Carving Her Place in the World: An Interview with SUMif

SUMif © 2017
SUMif © 2017
Armed with passion and tenacity, San Francisco electro-pop artist SUMif is on a mission to make the world dance and drift.

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As an artist trying to make their mark on the world, it’s no secret that it’s a long and difficult road to success. The trials of producing, booking, press and so on can be a real drag that lead many to give up or opt for an easier path to recognition. In short, trying to make it in the music industry is simply not for the faint of heart, and that’s one thing SUMif is willing to accept.

Drifting - SUMif
Drifting – SUMif

The moniker of Los Angeles native and current San Franciscan Steph Wells, SUMif is an electro-pop outfit that more than anything, wants to see you move. Wells released her first single “Take Me” in 2015 and has been hustling to make it in the game ever since. Completely independent – that is, without a dedicated booking agent, publicist or manager – she’s worked her way into opening slots for some of indie electronic/pop artists most promising acts, such as Vérité, Ella Voss and Lauv. And hopefully, that’s just the beginning.

Her dedication to her work is unwavering, her passion is striking, and her music is incredibly lively. Atwood Magazine was lucky enough to sit down with Wells over a hot toddy and an unusual (but not unwelcome) amount of ABBA at Blackbird Bar in San Francisco. See below for a discussion about SUMif’s new single “Drifting,” the overwhelming urge to tour, and some personal insight on country music subject matter.


Atwood Magazine: So I’ve had “In With Me” on my playlist for a long time, and when Ava sent me the link to “Drifting” coming out this week, I didn’t even realize it was you at first!

SUMif: Oh that’s so awesome, so you actually have heard my music before!

Yeah I think it was on my Discover Weekly or something!

SUMif: Sick! That makes me happy.

So, we talked about how you went to school in NYC and then moved out to Nashville, and now you’re here in San Francisco. How have things been since you moved here?

SUMif: They have been good, it’s really a slow, what feels like a tedious process. So, I guess I moved here, I was still writing country-ish music and then it was like in the rise of Spotify, in like 2013. So I started consuming way more music than I ever did and I was like, “oh, these little bands are playing at the pub down the street on Thursday for eight dollars, like, might as well go.” So I started just going to way more shows than I ever had before and I was kinda like, “oh, the openers of the openers are these like electro-pop bands and they’re like, not that good.” But people were still kinda dancing around because the music just has that type of beat. I’d always thought of production as something that was really hard, like you need software, and all I can do is play guitar, whatever. But seeing those acts I told myself, “you know what, I know I can do better than that,” so I sought help on Craigslist.

Oh, yeah?!

SUMif: Yeah, so I was like, “hey, looking for an electro-pop duo partner,” and I met a few guys on Craigslist who helped me essentially learn. Like, the bare bones of production is not that hard, right? Everyone kind of ended up flaking out on me, but from there I was just like, “I can just watch YouTube videos and learn how to do these simple versions of these things. You can really find anything on YouTube, it’s amazing.

The Internet is so weird and awesome.

SUMif: Incredible, and it’s like you don’t even need to go to school for anything because it’s just all on YouTube.

People spend so much time making those videos I’m always amazed.

SUMif: Yeah, I’m like “thank you, but wow!” So, I produced my first track and my best friend from high school owns a studio in L.A., so I sent it to him and I was like, “can you help me finish this?” It sounded like a bedroom demo, and so he mixed it, added some harmonies and he sent it back and I was like, “whoa! This is sick! I made a sick song! This is it, this is awesome!” So, I was like, “okay I’m gonna pop off, I’m gonna go viral, I’m gonna be this huge hit with my first song.” But I was really worried about how I was gonna release it, and I didn’t wanna mess it up and someone was like, “look, nothing’s gonna happen when you release your first song, like, you just gotta put it out there.” So I did that and he was right, nothing happened. I got on Hype Machine, which was the first goal of my project, it was like, “have one Hype Machine blog post about you,” like just get on there. So I did that and I was like, “okay, that was easy, alright, next!” But yeah, so it’s been, that was almost exactly two years ago this week, and you know, I thought things would move a lot faster? But, I think for being totally independent, not having a manager or any kind of outside help aside from my producer friends who help me produce my tracks and my bandmate, who I also found on Craigslist, I feel really good about the progress I have made in the past two years. I’ve opened for the people who I listen to all day on Spotify, and it’s been going well. I’m very excited about the future, I’m excited to keep releasing new songs and see what happens next.

People spend so much time making those videos I’m always amazed. So you put out five or six singles last year?

SUMif: Yeah, six or seven.

