When you get Luke Hemmings’s When Facing the Things We Turn Away From, there’s only one true way to experience it: in the car with the windows down. “The first time I listened to the finished album, it was in the car driving with Sierra — you have to listen to it driving, otherwise…” Hemmings pauses here during our conversation about his debut solo album, out today, to try to come up with the right words to describe why he wants his fans to listen to the music in the car. As he trails off in thought, he finishes with a simple shrug and says, “You’ve just got to do that.”
Hemmings’s wish for fans to experience his new music a certain way makes sense for the introspective tracks on the album. It’s a collection of songs he found himself working on during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when he couldn’t bring himself to be still. As someone who has been in this business for more than a decade and always busy writing, performing, or traveling, the forced break from the pandemic wasn’t easy for the Australian musician to deal with. With not much else to do, he started to write.
Feelings and scribbles started pouring out of him and at some point he realized he wasn’t making music for his band 5 Seconds of Summer — he was penning tracks that were wholly his own.
“I was just writing what I wanted to write,” he shares. “And I had a vision of what I wanted it to feel and sound like, and what I wanted to say and figure out lyrically. But until that was enough for an album, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to do a solo thing, and I’m going to do this. And I’m going to go do this.’ It was more, I’m just focusing on making the music that I hear in my head for something that wouldn’t be the band.”
The band — 5 Seconds of Summer, more affectionately known as 5SOS — has been Hemmings’s home for almost a decade. Alongside bandmates Ashton Irwin, Calum Hood, and Michael Clifford, Hemmings has traveled the world and played on some of the biggest stages. Formed in their native Australia while they were teens, 5SOS quickly rose to fame when they were invited to tour with One Direction in 2013. The tour was so successful that they joined the group again the following year. They’ve been consistently putting music out for about a decade now — their most recent album CALM in 2020 — and don’t have any plans to stop any time soon. But with the pandemic forcing the band to postpone their tour, each of them spent their year in their own way. For Hemmings, that turned into writing a solo album that he never planned on writing right now.
“I don’t think I would have done it yet [if not for COVID-19], but I think I would have eventually, just not so soon,” he says. What he actually envisioned was the band at some point taking a short break for everyone to do their own thing before eventually coming back together. But no matter which way you roll the dice or what happens in the world, Hemmings was always going to be making music, whether in the band or on his own. “I love making music. It’s my whole being and my whole shtick.”
With a strong Aussie accent, Hemmings is as warm and inviting as you’d expect someone from Down Under to be. But while the singer is bold and vibrant on stage, he’s more reserved in a casual setting. Though no less charming, sitting on a balcony in warm Hollywood air makes him feel a bit more human. Even though he’s more real guy than rock star while we chat, the traces of what makes him larger than life still linger — a bit of glitter dusting his cheeks from our four-hour photo shoot, his “casual” designer outfit, his nonchalant tales of a life on the road. But even though he’s lived a life that most of the population will never understand, it’s still easy for his fans to relate to him, especially when it comes to his music and being away from his family.
Hemmings hasn’t been able to visit his family back in Australia since before the pandemic, due to borders being shut down, but he’s keeping all his people close the best he can. For one, he’s manifesting just with his words. “My accent’s stronger because I miss Australia,” he says with a laugh. He also made a point of getting the stamp of approval on his new album from his family back home.
“I sent the songs to my brother in Australia,” he says. “It’s my love language, I guess, sending things, like, ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing.’ And I got a tick of approval.” He adds that it felt really important to him to have that sign-off from his family and knows they would have told him if something didn’t feel right. “Your mom will let you know as well. Your mom will always be like, ‘I don’t know about this.’”
Though the first person to hear his full album was his fiancee and fellow musician Sierra Deaton, he sent bits and pieces to his 5SOS bandmates as well. All four of them have been supportive of the others’ projects over the past year — Irwin also released a solo project in 2020 — which should quell any nerves that 5SOS fans might have over whether or not these solo albums mean the end of the road for the band. In reality, what these solo projects are are an act of purging the pent-up feelings they’ve been carrying for so long.
Hemmings points to the shocking change the entire world went through in 2020 with lost jobs, life changes, lost people, and everything in between as how his album came to be. He recognized that this massive setback we were all faced with was the pure embodiment of emotion. “For me, being from 15 in that band and being in 5SOS for almost 10 years now and having such a crazy, unique, beautiful, up-and-down, weird life, and then being in this other place for such a long time, it was such a head trip for me,” he says of having to take a break during 2020. “There were so many things left on the back burner that I had to face, I guess, because there’s no next city every day. There’s no getting back to the studio and doing this or whatever. It was, ‘OK, we’re not doing anything.’ So you’re left in the wreckage of 10 years of strange experience. And that was my concept for the album.”
The year certainly looked different for him than for many others, but in talking to a number of musicians over the past 18 months, I’ve heard a many stories on how the break affected creativity. For some, it caused a surge of emotions and inspiration. For others, it caused anxiety and panic, leading to creativity shutdown. Hemmings, a self-proclaimed “music dude,” tapped into his creativity with the break and actually took the time to process every turn his life had taken over the past decade.
“That was figuring out leaving home at such a young age and being in such a crazy situation when I was a kid still,” he shares. “It was actually delving into that and going through some things I may have picked up along the way — good and bad — and looking at all the bad and good parts of myself and trying to decipher that. The only way I can do that is writing songs and making music. I get a year off, and I had to make another album. It’s just how I am.”
