Surf Mesa’s favorite word is mellifluous. The 23-year-old DJ, producer, and songwriter doesn’t rely on a dictionary’s definition; he substantiates the concept one song at a time.
Surf Mesa’s favorite word is mellifluous, and he can prove it. The 23-year-old DJ, producer, and songwriter pulls up his sleeve to reveal the word tattooed on his upper arm. Depending on where you look, it means some variation of pleasant or sweet. Mesa doesn’t rely on a dictionary’s definition; he substantiates the concept one song at a time. Whether his 2020 breakthrough “ily” featuring Emilee Flood, which topped the Billboard Hot Dance/Electronic Songs Chart and peaked at No. 23 on the Hot 100, or this January’s “City Of Love” with Selah Sol, Mesa’s growing discography is already full of records that capture summer in a bottle — emotional safety valves waiting to be pulled. His pulsating June 23 release “Manzanita,” illustrates that with the dreamy hook, “My head is in the cloud.”
“It perfectly embodies what I want to portray: energetic and euphoric. I think those two emotions can blend to make this hybrid emotion of exactly what I want my music to feel like, and that just feels like me,” Mesa tells tmrw over Zoom from his hotel room hours before DJing a May 10 set at Encore Beach Club in Las Vegas.
“‘The ozone’ is this realm that I put myself into, and it’s just free from human error,” he says of his mentality when performing. “You’re really locked in, and it’s bliss. The only reason you’re there is to have fun and play for people. If you’re in the ozone, all goes well.”
When we speak, Mesa is a month away from his debut headlining set at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, New York on June 16, and then he’ll play Sound Nightclub in Los Angeles the following night. His summer is shaping up to be a residency in “the ozone,” a string of dopamine hits at Encore Beach Club — even sharing the stage with Marshmello — and festivals across the country.
But on this day, his mind is with the senior class at his alma mater, Eastlake High School, who are dreading uncertainty once school’s out. It wasn’t long ago he was one of them, and he’ll return home on June 2 to speak at an assembly.
"It’s so gratifying to evolve."
Growing up on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, Mesa (born Powell Aguirre) was certain about music from a young age. He started toying with piano at 11 and beat-making software at 13. His paternal great-grandfather was in Andy Parker and the Plainsmen, a Western swing band, and his father is a lifelong jazz musician. Mesa’s middle name is Adderley, his dad’s way of honoring the 1950s and ‘60s saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Music was in Mesa, but he never expected to get anything out of it. That changed in high school. Being the best DJ at Eastlake was equivalent to being the starting quarterback at most American high schools.
“Other people in school made music, so that’s when it became political,” he says. “The girls liked Louis The Child and Whethan, up-and-coming DJs, so you would want to be the guy that makes music. You wanted to make music better than the next kid. There was definitely a character that played into it, and I guess I followed it. Like, Oh, he’s the mysterious music kid.”
Mesa had his wired headphones in during field trips or while walking the hallways, likely listening to Porter Robinson’s Worlds album — released on Astralwerks, which is now also Mesa’s label, as a full-circle aside — and kept to himself. As graduation approached, his peers were accepted into prestigious universities, but his GPA wasn’t high enough to apply to any state universities. Suddenly, mystery wasn’t so cool anymore.
“I’ve played in front of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the biggest festivals, and some of the most anxiety I’ve ever had in my life [came] when I was a senior, trying to fit in with my peers and figure out what I’m doing after high school,” he says.
He adds, “There’s always that fraction of kids at the bottom. They stick around their hometown, working at the grocery store. I really feel for those kids because that was something I had to realistically come to terms with. It was something I had to say no to.”
Instead, Mesa drove to Los Angeles with other aspiring producers in March 2019. His trajectory rocketed that November when he scrolled past Emilee Flood’s cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” on TikTok in a Starbucks parking lot, and “ily” was born that night. He signed with Astralwerks in February 2020. Since, he’s provided remixes for the likes of Shawn Mendes, Halsey, and Marshmello, and crafted smashes like “Somewhere” with Gus Dapperton, “Carried Away” with Madison Beer, and “Another Life” with Fletcher and Josh Golden, and “City Of Love.”
Mesa went from competing with his peers at Eastlake to collaborating with his newfound peers in music. The artists he once idolized have become his collaborators. Days before our chat, he’d been in the studio with Whethan. “It’s so gratifying to evolve,” he says.
Mesa’s growth is tangibly represented on the whiteboard behind him. Five songs are written on it. He hopes to release them all in 2023: “This year is like chipping away at this cube, and I’m not gonna be done until that cube reflects what I have in my mind. It’s just a chip away. It’s like Michelangelo-ing the David.”
On June 2, he hopes the Eastlake senior class hears his story and understands there is no deadline on chipping away at their version of David, whatever their life’s masterpiece looks like. It’s possible to lead a life like his, where every day feels like summer vacation.
“I’m sure I’m gonna look around in that assembly and see myself in a past life in a lot of those kids,” he says. “If I can have everybody leave with one idea, it’s that, if you show up every single day and believe in the best in yourself and believe in the best in people around you, you’re gonna surface higher than someone that looks good on paper.”