Interview: Stevan (AUS) on Just Kids, summer romances and his newfound confidence

Stevan is inserting himself in the leagues of Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean by dropping his debut body of work, his mixtape Just Kids. At just 19, he’s one of the most promising young talents in our horizons as a multi-instrumentalist and producer creating woozy modern beats that blend influences from the greats such as Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, to the aforementioned contemporary mixtape creators.

Having turned the heads of the Australian music industry at BIGSOUND last year, Stevan went on to land spots on the lineups for Panama Festival and Fairgrounds Festival, as well as supporting dates with Winston Surfshirt and Omar Apollo.

His debut release is not going to slow down that momentum. We got to chat to him ahead of Just Kids release to deep dive into some of the stories behind his songs and took a broad look at moments growing up that have shaped his music.

How are you, Stevan? Where are you right now?

I’m doing good. Well, I was just out. I went to pick up a bass and then I came back home. So I’m currently just sitting in my bedroom in Wollongong.

Very nice! Hey, I want to go back to the start of your music career. What is your first memory of music in your life?

First memory was probably my dad. We used to have cassette tapes and, I forget what they call it, probably VHS cassette tapes of Bobby Brown singing. I think the first song that I remember is like, [singing] “Every little step I take…”, I forgot what that song’s called, [singing] “You will be there,” by Bobby Brown. That was probably the first thing that I remember vividly, musically. I think, he was a big R&B pop star, back in the day.

Is your family pretty musical then?

I’d say that my family enjoys a little music, but not necessarily. My older sister plays piano a little bit, but besides that no one. There’s not a really strong musical presence, besides loving music and, obviously, listening to it.

At least say they appreciate it, but there’s no sort of family band out the back, hey?

Well actually, I’m probably downplaying how talented they are. My sisters can sing a lot better than I do. So, I’m not sure if they’ve ever admit to be musically inclined. It’s a bit of a funny question for them.

You should produce a track for them and showcase their talents, really dust up the uncut gem.

I’d love to. I’d love to if they were up for it, for sure.

Make it that birthday present. Be like, “One free studio session with me.”

Hey, that would be a really cool present, actually. That would save me having to get a present. I don’t mind that idea at all.

You can steal it! So your multi-instrumentalist. Did you study music through school or how’d you pick it all up?

In high school I did do music, but it wasn’t advanced. Pretty much just standard. I guess the reason why I picked up different instruments was, the type of instrumentals that I wanted when I was younger, there wasn’t any local producers who were making that type of music, or even if there were, they weren’t interested in working with me because at the time, I guess I wasn’t agile. I wasn’t as good vocally and writing-wise. So, I had to learn how to do it myself, just to make the music I want to make and as it happened, I progressed with. You find different musician who are specialised in an instrument, like the band Thundercat. I heard a song called ‘Them Changes’ by Thundercat and I was just like, “Yeah, I got to learn how to play bass.”

I’ve heard some John Mayer songs and Steve Lacy songs. I heard that and I’m like, “Oh, I want to play guitar.” And then, I don’t know, I heard something, I think there might’ve been a Daniel Caesar song or Stevie Wonder and I’m just like, “Man, this piano’s the one.” So it’s mostly curiosity and probably a lack of focus because I couldn’t stick to one, I just moved around whenever it felt necessary. Eventually it all came to. I think I’m okay at most of the instruments that I play now. That’s how it happened.

Are you self-taught then? Or do you just take lessons?

Yeah, I am self-taught. It’s very organic and I’m definitely not good enough to have had teachers. I’m good enough to make up songs with my instrumentation, which is the best thing possible. That’s the only reason why I probably want to learn instruments is to create my music.

And how’d you get into producing? Are you Ableton based?

So I’m Logic-based, but recently, during isolation I picked up Ableton and learnt how to use it. But producing came out of necessity like I said before. It wasn’t that I didn’t want producers, but the whole idea of becoming a producer just seemed really attractive to me. Because a lot of acts that I really loved, were producing their own music. I remember finding out that Tyler [The Creator], back when I was listening to a lot of Tyler, that he had been producing all of his music and even Pharrell [Williams]. People that I used to listen to their instrumentals and be like, “Wow, this is amazing. It’s layered, it’s got textures,” and Kanye West as well. Finding out that he did a lot of producing for others artists, it was just all my favourite artists have a hand in production.

Even Stevie Wonder, actually he’s underrated. People don’t know that he used to play drums on his own tracks. And he used to compose and write all this amazing music. And I felt like, “That is another layer.” I could relate to the lyrics into the voice, but then even the music, like the emotion that you can put into the music is a whole another thing, it’s 100% new. I liked that idea. It’s really attractive to me.

Then you can have complete control over it without collaborators. You can just be like, “Nah, f**k it. This is what I want.”

