Toronto-based artist, DJ and musician James Harris (aka Hemingway) is not only an immensely talented producer but in all sincerety, possibly one of the nicest, most down-to-earth dudes in music I've had the pleasure of meeting.
For as long as I've known him, his work has been defined by impeccably mixed productions that run the gamut of dreamy disco house, worldly electronic workouts, fine beats, jazzy chords, and much much more. It's strikingly professional stuff; always well-pronounced and often very, very funky.
This year, he's been busy with a number of projects on the go including his label Cosmic Resonance, but still found time to release a retrospective full-length, Darlings, collecting original work from 2010-2015.
Today, however, it's mostly throwback psychedelic selections on a fiery mix he's brought us called 'Winds of Change'. Indeed, the sounds here sway strongly to and fro, with gusts of heavy grooves and spaced out burners from another time and place.
The featured photo, taken by James' father, could serve to highlight the humid, moody and organic tones of the largely analog recordings found within the mix. We also caught up over a Q&A, so find that and the tracklist below. Thanks for listening.
Can you tell us a bit behind the mix? I found it very transportive, like recorded from some deep, obscure club out of the 80s. You mentioned the thought behind it and its title referred to themes of change and migration?
JH: Haha, that's an apt description (i.e. obscure club out of the 80s!) Having been cooped up in a basement for over a year, I've been yearning to travel far away, and music helps me scratch my escapist itch. I also have this nostalgic love for the golden era of fusion when bands started embracing synthesizers and the level of creativity arrangement-wise was off the charts.
The majority of these songs were found doing deep dives on Discogs (mind my alliteration lol). I like connecting the dots between musicians or engineers that have a consistency to their work. The first track 'Savannah Sunset' by Yoko Katori was found in an obsessive exploration of all of Ryuichi Sakamoto's side projects (and there are MANY). Both he and Akira Inoue (an incredible keyboardist) arranged that record and it might be the smoothest song I've ever heard.
A lot of these tunes also represent musical phases I've had in 2020.. like for a whole month all I listened to was obscure Japanese City Pop, or Portuguese Jazz Funk, or Lovers Rock, or rare Ambient music from cassette only releases (i.e Picture Music). This mix is more or less a hodgepodge of all my influences, but more specifically, songs that gave me goosebumps within the first 10 seconds of hearing them!
As for migration & change, since the pandemic I've focused a lot of my energy on self-improvement after a long bout of self-doubt. I quit smoking weed, started running, took up therapy, began a full time job and moved to the Junction. My life has shifted quite rapidly and it's made me realize just how quickly your perception of time speeds up as you get older. At least that's how I'm feeling in my thirties!
I know we connected before over stuff to listen to while travelling. Can you share any stand-out experiences with a piece of music in the past when you've been away from home?
JH: For sure! I always become obsessive with making playlists before any big trip. I think one of the standouts (which I partially have you to thank for!) was listening to Prisma Sonoro by Alessandro Alessandroni while driving along the coast of Italy. It was one of those perfectly fitting soundtrack moments where I was discovering that album and the sweeping landscapes of Cinque Terre at the same time. Truly magical.
Another experience was listening to 'Hoppípolla' by Sigur Rós while jogging down a mountain side in Japser, Alberta. That was pretty surreal!
I also well up inside with the feels when I hear 'Night Ride Home' by Joni Mitchell, as it was one of those albums my parents would play for us kids on long drives. I have a distinct memory of my brother, sister and I all sleeping on each others' shoulders in the car coming home from a camping trip. It's comforting how much music can help memories last.
How about your own work? It's been a strange and difficult year to say the least but you released a retrospective full-length, Darlings, on Bandcamp. Have you been finding time or feeling inspired to make new music otherwise?
JH: Yeah, I have! It's been a really creative time for me. 'Darlings' was a long time coming, and it felt like shedding my musical skin while revisiting different phases of my life. It felt great to set those tracks free, even if many of them, at least in my mind, are still incomplete.
As for new stuff, I'm slowly picking away at the finishing touches on my next album.. which sounds a lot like this mix in many ways! I've had the pleasure of collaborating with some incredibly talented musicians, like James Baley, Jessica Cho, Chris Evans & Neil Rankin. It's been tough to actually find time to mix however, as my previous apartment wasn't very conducive for intense listening. Especially with two hyperactive kids self-isolating above you every day. But my new place is much quieter, save for the occasional train crossing.
I'm currently working on the debut Body Butter album (the greasy brainchild of Neil Rankin and Chris Evans) which I'm really excited about. And I'm working on a new side project as well called Cydux with more ambient/downtempo sounds. Stay tuned for an EP for that project soon!
In revisiting Darlings, I was reminded from your note on Bandcamp about the AVM rupture you suffered back in 2015. I was wondering if you would be willing to talk more about what happened exactly there and how it's affected your work or life these past years...
JH: Yeah, that was a big gamechanger. Long story short, a tangled ball of veins ruptured in the vision area of my brain, I had brain surgery and lost my lower left field of my vision. It was a very scary time. For me, having a near-death experience like that really shifted my outlook on life.
