How Olivia Dean became a superstar without releasing an album
Olivia Dean is in her ‘cheeky era’. The mischievous, highly infectious cackle that punctuates our interview proves it. “I think people often perceive me as quite stoic because my music has been very earnest in the past, but I’m a fun-loving girl, I’m super silly,” she says.
We meet at an Italian restaurant just off Old Street roundabout and make small talk about the endlessly infuriating roadworks. She doesn’t wear make-up, her hair is pulled back into a bun and a woolly, lime gilet shrouds her petite frame. Delicate gold hoops swing from her ears as she chomps down on a bowl of rigatoni pasta. She’s one of those people who makes minimal effort but still looks annoyingly cool. Even the way she waves her fork around as she speaks is cool.
Her recent surge of cheeky energy could also be down to a build-up of excitement. This week, she kicked-off the first leg of her sold-out European tour and next week she plays her first London headline gig at KOKO in Camden. “I only put out one song last year so I really wasn’t expecting KOKO to sell out in one minute. I’m like ‘guys, what do you expect me to be doing on the stage?’” she laughs, grinning so widely that four diamond tooth gems flash at me. Her music jumps between devastating heartbreak ballads and sing-along self-love anthems. It allows you to wallow in your post-break-up melancholia but also has the power to pull you out of it and onto better things. Due to her popularity with Londoners and such high demand at KOKO, she decided to add an extra date in the capital, this time at Camden’s Roundhouse — which sold out just as quickly.
And it’s not just Londoners, Chanel is paying attention too —the French luxury brand made the singer an ambassador last year. “If you would have told 16-year-old me that she was going to be an ambassador for Chanel, she would’ve said ‘you’re having a laugh! You?’” — she gestures with her fork so excitedly that it flies from her hand — “that’s what I’m saying! I never really saw myself being in the fashion world, it can feel quite elitist sometimes and a bit pretentious, so to find myself front row at the Chanel show was very interesting. It was a great people watching experience! Everyone was so chic and glamorous, I was starstruck by everyone!” I ask if she struggles with imposter syndrome at these types of events: ‘Oh, all the time. I keep thinking they’re gonna find out that I’m just this random person from east London and I’m not actually the popstar they think I am, just a random girl that lives in Deptford. But they don’t know that yet, so it’s great.’”
But that’s not strictly true. Within the past 12 months, Dean’s reach has grown substantially. She now has close to two million monthly Spotify listeners, is sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week, performed at the British Fashion Awards last December, has sold out her upcoming European tour and has an album on the way.
If you would have told 16-year-old me that she was going to be an ambassador for Chanel, she would’ve said ‘you’re having a laugh! You?’
But with such rapid growth, there must also come new challenges. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not BeyonceÌ being stopped in the street, but sometimes I get worried about not being able to be anonymous, I love going for dinner by myself, I like to be anonymous and alone. So I worry about not being able to do that, but then maybe it’s a small price to pay for doing what you love.”
Dean credits her mother with instilling drive and tenacity within her. Christine Dean became the deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party in June 2020, becoming the first black deputy leader of a political party in Europe. “If she sets her mind to something she will do it. I’m very lucky that I have that in me and can be so driven if I want to be, if I set myself a goal I can’t sleep at night until I’ve done it so I’m grateful she gave that to me. She doesn’t take any s**t.”
Her mother’s work has had a knock-on effect on her politics too, so much so that she only works with women directors for her music videos. “I’m a very strong feminist. It makes me sad when I speak to women who don’t see themselves as a I-can-do-anything type of person. When I started making music videos I got quite fed up with there not being enough women on set, so I wanted to go the extra mile to make sure that not only was there a woman on set, but she’d be the one telling everybody what to do.”
Would she ever consider following in her mum’s footsteps and move into politics? “Ha. No, I am really proud of all the work my mum does, she has been a big inspiration to me throughout my life. [but] I’m gonna leave that to her. I don’t think I’m clever enough, I mean I’m clever, but I’m a bit aloof and a bit of a space cadet, I don’t pay attention for long enough, if I was in the House of Commons I’d just be knitting.’” Knitting, she tells me, is her favourite pastime —along with catching up on Happy Valley and exploring potential career pathways in painting.
Dean has been performing live since she was in primary school, singing Tomorrow from the musical Annie. She grew up in Walthamstow and was raised by an English father and a Jamaican-Guyanese mother, both of whom were such big fans of US hip hop legend Lauryn Hill that they named their daughter Olivia Lauryn Dean. “My mum was a huge Lauryn Hill fan, when I was in her tummy she was listening to her. Her spirit runs within me.”
Dean often cites Hill as one of her greatest influences, along with the likes of Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. She was raised going to gospel choirs and musical theatre classes, and landed her first singing job at just 17 — as a back-up singer for Rudimental, the drum and bass band from Hackney. “I’d just come out of college and my first show was in Budapest in front of 17,000 people. The experience was invaluable,” she says. Did she get frustrated being in the background and not centre stage? “It wasn’t so much that I was jealous, I’m just not a very good back-up singer. There were times where I was supposed to be singing the harmony but I’d think actually I’m just gonna sing the tune, I would just zone out and get lost in it. So I definitely wasn’t very good at it.”
I feel like the London in me seeps into the lyrics sometimes, there’s a realism and a misery that comes with living in London
The following year she released her first single, Reason to Stay, and not long after, her debut EP, Ok, Love You Bye, (the title track remains one of her most popular hits, with more than 17 million streams on Spotify). The lyrics of the song, such as ‘oh well, note to self, four pints in you’re someone else’ are sung with a similar, conversational, London twang as the likes of Kate Nash or Lily Allen — both also from north London, the latter of whom she is often compared to. “I feel like the London in me seeps into the lyrics sometimes, there’s a realism and a misery that comes with living in London.
“It’s funny, I went to Grenada the year before last to work with this artist and she told me that in Grenada it’s hard to write melancholy music because everyone is just so happy all the time. I was like, ‘babe, can’t relate’. People are sad here, but it plays into the music’ I guess.”
Dean recently made the move from north to south-east London. I ask her if she thinks the capital’s north/south divide spills into the music industry too. “I would say so. I wouldn’t say it’s competitive but there’s different pockets. I moved south east for the music, there’s a really great jazz scene — the musicianship is really amazing. South-east London feels like a really exciting place to live. I’m addicted to going to gigs.”
Her obsession with gigs and performing may have something to do with the drought that the pandemic brought with it. Dean’s first festival season was due to be the summer of 2020, aka the first summer of full lockdown restrictions. The year that was meant to kickstart her career ended up drastically slowing it down — but she didn’t let that stop her from performing however, wherever she could. ‘I’m not a TikTok sort of artist. I’m an in-person kind of artist. I hate social media so much so the pandemic was a hard adjustment because it was like you either disappear into the abyss or you reframe how you do things. I wanted to cycle from door to door playing gigs for people, but then the idea snowballed and we thought, “what if we got a van?” and that’s what we did.”
Quite literally, Dean didn’t want to wait to get her show on the road, and so she hired out a bright yellow van and travelled the length of the country performing for whoever would listen, “I got to play these random-ass shows, genuinely for like 10 people at a tidal pool in Margate, or five people in a prawn restaurant - it was so random.” Three years on and she’s being recognised by far more than the 10 people taking a dip off the coast of Margate. Looking ahead, she’s most excited about a pretty major secret gig that will be announced soon, as well as all her upcoming shows, her debut album, and ‘finishing knitting [her] scarf’, obviously.