Yeah, yeah, down to the T. But that’s also something I’m learning how to do actually, recently I’ve learnt to be a little more collaborative. Well, I’ve sat in with more sessions and just seeing what other people do. And obviously, I’m still really digging the whole like, “self-produced vibe”, but at the same time, there’s a lot to learn when you’re working with other people as well.

100%. Just to seeing how other people do their processes and what you can steal from that. Congrats on your mixtape, Just Kids. I have to ask, what makes it a mixtape? Why is it a mixtape as opposed to an EP or an LP?

Awesome. Okay, so two reasons. The first one is, I think, just a superficial one. I really didn’t want this project to be perceived as an album, coming out of the gate. Only because I feel like it’s suppressing what I’m putting out. And when I do put out an album, I really want to have a really strong sense of what I want to do, in terms of sonics, in terms of lyrics. Even visually I just want it to be a whole experience. With Just Kids, I didn’t want to put that label on there, it’s like an album, because when I do drop an album, I have really high expectations for it. But I guess the more important reason or the second reason is because mixtapes was the format that I got introduced to a lot of my favourite artists.

There used to be this website called DatPiff. Me and my cousin, we used to go on that website all the time when I just started getting into production, seriously producing, rapping, all that. That’s where we found Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap for the first time. We found the Nostalgia Ultra, which was Frank Ocean’s mixtape. We found Long Live A$AP. Everybody was releasing mixtapes. That was the format that I was enjoying music and the whole mixtape itself, my mixtape, it’s speaking about that time. So I was just like, “This is a perfect callback to that experience.” Just like my first exposure to a lot of music that I grew to love and appreciate started from mixtapes. I thought it would be a really cool alternative release format, but also it has a pretty special meaning to me because some of my first and favourite projects were mixtapes and they came in that DatPiff website format. That’s the more important reason.

And it’s you putting yourself within the ranks of those people. It’s paying homage to that vintage. You created it over a number of years as well. Pretty formative years as I would say, like 16 to 19, right?

It’s crazy, yeah. I didn’t realise I was making it, obviously, although I always had a goal. I was like, “Okay, these are going to go onto a project. Yet for some reason, it’s like some songs just blended so naturally. And they were created over a few years, but it all makes sense to me, narratively speaking. I hear the beginning and then the end and I’m just like, “Okay, this is where I started and this is the last.” The first song is probably the furthest thing from what I sound like or who I am now. And then last track on the project is where I’m at currently. It’s really weird how that worked out.

Is it in chronological order then? What’s the earliest song that you wrote?

Whoa. The earliest song I wrote on that project, ‘Timee’. But ‘Timee’ is, I think, might be the fourth track on it.

And what was the most recent then?

Most recent would be ‘Tripping’.

Let’s get into some of the specifics of these songs. I’ve got to ask, ‘LNT’, is that Leave No Trace? What does that acronym?

Love and Tenderness. I didn’t even realise that it was kind of a play on a PYT, like pretty young thing [by Michael Jackson]. I think a musician friend of my manager’s like, “Oh, he’s trying to do it?”, I was like, “Nah!” It’s just, I didn’t want to write “love and tenderness”. Just the idea of having the word “love” in that sentence, it puts pressure on a song to be somewhat relevant or emotional and ‘LNT’ is a pretty fun track. So I was just like, “Yeah, let’s just abbreviate that so there’s a little mystery to it and it’s less of a statement.”

I love that. All right, who was that inspired by? What was that inspired by? Were you experiencing some “love and tenderness”?

Oh. Wow, I love the way you phrased that. Was I experiencing love and tenderness..? I guess, yeah. I remember when I wrote that song, it would have been the beginning of last year. I went up to Cairns and I’ve got some family who stays up there and I was just up in the general Brisbane area. I go up there pretty much at the same time, every single year. So the first lyric of the song is like, “365 days away”, meaning I’m always at this place at the beginning of every year. So I wait a whole year and then “Yo I’m back.” It was capturing the time that I had there, especially during high school and stuff, sometimes I just get tired of Wollongong and Sydney.

I’d be like, “Oh, this place.” I associated it too much with real life or everyday, my day to day. So whenever I was up in Brisbane or in Cairns, hanging out with new friends and, obviously, some love interests. But whenever I was hanging out with them, it was just like, this moment, this experience, is completely separate from my day to day. And it felt, in a weird way as a kid, experiences like that, I was just like, “Damn, I wish this could be forever.” Realistically, that couldn’t be the case. I romanticised that experience and made it super glamorised. It’s about finding refuge in a certain spot, with certain people. That’s your place away and feeling that love and tenderness when you’re there. Because after a pretty long period of reality, you want to get away from stuff and you want to feel something different.

