The sun is setting on a cool Saturday in Quebec City and Stephen Sanchez is singing a cover of Elton John’s ‘Bennie And The Jets’ with a fervour and tonality that make the hit sound like his own. It was only three short hours ago that Sanchez and his band arrived at the festival after a string of flight cancellations, delays and half their instruments being stuck in Montreal. As his drummer tells NME at the side of the stage, however, they’re “having a blast” – and they should be. Their electric performance is met with a riotous response from the more than 15,000 fans gathering to see them at Festival d’été de Québec [FEQ], made even more thrilling by the fact that they went straight to the stage with no soundcheck.
Those expecting Sanchez – known for his penchant for writing swoon-worthy love songs, and his retro, velvety vocals that mirror pop crooners of the ‘50s – to stand stoically in front of his microphone are in for an awakening. At one moment, he balances on his tip toes, shifting his hips as the girls in the front row squeal in response, and at another, he runs and slides onto his knees towards his guitarist, a smile lighting up his face. Even the most subdued moments of his set take on the energy of lighting in a bottle, like in the build-up to the chorus of his rollicking and romantic ‘Only Girl’ as the crowd sings the opening lines, “If love is an understatement / Then, honey, I’m a goddamn fool” before exploding into the repeated impassioned inquiry, “Baby won’t you be my girl?”.
Though he’s yet to release a full-length album, Sanchez can already add ‘Platinum Certified’ and ‘Number One Billboard hitmaker’ to his list of accolades along with a staggering co-sign from Sir Elton John — but more on that later. His rise began when he uploaded his ethereal track, ‘Lady By The Sea’ to social media in 2020. Though the song quickly gained traction online, its success was eclipsed by his breakout hit ‘Until I Found You’ last year, a dreamy, timeless ballad that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart and has more than 1.7 billion global streams and counting.
Sanchez’s love for bygone eras in both sonics and style can be traced back to him sifting through his grandpa’s vinyl while growing up in California, picking up musical inspiration from vintage records. His latest songs continue to revel in that influence, highlighting his ability to merge classic pop sensibilities into radio-ready hits, like the Americana-tinged ‘Evangeline’ and the steady doo-wop ballad ‘Be More’, which is set for release on August 4. He’s currently working on his debut LP, and this fall, he heads out on a 32-date US headline tour with stops at Los Angeles’ Wiltern and New York City’s Terminal 5 and a show in this adopted hometown of Nashville at the historic Ryman Auditorium.
Sanchez talks to NME backstage about his impending album, how he’s gleaning lyrical inspiration from Wes Anderson and what events led to him taking the stage with Elton John during his iconic Glastonbury headline set.
NME: You had some travel delays on the way in, but how did it feel to finally take the stage at FEQ today?
“It felt really good. You know, we went through some pretty gruelling travel circumstances to get here and it really paid off. We walked out there and had some technical difficulties here and there, but the crowd was amazing. I would honestly say the highlight was just the crowd showing up for us. I mean, the boys and I never assume anybody’s gonna come show up for us. So when they do it’s a huge gift, especially after all the craziness. It felt good to see that many people out there singing.”
There were a few songs tonight where you walked away from the microphone and just let the fans sing for you. What songs do you feel fans are resonating with the most?
“Honestly, the ones we do acoustic. Some of the songs that are going to be on the [upcoming] deluxe record and the new record that’s coming out, those songs are so new to me and fresh, I believe in them and I’m excited about them. There’s still that desire to satisfy something within myself that needs to be spoken. I think fans recognise that and connect with that really quickly.
“With [unreleased songs] ‘Something About Her’ and ‘Fame Or Fortune’ I’m thinking about a girl that I love and that’s something that’s easily accessible. ‘Fame Or Fortune’ is about us on the road and experiencing this grandiose job for the first time that we’re supposed to know how to do right off the bat which we really don’t. We don’t really feel like that big of a deal but there’s somehow this perception where you have to feel like you are. I think for fans, it humanizes us and the music even more. I think those songs resonate because of that.”
What can you tell us about your upcoming album?
“The story [of the album] is a triangle between three characters. Hunter, who Evangeline falls for because she doesn’t want to be alone. And then the Troubadour, Sanchez, who she really falls in love with and leaves Hunter for. Hunter is part of a notorious gang back in 1960s who owns a club and the Troubadour has a residency there and while he’s playing a show, he gets gunned down by Hunter because he stole this girl. There’s a lot of mystery and lore and romance and heartache. It’s full of all the things that make up every single day if you decide you want to be in love with somebody. It’s that never-ending story. I’m really excited about it and the single ‘Be More’ comes out [next month] so I’m excited for that.”
Your music videos for songs ‘Evangeline’ and ‘Only Girl’ also embody the retro sensibility of your sound. How important are the visuals for you when it comes to your music?
“It changes your perception of the song. Take for instance a song like ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay, or the cover of the album ‘Parachutes’. It’s a spinning globe and it’s orange and black. Those colours are very warm and fall-esque and give you this darker feel when you’re listening to the song. Visually, it’s giving you that dark feeling while giving you something beautiful as well.
“The visualisers we have for ‘Evangeline’ and ‘Only Girl’ are just to show the different emotions and it’s exciting to have some history there for viewers. The colours are a beautiful way to symbolize emotions and feelings. It’s important to me that they’re shown in that way because then it’s up to the viewer [to decipher] without me telling them what to feel.”
Last month, you performed ‘Until I Found You’ during Elton John’s headline set at Glastonbury. What were the initial conversations that led to that collaboration?
“He’s such a dear friend. He runs the Rocket Hour podcast with his husband David [Furnish] which features brand-new artists. For some odd reason, David heard the song and threw it on Elton’s desk and he fell in love with it and asked me to come and be on the show. But he went beyond just that. He called me the week before we did it and introduced himself to me and then time went by and he’d call me randomly.
“I was playing at an event that was showcasing new artists at Universal and he introduced me at that event and he asked me to come play Glastonbury. He didn’t really give me much detail, just ‘Hey I’m headlining Glastonbury, one of the biggest festivals in the world and I would love for you to come out and sing with me’.
“We talked for months back and forth and he’d randomly call me and I’d know it was him becasue it was a random, anonymous number every time. He had asked me to play ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues’. But then, he was like, ‘Actually scratch that, we want you to sing your own song, just come out and do it’. So, we did and it was a really beautiful time. I was so glad I got to thank him in front of so many people and also share the same love and grew up with him. It’s just a beautiful friendship.”
What was it like to have Elton John just let you take the lead and basically play backup?
“It’s funny. In rehearsal, he said he just wanted me to take control of the band and I’m just leading this band of incredible musicians with iconic careers and adept musicianship and I was just rolling in. It’s really sweet. I’m very grateful.”
In the past you’ve talked about being inspired by music from the ‘50s and ‘60s, what’s inspiring your music and visuals right now?
“I just saw Asteroid City the new Wes Anderson film. I saw it twice and it just unearthed this crazy inspiration for the new record. All these things I didn’t think about writing about I’ve now thought about, and it was exciting. I think having more fun writing stories and telling them from a character’s perspective rather than entirely myself because I’ve written songs about people with their names in it, like “Georgia” [in ‘Until I Found You’] is a great one. So, I’m excited to leave it up to people to believe if it’s real or not.”