Dissecting the beautifully explosive dynamic of Hemm
Juice Webster & Robert Downie have a connection like no other. The music they make together as HEMM is spacious, thoughtful and beautiful in the most pure sense of the word. Pairing Juice‘s knack for writing both lyrics and top lines with Robert‘s keen, meticulous eye for turning her voice into something other, their dynamic is like no other.
They’ve been busy at work readying their debut EP together, and just recently, we were given a taste of what’s to come with the harmonic ‘Hair’. It’s valiantly ambient and simultaneously heartbreaking in its delivery, which is common throughout all of their output thus far.
With their debut festival appearance set to happen at this year’s By The Meadow at the end of March, we gave Robert a buzz to chat how the two met, how the dynamic works and what we can expect of a Hemm festival set.
Obviously you and Juice have this beautiful dynamic together. How was if that the two of you came together?
We both heard each other’s music and we got in touch with each other. We both liked what each other was doing. Juice wanted me to help her realise some of her music into recordings, so she had a couple of songs that she started working on that were just vocals and piano. She knew that I would be good at producing the kind of music that she was interested in making, and that’s how it all started.
What is it about collaborating with each other that allows you to create different kinds of music than you would your own?
For me personally, I don’t really have much of a focus when I sit down and try to make my own stuff. I’ve got a lot of ideas and different things that I want to explore, but having Juice in the room with me really grounds me to the project and it always makes me think about the greater vision of Hemm and what we’re doing. It’s like having a compass to point you in the right direction when I’m sitting in front of a computer and she’s sitting with me telling me what to do [laughs].
Isn’t it funny? I’ve just started producing music myself and I find that sitting down with Ableton is so overwhelming, whereas if you’ve got like a piece of gear or something in front of you, you’ve got parameters to work with. It’s funny how something that limits us allows us to be a bit more creative.
Yeah, definitely. I always like to work with a goal in mind or a limitation, whether that be a piece of gear or an overarching concept or a lyric that Juice has given me or like a loop or something that we’ve had on the back burners for a little while.
You’ve just put out a new single, ‘Hair’. Can you tell me a little bit about the track and how it came to be?
‘Hair’ started with a strumming guitar, folk song that Juice had written that was pretty much as you hear it today, structure wise, but imagine all of the electronic production stuff is just replaced with a constant acoustic guitar strumming the chords underneath. I recorded Juice just singing and playing guitar, then got rid of the guitar track and just started building things around it. It was quite maximal in parts originally. There was a lot going on. A lot of synth layers, and we used these explosion samples from Dragon Ball Z and stuff to layer it all together to have these big impacts. But in the end, we just decided that it worked better pretty stripped back with those 808 bass sounds and the piano arpeggios.
What seems to be a common theme throughout your music is this use of space within your sound production. What does it take to create a Hemm track? Do you find that you have a similar process for creating or does it change with every song?
It definitely changes. It’s a similar process of just throwing in everything and making lots of different layers of sound and recording vocals, chopping them up and recontextualising them in different ways. Then from this big messy painting of all of these sounds that could be put together in many different ways, we kind strip it back and find the best way that all of these sounds could be put together.
How do you think collaboration has fed into your own production work outside of this project?
Juice‘s songwriting – she’s a great songwriter – I find it inspiring for my own work as well. I used to get pretty tied up in harmony and trying to do things that were too complicated. I went through a bit of a phase of just overcomplicating things, but Juice just has a real knack for making sophisticated music out of simple parts, and I’ve learnt a lot from her in that respect.
You’re going to be performing at By The Meadow. Have you both performed at a festival of this size before?
No, we’ve never played a festival as Hemm. We’ve both played By The Meadow before a couple of times with different bands and it’s so nice, so I’m really excited to go back and play with Hemm. I’m hoping we’re on at night time.
I’ve never been to the festival. What’s the vibe like?
It’s kind of like a mini Meredith. Meredith, but you can find your friends really easily.
How does the live set with you guys work?
We’ve played a lot of shows. We were playing shows even before called ourselves Hemm. It’s definitely developed over time. I’m doing a lot of synth stuff, and Juice mainly sings, but she’s got a MIDI controller that she can process her vocals through to my laptop and she can trigger some samples and stuff as well. But we want to eventually do it with a live band and live drums, with Juice playing guitar.
I can see this in my head. How are you feeling about the festival appearance?
Really excited. There are a lot of great bands on the lineup.
It should be a good weekend. Like you said, you’ve been performing together for quite a while. Is working out your festival set going to be different to performing somewhere a little more intimate?
Maybe. Juice has just been away so we haven’t really had much time to really think about what we’re going to play at the festival. Our music sits in a funny place where we have a lot of songs that are quite stripped back and don’t really have much of a danceable quality to them. But then we have other tracks that are straight up stompers as well. I think we’ll be maybe having a think about gearing it more towards the dance side of things for this festival.
What’s next for you? Are you working on a longer form body of work?
Yeah, we’ve got an EP coming out with our two latest singles on it, and another few songs. It will be good to get that off our chests, it’s been in the works for a long time. And then we’ve got hopefully coming out later in the year some other exciting things too. We’ve got lots of plans for different things we want to try, keep things fresh.
By The Meadow, 2019
Friday 29 – Sunday 31 March
Get your tickets here.
Interview by CAITLIN MEDCALF