Videos by American Songwriter
He had recently turned 15 when his schoolmates Michael Clifford, Calum Hood, and Ashton Irwin started coming over to his house to make YouTube videos of themselves playing cover tunes… just a few years later, thanks to the powers of the internet, the band was opening for One Direction, playing for fans around the world and racking up hundreds of millions of streams.
Ever since then, 5SOS has remained one of the major players on the international pop scene… and the rate of writing-recording-touring-repeat has kept at a steady pace. As a result, Hemmings, now 25, has spent the better part of the past decade smack dab in the spotlight, and many of his days have been defined by the blessings and curses that can come along with that.
So, when the touring world came to a difficult halt last year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he suddenly found himself with an excess of free time for, well, the first time he could remember since before the band took off. Hunkering down with his fiancée and dog in their Los Angeles home, he took a step back from the world or any kind of pressure and began to let himself relax and reflect.
Alongside that, he kept up with one of his daily rituals: songwriting. See, Hemmings is the kind of writer who prefers to “forgo the middleman,” which is to say: his best ideas sorta arise out of his subconscious. They’ll just pop right out and he’ll grab it quickly, making sense of it later. Well, when got to the “making sense of it later” part for some of the tunes he was writing in quarantine, he began to learn a lot about himself and the effects his experience has had on his psyche and soul.
In the end, one thing led to another and these new songs coalesced into a powerful solo debut: When Facing the Things We Turn Away From, out August 13 via Arista Records.
Made with producer Sammy Witte (King Princess, Maggie Rogers), the record is an introspective and well-crafted testament to Hemmings’ devotion to music and the search for understanding. Ultimately, he’s is starkly honest throughout it, painting a self-portrait that reveals a complex artist chewing on some complex emotions. Does he feel like he was too young when he was thrust into the spotlight? Maybe. Does he still love 5SOS and their community? Absolutely.
Perhaps that’s the most impressive aspect of When Facing the Things We Turn Away From: it exhibits a level of artistic and personal maturity that actually manages to augment the music itself, even. The arrangements are inventive and satisfyingly intentional, lifting the lyrics and the personal revelations to an even higher scale. To that end, the record might be about Hemmings, but it shines a light on a much bigger, much more universal sense of taking stock and moving forward.
Hemmings hopped on a call with American Songwriter to talk about it all. Pacing around his backyard in Los Angeles, he opened up about his roller coaster of a decade, the therapy songwriting has provided him, the excitement he feels about this release, and more. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: You were 16 when 5 Seconds Of Summer went on a world tour opening for One Direction—the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting quarantine was the first time you’ve had a long break in 7 years. What was that time like for you?
Luke Hemmings: When the pandemic began in March, I was in Los Angeles and the band that I’m in had just gotten back from playing a show in Australia. We had just put out a record in April, so when everything shut down we were one of the bands putting out an album like, “Hm, how are we going to do this?” There were talks of delaying, but we just wanted to get it out no matter what, that was really important to us. So, we did a couple of videos from home and some promo like that, and then the album cycle just kinda ended.
At that point, we had been doing the band for almost 10 years total, so the break-in touring was kinda hard to swallow, but also slightly welcome in some ways. We were all sorta like, “Okay, well I’m going to go home and do my own thing.” For me, my whole thing is songwriting, it’s just something I love and it’s part of my daily routine, so I was doing that through COVID too.
But what really gave birth to this solo project was me trying to do something new: write full songs on my own. It was a personal challenge, like, “Okay cool, I can’t see anyone—it’s just me, Sierra, and my dog.” So I got a little studio set-up and decided to try to get better at production. Once I started picking up pace, it became something that consumed me. I struggled to do anything else or think about anything else… which is quite frustrating to be around…. But yeah, that’s how it all began. It didn’t really become, like, a body of work for a while—it didn’t even become “Okay, this is a solo album” for a while. I didn’t set out to do that, I think it would’ve been too daunting at the time. I was really just trying to decipher everything.
AS: Yeah, these songs seem to suggest that you were doing some reflecting on your life and what a whirlwind the past decade has been. Especially thinking about how much the world itself has changed in that time, there’s something particularly universal about the theme of a loss of innocence. Has it been therapeutic to explore that through music and share it?
LH: Yeah, it’s interesting… songwriting is such a strange, elusive, beautiful, and frustrating thing. Really, every song relates back to the album title: When Facing The Things We Turn Away From. It’s an interesting thing because the album is obviously about me, but you’re right that I’ve noticed that it’s definitely describing something that I’ve noticed a lot of people are going through in their own way. I was in this situation where I was leaving home at 15 and going on this crazy, wild, beautiful, up-and-down adventure of being in a band… but there was never time to process any of it. There wasn’t any time to figure out what had happened. But, I think that either way, when people get to their mid-20s, they start to understand a lot more about themselves.
