As if your millennial biological clock wasn’t already ticking to put something mind-blowing out into the world, 17-year old Stephen Philibin aka Steve James co-produced the title track of Justin Bieber’s latest album “Purpose,” played part of The Chainsmokers’ Friendszone Tour and dropped his first single “Renaissance”. He’s recently moved from Johnstown, Pennsylvania to L.A. to pursue his music career with an already successful roster of tracks to back up his DJ/producer title, which include remixes of Zhu, The Weeknd & Melanie Martinez. Although nothing is confirmed quite yet, he’s currently working on a EP of original tracks set for release in 2016. He’s a name to watch if you ever have the urge to throw a dance party.
I know people emphasis this, but I’m fascinated that you’ve already managed to make a name for yourself on the electronic music scene just as other 17-year-olds are trying to figure out who to take to prom. How did you get started in all of this?
I studied piano for about 10 years, from about 4 to 14. when I was 12, and I got a computer that had a DJ program on it and I did that a little bit. Once I started learning more the electronic culture and DJs that were also producers, I realized oh I can actually work on my music in the studio and play massive festivals for a living. That was always the dream. Now it’s gravitating toward more of the musician side of live performance. It was the dance music culture that I wanted to help create, not just be a person in the crowd.
What was the specific moment that dawned on you that this could be your calling, your path?
Oh absolutely. One or two years after I started messing around djing and producing – I think I was 14 – and I finally got to see Avicii live with my brother in Maryland. When the production was all over, we were walking out and I turned to my brother and said, “Okay, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Recently, what Porter Robinson has with the World’s Tour or Odezza is another act that’s been really inspiring this year. DJ is part of my roots and I wouldn’t be here without it, but I also want to develop my own set of my own music with keys and drums that I can put all together and play live.
On that note of “creating” music, you released your first single “Renaissance” ft. Clairity back at the end of November. For such an uptempo beat, the lyrics are emotional. Why collaborate with Clairity for your first single?
Clairity wrote an awesome top line for it. I made beat in july and sat on it for a couple of months, while my other manager Bret was sending it a couple of people. She wrote the pop line in one night, and sent it back to us. She never rerecord it because we never had to. We used the original scratch recording because they sounded so good. It had the same force and same lead melody. I replaced all the percussion and I sped up the track. I basically gutted everything except her vocals. It’s a much much different track than what it once was, and that really all just came from the inspiration of hearing what she wrote and how I could make that work together with the music. It was a topic close to her and comes from an experience she’s had, so I’m glad she’s happy with the way it turned out.
How do you balance being a high school student with trying to break into the electronic culture as a 17-year-old?
Honestly, it’s been my life now for a while. When I was in high school I didn’t join any clubs, I didn’t do any sports. Took the minimal amount of classes, so that I could come home and work on music. I’ve been doing that for about 3 years now. I’m not actually in school anymore, I’ll actually be finishing up home school right around the time I turn 18 in April. I would have been a Junior this year, so i’m finishing up a year earlier than I was supposed to.
When my brother and I drove out to Los Angeles at the beginning of June, I fully expected to have to go back to school in August. The only thing that could have changed that was writing a song for Justin Bieber. That was the large step in moving me toward becoming a full-time musician and expanding the team because it’s really just been Jay (agent) and I for the last year and half, two years.
Oh, Justin is such hot topic right now. How did that even come about? How did you get on his radar?
I came in more as a writer. Over the summer, I was in the studio writing with a lot more pop artists and met up with this guy Jeremy, who was writing some potential album cuts. The songs we were working on made it over other people who were working on the album, and we said we had some ideas for “Purpose”. They liked the piano that I came up with, and I got to work with Poo Bear on the track and then Justin & Poo Bear got to finish it up in the studio.
Jamestown, Penn. to Los Angeles, California. This is the definition of a cross country move. What’s been a “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore” moment?
If I had to pinpoint one it would probably be a mansion party in the hills I went to on my second trip to Los Angeles in December 2014. I’m not really sure who’s it was or why they were having it, but some friends of mine were DJ’ing and invited me and my team to tag along. When we got there, it was one of the craziest scenes I’ve ever seen between the cars parked all along Mulholland, food trucks out front, security holding back 30 or 40+ people at the gate of the property. I was still 16, *laughs* but I’d say walking through that multi-million dollar mansion which was totally trashed by this time in the night was definitely the most memorable moment of awe coming out West.
Pretend music doesn’t exist, what would you be doing?
Honestly, I’m not really sure. I enjoy video games, cooking, and politics a lot but I always focused so much time on music I never really considered what other directions I could go in my life and still haven’t. I could definitely have seen myself digging into video game creation and that whole industry, but I always thought having my own restaurant would be dope, and I may just tuck that away for later in my life if I ever want to toy around with a new art form.
What’s your mantra, what’s kept you going thus far?
I can’t quite pinpoint a specific mantra or saying that we use a lot, but the focus for me, especially as an artist, has always been using not only the lyrics, but also the melodies and sound design of the song to create relatable emotions. For example, “Renaissance” uses a lot of warmth and organic sounds throughout the song to key in on the human element of the story Clairity tells in her vocal. I think a lot of people have been left in a position like the one she recounts, feeling some kind of emptiness without a special person in their life anymore and the pianos, pads, and music box sounds all add a comforting feeling to someone who’s feeling alone. As upbeat as the post chorus sounds, the melody has always felt like a cry for help more than anything. In a live setting, this song feels so good to listen to with the people around you and know that you’re in this together and making it through those bumps in life with everyone else around you. So yeah, it’s getting to work with people like Claire (Clairity) and other writers who have something real to say and figuring out how to share that story in a way that resonates with people that really drives me to stay in the studio for the extra few hours each day and never settle for anything without substance or emotion.
What’s been different this time around since the release of the Bieber album and your first single? Are people treating you differently?
Everything has been pretty normal to be honest, nothing too crazy. Everyone from my hometown has been super supportive since things really started to pick up. I was even on the front page of the newspaper! My friends have been really curious and I’ve gotten a ton of texts over the past few months from my high school friends telling me how much they enjoyed “Purpose”, or even cooler that they’ve been jamming to “Renaissance”. I can’t wait to bring them all out to a headline show in Pittsburgh sometime soon and share something like that with all of them.
Did you miss prom or any other stereotypical high school moments since you chose to be homeschooled toward the end?
Nope, at least not yet. I actually just went on a ski club trip with my high school friends yesterday before I get back to L.A., which was a lot of fun. This year will be my first prom and my girlfriend has already informed me that there aren’t any valid excuses to come home and take her, so I guess I’ll be back again in May! *laughs*
Photography by Elliot Brockelbank