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Olivia Dean: ‘I enjoy imperfection, it makes things more interesting’

On the day she releases her debut album 'Messy', Olivia Dean tells Rolling Stone UK about the journey so far.

By Gemma Samways

(Picture: Press)

Despite reports of a heavy one last night, Olivia Dean is impressively chipper first thing on a Thursday morning. “I’m just very, very happy at the moment,” the 24-year-old singer-songwriter grins, speaking over the patchy Wi-Fi connection of a recording studio just outside Hereford. 

Speaking to Rolling Stone UK while on a residential writing trip with fellow BRIT School graduate Rachel Chinouriri, Dean definitely has plenty to celebrate. In May, she completed her biggest-ever tour of the UK and Europe, playing to more than 10,000 fans in total. The week before, she was announced as one of the headliners of Somerset House’s Summer Series, with her show going on to be the first to sell out. Most excitingly, just 24 hours before we speak, she announced her long-awaited debut album, Messy, which arrives today (June 30).

Written and recorded with Lianne La Havas-collaborator Matt Hales, the 12-track collection looks set to cement the south London-based star’s reputation as one of the UK’s brightest young voices — not to mention surprise a few people with the scope of her vision. Informed by influences as diverse as Clairo, Carole King and Mac Miller, the songwriting on display extends from the pared-back piano balladry of ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ to the more maximalist, Motown shimmer of ‘Dive’, via the tender, steel pan-dappled grooves of ‘Carmen’.

Dean baulks at the idea that the album’s variety could be viewed in any way as a talking point. “I really struggle with the idea [that] I’m supposed to make one kind of music,” she shrugs. “For me, there are no rules. And at the end of the day, I’m gonna make what I want to make because I’m too stubborn to be told to make anything else.”

(Picture: Press)

By her own admission, Dean has always been single-minded. Born and raised in Walthamstow, she knew she wanted to be a singer by the age of eight, after watching the success of her cousin — the rapper and actor Ashley Walters — from afar. Her parents further nurtured her love of music, introducing her to a broad range of artists, from Jill Scott to Joni Mitchell, enrolling her in musical theatre classes and tracking down a second-hand piano so she could start songwriting. 

At 14, Dean won a place at The BRIT School, an achievement testament not just to her talent, but to the ambition and tenacity instilled in her by her mum, a lawyer and member of the Women’s Equality Party. “She was always like, ‘You can do whatever you want to do,’” Dean recalls proudly. “And I think that’s a really important message for a child. So I’ve always thought that if I want to do something and I just keep saying I’m going to do it, then I can just do it. I don’t know if that’s delusional, but I guess you have to be a bit delusional sometimes to get things done.”

During her first two years at BRIT, Dean studied musical theatre, before joining Rex Orange County, Black Midi and Raye on the music strand for the second half of her studies. At her final showcase, Dean was approached by her now-manager, who put her forward to audition as a backing singer for Rudimental. She was amazed to get the job.

“The first show we did was at Sziget Festival in Budapest in front of around 16,000 people,” she recalls, still in disbelief. “Like, I had literally just come out of college and I was doing all these crazy shows and getting this invaluable performance experience. But I don’t think I have the skill of a backing singer, so that was never going to be my final destination.”

Following the tour, she was accepted to study popular music at Goldsmiths, but quit after three weeks, worried that analysing the technicalities of songwriting would cause her to second-guess her own creative instincts. “I think it was a good choice,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Even if I do still have to pay off my student loan.”

Dean remains in south London and continues to immerse herself in the local creative scene, attending jazz nights by Steam Down in Deptford as well as Raw Eggs, a monthly event with participants showcasing everything from film to stand-up comedy and clowning. Today, she lights up when discussing her love of live performance. 

“I’m like a live music sponge, I think it’s just the best thing ever. To have everybody in the room, all coming from their separate lives, and then joining together in this crazy shared experience, singing, dancing, crying… It’s 100 per cent my favourite thing.”

Dean’s profile has grown exponentially over the past five years, with the release of EPs Ok Love You Bye (2019), What Am I Gonna Do on Sundays (2020) and Growth (2021). Indeed, when it came to writing Messy, Growth initially proved something of a millstone around Dean’s neck. “Starting this album, I was like, ‘Well, the last EP was called Growth, so this album needs to be about what I’ve grown into.’ And I was like, ‘I actually don’t know what that is?’ But once I removed the pressure of having to be at my destination it was OK. This album is me saying, ‘This is where I’m at now: kind of a mess but loving it.’”

Messy was written over a period of 18 months, and recorded in just two weeks in October 2022, at The Pool Recording Studio near Elephant and Castle. It was important to Dean to record in her hometown, so as to provide an accurate snapshot of her identity as an artist. 

Authenticity has always been a watchword in Dean’s songwriting, which sees her relaying real stories in a conversational tone rather than couched in metaphors or symbolism. This preference for naturalism over abstraction extends to her musical approach too, as she explains. 

“I get frustrated with music that feels overly saturated or autotuned or calculated. And when I wrote the song ‘Messy’, it became obvious to me that I really enjoy imperfection. I think it makes things more interesting.”

This human approach lends the record soul and a sense of self-assurance that often belies Dean’s relative youth. “I’m quite a stoic,” she admits. “And I love timeless things. Like, it’s always been my dream to make something that would last, the way I always go back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or [Paul Simon’s] Graceland or [Carole King’s] Tapestry. They’re like fuel, you know? It’s with you for a moment in your life and you come back to it.”

The songs on Messy should provide similar solace to listeners, tackling anxiety (‘Everybody’s Crazy’), love and heartbreak (‘Dangerously Easy’), and independence (‘Ladies Room’). Unquestionably, most touching is album closer ‘Carmen’, which immortalises Dean’s 80-year-old granny, who moved to the UK from Grenada as part of the Windrush generation, and with whom Dean briefly shared a bedroom as a child.

Beginning with a voice note of her granny recalling that journey, Dean coos, “You transported a family tree and part of it grew to me.” All shimmering steel pans, dancing guitar lines and buoyant brass, it’s a fitting conclusion to an album that ultimately underscores Dean’s long-term potential.

“I just feel so proud of this album,” she says, beaming. “Proud that I made it exactly the way I wanted to and that I just was unwavering in my creative decisions, you know? I’ve followed my intuition, and I think that’s a really powerful thing. Because if you make a record that you really, really love, you can’t lose.”