WORDS : MALVIKA PADIN

“Our music is lyrically introspective but sonically influenced by the rhythm of our surroundings,” says Highly Suspect frontman Johnny Stevens, who recently released an acoustic performance of single “These Days” from their latest album MCID. The track which acts as commentary on the everyday struggle and stress of life is the perfect example of the quartet’s versatile musicality. 

Speaking of the original track and what inspired the acoustic rendition, Stevens says “ “These Days was originally written about an ex-girlfriend. It was a light-hearted track that had nothing to do with the pandemic. Once everything came to halt for everybody, I started playing the track with a different tone and applying to the situation. I wanted to experiment with taking the same words, mutating the sound and suit the purpose of the world.”

Describing their career with the phrase, ” a valuable lesson” Stevens advises aspiring artists to focus on their art and do what makes them happy

This vulnerable rendition, alongside the rest of their latest album marks Highly Suspects return to their roots. Stevens says, “ We’re back to square one. There was an album we released before we were signed back in 2010-11 which was just about making music that made us happy without trying to get radio play or to appease anybody. Now with MCID, we’ve gone back to the roots. We do have better technology and deeper understanding of the technical aspects so we did expand our sonic ability, but most importantly we are pushing the limits without fear of anything ; I’m prouder of the latest album than anything else I’ve ever done.”

Talking about this natural path back to their beginning Stevens explains, “We’ve never had any decisive point with our albums of “ we are going to make it sound like this”. In 2015-16, we made what reflected what sounded good to us then and in 2019-20 it reflects what we like now. It will continue to change and morph, it’s never a decision. The only real decision is about whether we are staying true to ourselves.” 

This determination to stay true to themselves is perhaps Highly Suspect’s most defining quality. Describing their career with the phrase, ” a valuable lesson” Stevens advises aspiring artists to focus on their art and do what makes them happy, without placing importance on the opinions of others. He adds, “ There might be decisions you make in your career, that you wish you’d done differently. But as long as you learn from it, you’ll be fine.” 

Over this break though, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided that I created the art so I’ll play whatever I want to play from here onwards. If I can’t get the right headspace for a particular track then I won’t play it at the cost of my own mental health

Similar to their advice to younger acts – many of whom Stevens hopes to support through his own label, which he’s in the process of setting up – Highly Suspect’s message to fans is one of hope as well. He says, “ The overall theme of our music is hope. We all came from working class families with a dream to share our art with the world. So the hope of knowing they can do what they want by staying themselves. Just do the best they can do, because look at what we’ve done.” 

In addition to making music that provides comfort to listeners, Highly Suspects – who like many other artists had to stop their tour midway as the pandemic took over –  started a secret site that allowed fans to engage with them and each other on an personal level. Speaking of what inspired the site Stevens – who laughingly admits to Twitter being the journal all his thoughts – explains, “ We can’t tour or do live performances so we put out the secret site was just a way to keep the mystery while still engaging people on a level that’s different . The idea was having a place to vent if you were feeling claustrophobic, with no one to talk to.” 

But in a refreshing twist Stevens admits to wanting to approach his music as a selfish artist. Reflecting on the best part of making music he says, “ The best part is the process of making it because it’s so rewarding when it all comes together when you’re making the art.” But he continues, “The most frustrating with an audience but you don’t feel the same about it as you did when you wrote it, yet you have to play for the audience.” 

The solution? He explains his found it over this prolonged break. He says, “ Over this break though, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided that I created the art so I’ll play whatever I want to play from here onwards. If I can’t get the right headspace for a particular track then I won’t play it at the cost of my own mental health.” 

Exhibiting an honesty is rare, Highly Suspect establish they are nothing if not genuine. They make music for everyone willing to lend a ear but they also – and most importantly – make it for themselves. A new album might be incoming, Stevens reveals without any other details but one thing is for sure, whether on their first record or any future projects, there will be sincere transparency and emotive strength that flows straight from their heart into their music and into our hearts.

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