About this Event
Olivia Dean - Messy bio 2023
“Going into making the record, I'd just done this ‘Growth’ project. And for ages, I was like, well, my debut album needs to be what I've grown into, I need to have the answer. And that really confused me for a while,” Olivia Dean says. “Then I realised, I'm always going to be growing. So this doesn't have to be a destination, it's just where I’m at now.” With her debut album Messy, we gain a refreshingly textured snapshot of exactly that. A portrait of a young woman embracing the beauty in freedom and acceptance: of life, of love, of mess. On it Olivia’s signature soul-bearing lyricism joins forces with some of her most expansive and varied production to date, all bolstered by a newfound determination to defy any categorisation except her own. “It's funny because I think it’s the most fine-tuned I've got my sound to be, but also the most carefree I've been in actually making music… some of it’s quite vulnerable but it was just made out of pure fun and joy and unbotheredness,” she beams as she talks about the project. “And I think I’ve done a good job with calling it Messy because if anybody says it’s all over the place I’ll be like, yeah!”
Raised in Walthamstow, East London, Dean is a definite child of music. Growing up singing in a gospel choir, taking musical theatre lessons and attending the BRIT school, you might say a musical life was fated for her. Her career got its start when she collaborated with UK producer electronic-pop group Rudimental as a supporting vocalist at just 17 years old. Not before long, she had signed with EMI and begun winning over hearts with her endearingly heartfelt yet hopeful EPs, Ok Love You Bye (2019), What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays? (2020) And Growth (2021). Live music is another place she’s always thrived unsurprisingly - touring the UK post-pandemic in a bright yellow truck, performing free shows for the community from Cornwall to Nottingham and beyond, selling merch and even mince pies at one point. Fast forward three years, she’s sold out the Jazz Café, had her own secret set at Glastonbury, performed at the British Fashion Awards and most recently performed to a sold out KOKO and Roundhouse here in her hometown before embarking on a European tour. Having worked and toured with the likes of Loyle Carner and Jordan Rakei, her voice inspiring its own viral moments on TikTok and a massive cross-generational cross-genre fanbase at the ready, Dean is primed and raring to stake her claim with her debut record, Messy.
Whether it’s the tension she felt in figuring out what space she wanted to occupy musically, or the logistical mayhem of actually producing such a big body of work, or just the everyday cacophony of life and feelings, Messy is a punchy and unexpected debut exploring a wealth of sounds, influences and styles. “Even with the sonics of the record, I’ve left a lot of sound in there, of talking, of the piano pedals. I like that it sounds human. On the title track, there’s a layer of me doing mouth trumpet sounds that was just meant to be a placeholder and I was like let’s just keep it! There’s no rules!” she laughs. “I tried to just expel people's voices from my mind about what I was supposed to make or what would be cool or what would be the most successful thing for me to make and made stuff that I want to listen to.” The project ushers you seamlessly through a patchwork of different atmospheres, gathered together into beautifully organised chaos. At times it’s jazz-filled, at others futuristic, pared back and intimate in moments then playfully bold in the ones that follow. “There's a vocoder and guitar Imogen Heap-thing and then there's Motown Diana Ross-mode. And the last song’s this kind of orchestral thing. It’s just a whole mix. Because why not? I feel like this album is a big fuck you to genre,” Dean says with a laugh.
Olivia was raised on an eclectic diet of music: from her dad’s love of reggae, Steely Dan, Al Green and great pop music to her mum’s soulful inclinations - think Angie Stone and Jill Scott. These days, she immerses herself in a world of indie music like Alice Phoebe Lou and Clairo most regularly, but elsewhere, has always held a deep admiration for classic songwriters like Carole King or Aretha Franklin. To this day, she remembers the first time she came across Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes in her Music GCSE class. “Him going and making that album, fusing that kind of genre with his own style and how it brought so many people together. I thought that was really cool that you don’t have to make one specific thing,” she says.