Gotcha, so are you working on an EP? I know you just released a song recently.

SUMif: Yeah, “I Don’t Wanna” stylized as “I D W.” Basically I was like, “I don’t know what to call it besides ‘I Don’t Wanna,’ but I really don’t wanna call it ‘I Don’t Wanna,’” and so I was like we’re gonna do this initial thing, haha. So anyway, that song just came out, we’re doing “Drifting” and then the next one after that is “Pretty Cage” coming at the end of November and then the Pretty Cage EP is coming out early January. So, it’ll be these three tracks, one unreleased one and then “Lay Down” and “In With Me” which I’ve previously released. So yeah, as soon as we get that out I’m ready to start releasing singles for the next EP already!

Oh, nice!

SUMif: That’s the good thing about spending a lot of time working on the live shows this year is that I have this kind of backlog of music now that I’m excited to release.

So you’ve opened for some pretty cool people, like Vérité, for example.

SUMif: Ella Voss, Lauv, yeah. That’s been really, really awesome, I’ve been lucky. For some of them people have reached out to me and asked me to open, like the guy who books POPSCENE shows here? Every electro-pop act who’s anyone started at POPSCENE, like their first time in SF everyone plays it, like Flume, Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding, everyone has played POPSCENE. And so, he likes me, which is great, Aaron is an awesome guy. And when I sawVérité was coming through town I was like, “hey, does she need local support?” He said, “probably not, she’s probably carrying support,” but I lucked out because she was on tour supporting Betty Who and she had one off night where she was headlining, and Betty Who skipped San Francisco, so she needed local support!

That’s so cool!

SUMif: I do that all day everyday; I find shows, email booking agents or the talent buyers, managers of bands, and I’m like, “can I open, can I open, can I open,” so just trying to do that hustle. It pays off like one out of every 50 times something happens, but yeah.

That’s the thing with the Internet too is like everything is so saturated, like it goes both ways, you know?

SUMif: Yeah, like now because of the Internet and that everything is so accessible, I can get my music out there to so many people, but so can everyone else. So when I submit to blogs and stuff and they’re like, “yeah, there’s a lot of people who sound just like you so you really have to stand out.” And I’m like, “Gahhhh, I thought I was good!”

And that’s the thing, how it’s not really a matter of being good it’s just like you have to have something a little bit different, like a flavor, and it’s interesting.

SUMif: Yeah it’s a game, it’s definitely a game.

SUMif © 2017
SUMif © 2017

So backtracking a bit, in Nashville you said you were writing country, how did you get started with that? Like, what was the draw to that genre?

SUMif: Well, throughout high school and middle school I was in a like, pop-punk garage band and then I was like, obsessed with Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Sara Bareilles, those like pop singer/songwriters. So, like I said I was decent at acoustic guitar, like that was my main instrument, and so I just kept writing pop songs on acoustic guitar which end up kind of just being a little bit country? I mean, most country songs are just pop songs with a fiddle, or acoustic guitar…

And some twang.

SUMif: Yeah, your subject matter might change a little bit, but yeah in Nashville I was writing pop songs but as I would write with other people the subject matter would get a little country sometimes.

Yeah? What is country subject matter?

SUMif: Um, you know… I was actually in Nashville this weekend and I was at this writer’s round listening, and there were these two songs in the same round that talked about cigarettes and gasoline, and like, lighting someone’s shit on fire. And I had a song called “Wildfire” that was about like burning the town down, and getting the hell out of there. But I have a song also called “Jack and Sweet Tea.” It was when I first moved to Nashville, I was like trying to embrace this new scene… We would go downtown in Nashville and like, locals don’t do that, but we were brand new in town and we thought that’s what you do, where all the “honky tonks” are. I just wanted to be like, as southern as I could and soak it up, so I was like, “I’ll have some Jack with some sweet tea!” and then I was like that’s a song title right there! So I did that, you know, it’s pretty country? Now I get to be a little more metaphorical, they hate when you get too metaphorical down there, you gotta be a little literal.

So you’re gonna be releasing your EP and you have more stuff coming up, what is your plan in addition to that?

