True artists often feel like they have no choice.
Just ask SUMif. The independent pop artist, who’s real name is Steph Wells, garnered a lot of buzz during Spotify’s wild west days, circa 2015-2016, when independent artists were regularly playlisted based solely on the merit of their music – (what a concept!). While the game has gotten increasingly harder for independents, Wells has pushed on, continuously growing and evolving as SUMif. Her debut album In Transit which just dropped on Friday, is a testament to that – creation as a lifestyle. As personal of an endeavor as you’ll find, it’s art imitating life. It’s a hallmark of authenticity, and on top of that, it’s her best and most complete body of work to date.
Andy: So you began releasing music as SUMif in 2015. How have things changed personally for you since then. Has the meaning of the project shifted for you?
SUMif: Great question. At times it feels like I’m on a hamster wheel. Like “I’ve been doing the same thing for five years, and where have I gotten?” But at the same time, every time I play a show – well pre-covid – but seeing more people there, personally being more proud of my songs with each song I put out. Collaborating with different people, and putting myself out there more, I think that has helped my songs grow. I always think about how it wouldn’t even be an option for me to stop doing it. People may think “How long will it take for you to stop trying this?” but there’s no world where I’m not trying this. Life or death, I will do this until I die.
Andy: I love that.
SUMif: You have to really really love this. You’re an artist too, and you’ve followed bands everywhere as a photographer. You know no part of this is pretty except the 45 minutes where you’re on stage. But the rest of it is a lot of work with little pay out in my position. I love making songs, and I will always love making songs. It’s my therapy more than anything these days. Last year I went through a breakup, and this whole album is about that relationship, beginning to end. Writing it was my therapy. That’s how I processed everything. After it ended, I would have a really sad day and be confused about something. So I’d write a song about it.
Andy: You mentioned covid, and I don’t mean this question necessarily targeted at that, but it plays into it of course. The industry has changed since 2015 as well. Even pre-covid, how have you seen things shift for you as an independent artist since you began releasing your music?
SUMif: I think it’s much harder. When I first started this Spotify was a bit newer, so I ended up on a lot of bigger playlists more organically. It was an easy thing. I’d wake up one day and randomly have a song getting 15,000 plays a day because it was on a big playlist. In the past three years, that just doesn’t happen anymore. That’s streaming in one avenue. Other than that, I guess if I could look back five years, I would have hoped by now to be playing bigger shows. I’m still excited about the shows I play, and I am usually opening for really rad artists. I will always love to play a show, no matter where it is, or to who it is, as long as I’m playing. It’s definitely hard to look back and see ways in which I haven’t gotten very far, but also, my songs have been listened to collectively almost 3 million times. That’s a lot. You have to celebrate the little wins. Industry wise, aside from the streaming aspect where it can be harder for indie artists to really breakthrough, things have changed. If I jumped on the Tik Tok train and put all my eggs in the basket a year or two ago, maybe things would be different. It’s interesting.
“People may think ‘How long will it take for you to stop trying this?’ but there’s no world where I’m not trying this. Life or death, I will do this until I die.”
Andy: I would say musically though you have progressed quite a bit. I hope you feel good about it because it’s definitely an evolution.
SUMif: Yeah, I do. I’m proud.
Andy: So this current era, you’ve got a handful of singles out which will be on your debut album In Tranist which just came out on Friday, the 23rd. What sets this era apart in your head?
SUMif: This album is definitely the most cohesive piece of work I’ve ever made. It’s a chronological retelling of this relationship. I wrote the first song right after I met this girl, and the last song the day after we broke up. And everything in between fits in there. For me, making a cohesive piece of work, it feels really nice as an artist to do that. It’s been really cathartic. I’m getting the album printed on vinyl, and I’m really excited to just throw it off into the world. There’s the relationship, all packaged up neatly, and off my hands forever. I think sonically, I worked with different producers I’d never worked with before. I worked with a lot of writers that were new to me. Getting all that energy, and different ideas in the room I think helped set these songs apart and make them better. I wrote these songs last year. We’ve been broken up for a year now. So it feels weird to be releasing these songs, with it so far in the past, but I’m excited about it.
Andy: Like you said, you worked with some different producers. David Burris you’ve been with since day one, and then neek and Johannes Burger. How do you feel those three producers helped consummate your vision?
SUMif: It was interesting. I worked with Johannes a lot through the thick of the relationship, and he brought in a lot of great writers. I loved working with him because he really understood what I was going for, and what I wanted to do. He was excited about the project so he had really fresh ears on everything. I had worked with him twice before on previous stuff, but really the writers he brought through as well made a big difference. I wrote the first half of the album with him, and then a few with neek. neek is my friend from high school, so it was exciting to work with a female producer, because they are few and far between. Getting her take on a different vibe was cool. Also when I was working with her, I was in the sadness portion, and her vibe goes well with that. And then classic, Dave. I’ve been working with Dave in some capacities since day one. I can always count on him to produce good stuff. All three of them bring different energies, and different ideas. Then Dave mixed everything, so it helped to make them sound cohesive.
Andy: Is there a certain song coming out on this album that you really want people to pay attention to?
SUMif: I know you had mentioned to me that “April 19 (Voice Memo)” stood out to you, and everyone else who has heard the album in full has said that. Even though it’s a voice memo, and it’s not a produced out track, I know it’s a good song, so I’m excited for people to hear that track because all my songs have been so produced. I’m excited for people to hear me in my bedroom, really playing a song from my heart. I want people to feel like they were there in my room with me when I was playing it because it’s so raw. It’s a very intimate and vulnerable track, but I feel that’s how you learn a lot about people, when they’re vulnerable. So I’m excited for that.
“This album is definitely the most cohesive piece of work I’ve ever made. It’s a chronological retelling of this relationship.”
Andy: Your most recent single “Walking Away”, is a pretty emotional, but relatable song. It was a bit different for you in regards to how chilled out it was. Take me through the process on that one.
SUMif: There was this in between period in the relationship where I was like “Ok, I’m going to draw this half boundary because this isn’t working for me”, but it wasn’t the full “This is over.” So in that in-between period, I went to neek, and we had a session where I was like, “I’m so sad, but I don’t know what to do because I love this girl. But I deserve better.” So she just went with that vibe of what I told her on the track, and that’s what came out. The last half of the album is more depressing. It’s from when I was in my saddest phase, but I think that’s the beauty of it. You can really see the arc of the excitement and the fun, but also then the questioning, moving into sadness and reckoning.
Andy: So this is a very personal album, but that being said, what’s one thing you hope listeners can take away from this album for themselves?
SUMif: I don’t know if people will get this from it, but when I think about the relationship, and I think about the songs, even when I was writing them, I didn’t realize there was this underlying tone of – I always knew that it wasn’t right. I was even singing about it, but not realizing it. I wish I would have trusted my gut from the beginning. But at the same time, maybe the better message, now that I’m talking through this, is I would have rather have loved and lost, than never have loved at all. And the experience, while heartbreaking and sad, was also really fun, and I learned a lot. I think going through experiences, regardless of the outcome is almost always worth it, because you always learn something, and come through a different, and usually better person on the other side.