From the Affinity Archives: This interview took place in October of 2021
Stephen Sanchez is one of the largest breakout stars of a generation online. The song ‘Until I Found You’ has amassed over 140 million streams on Spotify and there are over 400,000 videos using the original version of his song alone on TikTok. At just 19-years-old, Stephen has performed in some of the biggest venues in Nashville, multiple LA shows and Bonnaroo, while he is only continuing to grow as an artist. As Stephen prepares for the release of his second EP, we draw upon this interview from the fall of 2021 with Stephen, just before his debut EP dropped.
Released from the Affinity archives for the first time, this interview gives us a clear look into the earnest passion and dedication of a talented young artist. Much like his music, Stephen’s voice has the twang of a star 70 years his senior. You’d think he’s been married to the subjects of these songs for 40 years, though some of them are simply girls he had a crush on years ago, or someone he no longer knows. Many young people claim to be old souls or creating retro music for a new generation, but Stephen Sanchez is able to authentically craft powerful songs that are reminiscent of artists like Lloyd Price, Ray Charles, Johnny Tillotson and modern musicians like Father John Misty, Peter McPoland, The Chicks, Buxton, Tyler Childers, Bombay Bicycle Club, Lord Huron, Dr. Dog and Del Water Gap. Even his song “Until I Found You” is similar to the 1957 Broadway song “‘Til There Was You,” which was covered throughout the 1960s and onwards by artists like Peggy Lee, Etta Jones and The Beatles. Detailed lyrics and sweeping melodies fill Stephen’s catalog.
A Southern drawl adds to the vintage charm of Stephen’s conversational and music skills, as he excitedly chats about the people and production behind his music. Not yet jaded or selfish enough to forget his team, he’s still clearly young as he talks about his production and writing partners. Stephen always stuttered a bit when using personal pronouns, always correcting himself after using the plural “we,” while referring to his team instead of just himself, after being asked individualistic questions.
Stephen’s music is symphonic and laced with the bittersweet observations about life that one may expect from an aged sort of musician. His upcoming EP, slated for an August 19 release, is even more mature and focused, with a continued emphasis on songwriting and a more historical sense of romanticism. There is raw music talent, determination and star power coming from this young man.
H: We’ll start really simple: Where are you right now? Are you in college for music or working independently?
Stephen: Yeah, so I am not at college for music. I’m just at home at my apartment in Tennessee. It’s near Nashville. So that’s where I’m based now. I used to live in California for about 17 years of my life, up in Sacramento, and then I moved myself and my parents to Tennessee in December. And then we’ve been here ever since. And then, yeah, it’s been great. It’s beautiful here.
What’s it like pursuing music full time?
It feels like an uphill thing all the time, like you’re just running on a sand dune, a bit. And then some parts of it are easier to get up, and then you put your foot somewhere else and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re kind of sinking a little bit more’ and it depends on the day, but it’s such a blessing. Just be able to do this because it’s the thing I love the most in the whole world. And so…to do anything else would feel a bit more miserable if it’s not music related, you know? But it’s amazing. It’s so fun.
You use social media to talk about these changes in your life. Is this going to influence your music at all? Do you ever talk about it in the songs that you write? How does that work?
Oh, of course. Like, What Was Not Now is entirely about this girl I dated…and it starts in order from the start when we first started dating to the very end of it and when we tried to get back together and then it ended, you know, even worse than it did the first time…All the songs are about conversations we had or literally specific moments that I can immediately go back to, you know, if I listen to the song or certain things that I said, within the song. I’m like, ‘I remember saying that to her in a conversation or in the middle of that.’ And so there’s definitely undertones of like real-time conversations…some of which were worded differently, of course, just for the respect for the other person and all that, but I feel like for the most part, even in a romantic setting, all of the songs have [elements] where I tried personally to implement as much of the realness of what happened within the song. It’s just it feels more real to me that way, I think
Is it ever a hard job to have to dredge up all of those really specific, even painful moments?
