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The early open road: go backstage with DYLAN at her biggest show yet

Pop star DYLAN has been co-signed by Ed Sheeran, Bastille and Yungblud. Now she’s adored by an increasing number of teenage girls. We meet her before and after her biggest headline show yet at London’s historic KOKO

By Daisy Jones

DYLAN performs live at KOKO (Picture: Tom Oxley)

It’s 5PM and DYLAN – real name Natasha Woods – is clutching her head in her hands. “What if they don’t come?” she’s saying, eyes peeking out briefly from beneath a long curtain of wavy blonde hair. “What if some of them can’t make it? There are train strikes. How are people going to get here? What if I’m performing to an empty room?”

It’s November 2022, and we’re backstage four hours before she’s due to play a sold-out headline show at Camden’s recently renovated KOKO. Excited teenage girls have been queuing outside the venue since 9am, despite slashing rain and bone-chilling winds. At one point, Woods tells me, she was worried about them getting sick, so she got someone to distribute hats and gloves and hot buckets of KFC. Of course they’ll come, I say — they’re already here, aren’t they? People have bought tickets. But Woods just stares ahead blankly, my reassurances sliding off her like sheets of ice. “It’s been quite an overwhelming day,” she says after a while, pulling at the sleeves of her baggy knitted Kickers jumper. “I’m just terrified about tonight.” 

Despite the sudden pre-show nerves, the 23-year-old musician has largely become known for her bold and audacious, shit-kicking energy. She writes emotive pop-rock songs about deserving more from annoying boys or being heartbroken and unapologetic about it (think Olivia Rodrigo and Halsey, via Suffolk, where Woods is from). In one of her bigger tracks, ‘You’re Not Harry Styles’, she sings: “Running around with your God complex / Do you picture yourself while we’re having sex together?” There’s an open-heartedness to DYLAN’s personality, lyrics and sound. Whether she’s freaking out about playing to an empty room, or lamenting the loss of yet another fuckboi, she appears to approach everything heart first — a young star not yet apathetic, or too strung out from back-to-back tours. 

To those not paying attention, DYLAN seemed to spring out of nowhere — even by today’s standards. Born in Bures, a small village on the Essex/Suffolk border, at the turn of the millennium, Woods spent the first two decades of her life fantasising about playing Wembley Stadium and becoming a rock star (her early years were defined by AC/DC, Aerosmith and Rainbow blasting out of her dad’s car speakers or else performing air guitar on the kitchen table). The poppier shimmer, she says, came later, after getting heavily into Taylor Swift. “As a kid, it was always about rock’n’roll. And then that slowly started forming into different lanes, like pop and alt and indie. Then I fell in love with Taylor Swift. Now, I can’t not write pop songs. But in my head, I’m totally doing the rock thing.” The result is a fun, strutting hybrid — kind of like a Yungblud for heartbroken girls. 

Her “big break” came late last year, post-lockdown, followed by a string of highly publicised opening slots. Her debut EP Purple might have, in Woods’ words, “flopped, massively”, but after supporting Thomas Headon, Bastille and then — in a twist of fate — Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium, followed by Yungblud at Kentish Town’s O2 Forum, the diehard fans started rolling in overnight and soaked up her following two mixtapes. “I still don’t think there are that many of us,” she says, even though there are thousands of fans downstairs in colourful DYLAN merch and pink cowboy hats (they call themselves “the cowgirls” due to Woods’ cowboy obsession). “I just think they’re super dedicated. There are some people here today who have been to every show this year. And they’ll rock up at 9am and wait until the very last minute for me to say hello to them. It’s insane.”