SUMif: I want so badly to tour. It’s just a matter of someone taking a risk, and taking me on tour as support. Unfortunately I don’t have any friends who are like in bands that are slightly bigger than me, or like in a position to do so, which would be helpful, haha. But yeah, I cannot wait to tour my face off, like that is… I wanna play festivals, I wanna play the tiny clubs in the middle of Minnesota, and like, I wanna travel around the country in a 12 passenger van. I know I’ve like, glamourized it in my mind, I know it’ll be hard, but there is no better feeling than being on stage. And when I have opened for these other artists I get a really great response from the people who came to see them who had no clue who I was. Like after Vérité’s show, all these people came up to me like, “I’ve never heard of you, I came here for her, you’re amazing, I’m gonna buy a t-shirt.” Like, I sold $300 worth of merch to strangers at that show. And that to me was like, it blows my mind. And recently I was at a show waiting in line to get in and these girls were like, “are you the lead singer from SUMif?!” and I totally lost my cool. My girlfriend was like, “be cool, be cool, be cool” and I’m like, “…yeah, that’s me!” and they were like, “we were at your show, we love your new song!” and I was like, “how am I supposed to be cool?!”

“How am I supposed to be cool I just got recognized!”

SUMif: Yeah, so it’s happened a few times and it’s always been at shows, which I think is really cool that it’s like, the people who listen to me are the ones who are going to the same shows I am. So yeah, thinking back to two years ago it feels like we’ve made a lot of progress, not as much as I would’ve liked, but I’m feeling good.

Considering you don’t have a manager and you’re doing it all yourself, I feel like you’ve made really good progress and connections also with artists. And you do have a sound that vibes with a lot of other sounds, too, so like, you’d be a great opener for a lot of people, and then from there be able to do your own thing.

SUMif: Yeah… I hope so! I really would love to get a booking agent, because it’s like, without one I don’t feel like you can really get on the tours or get festival spots or anything.

It’s time consuming and also you do need connections to a certain extent.

SUMif: Yeah, so, I’m hoping one of these songs coming up can land on a playlist and I can get a ton of plays on one of them and that will make me look better for people who are looking and see that I have like over a million plays on a song. I don’t know, it’s just such a game that I’m trying to navigate myself, and it’s challenging. Especially since I have a full-time job, and trying to do this full-time also is tough.

SUMif © 2017
SUMif © 2017

Trying to balance everything you’re doing is so tough in this industry for sure.

SUMif: Yeah you’re trying to do it all, but it’s a bummer that the passion projects don’t pay!

It takes a while to get there!

SUMif: It’s cool to see actual money come through from Spotify, like, if I could get five times as many plays next year as I did this year, then I could almost be living off of that. So when the whole illegal downloading and iTunes and everything was happening and everyone thought artists weren’t making any money… Honestly if you own your own master and you don’t have a label who takes it over, you can make good money from streaming. I mean, I used to think a label would be nice because they put so much marketing spend behind you and such, but if you can hang onto your rights and do well on your own there’s actual career money there.

Everything you get you got yourself and you get to keep all those benefits that you gain.

SUMif: Yeah, so, I mean it would definitely be hard if the right label wanted to sign me but I don’t know, it’s really inspiring watching artists likeVérité and such be independent. She distributes with AWAL, which is like… Kobalt is her publisher so AWAL acts almost as a label in the sense that they have relationships with playlisters. And so, I’m releasing with AWAL now literally because I read about Vérité and it’s almost like a solution to the label since they have a means to the playlist, which is what matters these days. So, here’s to hoping! I feel like we’re just throwing things to the wall and hoping it works out.

So listening to your songs they all have a little bit of a different vibe to them. They all sound like they’re yours, but I would say “I D W” sounds a little more serious than your older stuff, so is that intentional?

SUMif: This might not be the best answer, but I go into every writing session or whatever just picking a synth sound and I just start playing random notes and I’ll start singing a random melody on top of whatever happens. Sometimes it comes out dark and sometimes it comes out happy and I think the darker vibes sit well in my register, so some of them might lean that way. But I don’t know I used to be really worried about all my music having a consistent sound. Because so many artists that I love, like every single song on their album you can tell it’s the same artist 100 percent, like St. Vincent or someone. It’s like so obviously them, and you know I have… Like, “In With Me” and “Lay Down” are very different. “In With Me” is more towards the EDM/dance-y side and “Lay Down” could be more like, really chill electronic vibes, so. But then I think about listening to Justin Bieber’s Purpose and you’re like, “wait, he plays a fully acoustic song next to a dubstep song,” and it’s just pop music. It’s pop music that is threading it together by the artist, and so I’ve kind of stopped worrying about everything sounding like it fits perfectly together and more so just sounding like me. The goal of my project is to make people dance or to make people want to move regardless of where they are. So if the song’s a little moodier or more uplifting or whatever, I hope it has the same effect and that’s what I hope the common thread is. My favorite thing in the world is being at music festivals with my friends, dancing to an amazing song all together in a circle. I never look at the stage, I always look back at my friends, and I want to give those moments to people, so that’s the whole goal of everything.

