If you’ve been to an Olivia Dean show in the past year, you’ll have heard a rousing live rendition of ‘Dive’. Flanked by her impressively slick band, the Motown-flecked anthem is a soaring addition to her show. Filled with lush brass stabs, blissful lyrics that explore “giving over into love” and a euphoric bridge which is made for a mass singalong –“Diving into you, diving into me” – it’s a total joy.
“I just love it,” Dean says of her new single, which will feature on her debut album ‘Messy’ (due June 30). “It’s fun, and I think it’s a good insight into my happier side, following [previous single] ‘UFO’ before we get hit with the serious material,” she adds with a laugh.
We’re sat in a trendy east London brunch spot, and over cups of tea, Dean is discussing her debut at length for the first time in an interview. Effusive and funny, she’s a generous subject, both in her thoughtful answers, and with the box of Mini Eggs she’s brought to share with NME. “The feeling of the album being completed is a strange, satisfying, but also like, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do now?’ feeling,” she says. Suddenly, she answers her own rhetorical question: “I guess make another album!”
‘Messy’ has been a long time coming. Over the past few years, Dean has steadily built an eager and engaged fanbase with a handful of EPs. First came 2019’s ‘Ok Love You Bye’, followed by “breakup project” ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’, and most recently, 2021’s ‘Growth’. The success of these EPs has translated into a sizeable IRL audience: her recent headline shows at London’s Roundhouse sold out in a matter of hours.
“Making an album has been something I’ve been working towards, and had an idea of what it would be like, for my whole life,” says Dean. “I’ve known I wanted to be a singer since I was eight.”
The London-born artist grew up on a eclectic diet of music that her parents played in the house, with Sam Cooke, Steely Dan and Destiny’s Child all making an appearance. Attending the prestigious BRIT School (alumni includes Adele and Amy Winehouse) for four years, Dean started writing her own songs at 16. It was then she realised that she didn’t love the musical theatre she was doing the way her peers loved it, instead choosing to pivot into making her own material and teaching herself guitar and piano. She bagged a manager the following year, and later signed to EMI.
For ‘Messy’, Dean teamed up with musician and producer Matt Hales, who she knew would be the perfect co-pilot for the record after they worked together on ‘Growth’ track ‘Slowly’. The early days of creating the album saw some reservations. “I felt so bogged down by what I was supposed to make, whether that be because of the way that I look,” she explains. “I really struggled with that for a while thinking it needs to be this really, like, ‘urban cool’ thing, but wondering, ‘Is that me? Or do I just love singer-songwriter indie music, can I make that? But I also like Motown?” She sums it up frankly: “I was like: ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to make”.
There was also the conflict of having released a project called ‘Growth’ prior to ‘Messy’, with Dean initially thinking that her debut album would therefore have to see her “have reached a conclusion and be like, ‘I’ve grown and now I’m…’” she says, extending the delivery of her final word. “Then I realised I’m still growing. I don’t know who I am sometimes, I’m a bit of a mess. That’s why ‘Messy’ is just the perfect title because it’s about accepting imperfection and finding the beauty in it,” she says.
For Dean, the name ‘Messy’ also feels sonically fitting “because it’s just that”. It’s an album that places Dean among peers like RAYE or Holly Humberstone, artists who aren’t guided by traditional genre constraints and are unafraid to share their own vulnerabilities. “I don’t think that anyone is supposed to make any kind of music, you should just make what sounds good to you,” Dean says. “It took me a while to figure that out; but once I did, it was just clear and fun. And the album was just a joy to make.”
She also received advice from pal Loyle Carner, whose track ‘Homerton’ she featured on last year. “I’ve had a couple conversations with him and [British producer and artist] Kwes who was making the record [Carner’s 2022 album ‘Hugo’] while I was making mine, and I definitely learned to just make exactly what you want to make,” Dean says. “They said, ‘You know what you want to do, just listen to yourself’. It sounds cliche, but it’s really easy to forget sometimes.”
Inspired by the likes of Bill Withers, Mac Miller‘s ‘Swimming’, Alice Phoebe Lou and Clairo, ‘Messy’ follows suit from Dean’s previous projects. Her gorgeous vocals, delivering the heart-on-her-sleeve lyrics that fans have come to love, are run over varied indie-pop sounds, all with a soulful edge.
The ethereal ‘UFO’ fuses a Nick Drake-style guitar with vocoded vocals with honest couplets: “I can’t hold your hand / With my fingers crossed”. ‘Danger’ boasts elements of rock and bossa nova, while ‘Ladies Room’ – a celebration of the girl’s bathroom, where “you go in there and share stuff, it’s so alive” – is unadulterated “pure joy”, says Dean.
Her live show was also a guiding influence when writing. Dean references a conversation she had with fellow artist Sabrina Francis, who Dean met and worked with when visiting Grenada at the beginning of creating ‘Messy’. “She was saying that in Grenada it’s really hard to make more melancholy singer-songwriter music because everybody wants to dance and have fun,” Dean says. “That’s not the case in London!”
She continues: “It really made me think I want there to be at least three or four songs on the record that are just fun.” If the ecstatic reaction to ‘Ladies Room’ at Dean’s recent Roundhouse show is anything to go by, she more than lived up to her intentions.
For every uptempo tune on ‘Messy’, there’s something quieter, more subdued and subtle. One of the album’s biggest triumphs is the stunning ‘Carmen’. “That song still makes me cry,” Dean says of the track. “It’s such a piece of my heart. It’s an ode to my granny who came over in the Windrush [generation]. I just wanted to capture her in time and celebrate her.”
Having gone to visit her grandmother at the beginning of 2022, Dean asked her about her journey to the UK. She told her about getting on a plane for the first time at 18 with her younger sister and having to start again in her new home. “I just had this feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I would not be here if you didn’t make that decision at 18’. My life would be completely different.”
‘Carmen’ sees Dean convey these weighty feelings. “At the time of writing it, all these people from the Windrush era had this great adoration for the Queen, and in reality, they should be the people having this big Jubilee and celebration. There was so much negativity around the Windrush [scandal] and people being sent back home, and my granny was so worried about having to go back. I just wanted this song to be her Jubilee.”
It’s a moving tribute. Over lush, intimate instrumentals and steel pans, Dean simultaneously tells Carmen’s story (“You transplanted a family tree / And a part of it grew into me,”) and celebrates he. The track makes for a fitting ending to ‘Messy’, a record that sees Dean explore family ties, healthy love and “not getting too hung up on being the best version of yourself”. It’s authentically Olivia Dean from start to finish, mess and all.
“My identity is a bit of a mess, I don’t know sometimes what’s going on there. Musically, I don’t know what genre I want to make,” she concludes. “And I’ve just accepted that.”
Olivia Dean’s debut album ‘Messy’ will be released on June 30 via All My Friends/EMI Records
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