“Art is the ability to say what you’re not capable of saying.”
Stephen released his first song, “Bullet Train” from his dorm room. 130 million people tuned in.
He swapped school for southern California, and started working: crafting a hyper-personal, genre-agnostic style that gained fast acclaim. Fast forward three years: today, Stephen represents one of indie’s most original emerging voices.
On Sincerely (Halfway House), his debut album, the singer-songwriter’s talents hit you full on: meshing electronic soundscapes with vulnerability and outrage. Part confession, part call-to-arms, Sincerely is the soundtrack for a generation on the run; downloaded by over 340K fans on BitTorrent. We caught up with Stephen to talk about life and death valley. Read up.
When did this journey start for you? When did you begin playing?
This has been my whole life. When I started, it was purely for fun. I loved playing the piano; the drums. It was passion. It was love. My relationship to music has evolved, it’s changed with me. It’s become something more than love. The best thing we can actually feel as humans is expressing ourselves. Music becomes an extension of who you are; your voice. It’s not just fun. It’s not just therapeutic. It’s the ability to say what I’m not capable of saying.
What artists and records did you fall in love with along the way?
Pharrell and Timbaland are probably ingrained in my soul. Bill Withers. Kanye West. Adele. For Sincerely, I spent a lot of time looking at artists like Flume, mixing electronic with hip hop.
How did Sincerely come together?
I grew up in a bubble, in upper middle class Virginia. As I got older, I had this sort of crisis of awareness. The feeling when you realize that the whole world isn’t Virginia. When you realize that there are 3 billion people living in poverty, when you realize that their voices have been silenced, when you realize how small and how concentrated your own existence is. I grew up believing in a god, and believing I was special, and I was starting all over again. Like, why am I here? What is my place in the world? What do I need to do?
Music was therapeutic tool to cope with what I was going through. Sincerely came together unconsciously. I never set out intentionally to be like: this is who I am, this is what I want to explore. This was how I felt, and who I felt like I was becoming, this intense coming of awareness of the world.
The first tracks you released from Sincerely quickly racked up millions of plays. Why do you think this record resonated so hard with people?
I think people connect with realness. With soul. You know right away when something is fake or contrived. This record voices how I feel, openly, desperately, intimately. This is me banging my head against the wall. This is my life, what I’m going through. I think people can feel that.
Sincerely is definitely a call to action and a wake up call for our generation. Do you think music is fulfilling its role as an instrument for social change?
You see artists accept awards, and one thing that I always said to myself, that I always dreamed was, what if I could get up there? And what would I say? Not sup, look at me now. If I have the platform, how do I say what people need to hear? How do I listen?
My whole reason for going by Stephen is because I want my fans to be friends. I don’t want them to put me on a pedestal. I’m just a person like they are. I want to be building something with them.
What’s next for you?
Death Valley. I’m getting a house for the summer, a motorcycle, and a studio set up. I want to explore what it’s like to be alone, to explore the desert, just to spend time.