By Reegan Saunders

James Ivy is one of the coolest musicians to come out of New York in recent years; with his colorful and shining personality, he reaffirms my faith in the future of music. 

Ivy was recently signed to the Fader Label, the independent record label which is also home to Clairo, and, over the past few months, he has been chipping away at new music projects. This includes a music video for his single “Sick,” which he created with the help of a few friends, including local filmmaker Drake Li. Recently, we had the chance to speak with Ivy about his songwriting process, his life in New York, and much more.

Let’s talk about your latest release. What do you want your audience to know about “Sick?”

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The first version of it was a song I wrote two years ago, and it was a very spur-of-the-moment type thing. I was going through kind of a rough time; my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t really working on music for, like, a long time because of that- because I was processing what was going on. And it was right before Christmas….it was like Christmas Eve and it didn’t feel like the holidays at all. I kind of just sat down at my computer with my guitar and wrote that song. I just sort of played it and didn’t really come up with most of the lyrics.

Long story short, my mom’s okay now; she’s really good, she’s doing great. And I’m really close with my mom, so it was tough, you know, to go through that. So, I think that song was just something that I needed to do for myself. You know, I think a lot of the music that I make is kind of an equal sort of thing — where it’s equally for me as it is for people who listen to it. But I think for “Sick,” the first version at least, was very for myself. It was something that I needed to make and I just put it out on SoundCloud, as a demo that night. So, it was kind of cathartic and therapeutic, in a way, for me to write that song. And I revisited it about a year later — by then, my mom was okay, so, this song is sort of serving as like this snapshot of a period of time in my life.

I was playing a show with some friends from school, and we were playing at this art gallery — it was just like a house show, so it was very DIY; it had a really shitty sound system and everything. I wanted a song and I was like, let’s do like a really punk upbeat version [of “Sick”]. So, it’s essentially a new song — it has gone through many different versions, and this is the final version, which is very new to people- like people hearing it for the first time. So, it’s really cool for that to finally come out; it feels great.

There’s one line in “Sick” that goes, “Even if I didn’t think about it, I’d still dream about and I dream all of the time.” I thought that line was really cool. 

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Thank you. Yeah, I think that line definitely has to do with how “Sick” is kind of this double meaning, of someone being physically ill, but also the mental health problems that I was dealing with. A lot of my anxiety stems around health-related things, so it was crazy when someone I really love and care for was diagnosed with cancer. It’s like my worst nightmare. But, um, yeah, that line really is all about not being able to escape this- like, being trapped in this thing. Like, even if there was a way for me to completely shut this idea out of my brain, I think it would still be there subconsciously; it would still work its way into my dreams.

And with your songwriting process — I know you originally started off more electronically. How do you go about the process generally?

I like talking about this a lot, because it’s a process that I’m still going through and figuring out right now. I’m 21, and I’ve been making music since I was a kid. When I was around 15, I started learning how to produce music. I was really into electronic music — I had a big phase, and I still love electronic music today — but, at a certain point, music production and electronic music weren’t enough for me. 

So, a lot of my songwriting actually starts on the computer, which is why “Sick” started on the computer. It was still guitar and my vocals, but it was just going right into my computer and I’m writing it there on the spot. What I did with “Staring Contests” was I wrote on a guitar first — and it was entirely written on guitar — and then, only after I’d completely structured that song out, I then took it to my computer to arrange it and properly record it.  So, yeah, I’m enjoying both aspects, but I think I’m kind of gravitating towards writing beforehand, just because I’ve written sort of on the spot for most of my life so far. So, I’m kind of enjoying this new way to approach the songwriting process.

Let’s talk about your voice. Previously, you’ve said you feel “cursed” by your pop punk voice, and I thought that was so funny. 

I listened to a ton of like, pop punk and screamo, and post-hardcore stuff growing up. And so I feel like, in those formative years, when you’re a kid, that’s when you’re developing, and I think subconsciously, that’s where I picked up the tonality of my voice. I guess it’s also, like, a nature-versus-nurture argument. It’s like, was I born with that voice? Or was it something that I learned because I listened to so much pop punk when I was growing up?

