As far as Songs of The Summer go, Jean Dawson’s latest single, ‘CLEAR BONES’, is an unlikely offering. A self-described ode to the lighter side of mortality, it’s Britpop with its cheeky grin turned upside down – Smash Mouth holding Oasis in a headlock as Blink 182 lazily film the incident on their phones. It’s at once completely incompatible, and totally immersive, much like its creator.
Raised in Tijuana, Mexico before decamping to Los Angeles, the 24-year-old’s career has been simmering nicely for the past couple of years. 2019’s debut album ‘Bad Sports’ drew attention for it’s complete refusal to stick to one idea, ricocheting between rap, indie and plenty more besides in a manner than only the torrenting generation can really pull off.
2020 single ‘BRUISEBOY’ ramped things up further, a creeping fever dream that somehow captures both the grounding sensation of a mosh pit and the out-of-body dissociation of a panic attack. Singing in both English and Spanish, ‘Ooga Booga’ is Brockhampton doing The Prodigy, with a bonus Spice Girls reference – “tell me what you want, what you really really want.” Each song is a piece of the Jean Dawson puzzle, a snippet of the many multitudes that make him who he is.
“I’ve been a product of so many different cultures that when people ask me about the genre-bending, I don’t even look at it as anything other than making music that I would want to listen to,” he says via Zoom. “Listening to a lot of the rock groups that inspired me growing up, none of them really looked like me and it created an inner conflict.”
“Growing up in a basically third-world country, my problems were more like ‘what are we going to eat today’ or ‘I’m afraid and if I get pulled over by the police, I’m gonna die’. That’s not to say that their problems aren’t valid, it’s just to say that the things that I’m talking about deal with a different perspective. On my first EP, there’s a song called ‘Napster’ and I wanted it to feel like The Smiths, but what would The Smiths sound like if they were from Compton instead of Manchester?’ I love Britpop shit, but how do I keep the same intention of that music and give it my own identity?”
“For one song I thought, ‘What would The Smiths sound like if they were from Compton instead of Manchester?'”
A pick ‘n’ mix approach to music provided a strong comfort in Dawson’s early years, soundtracking the 4am starts he made each school day to cross the US border via two trolley-trains and a bus. “Eight-years-old with just a skateboard, CD player and the wherewithal to get to where I need to be and come back.” Never quite settling in with any one clique, his outsider status resonates with his listeners, drawn to his refusal to dampen his personality for the sake of blending in.
“I never wanted people to feel like they have to be a weirdo to listen to my music – from my experiences at least, I didn’t know that I was weird until people told me!” he laughs. “But I guess being a Black Hispanic person, who looked and sounded different to everybody… we’re all just so multi-dimensional as people. To negate yourself a proper opportunity to express yourself is a disservice in existence, I think. I have friends that are super thugged-out and the first time I played them Mac DeMarco, they were in love with it, like ‘damn, I would have never listened to this shit’. And I’m like, see! If I want to sing a folk song with a golden grill in my mouth, nobody’s gonna tell me I can’t do that. People think it’s really cool, but I’m literally just doing me – I’m not trying to be provocative.”
His words, and the vivid sincerity with which he speaks them, recalls the energy of a fellow maverick, capable of undeniable moments of brilliant musical self-expression. “Kanye is definitely an inspiration – ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is probably my favourite album of all time,” he says. “It’s one of those albums where I feel like LeBron James watching Michael Jordan play – it’s like ‘fuck, how do I outdo that?’ I’ve had conversations where I’m just like, ‘if I don’t beat that album in my career, I’m gonna be so frustrated with myself’. I think there’s bigger bars to reach, but that is one of them.”
In his ascent to popularity, it’s clear that Dawson has a close circle of friends that he’s planning on bringing along for the ride. Seeking to expand his songs out from a place of singular narrative, he regularly finds lyrical inspiration in the lives of his collaborators, encouraging them to open up about their pressures and perspectives.
“I do this bullet point thing with the things I want to get off my chest, like if I have daddy issues that I’d like to talk about, or a relationship that I haven’t fully processed,” he explains of his songwriting process. “I’ve been working a lot with my friend Zac Fogerty, and because we’re so close, I can ask him those questions about his life that drift into song making. I want this shit to be so much bigger than me – I want to unify the voices of everybody that feels like they need somebody to use the megaphone. If I’m talking about taking antidepressants, it’s not me saying ‘Woe is me, I take medication’. This is just my human experience, and if that’s the same as yours, that’s cool. And if not, here’s this other layer about how I also want a Lamborghini. You know? Yes, I take anti-depressants, but I also want a nice car.”
Details around Dawson’s follow up to ‘Bad Sports’ are still cagey, but there’s every chance that it may deliver him that Lambo. Currently titled ‘Pixel Bath’, he’s enjoying laying breadcrumbs of information around the internet, a treasure hunt for eager fans to unearth.
“I love when artists play coy. I’ll be like ‘fucking tell me’, but actually it’s the not-knowing that’s kinda fun” he smiles. “Credit to some of the kids out there though. They’ve found some old songs that I made in high school which I genuinely didn’t know existed. I’m not doing the mystery thing to fuck with anybody, it’s just much more fun for everyone if it’s not just a date that you can mark on a calendar.”
His point brings us full circle back to ‘CLEAR BONES’, a ‘here for a good time, not a long time’ mantra that feels eerily relevant in 2020, a year where nothing can be taken for granted. What meaning does he hope people take from the song?
“When I was writing, I was just like ‘man, morbid songs are sick, but how can you make a sad song exist in a fun environment?’” he says. “I don’t really like getting into explaining my songs or putting a border around then, but it’s just about giving death a personality, just being like ‘yo, chill out, I’ll come when I come.’
“I love sad music a lot, but if you don’t give me the option to be happy while I listen to that music, I’m out. That’s where I want to be with my music. I’m not trying to dictate how you feel – I just want to amplify whatever it is you’re feeling.”
Jean Dawson’s ‘CLEAR BONES’ is out now