Saturday Night Session 046: James Kennedy talks his Ibiza upbringing and how being a reality TV star has impacted his musical journey
Few moments are more sacred than the reprieve Saturday night provides from the daily grind of school and work. Its importance is meant to be emphasized, and thus, a feature dedicated to “doing the night right” was born. Saturday Night Sessions are set around energizing mixes meant to get the (socially distanced) party started. New or old, each episode has one cornerstone thing in similarity: they serve as the perfect backdrop for the weekend pregame.
At 14-years-old, London-born James Kennedy found himself standing in the basement of Pacha Ibiza watching Cyprus Hill– his world transformed. As he watched the light show captivate club goers and the energy heighten at the peak of the drop, he found himself immersed in everything that an electronic live show could be. And so, James Kennedy’s lifelong pursuit of being a DJ and music producer began.
Kennedy is part of the contingent of artists including Zedd and Dylan Jagger Lee who were born into a musically inspired upbringing. His father was English singer and songwriter George Michael‘s longtime manager. As Kennedy explains, he didn’t know Michael as anyone other than “Uncle George” for many years. Music and everything that came along with the industry was second nature for him, and he recalls being nothing short of addicted to artists like The Prodigy and Moby growing up.
The turning point for his desire to become a musician himself was when his parents came home to London after a week long vacation in Ibiza. His parents announced that they had purchased the house they had vacationed in, and a week later he found himself in his new home in one of the biggest markets for electronic music in the world.
He shares, “It was that time where I was sneaking out of the house trying to get to Es Paradis, Amnesia, Pacha, and you know I saw Tiësto; I saw David Guetta; I saw Cypress Hill in the basement at Pacha at 14 years old, and it was unbelievable and that is what changed my whole view on wanting to be a DJ. I wanted to be the guy who is making that sound and dancing up on the podium.”
At 29-years-old, James Kennedy is now the familiar face in the DJ booth, weaving big room drops in and out of familiar vocals as club goers dance the night away. His signature set opener that unfailingly drives the crowd crazy is a dramatic rework of Dena Deadly’s “Raise Your Glass,” which also happens to be the theme song for the reality show he stars on, Vanderpump Rules.
The LA-based artist has starred on the hit show for seven seasons, and as the Bravo reality show’s ratings skyrocketed season after season, so did his popularity. For Kennedy, his role on the show is closely linked to his passion for music. In his very first show appearance he made his affinity for DJing and music production known. Many of the episodes he has appeared on have revolved around his residencies at local LA restaurants and venues in addition to producing music for fellow cast members such as Lala Kent. His productions have ranged from pop to electronic music on the show, and his residencies promise to be nothing short of energetic as displayed by the episodes where he performs.
Few have the platform that a show like Vanderpump Rules provides. This platform and popularity does not come without its complications for someone like Kennedy, who identifies himself as a music producer and DJ first, and a TV star second.
He speaks about how being a reality star has impacted people’s perception of him as a true musician, sharing, “You know, there are going to be people in the world who definitely want to put me in a box, and that confines you. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, he is a reality star. You can’t break out after that.'” He continues, “I respect everyone’s opinions and stuff, but there is a real passion to what I do, and my love for house music is going to last until I’m an 85-year-old man, so it’s not going anywhere.”
One aspect of his artistry that Kennedy has been straightforward about is his love for experimentation. He has a very open approach to music production, and he has enjoyed learning to make everything from trap and dubstep to rapping over his own big room productions. His love for live performance has translated into his music, and it has resulted in dozens of remix releases in the past year alone. His inspiration for remixes come from a compelling vocal line, the producer shares, and he transforms the song into a ‘club banger’ from there.
Kennedy notes, “I also love mixing the classic house sound with the new sound. That’s why I love doing the remixes and stuff because I can bring a throwback record and have it sound fresh again. I think from a live standpoint, when people are having their drinks in the club and they are vibing, they love hearing that sound that they know, but they like that new fresh spin on it or the club mix.”
Kennedy’s output over the past year has been nothing short of momentous, and the newest addition to his discography is an original release titled “Take Me Home” featuring Sydney Adams. The single is out now on Bijou‘s Do Not Disturb Recordings thanks to Bijou and Kennedy’s continued friendship and musical collaboration.
