“The thing that I mainly gravitate towards as an artist are lyrics. I’m constantly torn between wanting big, grandiose dreamscapes like M83 and The War on Drugs in my music, and also trying to juxtapose that with very sincere and introspective lyrics. But the lyrics and the emotions that they evoke always come first.”
Luke Hemmings is feeling homesick. When we meet via Zoom to talk about his favourite songs, he’s in Los Angeles and it’s a small irony that I’m in Australia, Hemming’s home country. He speaks of the sadness he feels at not being able to return back home in a long time and asks me keenly how things are ‘Down Under’.
Stuck away from family and friends, then, the isolation of lockdown led him to find connections in the words of other artists. Many of his Nine Songs selections are recent discoveries, made during the dislocation of the last year, of classic artists that Hemmings knew that he should have listened to more by that point but had just never found the time.
Such is the case when you’re also the frontman of one of the biggest boy bands of the 21st century. Having been in Australian pop-rock group 5 Seconds Of Summer from the tender age of 14, Hemmings had only known one way of life for the past decade: incessant touring, overwhelming adulation and constant recording. It’s why when the pandemic hit last year, it offered him the unexpected opportunity to take stock of his life up until this point.
Revelling in this time of self-reflection and inspired by the supreme songwriters he was listening to, Hemmings decided that it was finally time to release his debut solo record. Contemplatively titled When Facing the Things We Turn Away From, the record collects his memories and feelings of being in 5SOS while also looking forward to the future, both alone and alongside his beloved bandmates.
“Every song on the album speaks about being on a unique walk of life,” he tells me. “Going from 5SOS at such a young age and then being inside for a year, I had to face my past. And the only way I know how to do that is by writing songs, making music and trying to figure out why I am the way that I am. Where the good and the bad come from. The whole album revolves around that theme, so that title felt very natural.”
Branching out on his own from 5SOS wasn’t a decision taken lightly but it’s one Hemmings feels is justified. “I always speak about the band because I want people to know that I love being in 5SOS, but just because I’m in this one thing doesn’t mean that I can’t do something else creatively. It was a strange 18 months, but I’m so stoked with what I’ve made. It was scary to basically start over, but I’m so happy to have a place to put all this creativity and songwriting. It’s just another outlet for me.”
The keystone songs in Hemmings life range from the classicism of Neil Young and George Harrison’s peerless songwriting to the lyrical prowess of Joni Mitchell and Justin Vernon. Each of them are, just like Hemmings now finds himself, artists who relentlessly look for the next musical chapter in their stories.
“Old Man” by Neil Young
“When I was writing my album, I was listening to a lot of After the Gold Rush and I thought ‘I should do something like that.’ When I first discovered Neil Young though, I must have been in my Dad’s van, driving to school! Probably listening on Triple M, one of those classic Aussie rock stations.
“My album owes so much to After the Gold Rush, but I kept coming back to this song specifically. The image of the old man looking back at life is so emotional. I’m obsessed with time and the way you can’t control any of this. It’s so beautiful and so sad at the same time.
“I’ve been in 5SOS since I was 14 years old, so to have one way of life for 10 years and then to have a year to just sit in the house alone, it definitely did make me take stock. The whole year slipped by but the 10 years prior to that were also quite blurry. Last year was the first time I’d been in the same place for more than a couple of months, so the concept of time had already been a pretty big thing to me.”
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
“Joni Mitchell is a recent discovery for me. I knew “Big Yellow Taxi”, this song and a couple of other famous ones obviously, but in the pandemic I did a lot of hunting musically. When I’m in bed with my fiancé, she’ll fall asleep before me and I always end up browsing for stuff on Amazon. I was listening to a lot of Joni at the time, so I bought her lyric book and I’ve been reading that a lot.
“And this song is all about the lyrics. Honestly, she’s a lyrical wizard. I love the idea of going through everything and realising that you basically know nothing. It all feels to me like a stream-of-consciousness piece. It all pours out of her.
“She focuses so heavily on lyrics and that’s so admirable. I’m always trying to get anything close to Joni. Her voice stops you in your tracks as well, it’s so her and so sincere and not overthought.”
“The Great Gig In The Sky” by Pink Floyd
“I’ve always known Pink Floyd and growing up I heard their big songs through the alternative radio stations in Australia. I never fully listened to any of their deep cuts though, because my Dad just loved AC/DC so much! Way too much. He said to me ‘Pink Floyd are too druggy’ and back then I didn’t understand what he meant; I would have been around 12.
“So I always had this idea of Pink Floyd being too druggy in the back of my mind because of my Dad (laughs). It was only in my early 20’s that I gave them another go and listened to them properly. It’s so funny, the things from your childhood that stick with you.
“I wanted to put this song in here because it’s kind of a strange one on The Dark Side of the Moon. There’s really no lyrics, it’s all pure emotion. I think that’s what makes it stand out from the rest of the picks on this list. And I fucking love the piano sound! I’ve definitely referenced that a few times on my album. I don’t know how something with barely any words can captivate that much. It’s so instinctual.”
