“Playing Reading & Leeds Festival was so emotional,” says De’Wayne, as a wide smile begins to spread across his face. “Everybody that I love has played that main stage – Nirvana, Weezer, The Strokes – so I had to make sure I had the best corset on, with the best eye glitter.”
It’s been two months since De’Wayne made his attention-demanding debut at the iconic British twin-site festivals, but he still can’t stop smiling about it. “Of course there were tears,” he tells NME over Zoom from his Los Angeles apartment. “I had kids moshing, people sat down rowing – I’m from Houston, I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
The 27-year-old’s early afternoon slot on the Saturday of Reading was all about the slightly unexpected and audacious: defined by a riotous and commanding stage presence, NME named the performance one of the best of the weekend, and described it as “an energetic set of party-starting bangers that couldn’t care less about genre boundaries”. Typically, for new artists, these main stage moments would come with a degree of apprehension, but De’Wayne’s experience was quite the opposite: “I felt so in my element and so damn beautiful,” he says of the performance. “I had no doubts about anything.”
The supersized level confidence is a fairly new thing for De’Wayne. He says he’s always been “a dreamer” and “a really great performer”, but since the release of his eclectic debut album ‘Stains’ last year, he’s discovered “what I want to do as a rock artist and as a human.” Well, as he’ll tell us later on, he does want to “be David Bowie,” after all.
Part of this self-discovery journey has involved De’Wayne honing his live shows. A few days before Reading & Leeds, he played his first headline gig in London at O2 Academy Islington in support of his stellar new album, ‘My Favourite Blue Jeans’, a collection of sharp and skilful alt-rock bristling with infectious energy. Exploring the capital was transformative for De’Wayne, as “so much of my favourite shit is from England,” he says. “Radiohead, Joy Division, Sex Pistols… they all had the most beautiful NME covers. I can’t wait to see a crazy headline on NME about me.”
Across De’Wayne’s vibrant back catalogue, the Houston native has been out to take on the world. His career started with a string of independent, rap-leaning tracks before he uprooted his life and moved to Los Angeles where he got an “education” in rock. “Before I signed to Hopeless Records [home of Taking Back Sunday, Sum 41 and Pinkshift], I would walk into other record label offices and they’d tell me that being Black and making rock music didn’t mix,” he says. He proved the old doubters wrong on ’Stains’, but “I still felt like I was on the outside [of the rock scene] and couldn’t scratch my way in,” he adds.
“Also, I don’t want to confuse people anymore,” De ‘Wayne explains, laughing at how his first record felt more like a mixtape, with every track sounding wildly different in its sound and texture. “Now, I just want to make brilliant rock albums. I was ambitious on ‘Stains’, but perhaps not in the best way. I was trying to prove I couldn’t be boxed in.”
‘My Favourite Blue Jeans’, meanwhile, takes a collaborative approach, with features from alt-rappers grandson and Poorstacy, electro-rockers I Don’t Know How But They Found Me and pop-punk legends Good Charlotte. Thematically, the record is about “a life-changing three-month period,” that saw De’Wayne fall in love with Willow while the pair toured the US together last autumn. “Touring with Willow was the biggest lesson I could have learned, she’s been the best mentor,” De’Wayne says today.
The resulting album is cohesive and powerful. Opener ‘Die Out Here’ sees De’Wayne shrugging off rock’s self-destructive spirit: “It’s about wanting to live. I idolise all these artists who died so young and at a certain point,” he says, before taking a pause. “I didn’t fantasise about [dying], but I didn’t care about being here. Broadly speaking, this whole album is about the will to live and the will to love.”
He continues: “It’s funny because so many of my favourite rock albums would talk about being in love and I could never relate because for the longest time, my music was about coming from hard times. Love put me in a chokehold in the most beautiful way though. I was able to experience feelings that I hadn’t really felt, so I put all of that in the album.”
Where ‘Stains’ was driven by anger and frustration, ‘My Favourite Blue Jeans’ has an everyday relatability that proves why De’Wayne is such an approachable and unique voice in the world of rock. The punk growl of ‘Card Got Declined’ sees him telling the real life story of when he had to borrow money while on a date because he was too poor to cover the bill. “Now I’m fucking scrambling, running to the bathroom just to check my bank”, he sings. “[That situation] is not the coolest thing to sing about, but it’s real,” De’Wayne says. “It embarrassed the fuck out of me, but it also inspired me to do everything in my power to never be in that position again.”
‘My Favourite Blue Jeans’ also sees Willow co-write and co-produce three of the tracks – ‘Take This Crown’, the funk-driven ‘Simple’, and ‘Reign’s Song’, a track that soars along with racing guitars. “Having Willow in the studio was awesome,” De’Wayne says. “I think she’s one of the very best artists around: she’s a guitar hero for a new generation.”
Willow is one of the artists that De’Wayne believes is making rock music exciting again, alongside the likes of Kennyhoopla, Meet Me At The Altar and Fefe Dobson. There’s a sea change going on in alt-rock right now – where the genre was once white and male-dominated, new acts are pushing the boundaries of scope and sound to extend the community to POC artists and fans. As Paramore’s Hayley Williams explained at the first When We Were Young Festival recently, “the scene was not always a safe place to be if you were different.”
“Just today, there was a crusty old fuck on the internet saying that punk was supposed to be ‘anti-establishment’,” she told the crowd at the Las Vegas festival. “I can think of nothing more anti-establishment than young women, people of color, and the queer community. If you are one of those people in those subsets, there is space for you here now,” she promised.
De’Wayne agrees passionately with Williams’ speech. “Rock music has changed in the last two years. The culture has moved forwards. It’s such a beautiful time right now, where people want to hear from people that look like me, and they want to hear from women,” he says. “The next generation of kids will have such a hefty stack of Black artists to look up to – we didn’t have those examples coming up. I think, in my own way, I am paving the way. It’s not ego, I just really believe in myself.”
Gone are the days when De’Wayne would mumble about genre when asked if he was a rapper, rockstar or something else entirely. “These are clearly rock songs and I’m clearly a rock artist, I don’t know why people still say I’m blending genres,” he continues. “Simply, don’t ask me how it feels to be Black in rock, ask me how it feels to be a rock artist,” he says, before breaking into a grin. “And how that feels, is fucking amazing.”
De’Wayne’s new album ‘My Favourite Blue Jeans’ is out now