x‘My mom thinks I’m doing drugs but I’m at home baking cookies’: Steve Lacy on his breakout year

‘My mom thinks I’m doing drugs but I’m at home baking cookies’: Steve Lacy on his breakout year

Steve Lacy
‘People start coming out of the woodwork and I’m, like, nope!’ … Steve Lacy. Photograph: Julian Klincewicz

This year the Californian singer scored his first US No 1 with Bad Habit and released his second album to acclaim. He talks about TikTok remixes, his true hidden vice and the genius of Weezer

Nobody has had a better year than Steve Lacy. Since we spoke to him on the release of his second album, Gemini Rights, in July, the 24-year-old Californian singer, producer and guitarist has scored his first ever US No 1, with Bad Habit – voted by our critics as the song of the year – and found himself performing to increasingly frenzied crowds. TikTok may have helped Bad Habit sail to the top of the charts, but it was the uniform strength of Gemini Rights that made Lacy the year’s breakout star: its mix of indie solipsism and funk sleaze was a hard combination to resist.

How did Bad Habit come about?

That was one of the first songs [singer-songwriter] Fousheé and I wrote together. I had just made this beat and recycled some drums that I used before. She came up with the first couple of lines and then I had the melody. We freestyled over the beat for 15, 20 minutes, and we found the structure through the freestyle. Fousheé and I came up with “Whatcha-ooo” and then up until “I bite my tongue, it’s a bad habit”. And then I came up with the chorus and wrote the verses. That was one version of it.

Later, [songwriter] Diana Gordon came in and said: “You know, I hear something on this.” I was, like, I think the song is good as it is, but let’s see what she’s got. And then she came up with the end part – “You can’t surprise a gemini …” – and I was: “Oh, shit.” And then it ended at the “You grab me hard” bit.

That song took probably a year. I didn’t finish it until a week before I turned in the album.

What made you want to finish it and get it on the record?

I didn’t really question if it was going to go on the record; I think there were pieces missing for me to feel OK with it going out in public. As a producer, I test parts and I’m very excitement-based. When you’re constantly creating new things, the new thing will always get your attention. So it was: how can I keep this thing new, what is that missing piece to make me feel as excited about this as a new beat that I made yesterday? One of the finishing pieces that made me feel: “Oh, fuck, this is good,” was the synth line. When I heard that, I was, like, “That’s what I’ve been looking for. We’re good.”

Lacy performs at Coachella in April.
‘Growing up playing Guitar Hero put me on to a lot of rock and guitar music’ … Lacy performs at Coachella in April. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella

This song speaks to what I love about Gemini Rights – it’s like an indie song layered over an R&B song layered over a rock song.

I’ve always loved doing that – if I have a rocky beat, putting a soulful melody on it. Like Dark Red and all those types of songs. It’s a way to play and introduce new ideas into things that we know already.

You’ve spoken a lot about your R&B and soul influences – who are your main rock and indie influences?

Growing up playing Guitar Hero put me on to a lot of rock and guitar music. As I got older, artists such as Paramore raised me. Mac DeMarco, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend. Even Weezer – Undone is one of my favourite songs ever.

Weezer and Paramore are unexpected influences – what about them speaks to you?

Hayley [Williams]’s voice and melodies are crazy, because she takes the rock thing and makes it soulful. With Weezer, I love the wit and humour. The dissonance of the chord progression of Undone is truly just weird. For something like that to exist was super important for me in my musical journey, to be, like: “Oh, wow, you can make this sound fun and dope.”

When I make music, I take a small piece of everything that I love – I’ll take certain melodic approaches from Prince, but I’ll play it as if someone else was mimicking Prince, like if Jimi Hendrix tried to be Prince. But I like to mix different approaches together. It happens naturally. I’m never doing it all purposely. It’s just inside of me.

‘I’m a sensitive person. If I feel a certain energy is overpowering the room, or a certain person, I’ll just leave it to them.’
‘I’m a sensitive person. If I feel a certain energy is overpowering the room, or a certain person, I’ll just leave it to them.’ Photograph: Alan Lear

Are there any indie acts you’re really into?

Faye Webster is dope.

Where do the lyrics to Bad Habit come from?

It was writing to that feeling of being a shy person. It’s kind of a play on confidence – by the end, it flips and it’s, like: “Oh, you coming back to me now.” I’m kind of flexing, giving it back and being, like: “You were too good for me,” and then in the end, I’m almost too good for [them] but I’m still down. To me, that was just a really fun story that I’m sure everybody has experienced before.

How does that shyness manifest for you?

It turns on and off. I think shyness is a matter of feeling safe or not. I’m a sensitive person. If I feel a certain energy is overpowering the room, or a certain person, I’ll just leave it to them. If there’s a group of us talking and someone’s leading it, I’m not trying to impose my idea. I’m just gonna listen until someone says: “Steve, what do you think?”

When did you first feel like Bad Habit was taking on a life of its own?

After [it hit No 1 on] the Billboard charts was a definitive moment.

What prepared you for all that newfound attention?

