Olivia Dean: “Life is just messy, and people are messy, and that’s great”

Olivia Dean‘s debut album ‘Messy’ is a passionate, heartfelt exploration of complex emotions, forging a relatable and warm connection that proves just why she’s one of the most exciting new talents around.

Words: Martyn Young.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Make-up: Emily Engleman.
Hair: Donica Campbell.

It’s easy from the outside to presume that success for some artists is straightforward and effortless. The reality, though, is that nothing is ever quite that simple. We’ve always known that Olivia Dean was a special talent, but for the singer-songwriter from London, the path from the ‘Growth’ of her previous EP in 2021 turned out to be a little more complex as we arrive at her stunning debut album ‘Messy’; a richly evocative and dynamic record that highlights that things don’t always turn out like you’d imagine.

For Olivia, messy is precisely where she wants to be. “I’m feeling so happy,” she smiles from San Francisco, where she’s travelled to perform a show. “Living the rock star dream!” she laughs. There’s a feeling that by embracing things not being perfect, Olivia has landed at a place of maximum contentment both personally and with her artistry. “I’m the most sure of myself that I’ve ever felt,” she says confidently. 

‘Messy’ is the product of years of dedication and a passion for music. Strong-willed and resistant to any notion of what she should be doing, Olivia has always made music on her own principles. “It’s been an interesting journey,” she says. “I’ve been singing since I was 8, really. I’m proud of myself that I’ve remained true and stubborn. I’ve made exactly the record that I wanted to make. I’ve been relentless in my love for the music, and that’s helped me to finally get here.” 

When she was 8, the whole notion of pop music was alien to Olivia. “I was just really into musical theatre. I wasn’t even into pop music or anything like that,” she remembers. “I was obsessed with The Lion King. I loved West Side Story. I loved the romance and the drama. I loved acting and telling stories through songs. That was the genesis.” As she grew older, she began to really nurture her storytelling instincts, and both Olivia and everyone around her knew she was on to something. “When I got to 16, I went to The BRIT School and started writing my own songs. I felt ready,” she says. “I love Aretha Franklin and Motown. I love songwriters – Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I love telling stories. I think humans are really interesting. I’ve always been interested in doing that.” 

The thread that has always tied together Olivia’s music has been its emotionally resonant core. Olivia deals with the biggest and the most universal themes from her debut EP ‘Ok Love You Bye’ in 2019, right up to her first album. She’s always dealt with primary emotions in the starkest terms. “A barometer is if I wouldn’t say it out loud, then I probably wouldn’t use it as a lyric,” she explains. “I like to base everything in reality. I’m not a great abstract person.” 

One of the things that characterises Olivia now is her self-assuredness on stage. The poise and confidence with which she’s able to perform her heartfelt and powerful songs. A stark contrast to her first experiences performing. “I was very nervous to sing in front of people,” she recalls. “The first time I ever sang in front of people, I had my back to the audience, and I cried and hid behind the piano while singing ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie. I have changed since then because I don’t cry, really,” she laughs. It was the discovery that she could write her own songs, though, that allowed her talent to blossom, and she could trust her instincts. “I seek validation less. If I like it, it’s probably good to go,” she says. “I wrote my first song at 14. I begged my mum for a second-hand piano for my birthday and Christmas combined. It was this ratty, tatty thing. I would sit for hours and hours doing covers, and then I’d be like, let me try to write something for myself, and it was terrible. I’ve just been working on it since then. I think with songwriting, you always feel vulnerable. When you first start writing, you’re not really worrying about anyone hearing it. I don’t think I’ll ever truly get 100% of that back because I know when I write something now someone will probably hear this, even when you’re trying to do something just for you, those are the things you want to share the most. I’ll never really get that naivety back but it’s still an interesting process.” 

When you sign a major record deal at 17 and start selling out shows then yes, people are going to want to hear everything you do. Still, fortunately, Olivia has been able to take things slowly and develop her artistry through the three EPs that have seen her hone and refine her prodigious talents. “I’m very appreciative,” she says. “I think it’s easy for people to think that things happen overnight, but nothing does. It’s just a lie. It takes time and life experience to make something that will last a long time. I’ve always been stubborn that it will take as long as it takes, and when it’s ready, it’s going to be worth it.” 

