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Steve James: Meet the 19-year-old prodigy behind Garrix & Bieber's biggest hits

The young gun has one of the most impressive profiles we've ever seen

  • Mixmag Asia Staff
  • 18 May 2017

Steve James might be a new name to the music industry but at just 19 years of age he has already accomplished a lot more at his age than…most of the music industry really. For starters he co-produced the title track off Justin Bieber’s ‘Purpose’. He’s also one of the youngest Grammy-nominated artists ever and has names like Zhu, Matthew Koma, LIGHTS and The Weeknd all cemented onto his resume. The natural next step was DJing and the Pittsburgh native had no trouble launching his career being that he knows a lot more about seamlessly stringing music together than some of his more seasoned peers. The trajectory saw Steve relocate to L.A. at only 17 and later landed him on tour with artists like the Chainsmokers and Martin Garrix, the latter for whom he wrote and produced ‘In the Name of Love’. When does he have time to…be a teenager? Exactly. We talked to wunderkind about what life has been like since leaving behind his small town to becoming one of the most talked about up-and-coming names in industry.

You’re from Pennsylvania, what’s the best thing about Pennsylvania?

Haha, it’s home! But really, the best thing for me is going home and the 2-hour drive from the airport to my parents’ place on a dead end in a small town. I grew up with acres of woods behind my house, a fire pit out back, and parents who loved spending time outside and enjoying that so it’s always nice coming back from LA or London or any city and getting to have that small town feel for a week or two and relax.

What’s the worst thing about Pennsylvania?

All my creative friends are in LA. So I think the worst part is missing my crew who hangs at the studio and seeing my friends and talking about music and the industry. After a few weeks I always miss being surrounded by songwriters and producers.

You’re now based out of LA – what’s been the most surprising thing you’ve gotten out of your move there? I guess it’s been more surprising for me, but I think the love I’m gaining for writing lyrics and toplines has surprised me. Before I even started producing I had aspirations to write that I ended up abandoning for a bit while i made pretty EDM-centric music, but the more time I spend in LA the more I can be satisfied leaving the studio with a chord progression and some powerful lyrics, and then let the production come afterwards.

What’s your earliest memory of electronic music?

Mowing the grass and listening to Ultra Miami sets. Specifically, hearing Afrojack play the “Little Bad Girl” instrumental in his 2011 set. That was the first time I heard something like it, this melodic, euphoric kind of dance riff. I got hooked on that energy immediately

So you skipped high school to work with Martin Garrix, I can’t imagine your parents were too thrilled but then your mom accompanied you on the red carpet. How did the in between phase unfold?

Aha, it was a bit of a process but my parents and I have a great relationship and we worked through it. I gave my mom a few months notice that I didn’t want to return to the classroom after I started going to LA. The first time I told her I doubt she took me seriously, but by the day before junior year we had worked out an alternative for me to finish school quickly by homeschool. So it took some communication, but ultimately they’ve always tried to support me as much as they can and I wouldn’t be doing this without that.

Getting out of pop or EDM, what are you listening to for inspiration these days?

Lots of random stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of deadmau5 as I just saw his new Cube in LA so that’s really fresh in my head. PC Music as well, I really enjoy technical stuff especially with synths. And then a lot of lyrical stuff... some old like Owl City, The Postal Service, Bruno Mars’ Doo-Wops & Hooligans. I love Spotify because I can listen to everything from 5-7 years ago that I loved. My favorite artist right now though might be FRND, if you haven’t checked out his stuff there really isn’t anything like it and I think it’s so fresh.

I love it most when...

…people tell me my music means something to them or has affected them. I struggle with my own standards every day, and each time someone tells me that Purpose or Renaissance or any of my songs helped them, it always just makes the mental struggle of “am I good enough?” so worth it to know I’ve had a positive impact on someone with my music.

Your studio success has taken you worldwide. What are some of the biggest difference you’ve found in music cultures around the world from America?

It’s interesting, I’ve really only spent time in London and some other parts of Europe performing or writing, I have some broader travels this year that I’m sure will develop my opinion of this a lot. The main thing in Europe is always that the 4-on-the-floor still works there much more than here in the US, which I love as there’s tons of progressive and house that I still like to play and can enjoy over there.

And then I think there’s just a creativity that comes from the UK, and often these other European countries that maybe isn’t so much “better” as it is just “different” and I really love making things that aren’t what you’d expect. I’ve had a lot of fun and creative experiences writing with people visiting the US or receiving songs from like, someone from Finland and I just tend to gravitate towards their tendencies which often differ at times from those of American music.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do when your turn 21 that you’ve been dying to do but haven't because you’re still underage in America?

