Felix Jaehn On The Early Days, His “Cheerleader” Remix & German Dance Music: Idolator Interview
2015 will go down as the year Germans replaced the Dutch as the heaviest hitters in EDM. Robin Schulz landed two international hits (“Waves” and “Prayer In C”), Zedd’s sophomore LP True Colors debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 and Felix Jaehn landed the Song Of The Summer with his infectious remix of OMI’s “Cheerleader.” It spent six weeks at number one in the US and sold triple platinum. The 21-year-old then followed that up with a global smash of his own, a Jasmine Thompson-voiced cover of “Ain’t Nobody.”
I recently caught up with the Hamburg native in Los Angeles to talk about his breakthrough year. Felix spoke about his pre-“Cheerleader” career, remixing OMI’s reggae-pop anthem (he initially thought of it as just another remix) and the resurgence of German dance music. He also opened up about his debut LP, which will hopefully arrive early next year, and plans to produce music for other artists. Find out more below.
When did you first hear “Cheerleader”? I know it was around for a while.
Yeah, it was originally a reggae-pop song. I think it was released in 2012. The record company contacted me directly because they liked my stuff. I was putting out some bootlegs, some originals. Just a lot of stuff on my Soundcloud page, starting to build an online fan base. They just sent me the song and asked if I wanted to do a remix. That was in January 2014. I liked the song, thought it had potential and asked for the a cappella.
What was your initial reaction? Did you know where you wanted to take the song?
I think the basic direction was clear from the beginning because obviously, at that time, I was already producing a lot of house music. I knew I had to speed it up because the original was 90 bpm. Maybe it was 92. I am not too sure anymore. First of all, when they sent me the a cappella, I wondered, “How does it sound if you speed it up?”
You have to listen to it, like, five times to get used to the new tempo. I thought, okay this works, then I started building stuff around it. Started with the chords, added the house beats, and the bassline. Everything element by element. It actually went pretty fast. I think within one or two weeks, it was pretty much done.
The deep house sound really stands out on US radio. When did you start playing around with it?
After finishing high school, I moved to London for a year. I studied at Point Blank. It’s a music college. I did some production, song engineering, some music business as well. A little bit of everything and deep house was really, really big at that time. It was 2012 or 2013 in London. That was like one year after dub-step and exploded. Then everyone was like, “Okay we need something chilled-out now.”
I was influenced just by living in London, going out and playing some shows over there. I got into this UK-ish deep house. From that, it just kind of developed over one or two years to become more melodic. I wanted to incorporate live instruments. That’s how it kind of came about.
It’s the hot sound at the moment.
Yeah, it’s crazy. In Europe it’s so big. We have other Germans doing it like Robin Schulz and European acts like Lost Frequencies. This genre is becoming really popular. I think “Cheerleader” was the first Billboard top 10 hit of that genre, so it’s really, really cool. Now Justin Bieber is kind of doing a similar style as well. It’s definitely influenced by deep house.
Can you tell as a little about your pre-“Cheerleader” career?
When I was a kid, I played the violin. That’s the very beginning. I was seven years old. I quit when I was 14.
You should put some strings on your next song!
I put strings on the remix of Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph.” I have strings in the hook.
Is it you playing?
No. It’s actually synth strings but it sounds all right when you put some effects on it. It works. Yeah, I started just by uploading stuff on SoundCloud. I did bootlegs, I did some originals, and I had a couple of releases. My first one was on a really, really small label from Hamburg called Aristocrat and the release was called “Sommer Am Meer,” which is German for “Summer By The Sea.” We had vinyls, but I think we had 200 to 500 hundred. A really, really small number.
Then I had releases on dance labels. One on Spinnin’ Records and one on Armada Music, which was really great. It was the first big step to be on the big indies and have the dance releases. Then in August 2014, I signed with Universal and released a song called “Shine.” Now it’s “Ain’t Nobody.” In between, the remixes came out of nowhere and charted — like “Cheerleader.”
Did you know you were on to something special with “Cheerleader”?
Well, I wouldn’t hand it in if I didn’t think it was good. But I never imagined it would be a huge hit. It was just another remix. Of course, I thought it was cool, but it was released in May 2014. At first, nothing really happened. The record label didn’t really push it. It just started growing organically. It took off on Spotify in Sweden first. It started getting shared and people put it in playlists. Then the record company gave their big push.
How have your friends and family responded to your success?
They’re really happy and supportive. I think they’re just really happy for me and really glad I can do what I love. They are supporting me whenever they can. It’s really cool.
You mentioned “Ain’t Nobody,” which is your next single in the US. Why did you decide to cover that song?