Sure. I think in the midst of it, when I first started, because I wrote all those songs about a year and a half before labels were even a thing [for me], or recording these for an EP became a thing. It was all stuff that I wrote immediately during that time, as it was just coming to me and I feel like I tend to do that more, which I feel is a healthier thing to do. It’s better to write it in the middle of it than to try and conjure up after the fact because then you’re just reopening the wound. But I see with this EP, it kind of did that naturally in a way. I mean, all these songs were already written and they were heartbreaking to have written. You know, the last song, ‘I Want You’ was like the hardest song I think I’ve ever written. It broke my heart and then jumping into a studio and actually recording that and having to almost relive that again was just devastating. I think all of us, even in the room, like with Ian Fisher, who produced the record and Conrad, who mixed it, we were all feeling the heaviness of that. So that was a really beautiful thing to have been able to share with other people.
Is it ever a nerve-wracking experience to have to share those really personal moments with not only the people you’re recording it with but your fans and listeners?
Of course…it definitely is. I think there’s only one way to say it. It’s definitely just…it’s scary. I mean, it’s scary to think that, you know, people are hearing these songs so vulnerable and stripped back and getting such a clear visual into a part of my life, that was so devastating. I think it’s really beautiful too because it’s moments in our lives and tragedy and heartbreak are, I feel, like they’re meant to be shared with other people. It’s like your story is helpful in helping people out of their own mess that they’re going through, you know, because it’s like you learn things along the way as you’re going through heartache and I feel like if you’re like keeping that all to yourself, you’re also keeping how you got through it away from people and a lot of that’s really beneficial to those who are struggling to figure out how to get through their first heartbreak.
Other than going through the heartbreak, what was the process like for developing your EP?
I signed to Republic in August, and it was amazing, and then immediately following that we jumped to several phone calls with amazing producers like Eddie Geiger…and even Finneas, for that matter, who were all willing and ready to jump in and work on this record. And Ian was somebody who was also a part of those conversations. We just landed on here, and all of the people that we got to talk to were so amazing and just in so much space for just the intimacy I was looking for, you know, within, you know, making this record. And so we jumped in with him and we started working on the record actually in October. So a year ago next week, we jumped in and started working on the EP and it was amazing and we kept it pretty cut and dry. It was just Ian and it was Conrad and myself playing everything and producing it all together and it was great. Then we had some session artists come out and it was so fun.
Was that your first time recording a professional record?
Yeah, it was. It was. Yeah, that was the first time I’d ever been in a legit studio or surrounded by people who really knew what they were doing. It was amazing. It was a really great time.
Going back to what you were talking about with the process of writing the EP: you use real names in some of your music. How did people feel about that?
It’s a dangerous game! It’s really dangerous…I mean ‘I Want You’ literally flat out says the name of the girl that I was dating at the time, and ‘Kayla,’ for that matter, is a girl that I liked at the time. I feel like I was hoping to just be as careful as possible with how I wrote these songs. I felt like these songs were written in a way where none of them were diss tracks or anything like that, and all of them were nodding at a more positive note in a sad, melancholy way. I feel like with ‘Kayla,’ it’s just talking about her beauty, and then ‘I Want You’ is talking about [how] I’m going to love you no matter what. And so it didn’t feel as wrong to use their names. I think if it was in the context of like, ‘Oh, you suck and you’re the worst,’ then definitely using their names like that would be the worst thing ever. But I think it opens up a vulnerability that I feel like hopefully people will appreciate, [since] they’re getting a bit more of a peek into the story.
But do you ever get worried for yourself? I mean, how your relationship changes to that person or the memories that you have of them can change but the song still has that name in it? Is it hard?
