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Stephen Dishes on New Album and the Importance of Self-Love

Stephen photographed in 2016
Courtesy Photo

Stephen

Plenty of artists upload their albums to SoundCloud, but few come with a manifesto. “I believe my generation needs a revolution,” Stephen Swartz declared in a letter posted along with his album on Noisey earlier this month. The missive was part self-help manual – “we don’t love ourselves” – and part call to arms: “But we can do so much. We can change the world… My generation has all the power if we work together. This is my invitation to the ones who love.”

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Speaking to Billboard on the phone recently, Stephen sounds concerned for his peers, who he believes are imprisoned by the weight of others’ perceptions. “They don’t even care about liking themselves,” he says. “If you don’t love yourself, you’re gonna spend the rest of your life trying to make other people love you so that you can love yourself. That causes so many problems. The revolution I’m talking about: embracing who you are, not being scared to have a voice and be unique.”

The 24 year-old Stephen came by his current beliefs after battling through his own self-doubt on the way to creating Sincerely, his debut album. He’s been musically inclined for most of his life – piano lessons at five, drums at ten, making beats by the time he was in seventh or eighth grade. In high school, he served as a producer for a band he was drumming in. “We recorded an EP at this kid’s house,” Stephen recalls. “We got the record back and it sounded like shit. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was like, ‘man, I could do this so much better.’ I begged my parents to get me the most basic setup for recording, and I ended up recording the EP for the band, and it sounded great – considering how shitty we were.”

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After high school, he enrolled at the University of Miami to study music engineering, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. “It wasn’t recording engineering,” he explains. “It was like an engineer engineer, studying the design and creation of audio technology.” On the side, he was working on his own music, and during his sophomore year, he put together the song “Bullet Train” with another student, Joni Fatora. It’s a slow-rolling electronic composition that mixes light vocals with a nasty, careening edge; looking back now, the track anticipated the sound of recent crossover hits from groups like The Chainsmokers by several years.

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“Bullet Train” attracted the attention of some tastemakers, including Ethan Baer at Dubstep.NET. Baer in turn introduced Stephen to Nathan Lim and Jake Udell, who run Th3rd Brain Management. (Today Th3rd Brain also works with Zhu and Gallant; at the time, Krewella was its primary client.) Stephen started sending the two music.

On song in particular caught Lim and Udell’s ears. “I had this really cool beat,” Stephen remembers. “I knew that I wanted a male vocalist, and I was really inspired by the beat, so I recorded demo vocals. At this point I never sang. I ended up sending it over to Nathan and Jake to see if they had any recommendations for vocalists.” But instead, the pair were struck by the original vocals.

“That’s when they were like, ‘we really want to work with you,’” Stephen continues. On Lim’s instructions, Stephen attempted to write a new song every day for a month. “I could barely play guitar,” he says, but he tried anyway. Soon Th3rd Brain suggested that he move out to L.A., and Stephen left college to head west, with his parents’ blessing.

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He did not find the transition to be an easy one, experiencing the malaise that afflicts many college graduates in their early ‘20s. “I was trying to find my voice as a human being,” he says. “I became disenchanted in a way – the world wasn’t what I thought it was” away from the protective bubble of a relatively sheltered childhood and college. “I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Stephen adds.

His attempts to hone an untrained singing voice exacerbated his angst. “Every single day was a crazy struggle for me,” Stephen explains. “It was a constant doubting of myself, because I had never sung.” At the same time, he suggests “music was the thing keeping me grounded. Music was very therapeutic. When I sat down in the studio, a lot of time it was me trying to ask the hard questions.”

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Over time, he assembled Sincerely, which mixes the earnest approach of a singer/songwriter – “I’m freaking out about this whole man I’m supposed to be,” Stephen sings on “Fly Down” – with all the joys of modern production: finger snaps, thick surges of bass, squelchy synthesizer breakdowns. Songs often start spare, with Stephen sketching melody on guitar or keyboard, and pick up elements as they go.

He doesn’t expect his album to change the world instantly, but he has faith in the long game. “If I can make even just 100 a people look at themselves differently by the end of my career, then those people are going to continue to make ripples,” Stephen notes. “They’re going to make a difference. I don’t think a revolution has to be this massive thing – that is unrealistic. It starts small and takes generations.”

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He already has his next step planned out: he’ll spend the summer alone at a house on ten acres in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. There, he hopes to polish off his second album, which he wants to release by the end of the year.

“I’m gonna live there by myself,” Stephen says. “I’m not confident I’ll make it. But I’m gonna do my best.” 

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