Stephen Sanchez: "I create music for me selfishly because I feel things deeply. I want to express my feelings, but then my feelings somehow cater to other people's and it becomes about everybody else and far less about me, which is extremely beautiful."
Alice Gee | 26/09/2023
As I join him over FaceTime, Stephen Sanchez is on the move. With his car filled to the brim, he’s an hour into a 13-hour commute from Nashville, Tennessee, to his new home in New York City. From his plastic washing basket to a pile of suitcases, he seems excited by the move and all it offers.
I quip that there are only 12 more hours left to go as Stephen appears undeterred by the long drive, “I kind of love it. The first time I moved to Nashville, I moved from California and drove all the way. So, it’s kind of a cool nostalgic thing that I’m driving from Nashville to New York this time.”
In the hope that our chat will deliver him some entertainment away from the road, even for a short time, I can only start to wrap my head around the fame Stephen has stumbled upon in the last year. Having soared to fame in the past year, Stephen had made his mark on the industry with over 25.7 million monthly listeners, triple platinum hits including "Until I Found You" and performing in front of 100,000 people as Elton John’s guest at his now iconic Glastonbury 2023 headline legends set. But behind it all, he’s as normal as you and I, basking in what can be described as a surreal series of events.
“Outside of it, I’m just myself experiencing, quote, unquote, fame and fortune of being a musician. It’s the same for the boys in the band. They’re also experiencing it all for the first time. We’re all young, 20-year-old dudes, getting to travel to places like Australia, the UK, and Europe, even just all over our own country domestically within the United States. It’s just been extremely, extremely fun.”
Having started in intimate rooms like the Moroccan Lounge in LA, the sell-out shows are coming in hot for Stephen with his biggest headline show to date at The Wiltern, somewhere he could have only dreamt of before his newfound success. “It’s a venue, by the way, that has had some of our heroes play. It’s incredible. We feel it! We have some big shoes to fill in that.”
There must be some comfort in experiencing it together as a band, someone to lean on and stay grounded in the face of the intensity of stardom. “I think because we’re all experiencing it in such a different way being the face and its name is sometimes a bit intense. So, from that perspective, having the band is great, them being a part of that. But to us, we feel incredibly normal. We all have people we love back home. We don’t drink or smoke or anything like that. We play shows and then go home and kiss our women.”
With a move to New York, the dream of making music that reaches their fans worldwide is becoming a reality, no longer just a hopeful something on the cards, it seems the stars are lining up for Stephen and the band, something that challenges their ‘boy next door’ personas.
From timeless swooning ballads like "Something About Her" and "Doesn’t Do Me Any Good" to rocking bops like "Shake" (gives a little nod to Elvis), his muse remains the same for his debut album Angel Face, an ode to an era, the 50’s in particular, built entirely of Rock’N’Roll. As his alter ego Troubadour Sanchez longs after his love Evangeline, the conceptual story throughout needs no introduction following his debut with the initial single "Until I Found You,” not forgetting that it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative song charts. As anticipation ran high, there’s no denying the album lives up to its expectations, doing justice to his childhood inspiration, all part of his Grandad’s record collection. Having recorded the entirety of the album in Nashville, Stephen teamed up with producers Ian Fitchuk, Konrad Snyder, and Ben Schneider to bring the sonic and visual fictional world he’s created to life.
If you’ve not been on TikTok recently, you might need help understanding the level of attention and exposure the boys have encountered in the past year. All you have to do is type in Stephen Sanchez or his well-known song "Until I Found You,” and you’ll be inundated with streams that come in their millions. From fan covers to his performance at Sofia Richies’ wedding it’s no longer just his guitar and an intimate venue. “It’s pretty crazy,” he exclaims, “these songs weren’t intended to be TikTok famous or even universally listened to, but they ended up being that way. And on that absolute monster of a platform to see people soundtracking their stories, songs like ‘Until I Found You’ or ‘Evangeline’ are surreal.” Even if it hasn’t reached the magnitude that "Until I Found You" has, any song feels significant. The fact that people are using them as a soundtrack to moments in their lives, whether intentional or not, is something that runs so deep as an artist. “I create music for me selfishly because I feel things deeply. I want to express my feelings, but then my feelings somehow cater to other people’s, and it becomes about everybody else and far less about me, which is extremely beautiful. So, seeing videos like that blasted on the internet every two seconds, I scroll through TikTok. It is pretty, pretty sweet to feel.”
