For as long as Paula Pruett can remember, her son, Stefan Pruett, was obsessed with two things—basketball and music.
His heart condition pushed him out of basketball, so his mother persuaded him to pursue music. The Carefree, Arizona, musician was just about to turn the music industry on its head as The Guidance when he was found unresponsive in his Downtown LA apartment at age 35 in June. He died of natural causes.
“When things like that happen, you really have to wonder what people know ahead of time,” said Tommie Sunshine, who had just signed The Guidance to a record deal.
“He was living on borrowed time his entire life. He knew that from the time he was very, very young. He didn’t think he was going to make it out of being a teenager. Every minute of every day was bonus points. He knew it and he lived in such a way that he never made you forget it.
“He made you feel how important life was and how important it was to do the things you want to do and not hesitate. Having somebody around who’s that much a cheerleader is such a positive thing. You really want someone like that in your corner.”
A loving brother
Paula lost her other son, Alex, to an accidental overdose in 2007, and a lot of Stefan’s music was about his brother, a race car driver.
“His work, music and songs were directed to Alex,” Paula said. “In 2008, he wrote ‘You Matter’ that he composed with David Jackman. It was about Alex mattering after he died. Stefan alone wrote ‘Carefree.’ He really missed Alex.”
Stefan was born with a congenital heart condition, transposition of the great arteries, and survived three open-heart surgeries, starting at age 2 at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Stefan, who moved to Arizona as a youngster with his family, lived with a pacemaker.
According to the Mayo Clinic, transposition of the great arteries changes the way blood circulates through the body, leaving a shortage of oxygen in blood flowing from the heart to the rest of the body. Without an adequate supply of oxygen-rich blood, the body can’t function properly, and a child faces serious complications or death without treatment.
It’s usually detected either prenatally or within the first hours to weeks of life. Corrective surgery soon after birth is the usual treatment for transposition of the great arteries.
Stefan started having arrythmia when he was 9. He still played his beloved sport—basketball.
“He learned to perfect a three-pointer,” Paula said. “He really loved basketball and was really good at it. With the heart problem and the arrythmia, I sat him down. I said I really thought it was a better idea to pursue music.
“At 14, we put him in bass lessons, and he started a few bands as a bassist. He never could find a singer. So, I said, ‘You know, singing would be really good considering the heart situation.”
Stefan took voice lessons at home with Anita Bakey of Fountain Hills, Arizona, for 13 years. He became the frontman because he didn’t have to worry about finding a singer any longer. Bakey trained him to sing so he could balance his breathing. Because of this, Paula said, Stefan became a physical performer.
“He was known for a lot of very colorful activity on stage and off stage,” she said.
At age 15, Stefan, using his music business interests, started a band promotion company called Caustic Summer Productions. He booked bands in local venues in the Phoenix area throughout high school. Stefan graduated from Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Arizona, in 2003.
“He was about 17 and I asked him if he was going to go to prom,” Paula recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t think so, mom. I think I’m going to go to Coachella.’”
After high school, he attended Scottsdale Community College, where he studied the business of music. In 2003, he founded Peachcake with longtime friend Johnny O’Keefe. The electronic pop band toured the United States and Canada and released a plethora of songs.
Pruett moved to LA after playing in Peachcake. When he arrived, his medical condition was followed by Keck Medicine of USC, where he underwent a series of tests to see if he was eligible for a heart transplant. His stress test showed his heart was strong, so he did not qualify for a transplant, Paula said.
The following year, in 2016, he created The Guidance and opened for She Wants Revenge and MXMS, a project from Jeremy Dawson of Shiny Toy Guns.
“That was early 2016, and we just sort of connected,” said Dawson, who found Stefan unresponsive. “We made an entire record, and I ended up managing him for the next three years or so.”
Dawson calls Stefan a “very unique artist” who was ensconced in music that reflected Shiny Toy Guns of 2004 to 2007.
