Steve Lacy is where every millennial wants to be at 19; adventurous, successful, and independent. Since joining The Internet as lead guitarist while still in high school, the Compton local has written, riffed, and produced his way through some of the band’s biggest tracks. 2017 was also a breakout year for Lacy, who—aside from features with Kendrick Lamar and Tyler the Creator—dropped Steve Lacy’s Demo, a six-track mosey of soul, R&B, and giddy lovesick indie pop. Lacy recorded the entire demo on his iPhone; a method he’s become synonymous with and something he spoke about during a TedxTeen talk last December.
However, Lacy is more than this impressive body of work; he’s upending lazy stereotypes of youth. He’s both confident and humble; someone who doesn’t shy away from talking about struggles with stage fright. Lacy’s growth from iPhone demos to performing in front of thousands prove he’s on the verge of erupting in to full-blown stardom. His voice, technicality, lyricism, and raw charisma are traits few artists his age possess, let alone have the acuity to flaunt without coming off as self-indulgent. It’s for these reasons speaking to Lacy is such an effortless pleasure. Like his music, his ideas on relationships, youth, public image, and self-confidence are well beyond his years.
How old were you when The Internet’s 2015 record Ego Death was released?
I was 16.
Was it a shock to the system to have your face on an immensely popular album while still trying to hand-in assignments?
No, it wasn’t tough. Not at all. I guess most of the [positive] reception had come later on. When I graduated was when it really became like, “Woah.”
The band was putting in the labour for it while I was still in school. I wasn’t on the road, so it was pretty easy for me to do my thing. And also my campus wasn’t hip enough to know who The Internet was. I was kind of living a double life. At school, I felt like Hannah Montana, because I’d go do LA shows with The Internet, open for some big artists then come back to class and keep quiet. I never bragged about it. People didn’t really know until I graduated.
Were you ever desperate to finish school so you could finally start touring with the band?
Kind of, but I also wanted to enjoy my high school experience. I could’ve done the road tour and had a nanny or something, but I was like, “I’m no celebrity kid. I’m gonna go to prom and graduate.” I wanted to do all of that. For me, it made the most sense. I had the rest of my life to go on tour.
Even before meeting Jameel, joining the jazz band then eventually joining The Internet, was a solo career something you’d always been gunning for?
No, never. That didn’t come about until we [The Internet] all came to terms that we would be making solo records. I do songs, write hooks and make a beat. That’s my thing. I’m a producer first, but it was Matt [Martians, co-founder of The Internet] who got me into this mindset. He told me I should sing too, but I didn’t want to put myself out there. He would always emphasise, “Yo, you can do it. You don’t need anyone.” I would say, “No, I like being in a band”, but he was like, “I know, but you don’t even need us. You can do all of this on your own!”
So, from there I took his advice, listened to these songs I had and tried to be a better writer. But I never intended to do so. I liked being the guy in the back.
So these songs you recorded on your phone were originally intended to be hooks for The Internet?
Hooks for whoever heard them.
Would industry people often talk down to you just because of your age?
No, never. Not to toot a horn or anything, but I’m quite mature for my age. I can hold my own. Even being in a band with older people—being the new, young guy—I was never treated as such. I had the nickname “Little Steve” for a minute, but I was never treated as being any less or any younger. For all I care, I’m one of them. If I didn’t know as much, or I was acting like a kid then maybe people would treat my like that. But for the most part, I was chilling.
In contrast, would people ever suck up to you just because of your success?
[Laughs] Back at home, we’d call this “dick riding”. But not really, nobody knew! The people who knew I was doing these things were my close friends, but they didn’t really know much. They’d see things on Instagram and see how many followers I was getting but that’s all. There was a little of that the day I got nominated for a grammy, but not even my teachers gave two shits about it.
I can imagine your followers would have blown up after the TEDx Teen talk last year. How did you get involved with that?
They contacted us. It was Nile Rodgers, who I guess is part of the TEDx organisation. He suggested I do one for this TEDxTeen event they were having in New York, which involved all these influential teens who were doing something in their neighbourhood or globally. I thought, “Ok, sounds fun. Let’s have a poke at it.”
Do you still feel stage fright?
Oh, yeah. That doesn’t go anywhere. I still think people are gonna hate. I never think I have it down all the way. I’m always frightened and I always expect the worse.
Even when people in the crowd are literally yelling out, “I love you”?
It doesn’t go anywhere. It reminds me of when I used to run track. The feeling I would get when it’s like, “On your mark. Get set…” That heart race, the adrenaline and the anxiety to win the race is the exact same every time. With the TEDx talk, I felt it more than before a performance. When I’ve got a guitar in my hand it’s fine. But to get on stage and talk—like, nobody’s asking me anything I’m just talking—it’s terrifying. The night before I was almost like, “Yo, fly me back home I don’t want to do this.” I almost hit him [manager, David Airaudi] up like, “Yo, why did I do this? Why did you let me agree to do this?” I was going crazy, man. We had seen the soundcheck and run-throughs before, and all these other kids my age just looked like they had it downpat. I am not a public speaker, so I had no idea what was going on.
You seem in control when performing with the band. Is it calming to have a guitar in your hand?
It’s easy ‘cause I can just play that. I can stand behind the axe and let that do the magic. But with the TEDx talk, I just couldn’t. Anytime you do something new it’s scary as hell. I had no knowledge in public speaking at all. My mom was giving me pointers and my manager as well, but I still didn’t feel like I had it down.
Musically speaking, what topics do you like to address, or what areas do you feel most comfortable singing about?
I’m a lover boy. Whenever I get these bubbly feelings after meeting someone new, or even going through the hard stuff is what inspires me the most. It’s always been the easiest for me to write down. When I try and venture out to talk about others things I think, “This is weird, I can’t do this.”
Given how much your life has changed over the past 18 months—Ego Death, Steve Lacy’s Demo, work with Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar and several others—do you think these new experiences are informing the way you write music now?
No, I don’t like to think anything’s changed. I guess I’ve reached a point of oblivion. I don’t like to let any of that stuff get to me. I’m also more present than oblivious, but I guess obliviousness is a factor into being present. I just like to stay true to where I am, especially in the musical process. When I do think about how much things have changed I get stuck. So, I always get back to where I was; to the feeling of being in the studio with The Internet when I first started making music. I like to keep it that way. I don’t like to think of myself as a dude in the spotlight.
What advice would you give to another young artist who perhaps isn’t enjoying the ride quite like you are, or who maybe isn’t coping with such exposure?
Like I said, just focus on being present, enjoy the moment and look forward to the new ones. That’s really what I did. Even where I am now, I never expected to be a solo artist or to be in the spotlight. I just like to say I’m a feather blowing in the wind. I don’t put any pedestals on myself or anyone else, we’re all human beings at the end of the day.
Can we expect a follow-up to The Steve Lacy Demo?
I don’t know when you’ll hear from Steve Lacy again. I went back to my producer role, because I didn’t expect any acclaim from the demo. I didn’t know people were going to listen to it and expect more from me. I went back to where I was before that and just focusing on being a producer. Right now—and this is the best way I can put it—I’m like Kobe in the gym shooting free throws every night, just trying to get them right. I’m sharpening my producer and writing skills so when I come back to the game I’m fully equipped and ready.
Not one to force anything?
No. Right now, I’m working on the next Internet record. I also have my first project which I fully executive produced—for Ravyn Lenae—which is out February 9. I sing and write on a couple of tracks. We also do some harmonies together.
Neptunes. Timbaland. Steve Lacy?
[Laughs] Hey, maybe we’ll see. Last year was unexpected, so shit who knows?
- Photography by: Chris Loutfy