Maybe she just doesn’t want to be found. She’s as capricious as the tides, ebbing and flowing along with the full moon, a nomad of sorts. A Los Angeles native, who played early in a pop-punk garage band, sharpening her limber and hypnotic live show, Steph Wells traipsed from coast-to-coast. She first scavenged New York City during her NYU studies before extending her roots in a brief, one-year stay in Nashville ⎯⎯ where she “learned a lot about country music more than I ever thought I would,” she says. While frequenting writers’ rounds and open mic nights, the twinkling Broadway lights the backdrop to her ambitious artistic endeavors, she quickly realized she had the intuition and daring to weather such a storm. Now, residing in San Francisco, a rather unlikely locale for her particularly frothy and wild electro-pop blend, Wells (who goes by the stage name SUMif) enlisted Craigslist for chance musical encounters, scoping out others’ crafts so she could mold her own, and began piecing together what would culminate in her debut EP, Pretty Cage (out now).
“Come a little closer / Let’s just be,” she whispers on glitter-rave opener “In with Me” through clinking coins and dazed electronica drops. The tone-setting piece whisks through the eardrums, knocking back joyous incisions and jolting the nerve system awake. That makes sense, since her intent is to make people dance at all costs. “I’m running around,” she knots over crimping synth jabs and folding her voice like crisp, dazzling-white origami. Her breathy vocal hangs on that theme throughout much of the EP. “I don’t wanna stay forever,” she brays on “I.D.W.,” while with “Lay Down,” possessing a folk-lean, a stunning a cappella intro and dizzying vocal layering, she maintains her “maybe I don’t wanna be found” mantra. It can be just as lonesome an existence as it can be liberating ⎯⎯ she only answers to herself and her soul’s genuine peripatetic nature. “Reaching through the pain / Try to walk away / My lovely hurricane / Tell me what’s your game,” she yips on deep cut “Hurricane.”
Her heart swollen with an itch to tumble just like the wind, the Pretty Cage EP is rooted in her aching desire to break free from her life, sometimes blissful, other times melancholic. “It’s called ‘Pretty Cage’ because I feel as though, in many ways, my life is like that, from an outsider looking in. I have a great job, and my life overall is very great. But all I want to do is do music full-time,” she confides to B-Sides & Badlands. “It’s hard for people to understand. I am running from this pretty cage. People are like ‘wait, your life is amazing and everything’s great. Why would you want anything else?’ I’m trying to navigate those things and wondering why I would want to get those all up for uncertainty. I guess I am running from my own life and trying to figure out how to mold it into something that makes me truly happy all the way through.”
A sales rep at a tech startup by day, a musician by night, Wells bounds forward with a leap. From tropical-house-angled “Drifting” to “Go”s slicked-back anthem style, Pretty Cage sets the bar tremendously high for 2018. Her immediate competitors, including Allie X, Sheare and Sigrid, certainly have their work cut out for them.
Below, Wells reflects on how country music molded her appreciation for songwriting, favorite Nashville sessions, her struggle as an independent musician and other hot topics.
The times you’ve moved, did it feel like the current city didn’t feel like home anymore and that you needed to move on?
Every time I’ve moved, it felt right. I left New York because I graduated from college, which is a pretty defining reason to leave. I found that winter is a choice on the East Coast. [laughs] It always felt like the next step and natural. Nashville still feels like home to me and so does New York. San Francisco is just my home base. I find home in many different places.
From your work in Nashville, what did you learn about the actual craft of songwriting?
Wow. A lot, definitely. Hard to put into words. I’m very melody focused, and I’m not big on lyrics. I feel if you get a melody stuck in your head, you don’t necessarily get the lyrics stuck in your head. But in Nashville, nearly every single person I met disagreed with that, saying “lyrics first.” I learned to care more about lyrics. In terms of just crafting a song, everyone has their own techniques into how they start songs and put ideas together.
Do you have any favorite Nashville sessions?