“I said, ‘That’s cool; however, it’s 2017,’” Dawson said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘How can we bring The Guidance to now?’ A lot of the music we made was collaborative. He would write something and translate that forward into something that’s more of a modern aesthetic that he still really liked a lot.
“His sword was his lyric. He was brilliant, a poet, lyrically. He would come to the table with a completed song. Once I connected to his vision, I could take risks. There’s a whole bunch of music coming out by him this year. He allowed me to really push the boundary and take risks. A lot of musicians, they want to stay in the lane and flow with the stream, not against. Stefan was trying to get out of the way of the herd.”
Tommie Sunshine of the dance label Brooklyn Fire/Brooklyn Blue inked a deal with Stefan as The Guidance and released the retro-inspired “She Likes the Dance Music.”
“I saw his star power,” Sunshine said. “This project is everything I’ve ever liked about dance music. It’s cheeky in all the best ways. It has a very, very firm sense of humor and is just really nailing the psyche of where we’re at.”
Sunshine has been hooked since first note. Even more so, they became fast friends.
“He would sign his notes with two black hearts,” Sunshine recalled. “He said to me, at one point, ‘I think I’m going to change these hearts to blue,’ because he was so enamored with Brooklyn Blue. He was so invested in this.
“He was an insomniac like me. He would text me late at night. I was always awake. We would get into these exponentially long conversations about Scott Walker, Donovan, Talking Heads—all of the influences who made us who we are.
“He was my insomnia buddy. We’d send tracks back and forth. I would send an album and say, ‘Please go listen to this album cover and cover and let’s talk about it tomorrow. He was a sponge. As a record label and as an A&R person, it’s so rare to come across an artist who is so willing to learn.”
He quickly aligned himself with his fellow artists on Sunshine’s labels.
“He would reach out to all the artists and congratulate them on their releases,” Sunshine said. “He’d say, ‘Aren’t you excited? It’s release day.’ That next release day after he passed was devastating for me. There was this deafening silence. It was so profound.”
A new label
During the quarantine, Dawson proposed the idea of starting a label for electronic music that wasn’t for clubs. It was merely listening music, background music. The genre didn’t fit into Sunshine’s Brooklyn Fire, so they dubbed it Brooklyn Blue.
“Suddenly, we had a destination, a home, for this stuff,” Sunshine said. “Stefan and Jeremy embarked on a seven-track EP for Brooklyn Blue, which was, basically, all ambient or wholly modular electronic music that Stefan sang on. It was very different than the other stuff he was working on. This was a new channel, and he was so excited about this. His level of excitement about this Brooklyn Blue sublabel was immense.”
Just before he passed away, Stefan signed with Handwritten Records.
“He always had such a vibrant life,” Paula said. “Nothing indicated he would have a sudden death. I talked to Keck Medicine. It could have been arrythmia that went undetected. He worked out a lot. He was in good shape.
“He wanted to make a difference, and he did that through his music. A lot of his lyrics are quite profound. He was very, very versed in music. He was really inspired by what would occur in his life, by the loss of his brother. He loved passionately. He gave all of himself not only to his music but his friends and girlfriend (Jessica Biatte), too.”
Dawson said the shock of Stefan’s passing is “tremendous.”
“He didn’t fully elaborate about his condition, but he really danced with risk and just took it in stride,” Dawson said. “Looking back on his lyrics, he would openly defy death and write about his heart—but never in a negative way. It was a playful way. He acknowledged the fact that there’s probably a clock ticking and it’s going to be a different clock than yours or mine—but not in an emo, sad way.”
Sunshine—who, like Dawson, is sitting on unreleased music—sums it up, saying Stefan’s music will live on.
“The music he made was incredible,” he said. “I was such a fan. But I was so much more interested in him as a friend and as a person. The music remains. That’s the beautiful part of being an artist. If you do it right—and he definitely did—you leave behind these things that go on forever.”