Kennedy talks about how the artists met, saying, “I actually hit him up on Instagram, and he has been nothing but a supportive friend, so we had dinner in LA I think right before COVID hit and met in person. And now I’ve been working more on some of my original tracks, and that is where ‘Take Me Home’ originated.”
“Take Me Home” is a testament to Sydney Adams vocals, which are nothing short of alluring, before Kennedy’s signature big room house notes take over. Unlike many of his remixes which are high energy and high BPM, “Take Me Home” instills energy while still leaving room for more. Kennedy, whose passion for production started with remixes, notes that he wants producers to be able to come in and remix his piece while still putting out a strong final product for the original. This is a balance that has certainly been struck.
He talks about the difference in his creative approach for his original releases as opposed to remixes when he says, “You know I like to keep my bass lines hard and fresh, but for my original music, I like to make tracks that can be remixed and have a story with vocals.”
To celebrate “Take Me Home,” Kennedy has mixed an hour long Saturday Night Session mix where he takes listeners on a ride through his originals, remixes, and more. When asked what kind of a Saturday night his Saturday Night Session will get listeners ready for, Kennedy states, “It will be a high energy party at home. Get your drinks ready and your best dancing shoes. Turn it up for sure.”
Let’s start with an easy one. What have you been up to?
I’ve really been focusing on the remixes since quarantine started because my studio closed down. I kicked off last year with this viral TikTok I made of Jason Derulo’s “Coño.” I made a remix of that, and it got picked up by Spinnin Records, so that was a great kickoff to quarantine.
There were a few studios that I knew were open, but I didn’t want to risk it in the beginning, so I’ve just been focusing on remixes and releasing them on my Soundcloud. I normally like to release stuff on Spotify, but that takes a longer time with labels and contracts- you have to get that stuff sorted out unlike Soundcloud and YouTube. On those platforms you can just upload it right away. The people need the music now more than ever, you know? So I’ve just been focusing on the remixes. I can’t wait to get back into the studio honestly. They should be opening soon.
You just released your first original on Do Not Duplicate Recordings, which is a big deal. Tell me about that and the releases!
The Do Not Duplicate Recordings release is an original track that I’m really excited about called “Take Me Home” featuring Sydney Adams- shout out Bijou. He has given me an absolutely incredible opportunity with them because I did a 122 bpm dark electro pop remix of “Fantasy” featuring DLMT and Vannah. I actually hit him up on Instagram, and he has been nothing but a supportive friend, so we had dinner in LA I think right before COVID hit and met in person. And now I’ve been working more on some of my original tracks, and that is where “Take Me Home” originated. Sydney Adams and I wrote “Take Me Home” together actually. I wrote the first part and she wrote the second part, and then we went to the studio to finish the third part. It’s just so easy, and she is absolutely incredible to work with and an extremely talented singer.
You know I like to keep my basslines hard and fresh, but for my original music, I like to make tracks that can be remixed and have a story with vocals. It is the classic house sound with pianos and riffs. I also love mixing the classic house sound with the new sound. That’s why I love doing the remixes and stuff because I can bring a throwback record and have it sound fresh again. I think from a live standpoint, when people are having their drinks in the club and they are vibing, they love hearing that sound that they know, but they like that new fresh spin on it or the club mix.
Speaking of Bijou, he did an absolutely incredible album called Diamond City that is now out there on all streaming platforms, and it just has banger after g-house banger. I love all of his music.
Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up? What got you into DJing and music production?
Oh my gosh. Well you know I was a boy in London with my headphones on listening to a lot of The Prodigy, Moby, Fatboy Slim, Oasis, and Elton John. Just the classics you know? But honestly Moby and The Prodigy are the two things I can listen to over and over and over again and never get bored of. I find it hard to find those kinds of albums now. When I was younger, I was like a sponge absorbing all of this music without any judgement, and now it’s like there is so much music out, and so much good music out. Especially in the Electronic Dance Music world right now, there is just so much to listen to and keep up with. It’s good, but it is definitely different.