Hahaha. Vegas baby! Whenever I play in Vegas they escort me out the second I stop my last track. It would be nice to stay awhile.

What’s been the most beautiful moment in your career thus far?

Standing in the middle of the Ultra crowd last year knowing all the words to ‘Name of Love’ as Martin [Garrix] debuted it for the first time.

Surely fame has been wonderful but what’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

That there’s no ****ing time to do anything!! But actually, I remember when I was in school and life was moving at turtle pace and it felt like it was never going to end. Now, a whole month goes by in about 15 minutes and I’m trying to figure out where all the time went and how I didn’t get more done. This is definitely a good problem to have, but I find myself looking at my whole year just trying to gauge when I’ll find a week off and that gets harder and harder as I go along. I have a bit of a problem saying “no” to things which keeps me quite busy.

What five tracks can you play in your sets forever?

Hmmm, that’s a tough one. I keep my sets pretty fresh and also play a lot of different genres depending on the crowd, but if you factored those out these are 5 I’d love to hear in my sets forever.

Spaceships ‘Area 21’

Shaun Frank ‘Let You Get Away’

Magic! ‘Rude (Zedd Remix)’

Major Lazer ‘Light it Up’

Alesso and Tove Lo ‘Heroes (Grandtheft Remix)’

You’re clearly some kind of wunderkind in the studio. What’s the most important production tip you can give other young artists trying their hand in the industry?

Well first thank you, I really appreciate that. I always say that if you can find what you’re best at and what makes you unique, if you focus and develop that and put it at the forefront of your work, that is the way to both loving what you do and connecting with the most people. For me, I’ve always excelled at chords, melodies, sound design and energy but I can struggle with drum programing, FX, anything that involves sample selection essentially just doesn’t come as naturally. So I’ve focused on the melodies and emotions my stuff conveys, and I think that has brought a genuine connection between me and my fans.

You’re already playing with and touring the world with the big guys like the Chainsmokers and Oliver Heldens, so if you were to invite anyone to your gig to see you play and be nervous about it, who would it be and why?

Aha, actually though it’s the DJs who I get nervous about. Playing for crowds or even influencers doesn’t bother me too much, but at the end of the day I’m a producer first and when I know that these guys who DJ every night are there, listening to my set and partying to it, to me that’s when I feel like the pressure is on to really not f**k up haha.

What’s one thing about you that people always get wrong?

Probably just how much I can struggle with all of this. The scheduling, being pulled in so many directions, being true to myself while running a business and being attentive about my career. Something people always notice or get right about me is that I’m very high energy. I can talk your ear off about everything I’m doing and how excited I am. So I think people just assume sometimes that that doesn’t also come with lows, but for me the stress and anxiety of the expectations are something I deal with almost daily between these high energy meetings and conversations I’m having, but it ultimately helps fuel my creativity, which at the end of the day is what really matters.

You’re already really young but if you could go back to an even younger you, what would you do differently?

Ooh, that’s a tough one. I’d probably have kept taking piano lessons to be honest. I stopped around 15 to focus on producing and frankly not playing classical and jazz anymore and instead playing pop chords and melodies has just made me so much less versatile actually. I’m so busy now but I always regret not having more Mozart or Bach or Joplin in my life.

If the world were ending, what’s the last track you would play?

That’s a tall order. I think the edit of Save The World SHM closed their last show with would be quite appropriate. If we could indeed save the world, maybe Levels for the encore?

What’s on your Asian bucket list?

My friend told me you could rent an elephant to travel and stay with you for a few days? That sounds pretty lit. I just love to look at stuff; nature, architecture, anything that makes you say “wow” so a lot of sightseeing for sure.

What have you heard about Asia’s music culture that’s interested you the most? Anyone place in specific you’re curious about?

The biggest thing I’ve gathered from artists who’ve toured there and some immigrant Uber drivers is that people really appreciate the artists and the performances there. It doesn’t seem to be like LA where there 8 big DJs every night you can go see, so the fans there really care about the artists and I think that’s amazing. Some of the most inspiring, loving messages I’ve received have come from people listening in India or Singapore and that always blows my mind since it’s so far away. I’m especially excited for Singapore though. The architecture there and in that part of the world is incredible and I can’t wait to see it.

In five years I will be...

someone everyone has heard. Not necessarily heard of , and that’s not something I really even remotely want for myself, but I’m really growing in so many ways creatively and love to express that in so many forms, so I hope that in 5 years I’ve had the chance to work with some great people and make some music that in some way touches everyone just a little bit.

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