I’ve been doing this for a while so I think I’ve seen how a lot of people handle it, and [I had] my friends around me. I guess just staying true to myself and what I’m doing prepared me. But [with] a lot of things I’m experiencing for the first time, it’s just about taking them as they’re coming, you know?

How did you find playing SNL? That’s the high-water mark of TV performances.

It’s hilarious because that was my first TV performance. And everyone’s, like: “You skipped to the biggest one!” I was so scared because my voice was hoarse days before the performance. I was on vocal rest for a day or two. It was the experience of a lifetime. It was such a light energy on set, everybody was bouncing off each other. Even down to the janitor, everybody just looked happy to be around that energy.

A lot of your career has happened really fast, but it feels like the jump from you releasing Gemini Rights to Bad Habit hitting No 1 was particularly fast.

It doesn’t really feel that fast for me because I’ve been working since I was 16 or 17 years old. It feels like a natural progression. I guess the virality of it is a bit quicker, or just bigger than my other things. But it feels as if I’ve been waiting and observing for a while.

When you suddenly hit No 1 like that, do random people start coming out of the woodwork?

Kinda, yeah. And I’m, like, nope! Things are hot, so of course you are coming, but nope! You knew about me for years! It’s funny to see but it’s dope that I’m still the same person, you know?

Before Bad Habit you’d had some engagement with mainstream pop, working with Kendrick Lamar and J Cole, but were you surprised by anything about your life changing after you reached this superstar pop tier?

No, not really. The song is huge but my life has not changed that dramatically. I feel the same. I think there are certain expectations of fame or superstar life, but I’m pretty regular at home – I’m playing Mortal Kombat. I love going to Ralphs, this grocery store we have out here. My mom thinks I live some crazy life, doing drugs every night and getting drunk – but I’m at home playing Mortal Kombat, baking cookies, drinking 2% milk. That’s my vice – chocolate milk.

When Bad Habit blew up, did you feel any pressure to capitalise on its success quickly – to release something new straight away, or drop the Bad Habit remix featuring Justin Bieber?

The label asked me if I wanted to put out a sped-up version of Bad Habit for 69 cents [to placate fans familiar with the fast remixes used on TikTok]. I was, like: “Ew, that sounds fucking gross.” But OK, sure – I’m No 2 and I want to be No 1, so go ahead. But getting people on the remix that I don’t know, that’s the weirdest thing to me. My music is super personal – I make these things with my hands, you know?

Quite a few of your songs had gone viral on TikTok before Bad Habit, but this one was particularly huge. How do you feel when a song of yours goes viral?

It doesn’t give me any feeling at all. Actually, I don’t think the internet is real life. It puts me in a good place, as far as fame and all that good stuff. But it’s not making me, like, damn, that makes me happy, or like, nice. It’s just kind of a tool. I’m not really in charge of it – so I don’t really have any feelings.

A fan recently threw a disposable camera on stage in New Orleans and you smashed it. What was happening in the moment? Did you get much blowback?

I don’t want to talk about that.

[Lacy’s publicist interjects and says he has to go.]

Bad Habit is our song of the year – what’s your album and song of the year?

Gemini Rights. All the songs on Gemini Rights.

Steve Lacy fans on why he’s the year’s breakout star: ‘His music tells a story that most of us are living’

The Guardian’s Sophie Walker polled the queue outside the singer’s recent London gig to get to the heart of his appeal: his uniqueness, angelic vocal range and ripping guitar solos

Claire Hannick, 18, London

Claire Hannick.
Claire Hannick. Photograph: Sophie Walker

Watching him grow as an artist has been really special. He talks about all the different aspects of life that we seek comfort in, such as identity, relationships … I think the way he articulates these things is why Bad Habit blew up. It appealed to a mainstream audience without compromising on who he is.

Amberley Chan, 17, London

Amberley Chan.
Amberley Chan. Photograph: Sophie Walker

I really love his electric guitar solos. He’ll go off on a really cool riff and it adds a whole new element to the song. Because he released his first songs when he was 16, it feels as if his music tells a story that most of us are living.

Helena Desta, 17, London

Helena Desta.
Helena Desta. Photograph: Sophie Walker

Everything that goes into his production is different from anyone else. His sound changes a lot, so there’s no skips, ever, because there’s always something fresh about each song. His music is also insanely catchy. When I first heard Bad Habit, I was replaying it for two weeks straight.

MJ Rubio, 19, Essex

MJ Rubio.
MJ Rubio. Photograph: Sophie Walker

I love the funkiness of his music. I’ve listened to him since the Internet and I love his guitar solos – they’re really unique. He made some of his music using GarageBand and I really admire his innovation. I play guitar in a band as well, and he’s half-Filipino, so we share some similarities.

Reuben Fisher, 17, Canterbury

Reuben Fisher.
Reuben Fisher. Photograph: Sophie Walker

It’s so upbeat and joyful. His vocal range is crazy, as well. Some people say it’s like listening to an angel and I agree with that. Listening to his albums is an experience, every time. A lot of artists just pump out similar sounds, but he genuinely brings something different every time.

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