Bringing that ethos firmly into her own songwriting, Dean has steadily cemented herself as one of the most original - and now one of the most versatile - voices in UK pop over the last few years. Crafting classic yet conversational hooks with these genre-fluid tinges, she’s honed a way of exploring universal themes of love, loss and everything in between with razor-sharp but open-hearted storytelling. “As with all of my music, this album is about falling in love because that’s where I’m at. And I also had a real hang up about that,” she laughs. “I was like nobody wants to hear about that, the best albums are break up albums, you know. Do I have to be sad to make great music? And I realised no I don’t, I just need to be… healthy and write about what is around me.” On the hazy, enchanting album opener ‘UFO’, Olivia muses on the ‘sexy problems’ of love, asking for reassurance that it’s safe to land. It’s striking and addictive in its simple and almost metallic form. ‘Dive’ is a twinkling declaration, fortified with nostalgic horns and dreamy harmonies, about dancing on the edge of the cliff before being ready to freefall into something new. ‘Danger’ is the flip side of that risk assessment, a teasing warning about the co-conspiracy of being in it for the long haul. She jokes, “I do love love, I don’t want the girlies to be disappointed.”
As always with Olivia, sitting alongside the more conventional romance on the project, is an exploration of love of self. Much like her independent anthem ‘Be Your Own Boyfriend’, or crowd favourite self-discovery ballad ‘The Hardest Part’, Dean triumphs in the space of authentic, infectious empowerment and self-acceptance that doesn’t feel cheesy or superficial. She tells me title track ‘Messy’ is the first song she’s ever written directly to herself before: what started out as a long and beautiful but pretty much wordless (other than the word ‘messy’) improvisation took her hours in her room alone to decipher the meaning of. “I was trying to write a song to myself to be like it’s okay, I’m on your side, you’re gonna figure it out. You don’t know what shape to be, just be the one that you are,” she smiles. And once she had that epiphany, “it just came out! That was such a beautiful moment.” What that process did for her is what she hopes this music can do for those that listen to it too, she says. “I hope it makes people feel okay to not have their shit together. And to accept the imperfections in their life for what they are, and just let things play out and see what happens… to just be an open person, and be forgiving.”
In addition to love, Olivia pulls from so many parts of life when creating music. ‘Ladies Room’ for example was inspired by a surreal encounter in the women’s bathroom at her local pub, where a stranger was oversharing about about her relationship with a boyfriend 20 years older than her. ‘I Could Be a Florist’ pretty much poured out of her after she uttered the title phrase casually in the studio, thinking about a world in which she had a simpler, less consuming calling. Dean even recounts being incredibly moved by the Life Between Islands exhibition at the Tate Britain last year, chronicling British-Caribbean identity through the lens of art, fashion and culture: “I just felt so seen and like wow, that’s me! I’m between two islands. I thought the album was going to be called that for a while.”
Instead, what emerged in part from that experience was the album closer, ‘Carmen’: a softly exalting tribute to Olivia’s grandmother. A recording of her grandma’s rich, raspy voice opens the track, as she recalls boarding her first ever plane at the age of 18, moving to the UK as part of the Windrush generation from her home country of Guyana. “My relationship with my granny felt really important to capture. We spent a lot of time together and I just found out so much about her and how that made me feel about me just being here in this country, even being able to make an album.” On it, she sings dreamily directly to her, ‘You transplanted a family tree, and a part of it grew into me.’ Of her strength, of holding her hands, of the imprint she’s made on this island, as steel pan drums and horns fuse together joyfully to form this uniquely modern British backdrop. To this day, she admits, the song can still make her cry happy tears.
Elsewhere, she’s been invigorated by her travels outside of the UK, visiting Grenada and Brazil within the last 18 months while writing. The former reminded her to conjure joy in her music too, “to make sure I have some songs on this record that are a joy to perform, that give me the opportunity to have fun and dance,” while the latter introduced her to a whole new perspective on music. “There’s this genre called MBP that’s all old Brazilian music. And I was told it’s something that you listen to with your loved ones and by yourself. It’s really cherished in the culture as romantic music for special moments. And like, what is the English equivalent of that? Of a really cherished genre that’s our special thing or for our quietest moments. And I thought, I want to make that! I want to make music that's for your special times, to soothe you, to attach to beautiful memories that you have.” In many ways, that is precisely what Messy is and will go on to be for many - something to be cherished, shared and relished in. And in the same vein, the process of making it served a similar role for Olivia too: “I’m not a religious person but I would say [making music] is the closest thing I have to any sort of spirituality.”
Popscene @ Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell Street, San Francisco, United States