The rock musician was DJing China Chalet at 15 years old with his online friends; now, he enters a new phase of his solo music career.
By Jade Gomez
Photos by Leia Jospe
For Issue 04: Hacking It, Byline teamed up with Urban Outfitters and Dickies to highlight individuals who have paved their own paths and unlocked new levels in their respective industries. These creators defy the system by making their own rules, and in other words, they're Hackers.
It’s hard to tell whether James Ivy is so self-aware, he’s able to downplay it, or if he truly doesn’t hear what comes out of his mouth. After spending several minutes poetically ruminating on his finite time on Earth and his quest to get closer to his rough idea of perfection, the 23-year-old musician brushes it off as rambling. I explain that I listened to the title track of his debut project, Everything Perfect, on repeat right before our call, and a short burst of energy jolts him awake.
“Well, I have to say something profound now.”
His soft giggle grows into long-winded tangents about anime, emo bands, and Drake tier lists. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a sense of urgency when it comes to his craft, but music is less of an impulse and more of a necessary outlet for James to brain-dump his musings on adolescence, heartache, and love. He apologizes for giving me “half answers” throughout our chat, but in each fraction is a piece of what makes James Ivy whole.
His debut project, Everything Perfect, captures a nostalgia most twenty-somethings could vaguely conceptualize. It balances the line between analog and digital with fuzzy trip-hop drums, cliche power-pop guitar wails, and piano chords. It’s easy to try and place this music within space and time, as it’s human nature to contextualize something in reference to another. Reviews of James’ music struggle to nail him down, at best labeling him as different amalgamations of early ‘00s pop stars and ‘90s rock bands.
“I feel like if you try to be like, ‘Oh, I'm inspired by this right now,’ then you'll just end up trying to make that thing that you're inspired by musically, and then you will never be able to do it perfectly,” James notes when asked about his inspiration process. “Something will always be a little bit different about it and then you'll get a little bit upset because it's not like the thing that you want it to be.”
For James, this quirky, unidentifiable sound that encompasses every corner of millennial nostalgia could be blamed on his omnivorous musical appetite. He gushes over post-hardcore band Dance Gavin Dance, who is notorious for their unclean vocals being nonsensical. James specifically cites their 2011 song “Swan Soup” as an unexpected influence, highlighting the lyric, “You wanna know the truth?/ I eat a lot of soup.”
He remembers a warm Pitchfork review that mainly took issue with his “clunky” lyricism, such as “I want to chain you to the right side of my wide eye,” off Everything Perfect’s “The Last Place You’d Ever Look.” With a giggle, James takes the critique in stride and explains his unorthodox recording process. “I'm just hearing syllables. I fake sing when I record the demo, and then I just go with the first thing I hear a lot of times.”
The undeniable emo influence in his music, especially his vocals, makes him only that much more unique. His yearning vocals over dazzling pop melodies lull listeners into a false sense of calm until lyrics such as “Want you dead in a weird way” on the title track rival a sense of sarcasm and anger right out of a Glassjaw record.
“You can't really change your voice,” James explains. “It is weird being stuck with this voice that feels very rock, almost emo, and trying to work that into different songs and different genres.” I linger on his usage of the word “stuck,” arguing that half of his appeal is exactly because of that. But it goes much deeper.
James’ scattered history makes him a moving target as he takes me across baffling twists and turns in his story. For one, he’s a rabid Drake fan, so much so to the point where he swears some of his vocal melodies unconsciously take inspiration from the superstar rapper. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” he admits, and I reassure him that although loving Drake has become a red flag, a lot of the material is undeniably good.
He also admits that he sometimes likes to lie on stage when performing in New York, a cardinal sin in the big city. “I'll get on stage and be like, ‘I'm James Ivy. It just feels so good to be home.’ That's what I said at my Bowery Ballroom Show and all my friends were like, ‘You're from New Jersey.’” To be fair, the sanctity of the New Jersey and New York distinction is being dismantled with each passing generation. He swears that it manifests in his music, saying there’s a subtle “edge” forged only in the suburban sprawl of New Jersey.
I try to catch up to James’ mile-a-minute way of thinking as he reveals the impact Chainsaw Man had on him, resonating not with the gruesome violence and horror, but rather the romance subplots within the story. He also nonchalantly reveals that he’s been unknowingly listening to Christian rock music, only recently discovering some of his favorite bands, such as Underoath, are considered religious. “That's awesome! I’m secretly, subliminally being converted,” he says with a giggle.