The songs are no longer his to feel and invest in. Interpretation takes over as if the songs pack up and leave home to start their lives: “I want people to like them, but I want to like it first. I have to like it and want to be able to listen to it. If nobody was around to listen to them, I want to enjoy what I’ve created. It is taking a look, taking ownership, but then it’s kind of out of my hands, which is nice because I feel like that’s how it should be. They’ll always be mine and my songs, but to go on tour and see people singing about that song it is very much about them, their lives, and their attachment to it.”
With the assumption of the pressures involved when the whole world is watching your every move following viral multi-platinum hits, Stephen opens up about the job that feels entirely gifted with its moments of consistency met with anxiety. “It set the standard. That song is uniform. The fact that it got on the radio, that Elton John heard it, and that millions worldwide have fallen in love with the song is mind-blowing. I’d feel that way about all the songs if any of them were to do that.”
There’s no expectation for Stephen simply, instead, a destiny for each song. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lack in nursing each single through its promotion, but for Stephen, it’s not up to him. It’s up to the world, a sweet surrender. “I feel like there’s no pressure if I surrender it daily. If I tried to make it something, I would feel pressure. I can’t make anything be something it’s not supposed to be.” It was meant to have an impact and certainly has on an artist that Stephen can only describe as one of his all-time heroes. Performing with Elton John has has it’s impact. After all, he didn’t just go on stage and get the opportunity to duet with Elton; instead, the Glastonbury tradition was flipped on its head. Elton invited him to perform his own single, and much to Stephen’s surprise, over 100,000 people sang it back.
“It was unreal. There are so many crazy moments between them; we are both friends, but it’s funny because I tell the story, which always sounds like a lie because of how crazy it was. We’re watching Elton at his last show with the BBC’s most extensive viewership of Glastonbury. The most significant live crowd today 250,000 people or something like that. I got to be part of that. It’s such a gift because that was his last show in the UK ever. We’re talking about a massive career he’s had, and he’s genuinely such a good-hearted person. He’s amazing. It was so unreal to be out there with him.”
Iconic seems fitting, no? To share such a moment? “It humanises a lot of things. Not that anything is any less magical because of it. We were there in the rehearsal space, and Elton was playing "Your Song" with Brandon Flowers and "Tiny Dancer" six times over in front of me. My tour manager and I were looking at each other, thinking it's wild that we’re even here just because he loves the music I’ve written. I think it’s true for many things, too, like that we get to be at certain venues because people love the music. So, to have musical icons who love our music, who we grew up listening to, really does affirm to me and the band. Elton’s been our biggest champion.”
With his music being championed by fans and icons, I’m curious how it’s unfolded, the success he’s experienced from the beginning, a concept of Rock’n’Roll, the ’60s, and pure grit. “It unfolded as it was being written. We then released a song called "Evangeline," with this 1964 Rock and Roll feel. It opened the conversation to more music and was set in the same period. It became the question of what if we made a full record that felt like these two songs. It was the same with the characters of the story. This is a conceptual record, this debut album. We jumped into the studio and started writing these songs, which all told this cohesive story. The career back in the 50s. Then, his demise in the 60s after he falls in love with a mobster’s girlfriend, Evangeline. So Troubadour, longing for his love, confesses it and eventually tells her that he wants to be with her and take her away from all that. The record gets to the root of their relationship and the troubles. They share the heartache and, inevitably, the death of the Troubadour because he’s gunned down after they got found out. It presented itself very naturally, which feels beautiful and almost spiritual in a way that it fell into existence. It was so very natural. It almost feels like it was written before I got here, and I was reading the story as if it had already happened.”
Stephen’s excited for what’s to come, including touring and the exhilaration it will bring. To him, it confirms the hope that the fans are listening to his music. But this tour feels different as Stephen notes that it’s their first tour as established artists. This tour is ever so personal. Not only is it a new show and stage, in his words, a theatrical performance, but it’s more than that to him. It confirms the connection between him and his fans, in person rather than just over TikTok. Whether it’s his hometown show surrounded by family and old friends or venues where his idols have performed, Stephen’s come full circle with a sold-out show that once upon a time was something his young self could have only dreamt of.
Words Alice Gee
Photography Caity Krone