When I first moved to Nashville, I didn’t know anyone. I was told to go do writers’ rounds and open mics and just meet people. It sounded nerve-wracking. On my first night, I met this guy, and we just clicked. We ended up writing songs together nearly every day for the year I lived there. The first day we got into a room, we wrote three songs. Listening back to them now, they’re still good. Those moments when the magic clicks, especially with a stranger, really stand out.
As an independent artist who has moved around quite a bit the last few years, what has your journey and trek through struggle been like?
It’s always a struggle. There’s not a big music scene here in San Francisco. It’s not LA. It’s not New York. It has its own scene, but everyone keeps asking me if I’m going to move to LA. I don’t want to give up San Francisco as home. That’s one thing that’s constantly tugging at me in different directions. I feel like it’s a lot of luck these days of getting people to listen to your songs. I feel like if I put out one amazing song tomorrow, it’s up to the Spotify playlisters. They have the opportunity to make or break you. They have so much power. It’s challenging. It’s about trying to navigate that world of getting people to listen to you without having a label backing you.
Your Pretty Cage EP stands at eight tracks, which is almost an album. Did you consider tacking on a couple more and making it an album instead of an EP?
I did consider that. For some reason, a full album feels like the next step. I needed to put out an EP first. These were really a collection of songs I’ve produced over the last two years. It just didn’t feel like it needed to be an album. It’s a smattering of things, and it’s not as cohesive as an album should be.
The EP starts very high-energy with “In with Me,” almost a dance-rave event. It really kicks the project off on the right foot. How did you settle on the tracklist?
I had about 100 different iterations. “In with Me” starts the EP with a bang and draws people in. I used to end my shows with “Lay Down.” It really gets their energy up and leaves people with a good taste in their mouth.
How did this EP begin exactly?
I’ve released 10 singles over the past two years. It’s really hard to promote anything beyond a single. At this point in my career, if I put out more than a single, it’s hard to get anyone to listen to multiple new songs. So, I just put out singles until it seemed people started caring. I have a friend who has been so adamant about me releasing an EP for the past year. I would push back, but one day, I was just sitting there thinking about all these songs. I knew I had to call it the ‘Pretty Cage’ EP, and I wrote all these songs while feeling under these circumstances. They all fit together.
“You” is a standout of the bunch with a rather somber tone.
That’s an interesting one. That’s probably one of the very first songs I tried to produce. Generally, I make a bedroom version of my songs, and I bring them to my friends in LA who help me finish the out. That one in particular, I created what I felt like was an incredible version of the song I bring it to my friend [ParaDoc] in LA. He puts it on the speakers, and he’s like “this is a disaster.” [laughs] I was like “oh, really? I thought it was great.” It was really early on, probably recorded about two years ago. He’s like “I have some ideas, let me work with it.” We ended up recording the vocals still over the old track that day. Then, he came back to me with this version that exists now, which is very, very different than my original.
“Lay Down” is another sterling moment, containing an a cappella intro and blurry vocal layering.
I’m a huge Sylvan Esso fan. I was listening to “Hey Mami” and thinking how good it was. I was like “I want to do some kind of vocal layering like that song.” I started singing and repeating over and over a few simple piano chords. I wrote half the lyrics, and I had a bunch of scratch lyrics. It was very simple. I had some weird beats and the piano and the overlaying vocal. In 20 minutes, most of the song was down. Then, I have a friend who is a poet, and I sent her the song and said, “I think it needs some lyric enhancement from you.” So, she wrote the majority of the lyrics, and later, we rewrote them together. Then, we brought it to my LA friend, and he added in all the synths and drums and made it sound very unique. That song was a very cool, collaborative effort. It’s always nice to have something come to life that I made with my friends. It feels special.
When you’re producing, do you have a well of beats, textures and tones from which you draw?
I wish I did. I should work on that. [laughs] Generally, I pick a synth and use Logic. I use a few native instruments in it or start with something. I’ll listen to a song I’m really into at the time. I’ve got an inspiration playlist. I’ll listen to what that artist is doing and break out chord progressions or timing or drum beats, something I find exciting about the song. I’ll try to mimic part of it. I take pieces of other songs for inspiration.