Exclusive Interview: Rising Pop-Folk Artist Stephen Day
Photo courtesy Stephen Day
Stephen Day’s star has been on the rise since 2016. That year, his song “If You Were the Rain” reached number two on Spotify’s Global viral playlist, introducing listeners around the world to this pop-folk artist from Georgia. But as the Nashville-based Day reveals in an exclusive interview with Artist Uprising, “making it” entails so much more than high streaming numbers. Day, who begins recording a new album next month, sat down with us to discuss writing music, his new songs and what he considers success.
Artist Uprising: It’s easy for us as humans and creatives to be preoccupied with the notion of “making it.” Did you feel like you “made it” when you had that early success with Spotify?
Stephen Day: That moment you’re talking about was one that stifled me for a long time. My first EP, I was a sophomore in college, I didn’t expect something like that to catch people’s ears the way it did, and honestly, because of that, I didn’t write for a long time. I was happy about that, but once the happiness faded, I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ People liked it a lot, but it wasn’t like I was travelling all over the world. I remember playing songs in Nashville for years, and I think I played the songs for way too long. I was just scared to finish anything, and I think you hear a bit of that in the lyrics on "Guess I’m Grown Now" (his first full-length album, released in 2019).
AU: On that note, what does “making it” or success look like for you?
SD: At this point, I'm way more interested in the process than the results. I think I’ve found a rhythm that feels really good, and I’m less afraid of people not loving what I do. It wouldn’t be true of me to say I don’t put stock in how people receive things; how my art is received does affect me. But I’m not gonna let it stop me from creating. I think, “making it” is a good way to put it, because you’re not made. I think my life will be spent making it. I would love to play for massive crowds, but if I’m making records and can feed a family and myself, that sounds good to me.
SD: I’d say I’m at the intersection of soul, singer-songwriter, and crooner. My dad is a pastor, and I grew up in the church. When I was really young, I was mostly listening to church music. Then, in middle school, my sister gave me a CD with hip hop on it. I was blown away by it. It was one of my first introductions to music outside of the church. My dad didn’t listen to much, but my mom liked music. Some people come from families where parents say, “You gotta listen to the good stuff,” but I had the chance to figure it out on my own. After that CD from my sister, one of the first albums I remember loving was Room for Squares by John Mayer. It gave me this transcendent moment where I was listening to music, but also feeling moved in a specific way. I felt like I had this thing I had to follow inside myself. I started playing guitar, then joined chorus in high school. John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra: they opened my world up to music . I think because I’m from the South I have a country side that comes out every now and then, and I’ve become more comfortable trying to mix in country roots.
A live performance of his latest song
AU: Do you ever feel a tension between trying to honor those music heroes while still being your own artist?
SD: I went through a phase of being conflicted about it, but ultimately I realized it’s a tip of the hat to the people who have come before me. In some ways, it’s like me wanting to fill the role they filled for me. My goal as an artist is to try to use all of the different influences I love and somehow create my own thing that still sounds like me. A song like “Every Way (Supernatural)” is like a toned-down Prince song with John Mayer vibes, and “Hey Lady” is a country song Sam Cooke would sing. I think I’ll spend a lifetime trying to figure out how to put my sound on a song I love.
AU: Walk me through what happened for you when quarantine began and your shows started getting cancelled.
SD: My manager thinks way more in business terms than I do. She was like, “We’re not gonna be able to tour again. How about you write something and put it out?” But I can't just shift gears like that. It did take a minute to adjust, but once I adjusted, I felt how much peace and joy I got from writing again. It was kind of like my way of giving light to the darkness.
AU: Tell us about the forthcoming album.
SD: I’ve written most of the songs that’ll be on this record in the past month. This next one feels like it’s gonna be cool. It feels like I’m taking everything I've done so far and putting it together. It feels like a pivotal moment, a ‘This is who I am” sorta thing. We have a lot of songs to pick from, but we’re just going to pick 10. In the past, I’ve used everything. Not this time.
AU: What’s on your mind as you prepare to record it?
SD: I kinda move through life with my gut, so i have a hard time putting words to stuff unless it’s in a song. I’m thinking about what I want to make people think. I’m thinking about how I want people to feel. I’ve just gone through a phase where I've excavated the outer skin and found out what I’m thinking about, and it makes me feel empathetic for people who don’t have a way to do that. Melody can be really healing, you know? It’s a healing quality of life.