“I don’t have a Plan B,” Deb Never laughs over the phone. “I mean, I don’t remember if all of this was a conscious decision, or if I was just really drawn to music. But I’m not really good at anything else.”
She’s calling NME from traffic-heavy Miami, yelling at the loud streets she’ll be playing a show in later that day, and lamenting her once-relevant inability to hold down a job like the fact still matters. You suspect she might not need to brush up on her CV if things continue in this way. She’s currently on tour with fellow Gen-Z genre-switcher Dominic Fike, whose ‘3 Nights’ is hurtling up the UK Singles Charts, and you might have heard her on Brockhampton’s new album ‘Ginger’, where she sings the gorgeous hook on ‘No Halo’.
Those gigs, as well as her debut EP, ‘House on Wheels’, have landed her a mighty 66.6k followers on Instagram, but she says she doesn’t know about all that, wearing one of those smiles you can hear through the phone: “I have a soft-ass voice. All that technical shit, I don’t really know about that. I feel like I can’t sing properly.”
Either way, there is a skilled synchronicity to Deb Never’s music. On her work so far, that soft-ass voice is often backed up by 808 beats and brutally honest lyrics, while calling back to the grunge sound of the early 2000s, with a modern bass-heavy contemporary feel. The effect of the combination is as cathartic as it is refreshing.
Take her recent TV debut with Brockhampton: during it she’s a black hoodie amongst a sea of silver jumpsuits, a sober singer and an occasional head-bopper in the performance, disrupting the line with the sleeves of her own silver jumpsuit tied knottily around her waist – she is, simply, mesmerising. Her laughter at having no back-up plan makes a lot more sense now.
But putting herself out there is a relatively recent decision. “I’ve made music since forever,” Deb says in between the slight coughs she’s picked up from touring the US. “I decided less than a year ago, I want to be my own artist and not like, y’know, secretly behind closed doors” When you dive into her moody and melodic sound, there’s little to hint that she ever had any inhibitions about not sharing it. “I know what I like and I know what I want to do. I guess it’s about carving a lane and meshing all kinds of music together. It could be really messy, but I want to harness that sound really well. Come out with a bang. With a whole new lane.”
The line brings the video for ‘Swimming’ to mind – an alt-plea set to a severe trap beat and a sequence of hard trash being tossed at the singer. “Treat me like you give a fuck about me now,” the verse sings, while a hard Never gazes into your soul with fuck-you honesty. “If I ever let up, will you hold it down?” Cue a nudge to the camera. A hard drop. A stomping-level shot of Deb and her friends, kicking at the lens.
“It’s funny, because I’m actually not that comfortable with vulnerability. I think that’s why I have all the production, the beats to make you dance. Like, you get the sad lyrics, but I’m trying to embody that true honest view of who I am in a track. I still like to have fun, y’know? I’m goofy as shit.” The video for previous single, ‘Ugly’, does feature her wearing a dog costume to lament the woes of a toxic, unwanted love.
That call-back to alt-rock classic ‘Bad Touch’ by The Bloodhouse Gang, and a range of other long-standing influences, spanning from Blink-182’s self-deprecation to the Beastie Boys’ hard-guitar-hip-hop, remain distinct to what Deb describes as a feeling of constant separateness: “I think I’ve always felt out of place. Like, growing up, y’know, depressed or whatever the fuck. I think I’ve always held onto that, and it’s carried on into my writing. My outlook on life.”
She describes a childhood marked by frequent moving all over the globe (including Malaysia, Korea and the Pacific Northwest) and fills in the blanks sparingly of her largely mysterious background. “I used go around like, numbed out,” Deb says. “Like, nothing excited me. I was just like, this pillow. Literally walking through life like everything is grey as shit.”
“I like getting loud, and I like getting in your face” – Deb Never
And now? After retiring from her career as a session guitarist for other artists? After taking the leap to solo musicianship and trying to set up roots – via stints in Seattle, Washington, Spokane and in LA? “Even now, when things have changed, and everything’s great, that feeling [of things being bad] is there. I don’t know why. But it’s also why I write songs because it’s like, everything around in my life, I can change, but that feeling, it’s always there. I’m just not gonna let it bury me.”
There is, then, some poetry behind the louder parts of Deb’s discography. “I like getting loud, and I like getting in your face, and I feel like it’s hard as a female vocalist to do that, but I’m trying with the beats because I want that anthemic moment. Or like, the screaming moment. The thrashing around. But it’s always been like, an escape for me. I can let all my shit out.” What’s behind the door? “I mean, I feel like I’ve always just been hiding behind a closet or door.”
It doesn’t seem like this will be the case for much longer. Deb dissects the metaphor behind her EP’s name with ease. “I’ve always had to live out of boxes. Pick everything up, go to another place, every year. I think even though my songs take you to other places, they live in the same world, in the same house.” Her voice rises in her excitement:. “And the title,” she laughs, “‘House on Wheels’ sounds fucking tight!”