Interview with Stevie wolf
“I’m underwater and everyone else is in a rowboat on the surface. I can hear them talking, but it’s muffled, and when I try to shout, water just rushes in.”
If you’re anything like Stevie wolf (with a lowercase “w”), this will painfully resonate. If not, though, his contagious melodies of whimsical, animated pop are sure to resonate in some way. It’s music that looks at life through a slightly tilted lens, asking questions but not needing the answers. From 2017’s “Who” to his recently-released single “Ink”, electric guitar tangles and synth flourishes take the listener through the simultaneous comfort and discomfort of an internal world.
“It’s like the real me – call it your soul or spirit or whatever – is sitting inside a cockpit trying to drive this meat Megazord they call a body, pushing buttons and pulling levers, trying to create words and actions and build something called a life,” the Colorado-based songwriter and producer continues. “But inevitably you say or do the wrong thing and it just makes you feel so separate from others.”
When it comes to being an artist, however, Stevie is proving that separate is very much a good thing. Instead of the typical website for an indie artist, full of moody press shots and official-looking buttons, he chooses to present himself in colorful powerpoint slides (http://itsgonnabeokay.xyz). Some of the highlights of it include instructing the reader not to call him “Steve”, honestly discussing mental illness, and describing himself as a “hyper beam, lvl 60”. “I try to make the non-musical aspects of my project – photos, videos, merch, live performance, etc. – as wacky and innovative as possible, while making sure the music stays away from novelty for the sake of novelty,” he tells us. “I want my songs to be as rewarding to listen to the hundredth time as the first time, but have it delivered in the freshest way possible. So kind of this balanced duality.”
Although an individualistic confidence radiates from the project, that wasn’t always the case for him. After a childhood of compulsively-sung 20-second creations, he played in and was kicked out of a band, was told by an A&R of a major record company that his songs were “okay at best”, and went to college to study economics and jazz composition. “I believed [the A&R], for a little while at least,” Stevie admits. “I still wrote my own songs, but I didn’t think it was something I could actually pursue. Plus, everyone in my family is some sort of big brain, and being an artist never really seemed viable. My junior year I was a visiting student at Oxford, got an economics paper published, and I was the most unhappy I’ve ever been. I really didn’t think I’d make it through that year alive. So I started skipping my tutorials and classes to go play in pubs and open mics, and fell back in love with living. It was on my 21st birthday when I realized that being an artist was what I had to do.”
Discovering his capabilities as a producer involved losing a lot of inhibitions as well. “I started out self-producing my music when I was a teenager, just recording songs on my laptop,” he says. “But I thought there was some sort of magic that ‘real producers’ did, so I spent awhile having other people produce my music. I actually released that music, but ended up taking it all down and throwing it away because it didn’t really feel like me. I listen back to the early songs I self-produced, and even though the songs and singing are terrible, there’s an interesting sound that I had back when I didn’t know anything about production. So I’m continually trying to get back to that.” And there’s something distinctive about the sonic framework of each of his tracks that’s hard to pinpoint, a stream of sound that unfolds in an unconscious and sometimes surprising way. It’s as if the feelings are never overthought, but simply felt.
“Dynamics are something that I actually struggle with,” he observes. “For example, you can have all this intention to have things be big and powerful, but if everything is big all the time, then it ends up really boring and weak. Sometimes I nail the right energy levels in my productions, but usually I have to slave away for hours and still need to bring in a co-producer to help me crack the energetic code. That said, I do make sure [that my music] will catch people off guard and hook them back in. I still have really bad ADD and I get bored very easily as a listener, so I like it when there’s big changes in the middle of the song.” His choices are stimulating yet purposefully impactful, such as lulling the listener into a trance before snapping into a gritty anthem (“Flicker”) or plunging headfirst into a nearly-screamed chorus (“Paper maché doll”).
It’s been nearly four years of releasing only singles, but this time Stevie is back for a larger body of work: an EP titled ‘Chapped lips’, which was the outcome of several emotional upheavals. “I fell in love, deeper than I had ever been, which was fantastic,” he reveals. “And I released my first few songs, which got some music industry attention, landing me a big manager and agent and some label offers. That was great, too. But I didn’t really know where to go from there; I wasn’t ready to have people relying on me, and I got really disillusioned from the business side of things. The stress was building and building, and finally erupted after some traumatic stuff went down in my relationship. I had kind of a mental breakdown, started smoking weed pretty much constantly, and stopped writing music. I let down my partner; I didn’t have her back when she needed me most. I let down my manager and agent, let down the people who had invested their time and clout into me. So they all dumped me, which I don’t blame them at all for. That was when I realized there was a bigger story here to tell.”
