Electronic-pop producer Stephen Swartz, known simply by his artist name Stephen, named his sophomore record after the philosophical concept of akrasia. It means “the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.” It’s a notion threaded throughout Stephen’s upcoming album, set to release July 24, and in these songs, Stephen crafts narratives centered on addiction, instant gratification, and spontaneity.
There’s a song toward the end of the album titled “Lust Animals,” and the beginning of the track reveals that it’s a voice memo that Stephen sent to this mother at 1 a.m., shortly after composing a song from start to finish on the piano. This process is common throughout Akrasia, a record rooted in a creative outpouring and freedom from restraint. Its 11 tracks were composed in this fashion, where Stephen would dedicate himself incessantly to his music for an extended period of time, and then return after a brief break to edit and clean up.
I had a recent Zoom call with Stephen to talk about his forthcoming album, finding a balance between impulsiveness and regimentation, and how he’s grown as an artist since his 2016 debut, Sincerely.
For the first half of the quarantine, I was finishing the album. I was doing mixes over the Internet with the guy who I mixed with album with, which was interesting. When that got finished, I took a week or two to properly do quarantine, just resting, watching movies and TV, and chilling really hard, celebrating after finishing a massive undertaking. I’m setting up this new studio. I’m about to go in on the next project here pretty soon, so I wanted a new space for it.
Oh yeah, dude. It’s funny how it goes. This happened the last time I finished an album, too, because by the time you’re finished with the album, you’ve been working on songs you’ve heard so much for so long that you just want fresh shit. But there’s also this period of other things that have to happen in terms of the release schedule, so I’m just dying to get back into the studio and create again.
Yeah I did, that was right before starting Akrasia. I was in Thailand for two months. It was cool. I didn’t really know what I wanted when I got back from Thailand. I almost thought about staying in Thailand, and not even just staying in Thailand, but just changing the direction of my life, maybe not living in L.A., maybe just living on the road. I thought maybe I could still do music and just be a vagabond. But when I got back to L.A. I remembered how cool it is to have a place to settle down to come to focus and create something, and then go out and seek inspiration across the world and go have experiences.
It was really refreshing, and what was really nice about it was that in Thailand, nobody knew what I did for a living. Nobody knew I was an artist. Living in L.A., everybody knows what you do. That’s the beginning of every conversation, and you start to build this delusion that your self-worth is tied to your art. But when I was in Thailand, I got to have all of these really powerful connections with people, and none of it had to do with my art or what I did for living; it just had to do with my character. Coming back to L.A., it was cool to have had that experience. It made me a little bit more fearless when I got to start creating again. I didn’t feel so attached, necessarily. I just got to express my excitement for things.
I would say it was like sprints. I did sprints. It was like a series of ups and downs. The downs were emotional things I was dealing with, all of the stuff that inspired the album would take me out for a week. I would force myself into the studio, and then for a week straight I would just puke out all this music. It was sort of like this combination of sprinting and just dumping everything out. “Akrasia” means seeking distraction, so the process of creating this album was seeking distraction and then also trying to finish it. And it was in that struggle that I found the inspiration for it, which was really weird.
Creating Akrasia was way more fun than creating Sincerely, my first album. I’m so much better at what I do now. My skills have improved so much. I just don’t have to try that hard to make what I want to make. I smoked a lot of weed creating this music, actually. I’d get stoned, and I’d sit down and have no idea what I’d want to make. I’d just have fun, move toward warmth, move toward the feeling, and look for that spark. What I learned from all of my past experiences with music is that, when I have an idea, I finish it quickly. So all of the songs on this album were done relatively fast. There were songs that were done beginning to end in maybe a couple of days. Some were maybe a little longer, but it was like sprints, just getting it out. Something I was dealing with at the time, and I think I’m getting over it now, was second-guessing everything. I was like, “If I just finish things quickly and don’t procrastinate, then I won’t have time to second-guess.”
With Sincerely it was a really unique scenario because I was younger and really hungry and desperate for notoriety, but I wasn’t as good. It was a lot of banging my head on the wall, forcing melodies. I would have to write melodies for one section of a song for a week straight to get something. With Akrasia, it was just turning off my brain. I think that we access some unconscious creative powers when we do that. Then what happens is that you let it all spill out, and once you get it all out, you eventually hit a wall. You step away, go on a walk, maybe get some rest, and you come back the next day, and then you just clean it all up. You’re like, “OK, this is crazy, but let’s just clean it up now.”
