The Power of Nostalgia: How Stevan reconciled three years of his life for his debut mixtape ‘Just Kids’

Stevan

In many ways, Wollongong’s STEVAN is just like any other 19-year-old kid. He’s figuring things out as he goes, coming out the other side of the often tumultuous period that occurs when you finish high school. In saying that though, given he has just released his debut record, millions of streams on his releases, received critical acclaim on every single he’s released so far, played festivals across the county and has record deals with Honeymoon and Astral People, he’s also not like any other 19-year-old kid at all.

Titled Just KidsStevan‘s first full length offering is a self-described mixtape. A plethora of different sounds and vibes are included in the twelve songs, from RnB through to indie, with touches of hip hop and electronic sprinkled over the top. It’s difficult to categorise, but that’s entirely the point. And it is also a brilliant first impression from an artist deservedly on the rise. Stevan plays every instrument on the record (most of which he taught himself), he wrote all the songs, and produced it all himself too. It’s unashamedly, wholly and completely him, created in his bedroom and now ready to be heard all over the world. Leaning into nostalgic and the classics while maintaining a contemporary and modern flair, Just Kids represents not only who Stevan is now, but acknowledges all the moments that led him to becoming the person he is today as well.

Written over the course of three years, Just Kids is at once autobiographical and universal as Stevan distills the wild ride that is the years between 16-19 into just a handful of songs that are heartfelt slices of relatability. Its this skill that makes Stevan so special. A child of the internet, Stevan‘s complete rejection of even coming close to being easily categorised sonically is in turn what liberates him to make whatever he wants. Operating on the ethos of making music he WANTS to make, here might lie the key to the palpable authenticity that is undeniably intrinsic in his songs. From the simple and maybe easily forgotten about moments to the utterly transformative, Stevan approaches each story with the same curiosity to explore it fully, and follows a vibe or a feeling to get there. Not confined to a particular sound or aesthetic, he can be anything he wants to be each and every time he makes a song, and he’s managed to harness this magic on Just Kids.

From previously heard singles like ‘LNT’ and ‘No More Regrets’ to the one that kicked it all off in ‘Timee’ (all included on the mixtape), we’ve slowly had this image of who Stevan is coming together piece by piece, and now with Just Kids we finally get the full picture. It’s fitting then, that he would take us through this journey of his youth throughout the record and decide to conclude proceedings with Tripping. Described by Stevan as “the turning point” for him and the signal of a change in direction, it’s also all the proof you need that this entire project is so much more than a flash in the pan. Instead, it’s a considered, ambitious and elevated project with so much more to give.

Just as he is generous in his storytelling and his bare-all, nothing to hide approach to songwriting, so to is he like this in interviews. In our chat, Stevan was just as you’d expect him to be based on his Instagram and his music: warm, welcoming, open and giving. It’s this that he wants to also impart onto his fans, providing a virtual (or, post-pandemic, physical) space for them to be themselves just like he is. So even while it might be cliche to say I can’t wait to see what he does next, in the case of Stevan it’s true. Now with Just Kids under his belt, he sets his sights on the next chapter not just in his music but his life too and while he might not be just a kid any more, he certainly is a star.

You’ve spoken in the past about how you’ve wanted to give people something that was 100% you the first time round. Do you feel like this mixtape has achieved that?

Yes. I don’t know how much more me it could get, considering I basically did everything. I played all the instruments, produced all the songs, wrote all the songs, sung all the songs. I feel like it’s a really good indication of where my capabilities are at the moment in terms of what I can do musically, but also I feel like me doing every part of the music-making process, it just helps me to capture these moments a lot more. It’s really immediate. I feel like this is as me as it can get, for what I have to offer at the moment.

Absolutely. And these songs have existed for quite some time in different forms and detail a lot of your experiences. But your experiences are very universal as well. So I wondered, teenage years are very awkward, sometimes painful, and can be a bit messy to look back on. How has it felt looking back on those times now and being able to get ready to share this with a bunch of strangers?

I feel like high school, to most people it’s a wholesome experience. At the end of it you start to really appreciate how easy it is compared to real life. And that’s really what I had in mind. When I was looking back I had a lot of these songs and a lot of these memories. You get over this feeling of, “Oh, this is embarrassing,” because I really lean into it. There’s a lot of things on songs where I’m romanticising things of love and of excitement and fun and stuff, because in actuality a lot of these experiences were embarrassing and it wasn’t as glamorous. But when you look back at a memory for some reason, you tend to remember it in a really dramatic way.

So in a way it’s helped you look back on some things that were not so glamorous or a bit awkward or uncomfortable, and maybe made that not as difficult to remember?

100%. It just helped me navigate a lot of those awkward feelings and make them something that was actually useful. Like, “Oh, this embarrassing thing happened to me. I’m going to go write a song.” And the song often times would [give me] that therapeutic release. And I hope people listen to it and they remember some awkward moments and also some really good ones as well. I feel like that’s the feeling for the project.