Dylan chills pre-show with her band and crew (Picture: Tom Oxley)

By 9pm, Woods is ready. She’s changed out of her oversized sweater and into head-to-toe leather — a tasselled jacket paired with skin-tight flares, golden glitter pressed onto high cheekbones. She looks like a young Stevie Nicks, or a baby-faced Axl Rose — a hand-painted Fender Meteora guitar slung around long slouching limbs. The crowd is a sea of intense and genuinely ear-piercing screams. Usually, at a show like this, there are a mixture of ages and a few disgruntled partners or older tagalongs thrown in the mix. Today, though, there are wall-to-wall teenage girls: teenage girls with linked arms, teenage girls with wide eyes, teenage girls with their phones lifted up to catch their new idol as she bounds across the stage, the lights swimming from red to blue to white —an ode, perhaps, to her classic Americana influences.

She stomps through a slew of recent hits, some of which have racked up nearly a million views on YouTube, while others are unreleased. During her song ‘No Romeo’, the crowd appear to particularly lose their shit. “Has anyone here got an ex?” Woods shouts into the mic before being drowned out by blistering screams. At one point, halfway through, she breaks into a rendition of ‘Paradise City’ by Guns N’ Roses. It’s weird — the song came out ten years before Woods was born and Axl Rose is now old enough to be her grandfather. But these are the children of the children raised on the sound of 80s rock and tonight it seeps into everything — from the tight, pounding drums to the way that Woods moves her hips and slides on her knees, embracing and retracing the self-aware flamboyance of a rock show.

Dylan performs live at KOKO (Picture: Tom Oxley)

Most of the concert remains similarly high-octane and glam, with Woods punctuating songs with noodly guitar solos backed up by a tight, three-piece live band. Towards the end, though, she plays a slower acoustic ballad, ‘Home is Where the Heart is’, which is about feeling alone when back from tour and left only with her thoughts for company. At this point, about three-quarters of the crowd hold up signs printed on A4 sheets of paper. Later, I find out that they say things like, “Home is wherever you are” and “We’re so proud of you.” Woods had no idea that her fans had planned this. She looks confused, then smiles, singing, her face a picture of unfeigned disbelief. 

Two days later, I catch up with Woods over Zoom, from her flat in London. Her hair’s tied up and her face looks remarkably fresh and well slept for someone who hasn’t had more than one proper day off in about a year. The nerves from a couple of nights ago seem to have completely dissolved. Instead, she looks relieved, still riding that post-show high. She wasn’t worried as soon as she saw the crowd, she says, although it was the most nervous she’d ever been. “It was the reassurance I needed after the last four years of working my ass off and grafting and trying to build something,” she says. “You don’t know if anyone’s going to like your music. It was insane; the happiness I felt on that stage.”

Why did it mean so much to her? She’s played plenty of shows before this, including Wembley, and been on multiple tours — although, admittedly, maybe not headline performances of this size in the capital. “My recent mixtape [The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn] speaks a lot about reciprocation — or lack of — in emotional relationships, whether that be friendships or family stuff or love,” she says. “I’ve really struggled with abandonment issues and letting myself go in that way. I love these people so much, and to have that reciprocated is just the best feeling in the world. I didn’t really notice the scale of it until the show.”

(Picture: Tom Oxley)

There’s something else. “Wait,” Woods says, uncrossing her legs and getting up from her seat. “Let me show you something.” I can hear her scrambling off screen. When she gets back, she’s holding up a homemade scrapbook. “This is one of the more notable things,” she says, laughing. “They made me a book. They all put notes and photos of each other in there with me. Right at the back, it shows [the story] of my journey so far — everything from 2019 onwards.” She pauses for a moment, flipping through the pages. “After the show, I just sat there sobbing.” 

So, what now for DYLAN? After this Zoom call Woods will be getting on a bus to finish her UK tour, before going to Stockholm, Sweden, to finish off her album. Next year will be an endless web of international tour dates. She doesn’t know if she’ll need to keep her London flat. What’s the point when she’ll just be living on the road? Until then, though, she’ll just be soaking up the fact she played a sold-out show at KOKO and nothing went wrong. Everything went right, in fact. It’s given her a sense of peace and ease. “I am totally in the right place,” Woods says. “And I am totally doing the right thing.”

Taken from the February/March 2023 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online here. On UK newsstands now.