Initially, I was really depressed about losing part of my sight and struggling to play the keyboard again. But over time, I felt invigorated to really make the most of my time. The incredible thing about that experience is that it made me realize just how adaptable the brain can be. I still occasionally bump into things, but the neuroplasticity of my brain has helped me fill in the gaps and after a few months of healing from the surgery, I was back to navigating big crowds carrying plates of food and even driving again.
I look back at it now and I'm almost glad it happened, as it really has pushed me to make the most of my time. Queue 'How Fragile We Are' by Sting haha.
Tell us about Cosmic Resonance, the label you co-founded. How did that come about? What have been some highlights for you there? And what do you hope to see from it in the future?
JH: Cosmic Resonance initially started as an improvisational performance event that Chris Evans and I put on at various venues in Toronto, like the Holy Oak, Milk Glass and Handlebar. We were just dipping our toes in the indie electronic music scene and quickly discovered the wealth of diverse musical talent in Toronto.
We began noodling out music together and made the album Memoirs, our first release, which we tried to shop around to labels but none of them bit. It was maybe a bit too esoteric? I don't know to be honest haha. So at that point, we both shrugged and were like.. well, why don't we just put it out ourselves? Lo and behold, Cosmic Resonance was born.
The whole ethos that we're pursuing is trying to get artists we know and love in the Toronto underground scene more exposure. It's a snobby world out there and I feel like many labels aren't taking big risks on up and comers. I've found there's a common thread stylistically through a lot of Toronto electronic & jazz music; like techno in Detroit, Toronto's indie bedroom production scene definitely has a vibe. And it's unique, forward-thinking and cosmic. We're really trying to capture that spirit with every release.
We've had the pleasure of working with so many talented artists like Raf Reza (aka Radiant Aura Faculty), Korea Town Acid (Jessica Cho), Smoke & Shadows (Emzy Anne & Curtis Clark), We Turn to Red (Shamanta Chandran), Paulo Sinski Microband (Paul Osinski & Hector E. Alonso Costa), XLEXCIEL (Josh Reichmann) and the roster keeps expanding! We're thrilled to be working with Inner Touch (Nic Fields) and A Hutchie (Aaron Hutchison), both of whom are releasing beautiful records with us this fall.
It's been an incredible adventure thus far and we're really excited about some new projects that we'll be debuting in the months to come. We aren't trying to pigeonhole ourselves sonically, so we're constantly on the lookout for new artists & sounds that don't necessarily conform to any particular genre.
Apart from the label, you've worked with some pretty incredible musicians and groups in the Toronto area. Any collaborations you're particularly proud of? Or even someone you'd be interested in working with someday?
JH: I look back fondly at my collaboration and involvement in the band Tush. Kamilah Apong is a tour de force and an incredible songwriter to work with. She really helped me learn how to really engage with an audience as a musician. Their latest single is hot AF!
I've also had the pleasure of playing with Warren Bray (of Grand Analog) in a group he put together called Roisen; a project inspired by the art of soundtracks. We did a live score to 2001: A Space Odyssey which was an incredibly challenging feat to pull off - especially timing wise! Alongside Warren, we played with his brother Bryan (of the band Gates) who makes incredible dark experimental music, Windsor Johnson (a virtuoso classically trained piano player & composer), Paul Erlichman (a quirky pop savant of the bands Goosebump and Ducks Unlimited), and Mike Duffield (the amazing drummer for Beams). They all have wayyyy more experience musically than I have, so it's been an awesome ride getting to play with these vets!
And most recently, I had the absolute pleasure of collaborating with James Baley. We had played a few shows together when I was in Tush, and I've always been blown away by James' energy and savant-like musicality! We recorded all of his vocals in one day and he was such a joy to work with. He's a total pro in the booth. It was actually really hard for me to decide which takes to use... as he just nailed it every time! We have a cosmic-boogie epic in the works called 'Signal Light' that I'm currently mixing and I couldn't be more excited for it to drop! I'm hoping to do more tunes with him in the near future.
I'd love to do a track with Sui Zhen someday! I really love her style. It's so distinguishably hers.
Okay, last but not least, from one local to another, can you give any favourite Toronto spots? Places you played in the past? Restaurants? Walks?
JH: Well, a lot of my favourite haunts have shut down or changed owners sadly. I really loved the music community that Handlebar has fostered over the years. Great people and an amazing venue to discover local artists. Also, if you're in the East End and you have a penchant for VHS, their sister bar Far Side is a fantastic place to nerd out over some fine beer.
Recently, having moved to the Junction, I've been discovering some great new places. Like Taste Seduction if you're a fan of Jamaican cuisine or the Shacklands Brewery if you're looking for a great low-key patio beer.
Last winter, for almost two weeks I got to crash at my sister's place and look after her adorable black lab, Daniel. Every day we walked along a beautiful trail in the ravine just north of Sherbourne station (close to the dog park). It's a peaceful patch of woods with this epic bridge that juts out of nowhere amidst the trees. It's also close to Rosedale, so there's a lot of interesting modern architecture around there.