You do hop around a lot of different genres as well. I really love music that sits outside the traditional way that music has been made. More and more and more we’re finding artists that we love like Tyler [the Creator], Frank [Ocean], Childish Gambino, even someone like Charli XCX; they all meld so many different styles into one sound. And I wondered, would you attribute some of that to growing up on the internet and having access to so many different kinds of music?

I feel like the internet basically stopped the need to define things and have really boxed-in labels. With the stuff that I was listening to when I was a kid, I was looking for a range of music and I never thought I was listening to “this type” of music. On iTunes, I wouldn’t even look at the genre. I’d just be like, “Oh, I’m listening to this.” The way that I used to separate music, and the way that I still do, is it’s good or bad. I can listen to anything. To me personally, if I feel like it’s good music, I’ll enjoy it.

And it gives me freedom as an artist. I can approach any style of music, and as long as I make something that sounds good, I can get away with it. You find weird ways to blend stuff, because like you said, all of those artists just came out of the gate around the same time I was getting into music and they were being very bold with sound choices, mixing all different types of influences. I feel like as a musician, you want to be innovative and you want to try something different and hopefully start a wave or start a sound or influence other people. And the way that you do that is by trying new things.

I remember being in high school and being on Tumblr and just having access to so many different kinds of genres and you’re right in that having iTunes and other platforms like this, it did destroy the need to categorise something. Is that how you approached your music then in that there’s a general same vibe, but you’re not categorising anything and therefore the sounds are just going wherever the vibe goes?

For sure, yeah. It’s also making music to follow a feeling, than to follow a genre. And that’s the best thing about music to me. It’s the ultimate way to express myself. There’s a particular track on the project called ‘Take It Slow’. On that track, I wanted a mellow drive and I don’t really want it to be sad, but I want it to be melancholy, but have a bit of a bop. And it’s just solid music that anytime I heard it, I felt like dancing and the rhythm was like a bossa nova vibe. I was just like, “Okay, I’ll mix really sad chords and sad lyrics with this really upbeat groovy drum beat.” You find ways to mix and match feelings when you look at music from a feeling point of view instead of, “These two sounds shouldn’t be together, because they don’t belong in the same genre.” That’s really limiting how creative you can be.

Absolutely. You play everything as well and you’re self taught for the most part. Do you think that having this self-taught knowledge has been able to liberate you to make whatever you want? Someone who can’t play everything, if they wanted to make this particular sound but they didn’t know how to, it might make things harder for them. You don’t have that barrier because you know how to make it all and you can play those instruments. It would certainly be super freeing for you, right?

Yes. Honestly, that’s the reason why I think I wanted to produce. When I was younger, I used to send heaps to people online. I would send them notes like, “Oh, can you send me this beat and do this?” And I’d just send a big list of things that I wanted. And the people would be like, “What are you talking about?” I started messing around with it and I’d say around 15, 16, I was good enough to get the bare bones idea out — basically what I wanted in my mind, but the basic form of that. The older that I get, the better that I get at my instruments, [so] I’m getting closer and closer. Basically my ambition or how I hear something and how I play something, it hasn’t caught up yet. I feel like I could do a lot more, but obviously I need more time to get better at production, to get better at my instruments. But yeah, that’s so true. It was almost a necessity thing to me, because I wanted to make music.

I think there’s something to be said about all of this, because it contributes to that very real, very authentic element of your music, and that’s something that can’t be manufactured. Authenticity is something that just is there or it’s not, and it’s been made with heart.

Yeah, thank you.

You just do what you like, first and foremost. Was that always an important aspect to include in your music or is that just something that happened and it clicked later on?

Yeah, from the jump of this, I was only ever interested in making music that I liked, that I enjoyed. And the thing is though, it’s crazy. Almost the reverse happened. I’ve always made music from that perspective of I want to make what I want to make. And to be honest, if people like it, they like it. But if I love it, that’s what’s important. I released ‘Timee’, and obviously ‘Timee’ did really well. Then I released the next single, and then there was a little bit of a period where I was like, “Ah, maybe I should try and make stuff that people like,” but it was the smallest moment.

It was the smallest moment, because I realised that creativity doesn’t work like that. And if I don’t like it, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. Yeah, I doubled down after that. I was like, “Now I understand.” I’m getting weirder with what I want to do, because you have to take that risk, like I said, or else there’s no chance for innovation or anything. Things would all just sound the same. Everything would look the same..

Being so self assured is obviously such an important thing to be and to have in your music. But it can come with its own risks as well. Do you ever feel exposed or vulnerable, knowing that there isn’t anywhere to hide, or does that make it more exciting for you?

Yeah, I always feel like I’m at the edge. And it’s not that can be interpreted in a negative way. I always feel like I’m at the edge of my capabilities. Even though I do trust my ideas a lot and I trust where I’m going, I feel like there’s always so much more room to grow. There’s this core thing that I’ve got all the time, and it’s that I have to say what I feel and I have to convey that through the music. As far as branching out, trying new things and being open to the possibility of not knowing as much, I like that. I like being on the edge of my capabilities, because I feel like I can advance better that way. Even when I am sure about my ideas, I’m always a little bit unsure. It’s better that way for me, because I feel like the reaction that I get is always really excited. Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s always insightful and I know where to go from there, instead of playing it safe.