How has growing up with a dad who worked in the industry shaped your approach to your own work?
Having a father in the music industry has definitely molded me into who I am today. My dad was George Michael’s manager for part of Wham!’s career and throughout the beginning of his solo career with the Faith album. George Michael is my godfather too. For me, George was around as Uncle George for Christmas and birthdays, and I didn’t understand, of course, the iconic singer he was when I was younger. As I grew up, it was incredible and amazing to find out, and I was proud of it. It was really awesome. Rest in Peace of course.
I moved to Ibiza, Spain when I was 14 years old out of nowhere. I was a kid in London, and I was getting bullied a lot in school. My parents went on a week-long vacation in Ibiza and then for your parents to come home and be like, “yeah we just bought the house we were staying in.” We ended up moving there, and I was on the island there for two years. And I saw the party scene on the island in the summer and then in the winter, everyone leaves. It was that time where I was sneaking out of the house trying to get to Es Paradis, Amnesia, Pacha and you know I saw Tiesto; I saw David Guetta; I saw Cypress Hill in the basement at Pacha at 14 years old, and it was unbelievable and that is what changed my whole view on wanting to be a DJ. I wanted to be the guy who is making that sound and dancing up on the podium.
It’s funny, I thought Cypress Hill was doing the music and the lights on the spot when I was that young. It was definitely a crazy experience, and when I came to the US in 2008, I was 17 and house music was blowing up and it was on the brink. I was following Dancing Astronaut- for so many years- I was following Dancing Astronaut and downloading all of the tracks they would post on their blogs. 2012 was such a crazy year for music, and Dancing Astronaut back then was literally the one and only and where I found the bangers, you know?
Ever since then (2008) I have wanted to be a DJ. I have done a lot of different things with music. I have tried rapping. I have tried producing beats, and it has been an amazing and fun road so far, but I’m really focused on house music and the remixes now. As the years have come and gone, I have been crafting my sound a lot more. You know, quarantine has given me a lot of time to make a lot of music.
When it comes to Vanderpump Rules– you were cast on a reality TV show that is very much independent from your music. How has the show impacted people’s perception of you and your music, and what do you want them to take away from this interview?
Of course it has an impact- both positive and negative. You know, there are going to be people in the world who definitely want to put me in a box and that confines you. Everyone always says, ‘Oh, he is a reality star. You can’t break out after that.’ I respect everyone’s opinions and stuff, but there is a real passion to what I do, and my love for house music is going to last until I’m an 85 year old man, so it’s not going anywhere. Vanderpump Rules has been amazing. It has given me the opportunity to get in front of the camera and tell people what I do. You know, I was touring before COVID hit, and I did a lot of shows- like 87 shows in different states in 2019, and I was on record to do that again in 2020. I’m sure the situation will pan itself out eventually. Obviously there are a lot of hurdles to cross and boundaries to break proving to people that I have some great music. Not everyone likes everything, but maybe eventually I will make something that they like. I don’t like to listen to the outside perspective a lot. I like to view it as an opportunity. And you know, I definitely have fun with the music on Vanderpump Rules. They have me doing some corny stuff sometimes, and it is very cheesy, but you know I do love a bit of that. Putting on my suit and going to go film is a feeling really unlike anything else really.
It’s funny- when I go DJ these appearances and stuff- I have this edit of the Vanderpump Rules theme song that I open up with on this big riser and people go wild. It is really funny. I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, but I really think that this is just the beginning.
On Vanderpump Rules, obviously you were producing some music that Lala (co-star) was making and the genres that you were producing were not your typical electronic sound. So tell me a little bit about your experimentation with production and how you define your sound now?
I have wanted to produce as much as I could. I loved the trap era, and I loved making those 808 drops. Going through all of these subgenres over the years- like dubstep was hot, and I learned how to make that. I just wanted to learn how to make all types of music. We are now back into house tunes, which is basically my passion. Then when Vanderpump Rules and Lala came around, it was fun to experiment on music with her and just see what we came up with. All of it was an incredible learning experience and just so much fun. I know “Feeling You” with Lala was like a rap track, and I was rapping on it in a British accent, and she was singing on the hooks. I wanted to incorporate a future bass type drop but keep it radio friendly. So that is where I was going with that one. I always do have intention and an idea behind all of the tracks I make. I like to make everything with an idea or purpose before making it. Otherwise I just end up with a random beat and it never gets finished, and I scrap it.
