“Just because I look the way I look, please do not tell me I make R&B”: In conversation with Olivia Dean
Interview conducted by Tapasya Sahu
Ahead of her sold-out headline show at Gorilla, rising star Olivia Dean speaks to The Mancunion about her upcoming debut album, collaborating with Loyle Carner, and finding her creative identity.
How are you feeling to be in Manchester?
I’m excited. I’m trying not to set my expectations too high, but I get really good vibes off Manchester, and we’ve got the show in a really good space now. The last show I did here was one of my favourites I’ve ever done. We supported Jordan Rakei and it was just insane energy, so I’m hopefully expecting some of that tonight!
What’s it like for you to perform a more intimate gig at a venue like Gorilla?
I love this venue! I’ve played here before. I think intimate venues are the best. I love being on the same level as the crowd instead of being super high up. For me, it’s more exciting. It feels more human to human, less pressure and more just about sharing the music.
Your music does have a very personal feel to it. Would you say that’s also true of your debut album?
Extremely so. In a way, I’ve been working towards this album my whole life. It’s a very interesting process making it, because after my last project Growth, I felt like my album needed to be what I’ve grown into. And what have I grown into?
I realised that I don’t actually have to reach a final destination. I think people are always changing, and this album is kind of a representation of that. I got to a really good point where I felt unrestricted, and I just made it for me. With any kind of art, from the moment you start considering the audience above yourself, you go a bit awry, because you can’t make something for everybody. But I hope people like it, because I really do!
There must have also been a level of pressure, going from EPs to an album, for it to be a really defining project in your career.
Yeah, it’s got to be really good now! It’s got to be the best thing you’ve ever done in your life…which is just preposterous. I remind myself that people like the Bee Gees had like 10 albums before they had a hit- whatever a ‘hit’ is. You don’t have to be the best you’ve ever been on your first album. Would be nice! But who cares- can just make another one if it’s shit!
You recently also featured on Loyle Carner’s album hugo. What was it like working with him?
It was great! It came about quite naturally. We have a mutual friend and I had met him a few times before. I sometimes find it hard with features and collaborations because I’m just me, and I can’t really place myself in a scene. I hadn’t really done it before, but he was just like, “I have a song, do you want to feature on it?”. I went into the studio quite hungover and did a couple takes of it, and I left thinking “I’ve fucked that, they’re not gonna use that.” But they did!
Would you collaborate with him again?
Yeah, if it came about, and if it was the right song. But I’m someone that just really believes in letting things happen naturally. I would never force something. So we’ll see, who knows?
His album deals very openly with themes of identity and race. Do you think your own experiences with identity or your Caribbean heritage are important for you to share through your music?
When I was younger, I think I really struggled with my identity and my music and where the two met, because I felt like I was supposed to make a certain type of music. For example, when ‘UFO’ came out, someone described it as R&B. And I was like, where? Where is the rhythm? There’s no drums on it! If I was white, people would say it sounds like Imogen Heap.
I have sometimes felt quite boxed in in that way, like I have to make ‘urban’ music. I listen to all kinds of things. I love singer-songwriter. I love folk music. I love indie music. So it’s been interesting figuring out where I fit. But I think with this album, I’ve nailed it, because I’ve just gone “I don’t give a shit”. There’s flavours of everything.
The whole album is dedicated to my granny who came over in the Windrush, and there’s one song in particular about her coming over and needing her own celebration. Everyone always celebrates the Queen, but she’s my queen! It’s got steel pan on it and everything.
It’s really valuable that you can provide that representation but not be limited to it, because it can also be frustrating to have to be a spokesperson for your whole community when you’re just trying to make music.
I find it funny, even, every time International Women’s Day comes around, I get people asking if I want to do a piece for them. And it’s like, why only today? Sometimes I feel like the International Women’s Day horse that you wheel out and I just think it’s lazy.
But it is hard sometimes, because it’s all about identity. It’s all about the way I look and feel. And sometimes I don’t want it to have anything to do with that. I just want it to be about me as an individual. It’s confusing.
It reminds me of a couple of years ago when the Grammys had an ‘urban’ category with no white nominees in it, which makes you question what the implications are there.
Yeah, I think there’s a long way to go with that kind of thing. There are some really cool artists, like Rachel Chinouriri who have spoken about that topic a lot before. We’re really good friends; I think she’s amazing. She’s really pioneering that whole conversation, that just because I look the way I look, please do not tell me that I make R&B. So we’ll see what happens with that. Maybe I’ll win R&B album of the year…
Even your two most recent singles, ‘Danger’ and ‘UFO’, are so different. It must be very creatively rewarding to be able to explore different styles and genres within the same project.
At the end of the day, I am the common thread throughout. It’s the storytelling and the lyrics. If one day I’m gonna do a vocoder song with guitar, and then the next day I’m gonna do a reggae song, who cares! There’s no rules with being creative. You can just do whatever you want, and if it makes you feel good then you’re doing something right.
I remind myself of that in every walk of life. I started going to the cinema by myself. And I realised, I can just do that. Or I can go out and have dinner by myself. Some people have this real block in their head, that they don’t want people to think they’re lame or whatever. Nobody cares! There’s no rules. When I figured that out I felt like I’d unlocked life.
Olivia Dean’s debut album Messy is released on Friday 30th June 2023 and is available now for pre-order.