Totally, and there’s no end point of learning. You always got to be learning something and there’s always something that you can be improving on, so it’s awesome to have that approach to music and life in general.

Yes.

I wanted to address the state of the world at the moment and your Instagram video that you posted as well, if you’re comfortable discussing.

Awesome. For sure, yes.

You said in your Instagram video that you considered delaying the release, but instead you decided to stick with it to be able to share your voice. For me, I think that this mixtape serves as an escape almost. It’s really nostalgic and you can get lost in the stories and sounds, and I think that music like that can be just as vital as protest music. Do you think this might be able to provide a bit of a reprieve for your fans at the moment?

For sure. That is almost the cornerstone of why I made this decision when I had the conversation with my managers. Like I said, even for me, up until this week, I have not necessarily been in a great place, and the thing that was difficult about this situation was… It’s for me personally, I live my day-to-day and I saw stuff like this throughout the year. George Floyd, for me, wasn’t the first instance of me feeling like this. I’ve seen many other people get murdered, brutalised online and it was a situation for me where I was just constantly just trying to not let that be my entire life and not let that consume me.

But it’s so easy for that to be the case. Especially when it’s everywhere. Especially when you’re a person who can relate on the level where you look at someone like, “Damn, that person looks like me.” It’s a difficult thing to escape, and it’s a thing that plays on loop in your mind, especially when you see it once. It’s very weird. You can’t show certain things on an Instagram page, but you can show someone dying. You can show someone being killed in front of people. I don’t think we realise how damaging stuff like that can be.

In light of all this traumatic energy that’s been happening, I think people’s attention is in the right place. I wanted people to experience my project and what I had to say and why I didn’t delay it was [because] I looked at it from a similar perspective that you’re looking at. For the people who this is every single day. You try and turn it off but then you walk outside and you just start thinking about it. You could be having a casual conversation and it comes back. I don’t want to say that my music would be an escape, because I don’t know what people are going through, but I hope that they can find some type of relief when hearing my voice and my personal experiences. Because it speaks the truth.

It speaks to a truth that I think everybody goes through, no matter what situation we’re in. We’ve all grown up and we’ve all dealt with similar factors that I talked about of. Things like friendships, things like falling for someone for the first time, and dealing with those emotions, these are things that are true for most people regardless of where you’re from and what your experiences are. And that’s why I feel like it’s important issue, because I feel people can listen to this and it’s a separation from all the mucky stuff that is really affecting people at the moment.

It goes with what I said right at the beginning of the interview. In high school you think high school is the biggest thing in the world, but when you leave, you realise how much harder life is and how much more adversity you’re going to face. How different things are. I feel like that’s the reality for most people now. It’s like people are realising that we live in such a comfortable space where we can turn off other people’s suffering, other people’s pain. We can turn that off, but it doesn’t mean it goes away, and we see it come back subtly. I feel like the recent movement, it’s just a manifestation of basically a buildup. People have felt this way [for] a long time. These things have happened and there’s a buildup, but I feel like we also need to start remedying that in any way that we can.

I can’t speak to the power of my music, but hopefully if someone listens to this, it is something that people can listen to and they can be like, “This is a black voice, but it’s a voice that’s unifying people.” You know what I mean? And that’s just speaking to a really honest part of most of our experiences as human beings. And that might to be overshooting my project in what I’m saying, but I just mean the things that I talk about on the album. Like I said, I just think about it from the purest side that I possibly can. I don’t try and mask it in bravado, or I don’t try and mask it in me trying to be cool. I don’t over-glamorise any experience. When I say that, “Oh, I wanted somebody or I fell in love with somebody,” it’s really corny because that’s how it felt at the time, and it’s really genuine. I want to bring that to the forefront. I feel like that’s something that a lot of people need. People need genuine and good genuine. I feel like the type of genuine that I’m saying when I’m speaking about my music is it’s a positive force. I don’t feel like there’s anything negative with what I have to say, and I want to put out as much positivity as I can.

I want to do as much as I can to be conscious as well and not be about, “Oh, this [is] about me.” This is really great that you’re asking me this question, because I want to address this. And I don’t want to be blunt with the issues and in the same breath I also want to be a place where people can find refuge, like you said. A place to get away. If people feel the environment around them is just too much, where they can come to my page or something and see a weird photo of me, and they can laugh at my expense. The image and everything that I portray is not someone who’s above a laugh. I want people to find comfort within my music and what it can mean.

Just Kids is out now via Astral People Recordings / Honeymoon / +1 Recordings. Buy/stream here.

Interview by Emma Jones
Image: @lazybonesphoto

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Just a Robyn stan who loves going to the club.