There’s so many differences between the two cycles. The big thing about Akrasia is that akrasia is the state of mind in which we act against our better judgment through weakness of will. The whole album is about all of these various forms of addiction I started to recognize I had in my life. A lot of them were really subtle and almost hard to detect, just the subtle ways that I would distract myself: reach for my phone, play a video game, waste time, anything that would be instantly gratifying. But what I was also dealing with with Akrasia were also some really bad drug habits, partying habits, and ways of escaping that got really toxic. So the process of creating Akrasia was like a madness. I think two nights before I wrote “Idiot,” I ate half a gram of molly and did almost an 8-ball of cocaine, which is something I never do. I’m not that kind of a person. But I was following some strange muse that was pulling this music out of me, and getting fucked up was a part of the process.
I didn’t write the songs fucked up, but that was happening during Akrasia. With Sincerely that wasn’t happening. With Sincerely I was like more of an athlete, waking up at the same time every day, putting on my work boots, trekking through the mud and having to really dedicate myself. This was very different. The work agendas were very different, and part of that change is actually very intentional. I started to realize a couple years ago is that there’s not an equation for what works. A lot of times I could spend a week trying to do something by forcing it, but then I would go have an experience outside the studio that inspired me, and it all poured out instantly. I knew I had to find that balance between staying dedicated but not trying too hard and allowing some spontaneity and some madness to encroach.
It’s a balance for sure. Everyone has to find that balance in whatever they do. I think art is a little bit more difficult because art isn’t like training for the 400m. I ran the 400m in college, and the athletic mindset is really helpful when it comes to creating anything because you just have to fight. To create anything great, you have to fight. Sports teach you discipline, but what sports don’t teach you is the X-factor of art, which is the intangible qualities that allow you to really create something special. That requires a cocktail of madness for sure.
What’s cool about music right now is we’re in an age where it’s not about being good at what you do. It’s about being really authentic. A lot of my favorite artists, when I listen to it in a critical manner, I’m like, “This is not that great.” But when you turn off the critical mind, and you just allow yourself to experience the art, it’s like, “Wow, this is really cool.” It’s not the sum of the parts that you’re hearing. A great song isn’t the sum of its parts; it’s something else.
Musically, it’s all over the place. People like JPEGMAFIA, and people like Arca and FKA twigs, there’s this rawness to what they’re doing, where things are very unorthodox and they play with discomfort. What all those artists do really well is they break the fourth wall. They pull you into the space that they were in when they were creating it. I was really inspired by how real those people’s musical expressions felt to me. Maybe it wasn’t the sweetest on the ears. Maybe it wasn’t ear candy, but it was very raw and visceral. That really appealed to me.
I’m inspired by so many musicians, but I think thematically, differently from Sincerely, what I wanted to add to the melancholy and reflective thing that my music will probably always be is a sense of playfulness. I think Akrasia feels like an adult in a sandbox just throwing sand around, being childlike. It was nice to get that out and express that and show that side of myself.
The main theme on the album is akrasia. It’s that, “Why do we choose A over B when we know that A is worse for us in the long term?” Why are we so addicted to instant gratification? Why do we procrastinate? Why do we hurt ourselves? I think there’s this theme of finding a sense of self-acceptance through this rebellious expression of all of my weaknesses. The album is an album of self-acceptance for sure, and of gratitude and being thankful for all of the experiences that have brought me into this moment right here.
I think it’ll take time once the album’s out. It’s hard to compare songs that are out versus songs that aren’t out because once you put a song out, it’s no longer yours. But one of the songs that keeps standing out to me is “Alien.” I really think that song is special. The outro is crazy in the way that it transitions from this badass hip-hop/pop track into this almost pop-punk outro. The colors in my mind are just crazy, and I can see myself playing it live. It sounds like an anthem. Truthfully, I like every single song on this album. It wouldn’t be on here if I didn’t. I think I generally like them all pretty equally. It’s hard to say. It really just depends on the day.