As he begins to lay out the blueprint for who he is as an artist, which began with his mother signing him up for piano lessons, I half expect him to be a young prodigy who got his start at talent shows, obsessing over jazz standards and Golden Age pop songs. Instead, James says, “I was really just into Skrillex, and I just wanted to make dubstep music.”
James comes from the last generation that saw the clunky rise of the internet pre-social media, and it changed his life. “I met a lot of music friends online through the internet when I was around 15, 16, and then met them in person at SXSW,” he reveals. “They all lived in Austin so I went out, met all my homies, and I was like, 'Meeting people online is not scary how I thought it would be.'” While visiting Austin for SXSW as a 16-year-old eager to get better at creating electronic music, James and his friends snuck into a PC Music Showcase at Empire Control Room which featured a stacked lineup including Hannah Diamond, GFOTY, QT, SOPHIE, easyFUN, Danny L Harle and more.
James and his friends became the precursors for the harshly maximalist modern-day version of hyperpop, playing shows spearheaded by the elusive Simon Whybray, the mastermind behind London’s JACK parties which highlighted the best and weirdest pop music from the underground. James cut his teeth playing his first show at China Chalet when he was only 15 years old, and even performed in a SXSW showcase of his own. But the double life of being a suburban highschooler who moonlights as an artist steeped in an influential scene eventually came to an end upon graduation.
“Not to say that the scene was nerdy, but I think we were all very online. That was the thing. We were all internet people and internet nerds to some degree,” Ivy explains. “It was kind of hard when you come back from a show and you're at school and people are just doing high school shit.”
“That fizzled out towards when I was finishing up high school and then I was like, What do I do now? I started the James Ivy project and started singing. I was really bad at singing when I first started and then got a little bit better. I feel like electronic music wasn't what I wanted to make ultimately. It was still a great time and I still love electronic music, but it was not ultimately what I wanted to end up doing.”
The borderless internet gave James a much different experience than the hyper-regionality he’d probably be tied to if he got his start in the local New Jersey scene. He’s tethered to pieces of his heart left across the world, although most roads would lead back to Texas. James even finished Everything Perfect in the Lone Star State, and he named his blistering 2021 dance track after it as well.
But back home, which is currently New York for him, James found himself rising in a crop of the city’s experimental pop musicians. While he’s flattered that I consider him to be part of this vanguard, the bright-eyed musician approaches the title with more hesitation:
“I'm still very figuring out where I fit in all of this stuff, and I think about it a lot, honestly… One thing that I will say about New York is that I do feel like there is a scene underneath the scene.”
I question James’ disarming patience. There has to be high stakes, right?
“I think there is something that exists underneath the buzz of the indie sleaze thing that's going on. And not to say that it's better or worse, it's just another thing and that's cool. I think that's cool that there's multiple things going on out here and I think that it's nice that you think that I'm contributing,” he explains.
“I would love to contribute to New York because I really love it here.”
His days consist of hanging out with his friends, working on other people’s music, and occasionally capturing the bursts of inspiration. He’d rather not force himself to do the thing that he loves. “I think it's tough for me to finish music because I'll make a demo that's half done and then I listen to it a billion times. By the time I try to work on it again, I've heard it so many times that it's not fresh to me anymore, there's no real inspiration or spark anymore to finish it.”
“Nowadays I try to write the entire thing in one go. Everything Perfect was written a lot like that. A lot of the vocals that are laid down are just rough takes that just ended up on the final version of the EP, and I just wanted to spend a little bit less time and a little bit more just like, Fuck it. If it works, it works. Let's put it out.”
James’ process could be credited to the forgiving nature of his upbringing, a stark contrast to the assumptions one makes when they see a first generation Asian American pursuing a creative path. “I feel like my parents gave me a lot of room to fail,” he says. I bring up James poring over low-budget Canadian director Matt Johnson’s fascination with failure, wondering if he resonates at all with that. “It gives me hope,” he explains. “I think it’s cool to look back on your past stuff and be like, it is what it is.”
For being part of the same generation that coined the phrase, “I don’t have a dream job. I don’t dream of labor,” James has his eyes set on the lifelong path he’s slowly paving for himself. The intention isn’t to strike gold as much as it is to satisfy his creative hunger. He cites renowned Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto as an inspiration.
“He just worked up until he died, and that's kind of what I want to do,” James explains. “I want to make stuff until I'm old and gray. Hopefully I'm not making stuff that's weird by then, but I probably will. You know when people get older and they're still trying to do the thing that they did when they were in their twenties? I'd be like, ‘You're older now. You can do whatever you want.’ I hope that I age gracefully. That's what I want for myself.”
I remark that what he said was pretty profound, and he agrees.