As an electro-pop artist, non-profit board member, and full-time employee, Steph Wells’ journey is a manifestation of pure passion. Her fire is audible in her sounds, visible in her audiences, and tangible in the way that her performance demands that her listeners disconnect from the world and dance.
SUMif’s recent studio album, Pretty Cage (2018) amplifies this sentiment by taking her listeners through a journey of self-love and movement. Although electro-pop sounds have become increasingly common in the music world, Wells stands out on this album with her complex lyricism and melodic, honest emotions. By hypnotizing the listener, her sounds make them present, and through that process, find freedom.
Just last year, she played on the main stage at San Francisco pride, one of the 20+ live shows in the Bay, LA, and New York combined she has played. From the first few minutes of talking to Wells, it is clear that she is abundantly passionate, thoughtful, and genuine about why making music is important to her. Subvrt Magazine had the privilege of learning more about SUMif, and we’d like to share this with you below.
How did you get your name?
It is actually an Excel function, like an ode to my inner nerd. It was important to me to use something that some people would understand, but most wouldn’t, and that would definitely get mispronounced.
I love that. There is a lot of beauty in forcing people to learn how to pronounce your name and knowing they’re engaging in conversations about it.
Exactly — if people don’t know how to say your name, they talk about you more. Like the band HAIM! Whenever I listen to them or bring them up, part of the conversation always goes towards how to pronounce their name, and all of a sudden, we have a full conversation about them!
How have the cities you’ve lived in shaped and carved out your journey through music?
Spending my formative high school years in LA definitely led me to get into music. I had a pop punk band then, and that experience taught me how to play a lot of instruments and develop an affinity for making music. After that, I moved to New York. I had a band there as well, but my style shifted to acoustic pop. That’s where I learned how to write on my own music.
Songwriting really changed how I view creation, and it’s something I decided to focus on more. Everyone told me I needed to move to Nashville if that was my focus and just co-write. I had never done that before. To sit in a room with a stranger and be confident with bearing your soul and holding your own day after day after day after day. It was a huge growing experience for me, and I learned so much about myself and my creative process through criticism and feedback. And it showed in my work, as it became a little bit more country.
Wow, I would have never imagined! How did that evolve into what you’re creating now?
When I was in the Bay Area, I realized I was not listening to the type of music I made. I was listening to more chill dance electro pop artists. Thinking that I wanted to shift towards that style was terrifying for me because I didn’t believe that I could make that. I didn’t know the software, and found comfort in my guitar and studio sessions. I put an ad on Craigslist to meet people who could teach me more about electronic music.
Through that process, I met a lot of different musicians, and I mostly learned that this is something I really am capable of. I met a man who told me he couldn’t start a duo with me, but he could help me launch. Now, he’s my guitarist and has been for the last two years while being a full-time doctor. We have a blast on stage together, and have a mutual appreciation for the very full and fulfilling lives we live outside of music.
What is your production/creation process/is that process sacred to your work?
Every song is different. All of my
How does it feel for you to listen to your own music?
I love it! If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have finished it. I’m not someone who writes a hundred songs and then picks five for the album. If I don’t love my work, I don’t finish it. To me, finishing a song means that I’m really excited in it, I believe in it, and I want to listen to it.
Everyday when I see a new artist pop up on Spotify, I realize there are so many people who are making the music that I am. I try to be very genuine and very honest and open which is my personality in general. I want people to dance. I want people to feel free. I am a genuine and authentic brand and I feel that deeply when I listen to my own music.
What does it mean to connect with people, especially as a queer artist?
This is really personal to me musically and also in other parts of my life. I’m on the board of a nonprofit called wayOUT that aims to create community and increase safety for LGBTQ+ youth nationwide. Additionally, I try to be thoughtful about how I use my musical privilege to amplify queer communities. The first time I put a female pronoun in my song, I was terrified. Now, I don’t think twice about it. This is very clearly me now and I’m hoping that more people will hear that and normalize my community. I don’t believe that people should have to come out. However, as a person of any influence, I feel obligated to use my power to normalize this and be open about my identity. I am trying to be as out and me and free as possible and use my visibility to empower individuals to do the same.
What advice would you give your 18 year old self, knowing what you know now?
That’s funny, I do think about that sometimes being ten years removed from that. Honestly, I love my life and I’ve lived such an amazing life, especially in the last ten years since I was 18. I wish I could tell myself that things would have been okay and that what people think of me will never make me, me. Especially as I came out to people, I was terrified of what it would do to their perception of me.
Sometimes, I wish I went into this genre of music earlier. But honestly, I’d never give up the time I had in Nashville and my journey into country music. I know that part of my life is fundamental to what I create now. While I don’t know if I would change anything, I feel thankful for the advice from my mom that I’ve always listened to, then and now: Follow your heart and keep an eye on reality, and you’ll always be happy.
Interview by Sarah Zarina Hakani @sarah.zarina
Photographer Kelly Mason