But how did the image of cracked, dehydrated lips fit into the story? “I was going back and forth between LA and [Boulder, Colorado] to make the EP, writing and producing at my dad’s house and then taking the tracks to LA to finish them with collaborators,” he explains. “Colorado isn’t just high altitude; it's really dry and you need to drink a lot of water. And every time I came home to Boulder, my lips would get really chapped. I think I spent pretty much all of 2019 with chapped lips. This EP is kind of an emotional medicine for all the painful growth I was going through. I wanted each song to dig into something painful or uncomfortable, and then heal it back up.”
“Ink” is the last single before the EP’s release on May 27, examining the concept of how appearances aren’t always everything. “I wrote ‘Ink’ about my ex, who had tattoos all over her body,” he describes. “I always thought she was so brave to turn her experiences and life story into artwork that she literally wore on her sleeve. But there’s this stereotype of people with lots of tattoos as having some kind of baggage or inner turmoil; meanwhile, I have no tattoos, and I can pass for a basic, normal dude. In reality, I have behavioral issues and mental health issues and I feel like I’m all scarred and messed up, but you might not know that by looking at me. So the song is a philosophy on all that.” The song navigates through swerves of interlaced guitar textures, all while contemplating the puzzle of lines on skin.
However, his own clean-skinned status is going to change soon. Stevie is taking the leap to not only create an original design for a tattoo, but ink it on himself and capture it on film for the track’s music video. He muses that he might pick a drawing from his upcoming coloring book – yes, coloring book. “[I’m making the book] instead of making physical copies for my upcoming EP,” he says. “I hand-drew a page of artwork for each song so people can color while listening to the music. I’ve never heard of another artist doing that. That’s important to me.”
And while the listener gets to color therapeutically, they will be experiencing a varied collection of songs representing every hue. “I wanted this EP to be a diverse showcase of Stevie-ness,” he relates. “There are seven songs on the EP, and each is its own vibe. When I make my first full-length album, I’ll want it to be more monolithic and sonically-focused, but for now, I think it’s really exciting to play around with different sounds and have an EP be a diverse collection of all the different parts of me.” When talking sound, a track called “Confetti” is a standout, with the beep from a crosswalk transformed into a snare and the sound of a guitar cable being unplugged acting as the kick. And then lyrically, it’s hard to deny the power of “Paper maché doll”, in which Stevie analyzes the implications of following the crowd on autopilot like a “cardboard cutout of everybody else”.
His direct and even sometimes humorous address of social issues in his music is refreshing, giving impressions that are revealingly accurate. “It’s funny, because I try as hard as possible to not be influenced by the external world,” he expresses. “But I’m sensitive, and I can’t help but absorb what’s going on around me. So I guess my music has ended up with a lot of that kind of stuff; mental health, technology, self-esteem, gender stuff, etc. But I never set out to write about that – I just try to write about things that are sitting on my shoulders. Like, you know when you’re feeling some kind of way, and your posture is a little different and your voice is tight and everyone can tell something is on your mind but you aren’t sure what? That’s where I write from.”
But when it comes to 2020 realities, Stevie would rather stay positive. “As for coronavirus, it’s been a real trip,” he remarks. “I’ve already written a lot about isolation and anxiety and loneliness, to the point where I’m tired of focusing on all those heavier things. So when coronavirus came around, suddenly everybody had to isolate themselves; everyone is under constant stress, and everyone is feeling lost and alone and disconnected. With that ubiquity and sameness of human experience, anxiety and loneliness are the last things I want to write about. So instead, I’ve been wanting to write about the antidote to those troubles: love – especially familial love and platonic love, hope; but a grounded hope rather than [something like] ‘we are the world’, finding beauty in a harsh reality; the way that our pains and traumas turn out to be the things that define us. Those are the answers to this global ill.”
And when he’s stuck underwater, desperate for some kind of connection, a song can be the remedy. “When I make music, I get to be free of all that,” he says. “I don’t have to be alone, because someone is listening and feeling the same way, and they don’t have to be alone either because I’m just reminding them of a feeling they already feel, but haven’t been able to nail down. And then it’s like I am them and they are me and we are beautiful. So I hope my music will reach out to all the other Stevies out there, all the people who just want to be themselves but society says, ‘Your inner self is not normal, you're not okay, there’s something flawed about your fundamental being.’ I’m trying to connect us all into one big soul hug.”
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