The pop star that just wants to rock.
Words: Jessica Goodman.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
“There are videos of me, five years old, where my mum’s going, ‘so what do you want to be when you’re older?’ and me just going, ‘I want to be a pop star, Mum’.” Spend any time with Dylan, and it’s impossible not to feel caught up in an earnest kind of enthusiasm that can only come from someone living out their dream. Having just wrapped up an in-store tour promoting her latest release – mixtape ‘The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn’ – and jumped headfirst into a sold-out headline tour, anyone else might be exhausted. If we were to sum up Dylan’s energy right now, it’d be as pure, unabashed excitement.
“I feel like something’s changed over the last couple of weeks,” she describes of her ongoing flurry of tour dates. “The genuine love that people have for the songs…” Unable to put into words quite how much that means to her, she eventually settles on saying, “I just don’t think I was expecting it.”
Though she may find it unexpected, it certainly isn’t undeserved. Dylan has been working HARD. Starting the year by teasing the release of her ‘No Romeo’ EP, over the past twelve months, she’s also toured with Bastille, Tate McRae, and Ed Sheeran (including a show at Wembley Stadium with the latter). She’s performed at festivals, recorded and released a mixtape, travelled across the country playing stripped-back sets in record stores, and now she’s mid-way through her second headline tour of the year (honestly, it makes us tired just listing it all – Ed).
Asked how it feels, being on the road and playing shows night after night, her beaming grin is a response in itself. “It’s been just incredible,” she states, “especially having people scream your songs with you.” Expressing sheer delight at a newfound inability to hear what’s in her in-ears over the sound of people screaming (her comment that “there was no hope in hell for me hearing the music because people were so loud” might seem like a complaint if it weren’t recalled with such glee), Dylan is every bit in her element. “It’s been mental, the way that everyone seems to be attaching themselves to the songs in the way that I have.”
Given how much she’s managed to achieve this year, seeing her name in Dork’s Hype List for 2023 probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. What might, however, is how long she’s been working to get here. “I think I wrote my first song when I was six or seven,” she recalls, quickly clarifying, “my first song that was actually on paper, rather than just making up songs in my head.” Music, it seems, has been calling her name for almost as long as she can remember. Apart from a brief period of wanting to be a helicopter pilot, nothing else has called to her in quite the same way. “It was just one of those things,” she states. “It was the only way I really felt like I could express myself.”
While those early songs might be lost to the passing of time (asked about the first song she wrote, she says, “I can’t remember how it goes, but I remember it being called ‘Starlight’ and consisting of three chords”), the influences that shaped them are just as important to her now as they were then. A home video shared on social media from the early 2000s of baby-Dylan standing on the kitchen furniture playing a toy plywood guitar along to Busted’s ‘Air Hostess’ – something she describes as being like most evenings in her family – shows that while a lot has changed over the years, a lot remains the same too.
That isn’t to say her journey so far has been an easy one. “I was trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be,” she describes – somehow both critically and fondly – of her early EPs, “which is obviously the biggest mistake that you can make, because immediately it’s not authentic.” Now that she’s found her ground and who she wants to be, it feels like there’s no limit to what she’s capable of.
The turning point, she recalls, was writing ‘No Romeo’ EP track ‘Nineteen’. Rediscovering her love for rock and roll through “dance parties in the evening with our guitars out” back at her parents’ house during lockdown was what gave her the determination to play guitar on stage. Doing this for the first time when she opened for Yungblud in late 2021 was a moment she says “changed everything.” “From then on, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a pop star; I want to be a rock star.’”
Trying to sum up her approach to music since, she references her viral hit single ‘You’re Not Harry Styles’ (also from ‘No Romeo’). Specifically, the lyric “to you I’m an overly emotional, easily replaceable, overthinking dumb blonde who never got her shit together”. “I think that is basically what the mixtape is,” she describes. “In putting it out there, it was like I lost the shame in it.” Using her writing to turn her crises of confidence into something she could find strength in – and hearing those sentiments echoed back to her at her live shows – helped her discover what she wanted her music to be.
“I’m super self-deprecating,” she portrays of herself, “and the way that I deal with my self-confidence crises is with humour.” While she admits that’s “not always a great thing,” accepting and taking ownership of those parts of herself brought with it a new sense of empowerment. “I think there’s so much power in feeling everything that you want to feel, and in being overly emotional,” she earnestly expresses. “It’s just life. And life is so much better when you feel everything.”
Finding inspiration in self-acceptance is what led her to write the songs that make up ‘The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn’. “I spent so long hiding behind smoke screens and things like that, to try to not really say how I felt. It got to a point where I was really losing myself,” she explains. Now, she describes her songwriting as being not unlike word vomit. “You can’t really control it. It’s all coming out. You’re just saying it how it is.”
Written from her own real-life experiences and about her real-life emotions, listening to her music feels like talking with a close friend or recognising a diary entry. Sometimes sassy, other times sentimental, and always sincere, if there’s one word to sum up Dylan’s approach to her music – in fact, her approach to everything she does – it’d be genuine.
“There’s not much of a filter with me,” she laughs. It might be something she says jokingly, but it’s because of her candid nature that her fans are able to connect with her music, and connect with her, in the heartfelt way that they do. Dramatically lip-syncing along to her own songs on Instagram, demonstrating uninhibited dance moves on TikTok, or inviting listeners to share videos of their first-listen reactions to her music so they can all be in the moment together… This is the world that Dylan has created, not just for herself, but for anyone who wants to be a part of it. “I think there’s no point in trying to hide your personality,” she comments of her approach to social media. “It only lets the fans get to know you more. And I think that’s so important.”
