Stephen Muses on Desert-Dwelling, the Martyrdom of “Crossfire,” and Experimenting on His Second Album

Stephen Picture

For an artist who created his first album from “a lot of darkness,” Stephen is feeling relatively upbeat. He’s staying at an Airbnb in the legendary Joshua Tree Park this summer—the desert that once served as muse to the platinum-selling U2 album of the same name. “It’s really been a physical feeling of freedom,” he explains over the phone. “I’ve been really happy… just kind of like laughing for no reason and chuckling.” The artist has been preparing his second album—writing, producing, and singing his own tracks—by isolating himself from the city. Stephen is settling into a routine that he is actively documenting on his Snapchat (@ithinkimcrashin): motorcycle rides, animated conversations with himself, and late-night music making sessions at his home studio.

But this is a huge change for the singer-songwriter and producer, who released his experimental debut, Sincerely, in early May. The album, which was entirely self-written and produced, is a coming-of-age story that reflects a yearning for self-actualization. It features frantic postmodern synths and solemn piano chords buoyed by EDM-style drops and natural sounds—trickling water, thunder, chirping crickets—glossed in steely production. In just three months, the album has boosted Stephen’s online presence to 80 million streams and plays and netted him performances at Electric Forest and Northern Nights—with the former being praised by Your EDM as “one of the most electrifying live performances in The Observatory’s history.”

“Everyone was like you’re so talented, how are you able to do this so easily?”

Sincerely was the product of years of hard work and self-discovery, although Stephen says that this hard work was at first overlooked when he first started sharing his self-produced tracks. He describes the surprise his friends had. “Everyone was like you’re so talented, how are you able to do this so easily?” He denies having talent in the traditional sense, believing alternatively that “talent is really just passion discovered at a young age.” This manifesto becomes increasingly clear when looking at Stephen’s own musical background.

By age five, Stephen was already beginning his classical piano training, encouraged by his parents—a trained music therapist mother (and a vocalist, flutist, and pianist) and a music-loving father. In 6th grade, he picked up the drum set and his brother began playing the electric guitar. “Every day we would create these songs together and my mom would come down and start jamming with us. When we had relatives come over they would come and play too.”

Stephen believes these jam sessions with his family served as his first experiences with songwriting and arrangement. In high school, after throwing a wild New Years’ party and reconnecting with a previous soccer teammate who had played the guitar, he joined a local band, Rifle Ridge, as both a drummer and producer. He spent months with the band recording and re-recording their first EP, and became devoted to the overall production process, since it gave him a chance to exhibit more control over the finished product. Stephen then began to regularly produce for other local artists. “Somehow I ended up meeting all these rappers from across the northern Virginia area,” he explains, laughing. “Every weekend I’d have all these guys coming over to my parents’ basement to get on my beats.”

I was doing the song in between classes. I’d be done with circuit theory and I’d walk out of that class and get on my keyboard.”

After high school, he was accepted into Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, but began to feel distanced from his classes and degree, which he saw as too technically focused. On his own, he produced and released the online hit “Bullet Train” (25 million Spotify streams, 30 million YouTube plays), and was connected with Nathan Lim, co-manager of Krewella, for whom he produced a remix in a single week. “I was doing the song in between classes,” he explains. “I’d be done with circuit theory and I’d walk out of that class and get on my keyboard.” Several months after completing the remix, which ended up being Krewella’s favorite, Stephen was signed to Nathan Lim’s TH3RD BRAIN management, and moved to Los Angeles.

 

Over the next two years, he crafted a unique sound that would define the darkness behind Sincerely. While learning guitar and developing his singing voice, he began to ask deep questions about his own perception of the world through songwriting. His latest single, a particularly heavy cut called “Crossfire,” is emblematic of this interrogative and emotional approach. The song opens with a throbbing pulse, gunshot ricochets, the whirr of a helicopter, and grating sobs. It narrates the story of an unnamed “he” who is suffering from the violence of war. It becomes evident throughout the song that “he” is not all that different from the singer. The music video drives this point home; shot in Chicago, it explores the blindness that our society is accustomed to—an ignorance towards both homelessness and racially-motivated incarceration.

“It’s a pretty strong emotion that I feel pretty often,” Stephen elaborates. “Writing ‘Crossfire’ sort of helped me cope with it but it doesn’t really go away. I’ll be taking a warm shower or eating a warm meal when I suddenly step out of that moment. There are so many people just like me with the same heart and the same intentions that don’t have any sort of chance to do the things I’m doing. People who are victims of circumstances that are far out of their control, whose voices have been silenced. ‘Crossfire’ is me asking something greater than myself, a question of frustration and absolute desperation – why me?”

This emphatic question peaks towards the end of the song, during a bridge-like swirl of deconstructed voices and cold synths upon which Stephen’s postulates: “Can I trust what I’m given? / When faith still needs a gun / Whose ammunition justifies the wrong?” The desolate production implies an other-worldly experience. In creating the production for the moment, Stephen explains, “I wanted it to feel like I was being sucked up into heaven. The whole song until that point was me on earth just screaming to the sky, and that part is more like a conversation with God or an ultimate truth.”

“It’s a weird celebration sort of in the same way we would celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made.”

But the complexity does not stop there. In a typical move for Stephen’s music, there’s a huge layering of meaning towards the end. As Stephen explains, the song comes close to representing a symbolic crucifixion. “It’s a weird celebration sort of in the same way we would celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made. I’m not Christian or Catholic or anything like that, but I do believe Jesus was crucified. I [end the song by singing] this person’s caught on the cross. Life is so chaotic that there are people that are going to have to suffer to be here… The song represents almost like a gratefulness and a thankfulness that you know these people are being like martyrs in a way for everyone else. I think it’s really interesting.”

Stephen sees this gratefulness in terms of his own upbringing in suburban Virginia—being born into a “lucky and fortunate life” that others do not even get a chance at. He sees his music-making as a way to use his privilege to help others. His Facebook page is covered in inspirational posts that encourage his fans to follow their dreams and accept and love themselves. Each post is littered with inspiring thank you notes from fans all over the world who deeply relate to Stephen’s messages. And often, the artist himself responds with equal gratitude, thanking his fans for their comments or hoping to meet at future shows.

“For album two, it’s more about an acceptance of who I am and an awareness of the world around me and learning to love who I am.”

For now, Stephen hopes to incorporate his newly found self-love and positivity into new music. “For album two, it’s more about an acceptance of who I am and an awareness of the world around me and learning to love who I am. I have a lot of feelings and I’m experimenting with a lot of new things. I haven’t created a ton of music that has come from love and positive feelings so I’m curious to see what happens.”

-Shane

Note: Transcribed quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.



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