With new artists popping out left and right, it can be difficult to see who will stand stand the test of time. That said, we’re betting our money on Yusuf, the band of Jonas Steurs, a 22-year-old Leuvenaar that has an air of James Blake to him, peppered with some Oneohtrix Point Never on a side of Sampha. For those who don’t really get what we mean by that, this sprouting talent makes beautifully crafted melancholic compositions that borrow elements from ambient, classical and even some harder electronic dance music from time to time. Last year Steurs and his band stranded in the final round of De Nieuwe Lichting, Studio Brussel’s yearly talent hunt. His debut EP, ‘Balm’, dropped last month, receiving raving reviews across the board. So the time was right to get to know the man behind this eerily beautiful music.
Equipped with a big grin and a cheeky sense of humour, you wouldn’t suspect Steurs’ music originates from a very dark place (although his music does sound very delicate and gloomy to be fair). Right from the get-go he’s not afraid to talk about his close encounters with psychosis. A few years and a lot of new music later, the man found his mojo back. Even more so, Steurs is actually incredibly impatient to put out new music as much as possible as fast as possible. What follows is the result of an interview we conducted over a long breakfast in a busy brunch bar in Antwerp, discussing his past experiences with depression and his drive to make music every single day.
You’ve dropped your debut EP over the last month. How does it feel to get it out there finally?
"To be honest, the music on the EP was all made fairly recent. Throughout the years I’ve been making a lot of music, but for this release I settled on a handful of really new tracks, so this EP was finalized relatively fast. I could have chosen many other songs to be fair."
You’re not afraid to talk about your psychosis. You said that music was the only thing that got through to you during that time. Did music help you to climb out of that hole?
"Yes, it did. Things are going a lot better now, so I don’t see things through an existential glass anymore. Back then, music was the only kind of dialogue that worked for me. It was one of the few things that felt like it made sense. It didn’t matter which emotion was going through, having that untouchable connection with something proved to be really important. Now, music is a passion, but it used to be much more than that."
Do you feel like you still need music now to keep yourself focussed?
"I do. I work on music every single day. If I’m not actually making music, I’m probably thinking about making music. I need it to keep my internal rhythm going, to keep me calm, to make sure my day passes away without trouble."
Would you say artists need some sort of emotional pain to create better music?
"I’m not sure. I do get the point of that statement. Every artist needs a kind of story that’s personal and relevant to what they are trying to express. When I was a young teenager, I didn’t have that story yet. What did I have to add to the world that hadn’t been said before? Nothing. After going through my rough patch I gained some insight, some context, some confidence. I realized I had now experienced things I could express more sincerely. After all, I want to make sure that my music and lyrics are substantive. If I don’t really mean what I’m singing, then why bother to write it at all?"
So now that you’re doing better, do you still have enough things to sing about?
"Of course. The thing about psychosis is that it’s never 'really' over, it always lingers in a dark corner. But obviously, I have changed a lot for the better. I’m older, I continue to experience new things, new emotions, etc. It’s always a challenge to convert these into good music, but I’ve learned to do that more efficiently now. Actually, I’ve written more music in the last 6 months than I did in the last 5 years combined. Making a sad piece just because you’re sad is not sufficient. You need to be able to express it properly too."
How were your experiences in the music business so far? We’re talking singing contracts, working deadlines, performing live shows, etc.
"I’m extremely impatient – and this business can work really slow at times, so that’s frustrating every now and then. Additionally, I can feel incredibly small when I play a bad show. I believe you’re only as strong as your last performance. That drives me to do better next time. As an artist, you need to perform live, it’s absolutely essential. So I wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t."
Earlier, you mentioned (neo)classical composers Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Chopin and Nils Frahm as your inspiration. What exactly did you learn from these guys?
"I’ve always been listening to classical music a lot. After a while, I learned to appreciate the minimalism: leaving out notes of music that aren’t necessary for the piece you’re writing. It’s better to leave things empty sometimes, creating space for the core elements of a track – even if that creates a certain repetitiveness. If you use that to your advantage, it lifts up the idea behind the music to a higher level. Actually, minimalism and repetitiveness my two main pillars when I write music! Other than that, classical music thought me to keep adjusting your melodies and chords until everything is exactly right. Being satisfied too early is not always a good sign."
How do you – technically – make your music?
"I love to work with analogue gear exclusively, so I don’t program anything or use MIDI’s. Mostly, I just record and edit my own creations over and over again until it feels right."
So you’re working alone? On stage, you perform with a band, right?
"Exactly. Before Yusuf, I was part of a band too, but I wasn’t ready to translate my ideas effectively yet, so the result was often not far from the original idea. Now I’m responsible for the music and vocals, but I leave a lot of room for interpretation to make sure we try out different leads before doubling down on one idea."
What does the band look like exactly?
"There are 4 of us: me, a cellist, a keyboardist and a drummer. They’re all really talented musicians I’ve met through mutual friends. We’re a very complete live band, but as I’m the one that’s responsible for actually writing the music, it means that I need to be able to perform the tracks on my own too."
How do you usually start making a track?
"First, I record some beats, synths, basslines or guitar lines – and then I take those demo’s or blueprints to the band. As I said, there’s still a lot of room for adjustment at this stage. Once we like a certain idea it can go quite fast. There’s a great understanding between all of us, so sometimes we can clock in a new production in a matter of hours."
As it’s not your given name, where does the name ‘Yusuf’ actually come from?
"It’s just a name that kind of stuck in my head for a long time. When the moment came I actually had to choose an artist name, I didn’t really consider other options. I could say there’s no meaning behind the name, but that sounds a little harsh! Truth be told, there’s no deep reasoning or compelling story behind the name. I just really wanted an artist name that could be a personal first name – and I liked this one."
How will things go from here?
"It’s all about making more music in the coming months. We have loads of finished tracks that I just want to put out there asap! In the last EP I have already showed my melancholic and acoustic sides, so the next one will have a little more power. There will be loads of instruments and more beats, without forgetting to put in some minimalism and ambient here and there. In the end the result will to be atmospheric in a beautiful way – or so we hope!"