Putting together WFTTWTAF was a wildly different experience, though, from what Hemmings is used to. Instead of collaborating with those he’s worked with for 10 years, he was left to decipher his own thoughts and feelings mostly on his own, though he worked with producer Sammy Witte (Lennon Stella, Harry Styles) on 10 of the 12 tracks. The veteran talent guided Hemmings through the creation of the album, building him into an even stronger, more well-rounded musician. This fact is perhaps one of Hemmings’s biggest takeaways from the entire project, because he’s striving to be better every single day.
“I just want to be better as a songwriter,” he says. “And obviously, I learned so much about me making this. I learned so much about making music and production. All the things that I’ve learned I’m going to take back and already have taken back to the band. It’s made me a better person in general. But on a work level, it’s made me a better songwriter and producer or, you know, music dude, I guess.”
But Witte wasn’t the only collaborator Hemmings had on this project. Aside from also working with John Hill, Hemmings called on Deaton for two songs. An accomplished singer and songwriter in her own right, Deaton had already worked with 5SOS in the past and settled in comfortably with her other half for this album. Both had already been working on music at home — Deaton upstairs in her studio, Hemmings downstairs in his own space — and eventually they came together for “Bloodline” and “Baby Blue.”
“It was inevitable,” he says. “I think we did the happiest song and the saddest song on the album. Because I’m trying to make everything super sad and dark … the whole album is very introspective. I was trying to make it cool as fuck, I guess. ‘Baby Blue,’ I think, is a bit more breezy. It’s very much her influence — her influence on me, actually, is in that song. The song concept is not so breezy, but the vibe of it and melodically is actually really rad. And we did ‘Bloodline’ as well, which I fucking love. I love that song.”
“Baby Blue,” according to Hemmings, was an early favorite among his people, which made him fall in love with it even more. “Everyone loves that song when I play it for them. Out of all the songs, they’re like, ‘That one I really love,’” he says with a smile, clearly proud of his work as he gets ready to release it into the world. As we chat through some of the tracks, he questions which I’ve heard, if any, and he comes back to “Baby Blue,” asking if it’s one I’d gotten to hear early. It was — and he was eager to hear what I thought of his collaboration with his fiancee. As a longtime fan of Hemmings and 5SOS as a whole, I, of course, have nothing but love for his upcoming project. Visibly thrilled with a fan reaction, Hemmings stares off into the distance seemingly satisfied with my answer.
While it’s fair to say Hemmings isn’t one to constantly need validation, he does care deeply what his fans think. Those fans, located all around the world, have supported 5SOS and now him as a solo artist for years, and each member of the band has always been incredibly authentic in this relationship. It’s why Hemmings felt nothing but love when he released his first solo music video for “Starting Line” and found himself meme’d by his fans. He was among the first to share those memes of himself on Twitter running across a variety of landscapes and hanging from the sky.
“They’re funny,” he says warmly of his fans. “They made lots of memes out of it. As soon as I got on those strap things to do the flying stunts, I was like, ‘OK. Yeah. I’m going to get memed pretty hard here.’” He did, indeed, but every last joke landed with pure intentions, because the jokes were born out of support for a singer they idolize. And despite how much work Hemmings put into that video, any positive feedback was good enough for him, especially on his first song out of the solo gate.
“Starting Line” was released at the end of June, with the music video following shortly after. A fitting beginning to his solo career, the song channels the concept of time, something Hemmings says he’s always been fascinated by. He played on the loss of control he felt during the pandemic and the stark change from his previous life and then rolled that all into the music video as well.
“I wanted to do crazy, trippy things because the music felt like that to me,” he says, adding that the director, Scottie Cameron, brought him back down to Earth and encouraged something that felt more grounded in reality with hints of surrealism. “I feel like, especially in the last year, we’ve learned there is weirdness in the everyday. There’s so much weird, psychedelic stuff in everyday life. It just became quite a normal video — and then obviously some weird shit happens, and I’m jumping all over the place and it became this weird, surreal thing. But it was a nice opener to that feeling and the album.”
Since then, Hemmings continued to trickle out songs from WFTTWTAF, along with visualizers and videos as well. “Motion” and “Place in Me” were next on the agenda with potential for more releases as time passes.
We started to wrap up after a long day in the photo studio working on the shots for this story when Hemmings asked me about my year in the pandemic. This is what sets him apart from so many who are on the same playing field that he is. He flipped the script on me to get my own story, turning this from an interview to a conversation among colleagues, and that’s not something a lot of people would do. It’s a reassuring fact for fans and the human race in general that despite all the garbage we’ve been through in the past 18 months, we can still find the good in each other and make it through this mostly unscathed.
Before we parted ways, I ask Hemmings to think back to the days of running his YouTube channel Hemmo1996 and his old Instagram username @luke_is_a_penguin — 5SOS fans know exactly what I mean — and try to think of what that Luke would think of Luke now. He laughed while thinking back to a time when life was surely a bit easier and more calm than it’s become in adulthood. He was quick to offer a joking answer: “Why are your pants so fucking high? He’d definitely ask that.”
But in all seriousness, Hemmings knows he’s grown so much from the days of posting YouTube videos as a wannabe rock star with his pink speakers sitting behind his desk chair. “Honestly, when we first started the band, we got into writing songs very quickly,” he shares of the band’s early days. “Calum was the first person in the band to be able to write a full song, and I remember not ever being able to, from the get-go, be as good as that.”
Again he pauses to find the right words to describe exactly what he’d think his younger self would think of everything he’s accomplished in the past decade. “I’ve written a lot of songs now and come a long way, so I think he’d be pretty, pretty stoked to see a full body of work like this with all my thoughts and all my emotions.”
Here, his full-on smile bursts through when he realizes he’s done something he’s always dreamed he could do. “Yeah, he’d be stoked.”