Steve James seems almost like a normal high school kid. He has a girlfriend. He's quick to use his easy, carefree laugh. In June, when he moved from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to L.A., he discovered — and got hooked on — Thai food.
And not too long ago, he co-produced the title track on Justin Bieber’s new album Purpose — an album which also happened to debut in the No. 1 slot on Billboard's U.S. album chart.
From the way he talks, you wouldn’t guess at first that James is only 17. Then he mentions how a pit stop on his cross-country road trip to L.A. involved sneaking into EDC Las Vegas — not because he couldn’t get a ticket, but because he’s under 18. Oh, you think, right.
The fact that James went into music is no surprise to anyone that knows him. He grew up in a musical family, playing classical piano. “My mom was a church musician and her dad was a band [teacher], and they started me off learning piano when I was three or four,” he explains.
At first, it was Bach and Mozart. A foray into synth-pop with Owl City’s “Firefly.” But like any little brother, James was drawn to his older sibling’s tastes.
“My older brother worked in Miami a lot back then, and he’d come back listening to electronic music. It was big down there, not like in Johnstown,” James says. “It was my introduction to progressive house. I heard songs like Alesso’s ‘Pressure,’ and I learned that DJs don’t just DJ — they produce.”
James got his first computer when he was “like, twelve and half,” and has been toying with producing ever since. At 14, he saw an Avicii show with his brother. “I said to him, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m doing this.’”
By that time he was playing gigs like birthdays and homecomings, but the goal wasn’t exposure. “I did it to make money to buy better production gear.”
He turned his parents’ basement into a makeshift studio and produced nonstop for the next few years. Instead of focusing on hometown shows, James made it his mission to get in touch with as many bloggers as possible. His manager now was a blogger he met back in the day. “I knew I wasn’t going to be playing for people on a stage yet. My only real resource for getting my music out there at the beginning was the Internet.”
To say he did well getting his name out there would be an understatement. At first, his game was pretty much exclusively progressive house remixes — like his take on Zhu’s massive hit “Faded,” which ended up launching James into the limelight, getting his music air time on the radio, and pushing his name into the ears of L.A. industry bigwigs.
Within a year of releasing his "Faded" remix, he had moved out West, where he’s been working on developing his sound beyond those remixes.
Living in his new studio helps. Acutely aware that he’s more than kind of living the dream, James calls the multi-purpose space a luxury. Perks include a killer view of the Hollywood sign and being able to roll out of bed to work whenever inspiration strikes — even if it’s the middle of the night.
“That’s not something I can do at home. If I’m still up when my parents get up they’re very disapproving,” James laughs. (There’s that oh, right feeling again.)
People assume he's had to leave childhood behind for his dreams. But if you ask him, the industry hasn't really been a factor. He’s kind of just always been like this. “My friends would go play sports after school and I’d go home and sit in front of this weird program they didn’t understand. It’s been like that for years.”
His hard work got him noticed by the Chainsmokers, who brought him along as an opener for several dates on their Friendzone tour this year. And of course there’s the whole Bieber thing, which James is equally nonchalant about.
“I was working with Jeremy Snyder just on my own music, and one night he invited over Poo Bear, who wrote a lot of stuff for Bieber’s album. Poo Bear liked what I was working on, and when we got together later that week we made ‘Purpose.’” Simple as that.
His first original track, “Renaissance,” which came out Nov. 30, was a bit more of a battle.
“There are songs that make themselves in the first two days, and there are songs that feel like they take forever. This is one of the forever ones,” he chuckles.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t love "Renaissance" — he does. It’s a throwback to his classical piano days: heavy on melodic keys, made all the better by the sultry vocals of Clairity. The track is unexpectedly uplifting, something James is making himself known for. “I love happy, uplifting music that you can dance to. That’s my genre,” he says.
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For 2016, that’s going to manifest itself in new, cool remixes of “Renaissance,” even more original singles, and — hopefully — an EP. Ultimately, James wants to get the equipment he’ll need to do a live tour. “You can create bigger build-ups that way. I want to be able to play the keys live and improv.”
It’s the kind of thing that might sound like the musings of a starry-eyed-teenager, coming from anyone else’s mouth. But James has proved he’s got the drive and the know-how to back up the big talk.