“I wasn’t going to write any more sad songs. But then the pandemic happened, and I was like: ‘I’m going to work with what I’ve got!’” Olivia Dean jokes from the stage at London’s iconic Jazz Café during the second of two sold-out socially distanced shows – her first in-person gigs in a music venue since the pandemic began.
Sharing songs from her upcoming EP ‘Growth’ – as well as covering Justin Timberlake – while backed by a full band (which includes a three-piece horn section), the gigs are a triumph. Speaking to NME over Zoom a few weeks later, Dean doesn’t mince her words about how much she enjoyed her return to the stage. “When people have been asking me about it, I’ve just been going with: ‘It was probably the best night of my life’”
The London-born artist is now gearing up to release ‘Growth’, a gorgeous collection of soul-laced songs – all written over the past 12 months as the UK has fallen in and out of various lockdowns – that are anchored by Dean’s remarkable voice. The project, Dean explains, is about falling in love again. But despite her on-stage jokes about sad songs, there’s a thread of hope that stretches throughout ‘Growth’. This is certainly in contrast to Dean’s last EP, the gorgeous December-released ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’, which, she explains, was written when she was in a very different headspace.
“I feel like that was written in quite a desperate place, a place that was like: ‘What am I gonna do without a boyfriend? Oh no, life’s ruined'” Dean recalls. “And now I’m completely on the other side of the spectrum where I’m like: ‘I think I’m gonna be fine. On Sundays, I think I’m gonna be OK’”
The next taste of ‘Growth’ drops later this week with her new single ‘Slowly’, a beautiful ode to gradually falling in love – even when you’re feeling a slight reluctance to open up again. “You’re like: ’Argh, am I really going to do it again?,” she says. “Am I really going to do this one again?!’”
Ahead of its release, Dean has given NME the lowdown on ‘Growth’ as well as detailing her plans to tour the country in a custom truck-cum-mobile concert venue and reveal why she considers herself to be a “songwriting sieve”.
What is your next EP, ‘Growth’, about?
“The songs are about falling in love again. In comparison to my previous projects, they’re less like: ‘Oh, this is about you, this one person that’s had this effect on me’, and more like: ‘How do I feel?’ I think they’re a bit more introspective. I’m trying to focus more about how I feel and what I’m going through, rather than on somebody else. It’s about growth in that sense, and growing into having a healthy relationship after being in a not-so-healthy one.”
You’ve been writing the EP in a really strange time. Were you asked to do online writing sessions on Zoom in the midst of lockdown?
“I was asked and I gave a really big no to all of it, because I was just like: ‘Are we not all scared for our lives? Are we not all going through the same thing?’ I was supposed to start writing my album, and I was like: ‘I don’t really want to write an album for the sake of writing an album’. I want to write it from a place where I’m inspired and I have something I want to talk about, but I was feeling the same as everyone else was: ‘I’m scared. I’m bored’. I don’t want my album to be called ‘Scared and Bored’ because I’ve got to sing about those songs for the rest of my life, so you know what? I’m not gonna do nothing. I did some writing, but I didn’t force myself to be super-productive.”
How much did you grow personally while writing ‘Growth’?
“In a literal sense my hair’s grown, which is really cool. Hair feels like a big thing with this project as well. That’s something in the past year that I’ve really been working on in terms of my perception of myself. I started therapy last year and my hair was a really big thing we spoke about for a long time, because growing up I used to straighten it every day. I honestly thought my hair was so ugly and I wanted to hide it. I just wanted it to be straight, and I just didn’t know how to look after it – it was just this thing in my life that just caused me so much anxiety. So I’ve really come into just loving it and enjoying it, and growing it, so that’s grown in a literal sense.
“I also feel a self-awareness I didn’t really have before. I think therapy gives you that. I’ve learned a lot about myself and why I do things, and the way I react to situations and just how to be a better me, really. I think that’s trickled into the music as well. I think those themes are in there.”
Your last EP, ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’, was a break-up record. How does ‘Growth’ differ?
“This project is more – I don’t wanna say hopeful, because there’s some sad songs on it for sure – mature. The music’s a bit more grown-up, and its perspectives are a bit more realistic. It’s interesting because in writing it, I think the themes are wanting to have an ordinary relationship or wanting to have a healthy relationship. And I really thought: ‘Oh, people are going to find that very boring, as people want to hear about chaos and break-ups and exes cheating’. But my music is about my life, and I don’t want that for my life. I just want to be happy and have a healthy relationship, so I was just trying to explore how I can still make that interesting. I think I’ve managed [it], I think it’s an interesting topic: falling in love in a healthy way.”
For most new artists, festivals are a huge deal and a great way to capitalise on your “buzz”. What was it like missing out on festival season in 2020?
“It’s been weird. I definitely see myself as a live artist: the music that I make is to be performed live, because I like to share it with people. At the Jazz Café, to just hear people sing along [was crazy], and so without that it’s felt a bit incomplete. I find songwriting can sometimes feel quite self-indulgent, because it’s like: [sings] ’Here’s my little life and my songs’. And so when you get to do stuff live, I think it makes it feel worth it and full circle – so I have definitely missed the festival season.”
Last summer you did your ‘From Me To You Truck Tour’, where you’d just pitch up wherever fans asked you to and perform from the back of your big yellow truck. How did you come up with the idea?
“I was in my flat by myself, feeling quite sorry for myself and just feeling quite frustrated, as it was supposed to be my first year of playing at festivals. So I was like: ‘Hmm, what are we going to do here? How are we going to make this work, then?’ I just didn’t really want to take no for an answer. So I said to my manager: ‘What if I got on my bike, and I just cycled around to people’s houses and performed?’ And she was like: ‘I think you’d be quite tired if you did that – I think that wouldn’t work. But what if we had a van?’
“We worked out the logistics of it, and then it just happened. It was one of those weird things where you just have an idea, and then you just want it so badly that you kind of manifest it.”
And will you do it again?
“We have the van for life, so I was like: ‘We might as well get it out again.’ It’s in Devon at the moment as it needs a bit of a touch-up – the generator suffered some wear and tear – and we’re going to do a rebrand, give it a fresh bit of paint. We’re just trying to organise it right now, and maybe thinking about ticketing it and making it more of a thing because it was amazing last year. Obviously because we were doing it during the height of a pandemic [in 2020] it was quite small and very last-minute, which is kind of my vibe; I’m quite a rough-and-ready kind of girl. But I think people actually want to come to the shows, so I need to make it a bit easier for people to find me this time”
Is songwriting cathartic for you?
“100%. It is almost the purest form of therapy, aside from actual therapy. I’m not that good at articulating my innermost emotions, especially with the people that are closest to me. I really struggle sometimes to actually say it out loud. So to be able to sit down and put it into a three-minute song, where you can either describe feelings specifically or other times in a vague metaphorical way, is banging, because then you’re like: ‘Well, that’s it! You want to know how I feel? Just listen to the song.’ And then you understand yourself too, you’re like: ‘Oh, that’s how I feel.’”
What do you think of yourself as first and foremost: a songwriter, artist, musician…
“I think of myself as a songwriter, because I see the world from the view of a songwriter. The other day, someone said to me it’s like my brain’s a sieve and the world’s going in. I’m the sieve that’s like: ‘That’s a song and that’s a lyric’. So that’s how I think of myself, just waddling through life as a little songwriting sieve.”
Olivia Dean’s new single ‘Slowly’ is out on Friday