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Steve Lacy On Going With The Flow For New Era: ‘It's Gonna Be Very Elegant And Very Beautiful’

25 January 2024 | 9:19 am | Cyclone Wehner

Lacy is about to embark on the Laneway Festival tour, where he had such a good time in 2018 that he "personally asked to come back".

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy (Supplied)

Steve Lacy enjoys the unexpected. The Californian alt-R&B star is in New York, indulging in some rare downtime. In holiday mode, he's visiting the cinema with a buddy. But quiz him on what movie and Lacy laughs: "I have no idea! My friend is surprising me. We're just going 'NY vibes'."

The polymath behind the TikTok mega-hit Bad Habit seems preoccupied, his responses often gnomic – but he has a lot on his mind. Today Lacy is publicising his return to Australia at the end of an album cycle, having delivered Gemini Rights mid-2022. In February, the musician will join Laneway Festival (together with Stormzy, whom he coincidentally replaced at 2022's Spilt Milk).

Lacy initially played Laneway with The Internet in 2018 and, according to the festival's website, "had such a good time that he personally asked to come back”.

"You know, yeah, I might have," Lacy considers, chortling again. "That sounds like something I would do."

He'll also present two exclusive concerts at the Sydney Opera House – The Internet gracing it five years ago. Lacy's previous Australian headline dates sold out instantly, venues upgraded to meet demand. Nonetheless, ahead of the first concert at Melbourne's John Cain Arena, fans reportedly queued from 5am – and rushed the stage, the bedlam catching promoters off-guard. News outlets described it as a "stampede".

Not that the modest Lacy is fully aware of Gen Z's devotion. "I guess I don't really think about myself being even like a person with fans," he insists. "So I don't even think about fans. I just be in my personal little vibe, for real… That's crazy! I got fans? I still haven't come to terms with that." Lacy laughs at the suggestion that his hive be called Lacyettes. "Mmm, Lacyettes – that's very '70s-esque."

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Now 25, Lacy was raised in a single parent household in Compton, Los Angeles, navigating a bi-racial identity – his mother Black and late father, largely absent, Filipino. The Guitar Hero buff picked up the instrument aged ten, endearingly performing at his sister's wedding. He'd connect with Thundercat's brother Jameel Bruner, an early member of The Internet, while playing in a jazz ensemble at school. Lacy was still a minor when in 2015 he enlisted as guitarist – yet was soon producing and singing co-lead as well.

In fact, The Internet was launched a few years prior by vocalist/producer Sydney "Syd" Bennett and producer Matt Martians, the band advancing the digital avant-&B movement. Crucially, like Frank Ocean, they'd be associated with Tyler, The Creator's Odd Future fold. The Internet's 2015 breakthrough Ego Death flaunted a Janelle Monáe cameo and received a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Along the way, Lacy came out as bi in a Tumblr chat – and his authentic art, and sartorial style, is casually queer.

In 2017 The Internet members collectively decided to issue solo projects – Syd's Fin generating buzz. Lacy independently released an EP, Steve Lacy's Demo – his creating songs on an obsolete iPhone hailed as game-changing in tech circles. Dark Red was his first song to go viral on TikTok, albeit belatedly during the pandemic. Two years later, he followed with a debut album, Apollo XXI, made on laptop, earning his own Grammy nod. Lacy signed a major label deal with RCA Records – and began booking professional studios.

Lacy's sophomore, Gemini Rights, took his career to another level – the auteur evoking the '70s psy-soul of MoWest, Prince's Raspberry Beret era, and André 3000. The lead single Mercury arrived as a fusion of bossa nova, surf music and Daft Punk's French touch – rivalling Ocean's Pyramids.

But it was Lacy's plaintive ballad Bad Habit that broke TikTok, spawning the now prerequisite (if contentious) sped-up versions, and peaking at #1 on the US charts (it reached #3 here and was voted #4 in triple j's 2022 Hottest 100). Bad Habit even prompted cultural discourse – Lacy's day ones irked about TikTokers attending shows simply to sing along to the hook.

Still, Gemini Rights entered the US Top Ten and Lacy received prestige 2023 Grammy noms with Bad Habit up for both Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year, and Gemini Rights taking out the new Best Progressive R&B Album category. Ironically, Gemini Rights chronicled Lacy's first adult heartbreak, the star splitting from an incognito boyfriend. "I look at it as kinda like the pivotal moment in my life and career," he reflects. "I feel like it changed everything. [I'm] super grateful for everything it's brought."

Lacy has since been quiet on the release front, though he shared a video to the funky Helmet. Lacy has fitted in studio time. "I can't stay out!" What is he working on? "I have no idea," Lacy replies vaguely. So it's a 'watch this space' scenario? "You will be surprised, but I can't speak on it now," he explains. "I don't wanna edge anyone, to be honest."

Indeed, probed on fresh music or where he might journey next, and Lacy is evasive. "I have no idea," he repeats. "I wanna do something completely different. I don't wanna do [an album like Gemini Rights] again. If it happens again, cool, but I'm not chasing what I did with Gemini Rights."

