases, which leaned more on the Timbaland template of catchy beats topped with addictively weird noises. On the other hand they’re also more interesting, and boast better build quality. “Up until this point,” he says, “it’s more of a producer mindset, which is like ‘making a beat,’ quote-unquote, whereas I’m trying to make more songs now—real songs you can listen to on headphones when you’re going to work.”
Hemsworth calls the album a “weirder project” than his past releases, but it also has plenty of pop appeal, albeit of a more patient sort than before. He credits that—and the album’s greater reliance on human-played instruments—to the unexpected influence of acts like Postal Service and The Radio Dept. who played a formative role in his musical education but have over the years lost much of their cool.
“I’ve been wanting to play guitar on more tracks and have more live drums,” he says, “and basically go back to the stuff I loved in high school and junior high when I was first starting to get into rock music.”
As one of the brighter lights on the cutting edge of pop music, Hemsworth’s embrace of guitars and drums just might lead to a rock renaissance among tastemakers. “The funny thing to me,” he says, “is that a lot of producers I tour with or am friends with, when I talk to them I realize that everyone started out on guitar or drums and just slowly became a producer or DJ or whatever. I think kind of deep down a lot of us still care a lot about all that cheesy rock stuff that we grew up on and cared about in middle school.”
Nov. 6 | The Music Farm | Columbia, SC
Nov. 7 | The Basement | Atlanta, GA
Nov. 8 | Exit/In | Nashville, TN
Nov. 9 | FunFunFun Fest | Austin, TX
Nov. 11 | The Sinclair | Cambridge, MN
Nov. 12 | Higher Ground | South Burlington, VT
Nov. 13 | Double Door | Chicago, IL
Nov. 14 | Le Belmont | Montreal, QC
Dec. 6 | Neumos | Seattle, WA