I think it’s something that I’m proud of. I feel like that relationship was a beautiful part of my life. It was the heartbreaking part of my life, like all of them, not even just including the girl I dated and what the whole record is about. But even like Kayla, all those relationships I had were amazing, and I look back on those very proudly and so I feel less worried about it, and just proud of it and more proud of the moments I had with them and grateful for those moments and I’m just telling the story how it is, and there’s a conviction, I think with that and that’s why I think using names was so important to me.
In general, what inspires you to make music and write songs?
I think people. Even going back to [how] Kayla was a person that I knew and she inspired the whole song. I mean, Lauren was someone that I knew, and she inspired a whole EP. Even in a relationship I’m in now, Georgia inspired ‘Until I Found You’ and like 50 other songs that are unreleased, and it’s a beautiful thing that one person can carry so much beauty just from how they talk and small little anecdotes they do and little mannerisms that they have inspire beautiful visuals within songwriting. So I think that my best inspiration is just people. People are so inspiring.
In terms of your inspirations, you have a very classic sound to your voice, who are your musical inspirations?
It ranges. I mean, I grew up listening to ’50s and ’60s music from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole to some of my favorite bands, like the Platters from the ‘50s and the Ink Spots from the ‘40s. Those were bands that would have other writers come out and write for them and I think those writers and how they went about talking about love and romance was so profound. I think it’s remained so timeless because people look at those songs now and are like, ‘Gosh, I crave that version of love. Like, I crave that visual, you know, for how I look at a girl,’ and we romanticize it. And I think I take a lot of inspiration from that type of writing and even just how they draw out their notes. But I feel like as far as sound goes, bands like Night Beds and their album Country Sleep heavily inspired all of the really drawn-out lap steel and stringed instruments that we put into this EP. And I just think it really helps bring out the emotional aspects just by getting both of those things in there. The really heavy beautiful lyricism of those ’50s and ’60s artists and that really drawn-out emotional instrumentation that Night Beds has really helped in the whole thing.
How would you define your sound if you had to?
I would say it’s just Oh, man. I think I would define it as…Beautifully devastating. If that’s even a way to describe it. I just feel like there’s a beauty in the devastation that it brings and feel like I have a hard time writing happy songs and even the happy ones I do write, you know, even ‘Until I Found You’ has some underlying, like,’ I messed up,’ type stuff. I’ve never written a song that’s just strictly like, ‘Oh, I love you, you’re beautiful.’ It’s all been like, ‘I messed up.’ Like, ‘I miss seeing you’…so I’d say it’s beautifully devastating. I hope it would be that. I don’t know. I think it’s just up for interpretation, for whatever anyone’s feeling at the time.
You do have a very specific kind of sound and style of music. Do you feel like you’d ever really shift to making a different kind of music?
I don’t know. I’m kind of just letting the waves take me wherever it’s supposed to go. I feel like it’s going to change no matter what. Artists change and develop their sounds left and right. I think my fear with that, with changing the sound to a drastic level, especially for an EP and then jumping into the debut thing, is that I feel like it can either go really well or really bad. ‘Cause some artists will change their sound and it’s so different to the point where it’s like, ‘Oh, we like, miss the old sound,’…So I think right now, I’m just in a place where we have we have all the pieces there and everything is sitting right in front of us, and now it’s just trying to make that better. It’s trying to develop that sound even more and implement other ideas and inspirations that really solidify its place.
Right. So we’re not going to hear a hyper pop album from you next?
No, I don’t think we’ll ever hear a hyper pop album! Definitely, I think, happier songs, but I feel like there will still be some familiarity from the EP to this debut album that will start working on after the EP.
Are you working on music right now that you’re thinking of putting on a debut?
Oh, of course. I’ve been doing so many writing sessions and right now we’re just kind of in the process of writing a ridiculous amount of songs to listen to and fall in love with and then just sit on all of them and be like, ‘Okay, which are the best ones?’ and play as many shows and see what people think of them and then kind of just let the people decide what the best songs are, in a way, before even putting them out.
