INTERVIEW: Electronica songwriter James Hersey on the end of coronavirus quarantine in Berlin

James Hersey

James Hersey, Courtesy: Tori Whitworth.

On the 12-minute bike ride between his studio and his apartment in Berlin, electronica musician James Hersey is starting to see signs that Germany is about to loosen its coronavirus quarantine regulations. It’s April 17 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has set May 4—“may the fourth be with you,” he smirks—as the official day when restrictions are to be lightened. There are already more people out; chatting outside their doors; a couple of people playing basketball at a park on Hersey’s route.

James Hersey

James Hersey, Courtesy: Linde Dorenbos.

“So, it is already loosening up. It might be too loose,” Hersey said in a call from his studio; an antique rug he got from his father and his two gold records, including the one he shares with Kygo and Dillon Francis, hang behind him. “Yesterday, there were eight guys playing basketball. And I’m like, ‘Do you read the news?’”

In Europe, Germany is seen as the nation having the most success battling coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness it causes.

“There have been really good results because people were very disciplined with themselves,” Hersey said. “That doesn’t mean that it can’t still go off the rails, because it is a big country. … I’m being as careful as possible.”

James Hersey, Berlin, Germany

James Hersey’s basement studio in Berlin, Germany along the river Spree. Courtesy.

Still, the quicker-than-most recovery has meant that Hersey could leave the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and go into his basement-level studio in a historic complex along the Spree River, across from the city’s Mercedes Benz Arena. After the Berlin Wall came down, someone bought the entire building for DM 70,000 (Deutschemarks), which at the time came to $10,000. It houses studios for numerous artists and producers in a city known for its electronic music scene. When he goes out in public, he wears a mask, which is now also required in parts of the U.S.

“It’s unbelievable what we’re living through, huh?” he said.

James Hersey considers himself lucky. He makes his living primarily as a songwriter and recording artist. His income comes from having his songs played at clubs, or grocery stores. He’s got an album on the way, but had already planned to release it after the summer. He had only a handful of shows over the summer that he’s working on rescheduling. He and other artists in his position are fortunate because the streaming of his songs has actually increased.

But it’s a different story for musicians who depend on playing live shows. Both Austria and Germany have announced that no large events will be held through the end of August, at the earliest.

The drummer with whom Hersey tours is used to playing 150 shows a year.

“What is he going to do this year? He needs that money to survive,” he said. “I also wouldn’t want to be a new artist right now, trying to get a break and have a couple shows and get in front of people. … A lot of bands and artists are really scratching their heads about how to continue with their live career.”

Q&A: James Hersey on Germany successfully battling the spread of coronavirus

Statistically, it looks very good right now in Germany. It seems that a lot of young people got infected. The people that are infected aren’t getting into that critical state. You can’t say this for the U.K. or the U.S., unfortunately. There was very clear communication from the beginning and our chancellor. She studied physics in college. She’s a highly intelligent woman who understands when something’s happening and to what degree she needs to communicate with people. I feel really comfortable here because from the beginning, she made very clear rules; whereas, in the U.S. and the U.K., you have this sort of blundering around.

Hersey’s forthcoming sophomore LP will be called Fiction and, as of this conversation, Hersey and his producer Will Hicks (Ed Sheeran, Beyonce) had just a final couple of the album’s 10 to 13 songs to complete.

“I would have already spent another three weeks with Will in the U.K., but I couldn’t go. … But because I’ve been able to arrange stuff at home, I’m sending him parts, and he’s going to then translate them without me in the room,” Hersey said, playing demos of a couple of his new songs, with rich-sounding acoustic guitar, strings and synthetic trap percussion.

The two will complete as much as they can through email and shared drives, and release the album sometime after the summer.

“Hopefully there’ll be good news by then,” he said.

Until then, he’s been spending much of his time by going online, playing for fans, answering questions and having some honest conversations. His live-streaming has included making up songs off real-time comments on Facebook Live, and learning other artists’ songs—by fan suggestion—and performing them for fans on the spot.

“This morning … someone suggested their favorite song, “Cringe,” by Matt Maeson. Really nice tune, and I’d never heard it,” he said. “I just put it on my laptop, played a little bit of audio, learned the vocal melody, learned the chords and then very quickly was able to recite it back to them.”

Hersey has tried to keep a strict schedule under quarantine, which has included performing for fans first thing in the morning while nursing a cup of coffee, to get himself out of bed. Then he’d go for a walk to get fresh air and give himself a reason to change into something different and separate home life from work life.

Q&A: On the fear of getting COVID-19

We have the pollen coming now; it’s everywhere in spring, and then you sort of feel a scratchiness, and then you have a bit of cough. I don’t think I’ve had it yet, which I have mixed feelings about. There is certainly an element of fear as a singer because if you do, by some horrible chance, get a serious case, you can change the way your voice sounds forever and the way your lungs function.

“I still need some degree of separation, and it also motivates you to get your ass in the shower and put on something and take off something when you come home—so you’re not just like rolling out of bed with your laptop,” he said.

After the walk, he’ll get to work on administrative and music work. And while he’s writing a lot, he’s steering clear of the current predicament as subject matter. He believes that after coronavirus is defeated, people won’t want to relive these times in song.

“I don’t think people should be making it too lighthearted, the whole thing,” he said. “If it fits into your music … into your vibe, then go ahead and write about it; write about isolation; write about loneliness and missing each other. I’ve written a lot of songs about that, but I don’t think I’m going to be writing a new one now just because I’m home a lot.”

Through the entire experience—at the time of this conversation Hersey was on Day 33 of quarantine—he has worked to remain positive, both for himself and for fans. In the early days, he shared what he’d heard on the news about the progress of COVID-19 and the battle against it. He stopped after the world passed 1 million cases.

Q&A: On his new green hair

For the last couple years, I’ve been trying to find a way to express something that’s inside me that I didn’t see when I looked in the mirror. I felt like I wanted people to feel when they saw me and not just when they spoke with me. … I was walking past the mirror and not recognizing, not seeing my soul. I just kind of saw my body, and now I feel like I found something that was already inside me and discovered it and uncovered it for everyone. … I’m going to be the green guy for now.

James Hersey has been physically on the move for much of his adult life, living in Holland, New York, Austin, Los Angeles and London. The quarantine has forced him to remain in one place for more than three weeks, for the first time in years. He needed the constant change of scenery to keep his creativity going.

Instead, he’s tried to keep busy by trying new things like painting and reading more. But is concerned about people living in tight quarters in places like New York. In his time in the Big Apple, Hersey lived in a tiny room, from which he had to get out every day.

His fans, meanwhile, have “massively” helped his own mental health.

“I’m getting messages every day from people, whether it’s responding to something that I post in a story, a little bit of music, or a joke that maybe not everybody gets, and responding, especially in the live streams,” he said. “We do really all have to get through this together. As much as it’s sad every day, I’m looking toward standing in the light.”

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