The goal of my project is to make people dance or to make people want to move, regardless of where they are!

That was a great answer, I don’t know what you’re talking about!

SUMif: It got there, it definitely found its way, haha. So I’m just praying to the Spotify gods for these next two singles that I get that notification in the morning that says my song has been added to a playlist.

Isn’t it crazy how the influence for these things changes? Like it used to be iTunes and now it’s like, who uses Apple Music, you know?

SUMif: It’s funny looking at my stats of Spotify versus Apple Music, and it’s like the smallest fraction in comparison but one interesting thing is that on AWAL they give you a lot of insights and apparently my listeners on Apple Music are more engaged than Spotify listeners. And I wondered if it was because my one friend on Apple Music is just listening to my music all day long? Haha.

So what do they mean by “more engaged”?

SUMif: I’m presuming they mean that like, instead of being a passive playlist listener they like specifically go back to it and hit play on it? I made that up, but that’s my guess.

It could be true!

SUMif: It could be true and it feels like that’s the right answer, haha.

Yeah, like I exclusively use Spotify, I mean sometimes I’ll use SoundCloud for random shit.

SUMif: For like the remixes that don’t make it out other places, but the bummer is like when I pitch to blogs and stuff, everyone posts SoundCloud links generally. So I just kinda wish SoundCloud died when it was supposed to die a couple months ago because then we could just push all traffic to Spotify and I get paid for that. So yeah, like, “Lay Down” has like 60,000 plays on SoundCloud and I’m like, “those are real dollars on Spotify!”

Well, we’ll be sure to link you on Spotify when we put this up!

SUMif: Okay, great, appreciate it! Haha. I mean blogs are starting to post more… In the past I’ve used SubmitHub to get on more blogs and stuff and they finally, well I haven’t released music in like 8 months but when I just did they all wanted Spotify links, and have playlists now. Even if the playlist has like 10 followers, another add to another playlist counts as a “save” in Spotify’s world and that’s a good thing. It’s all an algorithm and we’re just trying to beat the computers.

SUMif: I am, I’m probably more excited for the next one just from like, everyone’s feedback so far. I might personally like “Drifting” more but it seems like the rest of the world likes “Pretty Cage” more. So yeah, it’s always nerve-wracking putting out music because you’re like, “I love this and what if everyone hates it?” I just can’t have expectations and I just hope for the best, but I do not expect anything. The songs that I thought were my best songs when I submitted them to hundreds of blogs I got the absolute worst responses for songs that I thought were my best. So, you know, I’ve learned to take feedback and rejection really, really well.

Listen: “Drifting” – SUMif

It’s an important skill!

SUMif: Yeah, and it’s helped me with my life in general because as an artist there’s no other option than to take it in and reflect on it. Everyone’s opinion comes from somewhere and I’ve also learned to just shake things off. I go to bed all the time thinking about J.K. Rowling being declined from hundreds of publishers because every time a blogger says no I’m like, “I could be the next Harry Potter!” So I just try to keep it positive and not let myself get down. I have a good, supportive network around me that keeps telling me I should keep doing it. At every single one of my shows there’s some stranger who’s never heard me before that comes up to me and is like, “you have to keep doing this.” And that’s a really interesting thing to say, but I feel like someone always says it and it makes me realize like, they’re not my friend and they’re not saying it because they’re being nice, they just believe that I should be doing that. But it is so easy to just get in a blog hole of rejection, but then I remember those moments. It’s a tough road to navigate but we’re going, we’re getting after it.

It’s an exciting time, honestly, to be like… I feel like you are on the cusp, you know?

SUMif: Great, thank you, keep the positive vibes coming!

Good vibes only!

SUMif: Honestly the Good Vibes playlist would be really nice, so Spotify gods. I’m just really all about envisioning my goals, writing them down, and like visualizing them and seeing them. So I think about the Good Vibes playlist, which is one of my favorites that I listen to all the time and I’m like, just imagining my track on there. If I can just feel it, and picture it, it’s like it’s bound to happen, and I’ll keep telling myself that until it does.

You would totally fit! I mean, it makes sense.

SUMif: Right?! With AWAL it’s the first time I have a channel to Spotify, where before it was just if enough blogs post about me, maybe somehow one of the curators sees it, the odds were like nothing. But now I know they are pitching me, so odds are better this go around, we’ll see what happens!

Well, thank you so much for chatting, I appreciate it!

SUMif: Thank you!

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Drifting - SUMif

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