In terms of live music, have you done touring and shows yet or coming out of the pandemic? Will this be the first time you’re doing that?
Coming out of the pandemic will definitely be the first time that I’ve ever done a tour. Never toured, ever in my life. Since moving here, I’ve been blessed to have Tom Windish, who’s an amazing booking agent, book all of the shows that I’ve gotten to play in Nashville, such as at venues like 3rd and Lindsley and the Basement East is coming up November 11 and the Bre Kennedy and other places like Marathon Music Works, and these just beautiful venues that are staple pieces all throughout Nashville…And it’s been amazing. One notably was at the Mockingbird, which we sold out, which was amazing. And so, yeah, I’m really excited. I’m really looking forward to getting on the road and being distracted by that. I think getting to really get to know what that scene is like. It’s gonna be really exciting.
I do have to ask about your TikTok, I’m sorry. How did you get started on Tok and social media and kind of what has that experience been like for you?
No, go for it! I would describe it the same way, how I described the first question, it’s literally like walking on a sand dune I feel like. It is so hit or miss. As far as TikTok goes, now, I feel like it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to try and navigate, especially when your career is almost reliant on the validation of other people and the engagement of other people through social media and when that feels like it isn’t working in your favor, it can feel very discouraging, not even from a validation point, but just…if you’re trying to get a song that hasn’t been released that no one knows about heard it’s hard when nobody’s putting the focus on that. I think what was great with TikTok to start with, last year and last summer when I posted ‘Lady By The Sea’ and those first two songs…I posted that song, and I was never a TikTok artist at all, but I posted those first few things and we happened to grab the attention of…Interscope and all these different labels. It launched me into this crazy position that I had no place being in, and so it was amazing and it just set the stage. So as difficult as TikTok can be, I’m extremely grateful for what it does for breaking out brand new art.
What did it feel like to have your song used as a trend? Or with a trend?
It was amazing. I mean, it was really amazing. I never—I mean, at the time I was playing it small. You know, there was a hot dog place down in my hometown. I used to play on Tuesday nights there and do covers, and you could only do covers. And I’d try and sneak in a song or two or I’d lug around an amp and the microphone and my guitar around my high school and take out 30 minutes of that lunch period just to play new songs for my school. That’s all I had going, so when 400,000 people were liking it, and David Dobrik’s commenting on it and all these different artists are commenting on it, that’s a crazy thing. People that are high influence seeing that song being like, ‘Oh, yeah, like, this is really great,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, okay, that’s amazing.’ So it was crazy. And then to have strangers use it and romanticize it and put romantic videos to it was just unreal. It was beautiful.
How are you balancing this growing fame at a younger age?
It’s intimidating, I would say. I think, just the whole idea of it…it’s crazy intimidating. Meeting different artists and different producers has never been something that scared me because I just love people. I love meeting new people and creating real genuine relationships with artists and producers that I’ve met and just people in general…That’s the best part of this job. Music is such a vulnerable and real emotional thing that it’s like if you’re not emotional in it, it’s easy to see the surface level if you’re not already emotionally [attached] to your music. And so it’s my favorite part, I think and that’s the one thing that has been a saving grace is that everyone has been so emotional and has freed up so much space for that. But it can be very intimidating, especially at a young age. I mean, I’m 18. I’m living on my own and it can be scary, especially right now. We’re in the artist development stage and I have no idea what the future holds, you know? And so that can be very scary.
What gets you through it? What makes you believe in it?
I think it’s just the little moments and I think also just the people that have surrounded, me that believe in me. This industry can be very black and white as far as opinions go and I feel like everyone’s been so amazing and supportive. And so I feel like with that in mind, too, I don’t feel like I’m being steered in the wrong direction at all. And so that’s a really good feeling. And I think that gives me a bit of stability walking into something so intimidating and uncertain.
You can stream Stephen’s debut and sophomore EPs everywhere now.