I think, for a while, I felt like I was a little bit cursed with it. But, [there are] very complimentary things that people are saying, and it makes me feel a little bit more confident. And that [confidence] just also comes with putting out music and seeing a reaction to it. I had so much music that wasn’t released for so long, and when you do that, you just nitpick everything and there’s no external feedback. But, you know, once that music is out into the world, you can sort of start to appreciate your trick — like your quirks and your uniqueness and your own sound. And I think that’s something I’m still figuring out, how to love my project, and how to make my project work for me, and how to pull different inspirations and influences into one thing. That’s me. It’s definitely a work in progress. I would put a little asterisk next to the curse thing, because I definitely think I do have a pop punk-heavy voice, but I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing anymore. 

So, earlier you were talking about a show you guys put on at an art gallery. What’s the local scene in New York like for you? 

Yeah, it’s really cool. I met a lot of my friends from music here. I came to college here and, yeah, just met a lot of my friends through school, [and] also, just through the New York sort of scene. I think there is kind of like a scene; it’s cool how people are forming out here. In my immediate close friend group, it’s me and this band, Been Stellar, who just put out an EP; they do really cool live shows, and we used to always go every time they played. They have such great energy when they perform, and, you know, all your friends are there. 

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My friend Harry Teardrop has also done a lot of shows in New York, and his shows are always a blast. And we’ve done shows together; we’re really close. And a lot of the members that you see in the “Sick” music video — like, members of the band — are friends I’ve met through college, and they all do their own solo music, too. They’re sort of tied in with this scene as well. It’s really nice to be surrounded by people who are all doing music, and we’re all sort of around the same age. 

I think it’s exciting; It’s really exciting because, sometimes, I’ll meet people who I’ve known about for a long time and have listened to their music for a while and I’m like, “Woah, I get to hang out with this person” and it’s so cool. I think, at the same time, though, I don’t really feel like there’s a whole lot of like superiority-inferiority type things. Everyone’s open to just hanging out, and everyone’s excited about everyone else’s stuff. So, yeah,  I really, really, really like what’s happening out here in New York. 

Behind-the-scenes of the “Sick” MV (PC: Drake Li)

And where did you study? 

I went to NYU. I went into the Clive Davis program — it’s the recorded music program there — for three years. I’m supposed to be a senior, [but] I’m actually taking off school, because of COVID and also just to, like, focus on music stuff for now. I went there for three years, and I liked it. I was never really that diligent about schoolwork, but I really did enjoy meeting like a ton of people out here. And my professors were all really helpful. Sometimes, it’s not easy to focus on school, but you get a lot of fun experiences from them. 

Can we expect more releases in the near future?

I don’t know if I’m at any liberty to say, but I think I definitely expect something to close out the year for me. And then, next year, more music. I’m really, really excited about it. Hopefully, I can get a bigger body of work. I’m not sure what that’s going to be…if it’s going to be in the form of an EP, or an album. [There are] a lot of new things, so, I’m really, really excited for everyone to hear.

Bonus question: if you could describe your music as a color, what color would it be?

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I think green to describe my music, not only because my name is James Ivy, but I think that color so far, kind of fits in with every release that I’ve put out. I think “Staring Contest” was very bright colors — like, sky blue and bright green and dark green; very, like, nature type things. That’s what that song, sonically, sounds like. I think “Yearbook” is also like that; it’s very sparkly and shiny, but also, there’s this element of nature and in it. I think, to some degree, I’m speaking more in terms of sound, not lyrics — it sounds very summery to me, and when I think of summer, I think of green grass and sky blue. 

It’s funny that you asked that question, because I think a lot of people think in colors, but I tend to think in, like, seasons for music. So, there are albums that I listened to when I was a kid, and I’m like “Oh, yeah, this is, like, a winter album.” Or like, “This is a fall album.” And I kind of have associations with colors based off season. I think, so far, all the music has been pretty green- different shades of green for sure. I think “Sick” is definitely a darker green. And yeah, I think, hopefully, the new stuff is a different color palette.

Make sure to keep up with James Ivy via his socials (listed below) to keep up with what he has in store for the future!