When Steve James remixed The Chainsmokers’ “Let You Go” earlier this year, it was the cherry that topped a year of impressive remakes—James had flipped everyone from ZHU to The Weeknd, but “Let You Go” put him over the top. It quickly amassed over a million plays and earned James his third #1 song on Hype Machine. He has been playing music—mostly piano—from a young age, but electronic production and remixes have grown from an offshoot to something much more.
Once the masses responded, the 17-year-old found himself staring down a whole bunch of industry capital. More remixes followed, and after a trip out to L.A. to gauge industry interest, Steve James told his parents he needed a little time before returning to his senior year of high school.
He went back to L.A. and into the studio, spending endless sessions creating tracks with no set destination. One of the results found its way to Justin Bieber’s team, and the title track of “Purpose” was born. It has launched Steve James even further into the center of an industry tornado.
Now that his production credentials are solid, however, James wants his own work to be heard. So today the teenage producer is capitalizing on the momentum by releasing “Renaissance,” his first-ever solo endeavor (you can hear it at the end of this interview). We sat down with the young producer to hear what’s next.
What has changed since the single with Bieber came out? Have you seen any kind of different offers or requests coming in?
Honestly, the past two weeks have been pretty surreal, just in terms of all these major blogs and publications posting the story. I’m sure Brett can tell you but we’ve gotten emails from some people that we never thought we’d ever speak to. We’ve gotten requests that we’d never imagine to be working on, at least this soon.
Have you been hounded by Beliebers?
[Laughs] There’s quite a few of them, to say the least. And yes, even my girlfriend is getting people following her who are Justin Bieber fans. They’re literally digging up my real name, stalking my personal Twitter and hers…
You don’t understand the power of the whole Justin Bieber thing until it happens. They can tell you your song is gonna be cut on the album, but it’s not until it really starts to happen that you see social media increases and all of the interaction that comes with that
Do they hit you up after following?
It’s pretty passive. You get the occasional, “OMG can you introduce me to Justin? That would make my life.” But yeah, it’s pretty passive. Not over the top or anything too crazy. No one’s wanted to come to my house or anything.
I think this would be a very different conversation if you landed the beat three or four years ago, when he was still in the first phase of his career. But he’s definitely undergone a reinvention with this latest album. Would you describe yourself as a fan before Purpose?
Growing up I had a lot of friends who were huge Justin Bieber fans and in middle school and stuff there were girls who couldn’t get enough of him. I had some guilty pleasures on Believe, and I still have them in my iTunes library. But when I came out to Los Angeles over the summer, I would have never imagined in a million years that my first cut would be with Justin Bieber. I didn’t know the process, didn’t know what this album was going to be or that his image was changing. I didn’t know the story, didn’t know him as a person.
You have your own solo material too, can you tell me a little about that?
That’s sort of always what drives me, making remixes for my own project. That’s how I met [my managers] Jay and Brett, that’s what has driven my career. I’ve been known to make progressive house, and pretty much upbeat club music. But after going to Los Angeles over the summer and just working with a lot of talented musicians from so many different genres, backgrounds, and styles, it’s really opened my mind to a lot of different things. It’s cool to move out of my comfort zone and try different tempos and get more expressive with the writing.
Was that a product of working with him one-on-one and you having a more dancier cut and him wanting to do something a little more different? What was the process like?
Honestly, I was just out in Los Angeles and in a lot of sessions with people, and some of the people were writing for his album and some of the stuff I was working on was a bit more chilled out. So when we were told that they wanted to write a song for his title track “Purpose,” I had some ideas to show them and they liked what we had and it worked.
And yet you were still just a drop in the bucket, one of many producers orbiting this massive release. How would you say you distinguished yourself from the masses? Was it just getting those cosigns or were you reaching out to these artists directly? Or did it seem to happen by chance?
I think it was just keeping it genuine. I loved the music that I was writing. I spent a lot of time on it, every day I would come home from school and spend time working on melodies, chord progressions, the things that make my music unique. I recognize what my strengths are and recognize what my weaknesses are.
For my entire life I’ve been making music. I’ve played piano since I was three or four years old. My mom has CDs of songs I made up in fourth or fifth grade, and one thing that they all have in common is that they have dominant, catchy melodies. That’s what makes my music stand out. Making nine or ten melodies over a track and showing them to Jay, or Brett, or my brother, who helped me a lot and is also musically trained, is just finding what the best ones are. When you pay that much attention to detail, you release songs that people remember.
Is that always the process, making a bunch of different options and whittling it down?
It depends on the song. I’ve had tracks where the first melody writes itself and I can’t get it out of my head and it stays like that from the first or second day until the day it comes out. I’ve also had tracks where there’s 18 versions. Some are different styles, different tempos, different instruments, it really just depends on how quick something comes to me.
Did you move out to L.A. after writing the song for Bieber?
After I spent the summer there, I came home and my parents and I agreed that I didn’t really want to go back to a high school classroom. So my mom spent a lot of time at home with me for two months, and I passed all of my GEDs a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think it was five or six days after that that I was back out West, living in Jay’s spare bedroom.
I’m in the Midwest right now, I just did a show with Chain Smokers last night. I’ll be back in L.A. on Sunday night until the holidays.
What kind of revelations have you had about the music industry since being in LA and getting thrown into that world?
There’s so much. I came from the dance music world, which is a little more simple than the pop world. I came out to L.A. this past June, and I was there for a week learning about publishing deals and publishers.
For instance, there are people out there—all they do is write vocal melodies. They don’t write lyrics, they don’t write choruses. They’ll get in the room, someone will write the lyrics, and they’ll just write a melody. That’s such a specific part of a song, but it’s all about the details, so many layers, so many different roles, so many different people that make this all happen. It’s like seeing inside the belly of the beast.
When you’re in these rooms now or in these sessions, are you writing for a specific artist? Or is it more to get tracks on the roll and just have things ready to show for other people?
It really just depends on the session, the day, and whoever is in the room. I love getting in where there’s a specific vibe in mind, but some of my best ideas come from me just getting in the room and making something up. You just go with the vibe, and when people have something to say it’s easy to write a song with substance and context. So sometimes rather than say, “Hey let’s write about this,” it’s better not knowing what you want to say and just starting something and seeing how it relates to you; making it personal.