It’s just a legendary song that I really love. Even though I’m younger than the song, by 10 years probably, it’s still a song everyone grows up and everyone knows — you must have heard it somewhere. I just thought it’s about time for a new take. Even though there might have been a lot of covers already, there wasn’t a good cover recently, especially not in my style. I thought it was a really cool idea.
It wasn’t meant to be a big thing. It was just something I did and put out and became big on the internet. Later, we made it an official single, and could luckily clear it and actually be allowed to do it as an official single.
What appealed to you about working with Jasmine?
I just found her on YouTube. She was putting out a lot of stuff, like covers of everything. I listened to a cover she did. I thought it was really great. Then I did some research. I was like, “Fuck. She’s only 14 years old!” It’s so crazy and she has such a beautiful voice and is so talented. I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to do something with her.”
Is the single after that going to be “Book Of Love”?
We’re not 100 percent sure yet. It’s a new song that we started to work in Europe because “Ain’t Nobody” was released back in April. We are a little bit ahead of the schedule in Europe. “Book of Love” is coming out over there right now. It’s actually going quite well in Germany already. We’ll see. Maybe it’s the next one over here as well, maybe there’s a different one. Who knows?
Who is Polina? I haven’t heard of her before.
I met Polina at a club in Paris. It was, I think, October last year. I played at the Zig Zag Club, that’s the name. It’s really, really cool club. She’s based in LA, but she was in Europe for songwriting at the time. She just had a night off and came to the club. She really liked my set and was like, “Oh, this is a cool sound. We should connect.” She gave me her email address and we just started chatting. Then the song came about.
You have a knack for discovering new talent!
Maybe I’m lucky. I don’t know. Somehow I find all these singers. It’s great.
German dance music is so hot right now.
Yeah. It’s insane. It’s a really new trend.
What’s causing this resurgence of German house?
Probably no one knows the answer. I don’t know. Obviously Germany already had a big dance scene, and I think Europe in general. I don’t really know to be honest. It’s tough to say. There are a lot of people from Germany doing well, like Zedd and Robin Schulz. There are also some from France, from Holland. From everywhere in Europe, really. I think it’s just kind of a fresh sound that became popular in Europe and now it’s taking over the world. I guess in the next few month we’ll see a lot of American artists doing similar styles as well.
Yeah, it’s crazy. Germany’s really happy and proud that it’s taking over America in a way as well. I think “Cheerleader” was actually the first song in 26 years where someone German was involved in a number one hit over here. They were all really proud when it was official that we went to number one. Everyone was going crazy about it.
What about a larger body of work? Are you releasing an EP or an album?
Definitely, yeah. It’s the main project at the moment. It has been for the past few months. I was at the studio a lot in Oslo, Stockholm, London. Going to songwriting sessions with singers and songwriters. I already have 20 demos, but it’s about finding the best ones. I want it to be perfect, of course. It’s going to be my first studio album, so it’s really important. Hopefully we’ll be able to release it early next year.
Is it all going to be deep house?
Yeah, I guess. Of course, it’s going to be similar, but I’m also going to try to mix it up. Maybe have some faster tracks that are more club-based, like Oliver Heldens’ style. Maybe I’m going to do some slower ones, like 100 bpm. Maybe like Major Lazer’s “Lean On.” Could be anything, really, as long as it has positive vibes and is house-related. I don’t want it to be boring. That’s the most important thing.
Who have you collaborated with?
Unfortunately, I don’t think I can name anyone. There’s going to be some good stuff on it. Next summer I’ll come back and can tell you more.
Fair enough! Who do you look up to in dance music?
I guess when I started DJ-ing, at like 15 or 16, Avicii was one of the main guys. He still puts out releases as Tim Bergling. I really love that sound. I incorporate that in my style as well. You have the house music approach but with beautiful melodies, and proper songs with good vocals. Solid overall production. Another one who’s doing that really well is Calvin Harris. He’s also one of the producers I really like.
Are you doing any more remixes?
After “Cheerleader,” we’ve been receiving so many requests. In a way, I was like, “Okay, now we had a hit with a remix. I really want my originals to be out.” I’ve always been doing remixes and originals. Just somehow the listeners decided to make my remix a hit. I don’t want the stamp on my face to be like, “Okay, he’s the remix guy.” I don’t think I’m going to do a lot more, but I did two others.
The Ed Sheeran one, and I did one for Giorgio Moroder and Sia’s “Deja Vu.” Sia and Ed Sheeran are actually my favorite singer-songwriters. When we got those requests, I didn’t really think. I was like, “Okay, I don’t care what the best strategic decision is. Let’s just do it.” I think my next single should be an original. But if there’s a really great song I love and I want to have a take on, why not?
What about producing for other people?
Definitely. I’m already starting. I can’t name anyone, but that’s definitely on my list as well. For sure.