“All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison
“I got into The Beatles listening to them alone as a teenager – again, I grew up in a strict AC/DC household (laughs). As an angsty teen I was massively into the pop-punk scene, unsurprisingly. Once I grew out of that a bit, I got into new wave bands like Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. Then I landed on The Beatles. As I’ve gained more knowledge about myself as an artist too, I’ve gravitated more to those jangly, poppy guitars.
“I feel like George Harrison is everyone’s favourite Beatle? This song and album are unbelievable anyway, and they still sound great today. He does the slide guitar thing so well and I love the slide guitar. It’s almost become a joke in the studio that I’m trying to put slide guitar in every song! It’s such an emotive way to use the guitar.
“This is another lyrical beast too. Even now, as I talk to you about the songs, I’m really noticing the theme of having no control over things like time. I need songs like this to ground me. And “All Things Must Pass” is such a great turn of phrase.
“All Things Must Pass is also my favourite album cover of all time. It’s so cool, it feels like an unplanned cover. Like they weren’t shooting an album cover that day and just came across it! It’s so understated and very ‘him’ for that time.”
“Miracle Love” by Matt Corby
“My manager also manages Matt, so I know him through that. But growing up in Australia he was huge. He was THE guy. I remember when this song first came out and everyone at high school was trying to learn it! I was going through my song picks and I was like ‘I’ve got to get an Aussie in here!’ Obviously I’m influenced by a lot of musicians back home, but Matt has affected my album the most.
“His songwriting is great and his voice is equally amazing. He’s also so uncompromising in his aesthetic and the way he carries himself. He’s very much all about the music, which is commendable.”
“Race for the Prize” by The Flaming Lips
“I like going through interviews with other artists that I admire that go deep into what they themselves like and listen to. It’s so interesting to me to figure out how things turn into things. The Flaming Lips led me to artists like Tame Impala, the Lonerism era, with the super loose drums and synths behind it. I thought it was so trippy and it really opened up my mind. Then interestingly I would watch interviews with Kevin Parker (Tame Impala) and he would mention The Flaming Lips and I’d be like ‘Oh, I love them too!’
“This one was based a lot on visuals and watching The Flaming Lips’ videos. They open with this song at concerts sometimes, so I listened to it a lot while watching their concerts on YouTube during lockdown. I watched that one where everyone was in COVID bubbles! They’re trying their best to get everyone to the show, so fair play.
“I was also absolutely obsessed with the string sound at the start of “Race for the Prize”. I said to Sammy Witte, my producer, ‘We need to get a song like this, we need this string sound’. My song “Motion” was really influenced by this song.”
“Pain” by The War On Drugs
“Oh Jesus, I don’t know how to express how much I love this band. I started listening to them more when Sammy got me into them. I’d always thought it was a rad band name though. And when I listened to them, they immediately struck a chord with me.
“The War on Drugs evokes that extra feeling that you can’t quite explain, which I was chasing so hard on my album. Their guitar work floors me. All those 6 and 12-string guitars running through the songs are great. It’s just so great and tasteful.
“The way everything is mixed is just so lush but it’s never overbearing. When the guitar comes in it’s almost like a Sonic Youth sound but with Bob Dylan songwriting. No, it’s shoegaze with Tom Petty lyrics! They just capture that feeling of hopelessness so well. I think Adam Granduciel is so cool.”
“How to Disappear Completely” by Radiohead
“I’ll be honest, I’m still trying to figure Radiohead out. I think maybe you’re not supposed to ever figure them out! (laughs)
“I was scouring YouTube one day and a video about what Radiohead’s best song was popped up. And Thom Yorke, without hesitation, says that their best song was “How to Disappear Completely”. So I thought ‘I have to check the song out’, and it turned out to be brilliant. He’s wailing in that amazing falsetto thing that he does. I love the title too; it might be the best song title ever – it says everything and nothing all at once.
“The whole song is such a fucking journey. There’s that dissonant note running through it and then at the end it freezes and hits the right string note. Yorke said the song helped him to get out of a dark spot. And in this rough, dark song, everything freezes at the end and everything comes together and he’s off on his way. That’s what I’m aiming for in my song “Comedown”, it has this similar journey to release. It’s cathartic.”
“Holocene” by Bon Iver
“If we’re talking about evoking pure emotion, this probably even tops The War on Drugs. Justin Vernon, more than anyone else I’ve ever listened to, does that best. He was always going to be in this list no matter what, but it was hard to pick one song. Obviously “Skinny Love” is beautiful and “Flume” is wonderful. And his newer stuff is so experimental. So “Holocene” is a nice middle ground.
“I think he’s a genius. I don’t know if you know what Holocene is, but it’s a time in human history where the earth rebuilds itself. It’s like flourishing out of a dark time. He’s one of those artists that, when you see they have a new song coming out, you immediately go and listen. There’s something he does lyrically and melodically that just captivates people. You can always tell a Bon Iver song, no matter how experimental it is or whatever.
“There’s not many people that make music as dense as he does that can also get 20,000 people at a festival in the palm of their hands! It’s the Bon Iver cult, man. Sign me up.”