When it came to making ‘Messy’ Olivia knew that she wanted to create something special. In an age of increasingly fleeting virality, it was important for Olivia to try to craft an album that would have a real legacy in the lineage of some of her musical heroes. “My vision was I just wanted to make something warm that people can come back to,” she explains. “My favourite albums like the ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’ and Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ – they all come back. They are like fuel. When I need them, they’re there. I just wanted to make something like that. I wanted to make something that was a snapshot of me right now but is also a hug for people.” 

“I was obsessed with The Lion King. I loved West Side Story. I loved the romance and the drama”

Olivia Dean

‘Messy’ is an album that shows that taking riskings doesn’t always mean filling your music with the most out-there experimental sounds or crazily oblique lyrics; instead, you can be daring in more insidious and deeper ways. A boldness and clarity of thought inspired by Olivia’s gran, who provided a guiding light and inspiration for the record. The album’s closing track, ‘Carmen’, is named after her grandmother, who travelled to the UK from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation. It features her voice in the intro amongst a warm and idyllic wave of different instruments and sounds. 

“I knew quite early on that I wanted the whole album to be dedicated to her,” says Olivia proudly. “I was thinking about the reason I’m able to be where I am and signed to a label and living in London and making an album like this is that when my granny was 18, four years younger than I am now, she just changed her whole life. She said I’m going to move to the UK; I’ve never been on a plane before. I’m going to come with my little sister, and I’m going to just start again. Her bravery has created this whole other path, and it’s so beautiful. I said there has to be a song for her, and it has to be the closing song. I wanted it to be jubilant and have steel pans and horns. It’s a celebration. It’s all in there.” 

There’s an engaging push and pull throughout the album between that light and shade from euphoria to heartbreak. Two emotions that often go hand in hand with each other. On ‘Messy’, Olivia dives headfirst into this emotional whirlpool, whereas on previous songs, she might have been more restrained. “It may sound cliche, but I love writing about love and my relationship to other people, more specifically just giving over into love,” she says. “I’ve been quite scared of it on previous projects, but this has a more open feeling towards it. I’m also writing about family and anxiety. Nothing crazy. Nothing political. We all go through the same shit, really. We’re all feeling the same things. I just wanted it to feel like that.” 

The contrast in emotions in the album gives it a really vivid quality. From the exultant, joyous horn-infused pop of ‘Dive’ to the haunting and questioning Radioheadesque balladry of ‘Everybody’s Crazy’ with its piercing lyrics like, ‘I’m not as strong as I might appear, I’m way more anxious than I seem’. 

“I always wanted it to be an album in the sense that it was two halves,” she says. “I wanted it to feel varied. I wanted it to be fun. I wanted there to be songs that would be fun to do live and that people could dance to, but also, when you’re living in your bed on your pillow crying, I’m there. There are no rules. You could just play around with stuff. In the second half, I really allowed myself to go there. Especially on a track like ‘Everybody’s Crazy’. That was one take, just piano and vocal on the day we wrote it. I left it how it was. It was fitting with the name of the album. It’s imperfect.” 

Is she apprehensive, though, that the people who fell in love with the graceful beauty of some of her earlier songs might be surprised to hear these stranger, darker tones? “I’m excited, but I hope people aren’t too surprised because what I’m trying to say is I think everyone’s a bit like that. Everyone pretends to be ‘hey!!!’ but really they’re a bit anxious and feeling like I really want to go home. What I’m saying is I’m just like you. We’re all the same. We’re all mental.” 

“I wrote my first song at 14. I begged my mum for a second-hand piano”

Olivia Dean

There’s also a playfulness to the album as Olivia uses the space of a full-length record to engage in some quirkier flights of fancy like the endearing ‘I Could Be A Florist.’  “I’ve always been a singer. I’ve always just sung,” she says of the story behind the song. “I’ve never done anything else. Sometimes I’m like, what if I was a dinner lady or an English teacher? The thought of doing something completely different excites me. I was in the studio talking about this, and I said I reckon I’d be a great florist. As a joke, I sang ‘I can be a florist’, and we wrote it in an hour. I think it’s fun. I love that song.” 

If Olivia actually was a florist, what would be her flower of choice? “I always have tulips on my bedside table. They’re pretty classic,” she smiles. 

There’s no escaping that the album title is something of a pointed reference to her previous project and, indeed, her career so far as she has experienced a series of highs by continuing to thrive even right throughout the pandemic, performing sold-out shows, touring the world and getting to collaborate and work with exciting artists like Loyle Carner and Jordan Rakei. Despite all of this, though, things are never quite what they seem.