Lacy is similarly coy on the status of The Internet, the band last airing Hive Mind in 2018. However, they are reuniting. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was always a plan," Lacy confirms. "But we're starting to have some sessions and stuff now." He anticipates that the dynamic with his bandmates will change. "It definitely will be fun."

Lacy is more at ease discussing past collabs. He has liaised extensively with other acts as a songwriter-producer – the most high-profile being Kendrick Lamar (for PRIDE off the Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN.), Kali Uchis (Isolation) and Solange (When I Get Home).

"I learn something from every artist I ever meet," Lacy reveals. "I think how people work together is something that I super admire about all the artists I've ever worked with; how they sculpt things and the warmth… Working with people like Solange and the Kendricks, they all have this warmth to their creative space. It's always inspired me. Even coming from The Internet stuff, we've always worked with this warmth in the room. So I take these things and I apply it to what I'm doing. It's just like meditation, you know?"

Lacy cherishes cosy creative environments but not complacency. He's determined to challenge himself artistically, materialising on Vampire Weekend's indie bop Sunflower. "I kinda just love newness. So I'm always tryna do something else or try a different process.

"I'm like, 'If you do something that works, delete it.' I mean, for some people, they have a formula and that can work for them and they know it works every time. But, for me, I'm always like, 'Cool, I did that – let's chop it.' And then I just wanna try something else.

"When I first started making music, I had the same formula where it was like, Make the beat, find the hook and then fill in the blanks whenever I feel like it. But now it can go either way. Maybe I'll start on a guitar, maybe I'll start with a drum or maybe I'll just start off singing to nothing. It's just trying to find the expression."

When did the mysterious Lacy last surprise himself? "Probably when I performed [Bad Habit] at the Grammys," he says. "That was super surprising! [But] I don't think I surprised myself... I think Beyoncé surprised me, 'cause she stood up the whole time. But maybe I surprised myself by performing in front of Beyoncé and not squealing like a little rat. Once I saw her stand up, I was shitting bricks. That's what we would say out here: 'Shitting bricks'."

Lacy has transcended music, being named in Time's 100 Most Influential People Of 2023. Back in 2018, Virgil Abloh, the newly appointed Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton's menswear division, invited him to model his premiere collection for Paris Fashion Week alongside Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti and Dev Hynes. It's a bittersweet memory, Abloh passing three years on.

The trailblazing designer was a DJ/producer on the side – but did Lacy ever talk pop with him? "No, unfortunately not. Yeah, I wish I did. But I didn't spend much time with him physically. We either sent messages back and forth, but just little things to say 'I see you and I appreciate you.' He would send me things and let me know he's hip – and I would just always appreciate that. But I never actually got to chat with him about music or anything like that. But he was awesome."

Lacy found walking the runway "nerve-racking". And the fashionisto is unsure if he'll continue modelling, preferring to sit in the frow. "Syd went to Valentino [as a celebrity guest] and I went to the Louis 'V' thing as a model, and I remember being like, 'Damn, I don't wanna model ever again' 'cause we were getting nothing as a model. Syd got looks and she got the fancy hotels. Man, they ain't give me nothing. [The band] were like, 'Steve, what you get for that?' I said, 'Um, Instagram likes.'"

So he didn't score any couture swag? “Nope,” Lacy regrets. "It was awesome, though. It was Virgil's first show – it was obviously monumental. I was super appreciative to get there. But I was like, 'You know what? I think I would like it better if I'm just seated at these shows.' You get the goodie bag, you get the flights, you get the nice hotels… That's where you wanna be." Regardless, Lacy has recently become a brand ambassador for YSL Beauty's MYSLF fragrance and starred in a Saint Laurent campaign with Dominic Fike.

A toiler, Lacy struggles to maintain a life outside music. "I just hang out with my friends and I hang out with my family," he says. "[But] I don't know how good I am at managing [that balance]. I think you'd have to ask someone outside of myself – 'cause I would tell you that I do good at it, and maybe one of my friends would be like, 'No, you work way too much.'"

Lacy is most effusive – and mischievous – when plugging his upcoming shows, promising "just pure fun". "Maybe I might have my booty cheeks out at one point," he teases. "I think I might twerk a little bit and I think I might do a show with my toes out… Or I might get a lip piercing for one show and then take it out and then it'd be super infected." There's an extended pause. "Nah, I'm just playing! I really don't know – I genuinely don't know. I'm not even trying to edge you on or anything like that. We are planning it right now. But, let me see, intuitively, from my gut, I can tell you that it's gonna be very elegant and very beautiful.

"I like to have all my shows be different… So I like to make sets based on my setting. I definitely am going to curate a different setlist than the Laneway show, to be completely different. So that's what I can say about that.”

Steve Lacy will perform at the 2024 Laneway Festival in Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth – head here to see all the details.

He’ll also perform two exclusive headline shows at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday January 31 and Thursday February 1 – head here for tickets and more info.