For me, I was just living in a certain way for a really long time and then, all of a sudden, this past year I haven’t been on any planes and I haven’t been anywhere… for the first time since I was 15, which is crazy to me. I realized there were all of these gaps in myself… a lot of holes. The kind of thing where I’d be like “Where did this come from? Did I say things like this before? How did I get here?” What’s interesting is that I didn’t really notice that until I started writing about it. I started thinking about where I’m from, my family, the journey I’ve been on, all of that.
So, it is therapeutic. I guess an example would be easiest to explain the process: the first song, “Startling Line” came about when I was sitting at the piano. The first line—“In and out of focus/ moments that I keep”—just jumped into my head. That’s why songwriting is so elusive and strange: I didn’t mean to say that, it just came out. So then, I had to figure out, “What does this mean?”
Then with a song like “Mum”—I wrote that with Sammy Witte the second day I knew him, which is interesting because it’s kind of a dark and direct song. That first lyric—“Mum, I’m sorry I stopped calling”—I didn’t have that written down or ready to go or anything, it just fell out. From there, I can go “Okay, why was that in my subconscious?” and start to form all of those thoughts.
Through doing that, I’ve actually learned a lot about myself. It sounds lame to say, but all that subconscious stuff is sorta just hiding in there waiting to be tapped into. It took me a minute to get to that place, but I was there, I knew I had to try to keep up with it.
AS: Well, you say it sounds lame, but I think there’s something poignant in pointing that out—we live in a time where things like media culture and the internet keep us removed from our subconsciousness and undermine our personal reflections. It’s important to make space to access that side of yourself.
LH: Yeah, I mean even hearing you say that makes me think about how this album wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for COVID. Being in that different timeline was vital for being able to write it, to begin with. Otherwise, the band would’ve just kept touring, which I would’ve been stoked about, but there wouldn’t have been the time to do this… and the space too. I mean, songwriting is pretty much my only outlet. So, this needed to happen this way and come out.
AS: To that end, what was the writing process like? Was doing it on your own a freeing feeling compared to your past experiences writing for 5SOS?
LH: Totally. I was really just exploring at first. Looking into new artists or old favorite artists who I hadn’t listened to in a while. Then I’d look into, like, “Well, who did they listen to? What inspired their stuff?” Stuff like that. I became quite obsessive.
I definitely love writing with and for the band—we’re in the later stages of a band album at the moment, actually—but at that point in time, I just really wanted to try to do this on my own and see where it took me. I also took the time to learn more. Writing and producing are two different things and I feel like on the production side, I’m not very learned. I could get an idea across, but I can’t take it over the finish line just yet. But I worked on it and I’m getting better.
I basically compiled a bunch of ideas—cool songs, half songs, some little produced ideas on piano or guitar or whatever. I realized I needed someone to help. I ended up meeting Sammy Witte, who I adore. Originally, I was going to write all the songs and get someone to produce, but Sammy and I wrote great stuff together right off the bat, so the plan changed. That was really when the seed started growing into a flower.
AS: I’ve spoken with artists before who were in bands and branched out to do a solo thing on the side—a lot of them report that it made them feel better and stronger when they went back to the band. Has that been your experience?
LH: Totally, that’s definitely what’s happened. It’s just a skill, man. You put in the hours and it pays—I really just wrote a bunch of songs, I poured a lot of work into them. So, when I go back now and write with the band, I can think of it in new ways. I feel like this whole journey with the album has helped me understand myself better and how I got here and… well, it helped me figure out what the fuck had happened. “Who am I? Where am I going?” I was able to ask those questions and begin figuring them out. So, writing with the band now, I understand myself better and I’m a better songwriter. So, that’s a true thing.
AS: How does it feel now to officially be putting out this solo project? Is it exciting, scary, a little bit of both?
LH: Yeah, I think I’m getting more used to being on my own. It’s the same thing with interviews or a video shoot or photoshoot—the first ones were very strange not having the rest of the band. But, I do feel more competent or skilled or whatever, so I feel good with my role and the band as well as my identity as a solo artist.
So, I feel good! I’m a little nervous, but I’m just stoked that I’m in a position where I can have this creative outlet. That’s the dream, as a creative: to have multiple creative outlets. I don’t know how often I’ll make solo albums, but I know it’s a place I can always come back to. I can explore it, expand on it and see where it goes. So, I like not putting too much pressure on it. Music can be such a pressurized thing, especially coming from my background. So, it feels good to not do that.
Luke Hemmings debut solo album When Facing the Things We Turn Away From is out now—watch the music video for the track “Baby Blue” below: