Topher Stephenson Translates Summertime Into Music
Penn State student, co-creator of State in the Real, officer of the PSU Songwriters Club, and one chill dude with one hell of a singing voice, Topher Stephenson ( @TopherNOW), was so inspired by summertime that he is penning his next album entirely inspired by the smell of sunscreen, the smooth taste of beer in the sunshine, and living the good life in the warmth of the summer season.
According to Topher his upcoming EP, Warm Weather Music, is “going to be a collection of songs that I’d personally want blasting out of my car stereo as I’m driving around on a warm summer day.” And if the two songs that have leaked from the looming release are any indication, Warm Weather Music will be a commanding kaleidoscope of surf-rock acoustic guitar and catchy solos that sing like the morning doves on a summer mornings.
In honor of Topher’s newest track, Shameless Self Promotion, being released for free download on MediaFire; our own Evan Ponter (@evanponter) sat down with the man behind the music to discuss his soon-to-be released EP as well as his experiences being a musician and a music journalist at Penn State.
Onward State: My interpretation of your new song, Shameless Self Promotion, was that it seems to be a rebuking of the corporate music media structure and its restraining qualities on artists. Am I on track with that? Or how would you personally describe the song’s attitude?
Topher Stephenson: That is more or less the jist of it. Anytime I’m introducing the song, I always tell the audience that the song is “about how much it sucks to be constantly plugging yourself and your own music, especially to your friends and family, but knowing that if you want to make it anywhere as an artist you probably have to do it anyway.” Originally there were a couple lines likening being a musician to being a prostitute, those didn’t make it into the final copy though.
OS:Can you recall the scenario you were in when you first wrote SSP?
TS: I can, actually. It was some time this past winter break, and I was at home working on writing new songs for my upcoming release, Warm Weather Music, and I had hit a bit of a snag. I have a pretty eclectic musical taste, so my last EP had a pretty diverse sound with none of the songs really having much in common other than the fact that I wrote them, so for this release I had told myself I would keep all the songs flowing in the same direction with the same vibe and hopefully similar styles. But after churning out a couple Jack Johnson-esque pieces of crap that sounded exactly the same, I bagged the idea and decided to write a song bashing the industry that made me feel I should keep my music streamlined in the first place. Ironically enough, SSP probably sounds more similar to Jack Johnson than anything else on the upcoming release.
OS: I believe you say “college radios run by college radio bros” in SSP is a deterrent to up-and-coming artists, do you think that is a larger issue on college campuses these days? In essence, is State College an ideal environment for launching a career as an acoustic act?
TS: Haha, that line is actually slightly deceiving. The line is “these college radios run by college dj bros are worth something,” and they really are. I’ve been on radio shows at a few different campuses, and the people running the shows are always so stoked to bring live talent onto the show, and it feels great to actually be there and be putting your own music out into the airwaves.
Actually, last year me and a friend of mine were DJ’s on a show on the Lion FM that was specifically for bringing in local talent and having them play an acoustic set. But what the line hints at is that it can only take you so far with the amount of people giving radio a fair shake these days. Everyone has their iPhones set to their favorite pandora station anymore, but if you’re wiling to listen, there is good stuff coming out of college radio. State College as a launching point of a music career is a whole separate can of worms, but I will say that this is my 5th semester at University Park, and as far as the local music scene goes, it feels a lot better than when I got here.
OS: How is it being part of the music media as well as an artist?
TS: It is a lot to handle but I absolutely love it. It feels really good to give an outlet to Penn State original music in anyway, especially in an area where there is such a ridiculous amount of local talent but a pretty low level of recognition. There are a lot of times where I’ll end up putting work I have to do for SITR ahead of my own music, there just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes, but I figure the more we help the music scene the more I’m helping myself and artists like me in the long run anyway. And I’ve met a lot of really awesome people and musicians that I probably wouldn’t have met if I wasn’t working with SITR and The Lion FM, so it all kinda levels out.
OS: In one verse you say you should “write a song about Penn State” or being “another white rapped,” do you believe that is a washed-out musical scene with almost every semester a new PSU party song seems to be released on YouTube?
TS: Haha, that’s a good observation, but not so much what I was getting at. That line is more just another reference to the fact that I, and I think a lot of other musicians feel pressured to write a particular type of music, or constrict a song to just one idea, the way I was trying to stick to one kind of sound for my upcoming release. I think by doing that you just end up limiting yourself and coming up with sub-par product, maybe that’s why some of the Penn State party songs seem kind of played out. But some of them are freaking awesome and if I come up with a good idea for one I’m going to write the shit out of it.
OS: So, this song is part of a larger album. Tell us about what you’re getting ready to release.
TS: Well, it remains to be seen exactly how ‘large’ the release will end up being. My mixing engineer is on tour with Such Gold so we’re not sure how much more of what I have recorded he’ll be able to finish from the road. But what I’ll say about the release its self is that its going to be a collection of songs that I’d personally want blasting out of my car stereo as I’m driving around on a warm summer day, hence the name Warm Weather Music. It’s probably going to be the first of a few volumes, as I have a lot of songs that fit that scenario and I don’t have time to get them all on this release. Some of the songs I wrote just this past year, and one of them I wrote in like 2009, so hopefully it will give people a taste of how my music has changed over time.
OS: You mentioned that summer was an influence in your album. How do you make a concept album around a season without sounding cheesy and what about summer do you hope to highlight?
TS: To avoid that I’m shooting for giving people the summer vibe through how the music makes them feel, not so much through blatantly obvious lyrics, at least that’s what I’m hoping for. You won’t hear a lot about the sun-shinning and the birds chirping, but I’m hoping the lyrics you hear will take you back to the memories of those summer nights that were so fun, you’re not sure how anyone remembers them at all.
OS: The song “Can’t Recall“– the first release from your upcoming EP — plays out like a wild party night of blacking out on too many shots. I think that’s a statement, not a question….huh. (So, is that right and if so describe it in your own words)
TS: Haha, that’s a little bit of it. I drew from a couple different places for inspiration on this one, some of it being past experience and some of it being satire and a lot of it being the song Punch Drunk by Incubus. One of the main ideas I actually started with for this song was a group of friends drinking coffee and having breakfast at a diner as the recount the wild events from the night before, and all of the sudden one of them realizes they need to call their girlfriend and apologize for something epic. If I make a music video for it that’s definitely going to be the opening shot.
OS: If you could hi-jack any location on campus to play a show at, where would it be and with whom would you perform?
TS: Easy, the Dorito Church lawn. That would easily be the coolest back drop for a stage ever. It would be pretty dope to open up for Incubus, Death Cab for Cutie or Gorillaz, but if none of them called me back I’d settle for The ‘U’.
OS: I would normally ask you what your favorite dinosaur is, but you play an acoustic guitar so it’s automatically assumed you’re one of those long necked dudes that east plants. But if you could remove the musical inelegance from a single artist and absorb their style, rhythm, natural talents and make it part of your own skill set, who would it be?
TS As much as I hate to say it, Jason Mraz. The dude has written some stupid songs, but dear god he can string together the craziest rhyme schemes. And for the record I’d be a triceratops.