Escapism. I think that’s just summer holidays as well throughout high school. It’s glittery and then the summer romances and you’re like, “Man, I had different friends over the summer, that was wild,” and you get back to mundane school and you’re like, “Where’d that go? I don’t even know.”

Yeah, wow. So true. That’s exactly what it is. You spend enough time with other people, you get to a bit of a routine and then it’s like, “Oh, school’s back,” then you’re like, “Ah…”

Let’s talk about ‘No More Regrets’. This one seems more diaristic.

Yeah well, there’s a particular story to ‘No More Regrets’ but I’m really embarrassed about it so I’ll cut corners and sort of say the story without saying it. I’d just gotten out of a relationship at the time and I was wondering if this… There was another person, I was wondering if they were into me or whatever, blah, blah, blah, blah. They had a certain item of mine and I was like, “Why is this item here?”, you know what I mean. I didn’t really talk to them that much, but I know, whenever they had a party, you pulled up to their house, they’ll just like, “Yo, why is this item of mine your house?”

So long story short, I ended up continuing with the parties. I don’t know, it was me just being like, “Okay, damn. I kind of want to make a move, whatever.” I want to engage this situation. I want to have the temperament and regardless of if it’s a yes or no, I just want to go out there and take a chance, just treat the situation as if it’s as normal as can be, and then if it’s cool, it’s cool. If it’s not, it’s not. But I don’t want to regret not pursuing this certain situation.

So yeah. Even in the lyrics sometimes, think if I can quote something… I think the first line is like [singing], “Time to get a little anxious if we, don’t think and just act on what we feel in the moment. You’ll see if we can own it to be, want to make you feel comfortable.” So yeah. It’s like that anxiety about being, especially when you are younger, well at least for me in my teen years. You get so caught up in your head that you either think people are a lot larger than they are or you see yourself as small. You don’t want to take as many chances with interacting with people. At least for me, I wasn’t always this confident.

So when I developed little bit of confidence, it was just like, “Yeah, I’ve got to live life too. I’ve got to make decisions that I won’t to regret and take chances that I won’t regret. And stay away from not making decisions, like, “Damn, I should’ve said something,” and then regretting that for the rest high school or so. Basically in a weird way, it’s that story that I mentioned at the beginning.

That’s a strong point in saying especially to a younger audience, “Just throw caution to the wind. Wear your heart on your sleeve,” and you don’t want to be 70 and be like, “Wonder what would’ve happened if I ever asked that person on that date? What could have been?”

I agree. I reckon it’s a thing that in today it’s weird. Even growing up, growing out of high school and stuff, you just start to realise, because you can interact with people a lot more. Freely, for some reason, going around. There isn’t like a social structure whereas like in high school there’s like clear defined lines between who’s…

Cool or not.

People get really separated. Yeah, exactly. When you grow up and you leave high school, you just realise that interacting with people was just so normal and so natural. People aren’t like animals who aren’t like weird about stuff, but you’re in your head a lot when you were younger. Because I guess the first time you probably even wanted to speak to people or you wanted to branch out, so it’s alien sort of thing. Hopefully people listen to it and they’re like, it’s like a little bit of confidence to, obviously, appropriately take risks.

Speaking of meeting people, are you sitting on any sort of like unreleased collabs with Ruel perhaps? You guys were hanging out a far bit around Laneway Festival.

Yeah. I don’t know how to answer that. Well for the moment, no. I’d say it definitively, there is no, and I’m not being secretive, there is no like Ruel/Stevan track out there. I do want to say a big shoutout to Ruel though, because he’s just been a really cool guy. Ever since I had met him, he’s legitimately just he was so humble, such a really nice kid and he goes out of his way to really, to put on for his team, so shoutout to Ruel.

Definitely one of the most down-to-earth artists I’ve met! Talking about unreleased gems, what’s this little folder of goodies we can get with the pre-order of your mixtape, that’s sitting on your desktop?

There’s going to be heaps of stuff in there, but yeah, some acoustic versions of some songs, some ideas that didn’t quite make the project, but I think that are still really good. I think I going to surprise people with that one as well. I’m working on some stuff at the moment to put into that folder, so yeah. I guess people just need to keep an eye out for it and pre-order.

I’m excited to see if there are some Ableton-based tunes, see what’s happened with this iso-experimenting.

Yes!

Stevan, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Congrats on Just Kids and hopefully I can catch you in real life pretty soon.

Just Kids is out now. Buy and stream Stevan‘s mixtape here

JUST KIDS – LIVE MIXTAPE LAUNCH
SATURDAY, JUNE 13
2PM – 4PM (AEST)
INSTAGRAM LIVE, FACEBOOK LIVE & YOUTUBE
WITH SPECIAL GUESTS
WATCH HERE

Photo Credit: @lazybonesphoto

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