What creatively inspires you and where do you want your sound to go?
When I hear an amazing record with an amazing vocal, I love to get my hands on just that vocal. When I just hear it alone, my mind goes into a place where ‘this is the key’ and ‘this is the progression that I would put.’ I play the progression on the piano, and then I like to transfer those chords into the sounds, and I start experimenting. Sometimes I like to keep it as just the Piano sound if it sounds that good. That’s normally where my creative process goes when I start remixes. When I start originals, it can be anything. It can be a sample idea or it could just start with a bassline. Basslines always get me going, and you know, when you add the kick and the clapover over the bassline just on its own, that’s when you’re like ‘here we go,’ and we are just getting started. It’s the inspiration I need to create a track.
I also really love the rapping and stuff. My absolute dream is to have an absolute banger track- house, vocals, and like a sick piano riff with a massive bass drop with me flowing on top of it. That is where I picture my sound going and eventually I’ll create the perfect song. You know that is what we all aim to do. It’s like, ‘I’m going into the studio today, and I’m going to create the perfect banger.’ It’s funny- it never ends up happening, but you do have so much fun doing it. Every time you do come out with a track, it’s always like a good feeling.
I’m ready to hear your rapping over the productions though. What is the hold up you’ve got to get going!
Honestly there isn’t a hold up! I’ve finally figured out what I want my sound to be. I’ve been taking a lot of time to focus on production and my sound over the past year. I’m working on all of the beats right now so that when I go into the studio, hopefully in March, I’m going to be recording an entire EP.
What kind of a live performance environment do you enjoy playing the most?
For live performances, I love watching what Meduza has been doing and Imanbek– all of their remixes and sounds are just out of control. All of these kinds of tracks have been blowing up in the last year. That kind of chord sound with a deep vocal is huge, and I can’t wait to see that live. I think when live shows come back, that is going to be a big takeover sound.
Coachella is my favorite time of year. After moving to LA and California that was just the thing to do, and I miss it so much now that it hasn’t happened because of everything going on. When I see videos of Tomorrowland and things like that, I think it is all just so amazing, and I can’t wait to get back. For playing live aspects, I love what people have been doing with the live streams and videos. My instagram reels have been experimenting posting snippets and videos of remixes that I make, but I am going to start upping the videos now to be a live performance of the remix. I think that will give the viewers more to watch, and it will be more fun for me and more of a challenge. I’m excited for that new little venture.
Everyone has different takeaways when it comes to changing the pace of life due to the COVID lockdowns. What are your takeaways from the past year and how have you responded to the changes to what life looks like?
I come from both sides of this. I feel for the people really struggling, and then I see the people on Instagram saying you know you’re either thriving or surviving, and I listen to everyone’s point of view. I’m really just trying to do the best that I can. You know, I have a grandma who is in the hospital right now with COVID, and she isn’t doing too well, and it’s just really tough. It’s so real for me now as opposed to a few months ago when it really wasn’t. I think everyone just needs to stay safe and yeah- it’s crazy. I’m really just taking things day by day and trying to stay positive and make as much music as possible. If it wasn’t for music- I would get so bored. I have been cooking every day, and I have my playstation, but you know I don’t like to play that too much because I always just think to myself, “you know, you could be making music right now.” I’ve got a little Goldendoodle with my girlfriend who I live with, and we take walks in the park and try to stay busy. The beauty with Instagram is that it is something producers can thrive on at this point. You can make something dope and just upload it, and if people like it, they will just share it with a friend and be like, “hey, check this out.”
What kind of a Saturday Night is your Saturday Night Session going to get listeners ready for?
For my Saturday Night Session mix, I am going to showcase all of these remixes I have been working on and a bunch of new unreleased music, and of course, “Take Me Home” featuring Sydney Adams. It will be a high energy party at home. Get your drinks ready and your best dancing shoes. Turn it up for sure.