“It was almost like, god, I’ve set myself up to fail a little bit because my last project was called ‘Growth’, so people are going to want to know what I’ve grown into,” she laughs. “Where am I? Who am I? Then suddenly I was like, yeah I don’t know. I think ‘Messy’ is a fab title because if people listen to it and say it doesn’t sound cohesive, well, duh? Because it’s not. Well, it is, and it isn’t, but life is just messy, and people are messy, and that’s great. That’s what makes things cool.” 

Once she realised that rather than worry about the imperfections and bumps in the road, she could instead revel in them, the process and how she was going to bring her songs to life became clear. “Those three EPs gave me a lot of experience and the chance to get it wrong. I’ve really figured out how I like to record and who I like to work with,” she explains. “I’ve really fine-tuned the process. By the time it came to record this album, it was simple. I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with, where I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. We just made it. There are no rules. You can just make it and put it out.” 

“It’s easy for people to think that things happen overnight, but nothing does. It’s just a lie”

Olivia Dean

Another key factor in the album’s creation was her band, who have been with her since the start. “I’ve been touring with my band, one of them I’ve been working with since I was 17. We’ve all been working together for two and a half years; of course they need to play on the record. They know the sound and the songs better than anyone else. It’s all been very natural, which I’m really proud of.” 

Olivia is a prolific songwriter who works on instinct and passion. She knows intuitively when a song is really going to touch people. “I wrote a lot of music, and some of it wasn’t very good, some of it was fine, but I knew from the beginning in my eyes that I wanted it to be killer, not filler. If I want to keep listening to it, if there’s something in it that makes me want to go, ok, rewind, play it again, that means that there’s something in there that’s interesting,” she says of her songwriting process. 

Making this album was revelatory for Olivia in many ways. She experienced the moments that all musicians live for; transcendent euphoric moments like when she recorded the ecstatic single ‘Dive’. 

“It’s like being on a fluffy cloud when I sing that song,” she beams. “It was written on a really hot day in East London. I wrote it with these two guys, Max and Bastian who I wrote ‘The Hardest Part’ with and a lot of other songs. We were like, let’s get back in the studio, let’s write another one, and that was the first thing we wrote. The door was open, the sun was coming in and it just came so naturally. That’s how the best ones come. It’s just a love song.” 

A further revelation was discovering different ways to work with her musical palate. “Some of the more stripped-back songs were the hardest to finish,” she confesses. “A song like ‘No Man’ took a long time. When I first wrote that, the production was completely different. It had these pounding drums and really spooky melodies. I learnt that less is more. Just take it away. If it doesn’t need it, take it away. Let the song speak for itself, and everything else is supportive.” 

“We all go through the same shit, really. We’re all feeling the same things”

Olivia Dean

‘Messy’ is an album that fully realises all Olivia’s considerable talents yet also points the way to interesting new directions. “It’s very hard to have perspective on my own music because, to me, it’s just me doing karaoke,” she laughs. “I can’t place myself anywhere, and if I start getting into that, then I’ll get too messed up in it. I don’t want to know.” 

One thing she does know though is the values and qualities she’d like pop to display in 2023. Qualities that shine through in her own music. “It should be exciting and unpredictable,” she says animatedly. “I want to see a return to more organic sounds. I love soul music, and I love live instrumentation. I want to hear more horns and more instrumental moments. I want to hear people being bold. I hope I’m encouraging that with this album because it was just fun. I had fun making it. I want people to have fun making music rather than being calculated in thinking what people will like. The world will be a much more interesting place.” 

On the imminent horizon, though, is the challenge of bringing ‘Messy’ to life on stage. “I’m going to tour the hell out of it,” she laughs. “It’s my dream to expand it even further. I want to have a percussionist and a string section; just keep building it until we can’t fit everybody on the stage. I want people to come and have a really good time, dance, cry and enjoy. “

It’s clear that Olivia is in a very good place right now, but all that joy and vibrancy is hard-won and comes from understanding those simple principles that life might not always go the way you expect it, but it’s important to live in the moment. “The song ‘Messy’ was the last song that I wrote for the record,” she concludes. “That was one of the first songs I’ve ever written to myself. I’ve always written songs to other people, but that was a song I just needed to write to say you don’t really know what you’re doing right now, and that is fine. It’s ok that you’re a bit of a mess. I knew that was the album title then. I’ve got it. It’s done.” ■

Taken from the April 2023 edition of Dork. Olivia Dean’s album ‘Messy’ is out 30th June.