It works both ways: not only do her fans love being able to get to know her, but she treasures every moment of getting to know them too. “I love it,” she sighs, “because it means that I can be totally myself. I can be completely idiotic on stage and mess up my words and be over the top and talk too fast, and they’re completely expecting it because that’s just who we are.”
“It’s not just about the music anymore,” she earnestly continues. “People want someone to write the music that they need to scream to, to make music personal to them. They need that vessel. When you have music like that, and have someone that you feel that you really know singing it, that’s when the good stuff happens.”
She’s not wrong. Look at her tagged posts on social media and you find a world of excitement. There are meme accounts devoted to Dyl-based in-jokes, and countdown accounts created to celebrate and commemorate every occasion. There are accounts dedicated to photos of Dylan with fans, accounts created by fans to celebrate each other. Talking online, people plan their gig-going outfits like they’re readying for a runway, coordinating cowboy hats and feather boas with passionate flair. They share their experiences of shows and meeting the musician, and bond over their shared love for the same music. People have met for the first time at her shows and gone on to become best friends – Dylan has a group chat with some of them.
Asked what it’s like seeing all this happen around her music, she struggles to put it into words. “I feel like I’ve always had a really hard time with friends,” she frowns, “just because I am a bit erratic and all over the place. To have them there…” Talking about the sense of community that she’s found through her music brings a smile to her face that doesn’t falter for a moment. “They are as much a part of this as I am,” she asserts of people who listen to her music. “They’re the driving force of this. So there has to be that connection between me and them, because otherwise, I don’t know who I’m singing for, which I hate the idea of.”
Throughout her recent tour dates, she’s been giving transport strike updates and guidance on social media to make it easier for anyone who wants to be part of the shows to be there. She also compiled a book of fan art for the first 25 people through the door each night, both as a thank you to those dedicated enough to be there early and as a way of showcasing her fans’ own talent. Actions like these make it clear that honouring the connection and creativity her music has inspired – both in-person and online – is something Dylan holds incredibly close to her heart. “It really makes me feel like I’m a part of something, which I love so, so much.”
During a pause between songs in the middle of her shows, she takes a moment to make sure her appreciation and adoration for her audience is known. “Since coming on this tour, it’s become apparent that you guys are practically my home,” she tells the room. Given the volume of the response her words incite, it seems safe to assume that a lot of her fans feel the same way.
Her devotion to them feels like it’s rivalled only by the support they give her. At the time of doing this interview, Dylan has just found out her mixtape has positioned in the mid-week album charts. When asked about the possibility of it staying in the Top 20 come the end-of-week official chart, there’s a moment of frozen silence before a smile starts to grow across her features, until she gives up on suppressing her excitement completely and just starts to scream.
“Who’d have fucking thought?!” she yells, practically vibrating on the spot in a combination of excitement and nerves. “We’ve been sort of joking around, being like ‘yeah, we want a Top 20 record’, even though it’s not an album,” she laughs. When she heard the news, she was on the road, mid-journey to Leeds, excitement driving her to her feet in the moving van (don’t try this at home – Ed). Now, she tries to temper that excitement with some realistic expectations.
“I don’t know whether, you know, it’ll stay in the charts before Friday,” she shrugs. “Obviously, I’ve got a lot of promo to do before then in order to keep it there. But even having this, it’s just… It’s making everything worth it, I think.”
If you’ve been following Dylan’s journey this year, chances are you already know that this story has a happy resolution. ‘The Greatest Thing I’ll Never Learn’ charted at 19, giving her a Top 20 record before she’s even made an album (along with playing Wembley Stadium while having only released a handful of EPs, she’s racked up some impressive accolades this year).
Asked what she has in store for next year (already announced are headline tours of the UK and Europe, as well as US shows with Ed Sheeran), Dylan gives a confident smirk and tells us, “oh, don’t you worry about that.” Breaking character to laugh before adopting her smirk again, she adds, “we’ve got lots of big ‘uns on the way!” At the mention of new music next year and the possibility of a debut album, it takes all of three seconds for her adopted cocky attitude to give way to sheer excitement.
“I’m in love with it,” she enthuses of the new music she’s been making. “I love it so, so much. I’m trying really hard to not leak anything at the moment.” Asked when we might be able to hear what she’s been working on, she keeps her cards held close to her chest. “The mixtape needs to have its moment,” she states, “and THEN, then it’s time for the big stuff.” An album, she says, is “hopefully inevitable.”
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” she adds, tethering her excitement back down to earth. “I think, with this kind of career, if you look too far into the future, you miss what’s going on around you as it’s growing.” While she comments that “next year is probably going to be more intense than this year,” right now, her focus is on enjoying the moment she’s in. Currently, that means watching videos from her shows of fans’ “blood-curdling screaming” along with her lyrics on loop.
“That’s why you write the songs!” she beams. “Because that’s how I feel about the situation that I wrote about. And I feel like sometimes it’s very hard to let that out. So being able to do that and scream it in a crowd, that’s the kind of stuff that it’s here for.” ■
Taken from the December 2022 / January 2023 edition of Dork.