No Messing: Olivia Dean & her teams talk debut album and navigating the industry

No Messing: Olivia Dean & her teams talk debut album and navigating the industry

Next month, the arrival of Olivia Dean’s debut album will come as a watershed moment in a compelling British breakthrough story. Ahead of the release of the genre-blending Messy, Music Week meets the London artist, alongside EMI’s Rebecca Allen and Yo&Co’s Emily Braham, to talk categorisation, destroying the industry “boys’ club” and the value of playing the long game…


Looking at Olivia Dean, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she has it all figured out. 

Heading into the release of her debut album Messy (out June 30 via EMI) she appears every inch a pop star about to break, with more than two million monthly Spotify listeners, 1.7m TikTok likes and a growing array of heartfelt hits in waiting. Glowingly covered in the press from The Sunday Times to Gal-Dem, she’s also a brand ambassador for Chanel and appeared at Paris Fashion Week swathed in its signature tweed and pearls alongside French supermodel Caroline de Maigret. 

And yet, according to the 24-year-old, things are not always as they seem.

“Look, I think I am flawed,” she begins, talking to Music Week from her South East London bedroom. “I am an anxious person, as I think everybody is these days. For my generation and those slightly younger, I hope we discover that everything is not what meets the eye. Life isn’t this perfect thing that we sometimes paint it as. Seeing everything [appear] perfect can make you feel really, really shit about your own life, I feel that sometimes. I hate that so much for all of us. I hope that people listening to my album will realise that we’re all imperfect.”

Rebecca Allen, co-president of Dean’s label EMI, says that Dean’s candour sets her apart.

“Olivia is a very honest artist,” she says. “There’s something so caring and kind and thoughtful about her.” 

Today, Dean is sitting cross-legged on her bed, hair back, headphones in. There is a Chanel poster stuck to the wall behind her. Is that you, we ask, the perfect girl in the image? 

“Oh my God, it is not!” she says. “I’ve had this for quite a while, before I had anything to do with Chanel. I just liked it. But then I ended up wearing the same outfit and sitting on the same sofa as the model, which I couldn’t quite believe. I like to keep it on my wall as a reminder that you can do anything.” 

She moves the camera to show something that is of equal importance to her, tacked above it. It’s a humorous cartoon postcard with the caption, ‘Dogs move in mysterious ways’. 

Her album – which peeks behind the idea of perfection – is appropriately called Messy. The starting point, she says, was visiting the Life Between Islands exhibition at London’s Tate Britain. The show opened in December 2021 and used art to explore the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain, from the 1950s until the present day. 

“For a long time the album was going to be called Islands,” says Dean, whose mother is Jamaican-Guyanese. “I felt very seen, [through] that cross-pollination with the Windrush generation and Britain. Because I feel very British and I feel very much from East London, but also kind of not. And then I started looking into the imperfections and the beauty in the crossover of things. I wanted the album to feel really accepting and warm.” 

There is a great deal of warmth to Messy, both lyrically and sonically. Dangerously Easy is a generous address to an ex, the bright, effortless I Could Be A Florist would have been a perfect fit on the soundtrack to hit South London rom-com Rye Lane, while the title-track features Dean making hand-trumpet noises, a placeholder sound that stayed on the final cut and that adds a lo-fi charm.  

“I wanted the messiness to apply to genre too,” explains Dean. “There are some Motown moments and some indie inflections and it reflects me feeling extremely messy as a person. It’s not very clear cut, it’s about one thing and it’s about lots of things.” 

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The mix of genres was far more than a creative accident, rather it functions as a message to the music industry at large. 

“It’s a massive fuck you to genre,” the singer explains. “And it’s a massive fuck you to… Well, I haven’t actually spoken about this very much, but a good friend of mine, Rachel Chinouriri, wrote a big post [online] last year that was essentially saying, ‘I make indie music, even though I’m a Black girl. Listen with your ears, there’s no R&B here.’ I just thought that was so powerful.”

Dean says that misclassification is a significant problem, citing Messy’s first single UFO – which debuted as Clara Amfo’s Hottest Record on BBC Radio 1 in January – as an example.

“The same thing does happen to me,” she says. “UFO has an Imogen Heap vibe and there’s no drums on it, so where’s the rhythm? It’s vocoder and guitar and it made the cover of a UK R&B playlist for a streaming platform. I was furious, because if I was white, you wouldn’t say that. I did struggle, at the beginning of this process, with the fact that some people wanted me to make more ‘urban’ music, whatever that means. And it just didn’t come naturally to me. I love lots of different kinds of music, as most people do.”

“It’s a misconception we’ve come up against a lot,” says Emily Braham of Yo&Co, Dean’s manager from the beginning. “Olivia gets compared to other Black or mixed-race artists when there’s no similarity in genre or sonically.” 

Dean grew up in North East London (“It’s actually Highams Park, but no one has heard of Highams Park, so everyone ended up saying Walthamstow, which is close enough I guess”). At first she attended school locally, describing herself as “that girl who always wanted to sing in assembly”, but later transferred to The BRIT School, sleeping through her long commute across London and revelling in the school’s atmosphere. Her mother, Christine, was a family law barrister before becoming the deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party. 

“She has a drive like no other,” Dean says. “She’s one of those people who will decide she wants to do something and then do it to the highest level. She wanted to get into politics, thought about Labour but then found the Women’s Equality Party, got involved, attended a meeting and then the next thing you know she’s the bloody deputy! It’s so inspiring and we’re very aligned in our beliefs.” 

Family is a big part of Messy, which closes with Carmen, a song about Dean’s grandmother who emigrated to Britain from the Caribbean. It’s the track she’s most proud of, she says, “and I still can’t listen to it without getting teary, so we’ll see how it is when I do it live.” 

Indeed, Dean and her grandmother shared a bedroom when Dean was a child. 

“I really admire her,” she says. “I have so much gratitude in my heart for her. I wouldn’t be here without her. There are lyrics in that song I’m really proud of. There’s the image of transplanting a family tree, which she did, and now I’m here and I’m carrying the seeds and sowing them. I’m really proud of that as a metaphor because although it’s very specific to me, it’s also a relatable thing for other people because we’ve all got grannies and we’re all carrying our granny’s legacy.” 

Her grandmother hasn’t heard the song yet; Dean plans to wait until she has vinyl copies of the record to play it to her. 

“Then I can sit with her and explain [the song] and show her the physical record, because she doesn’t give a shit about a file on my phone,” she says. “I think it will be more meaningful for her in physical form.”

Do you think she will cry? Will your mum cry?

“I don’t know… I mean, I’m not really a crier. I’m a private crier. And I think maybe they are too.”

Olivia Dean’s music industry journey started before she left school. Emily Braham was watching a BRIT School showcase and felt that the teenage Dean was the artist who stood out most from the crowd. 

“It was kind of like love at first sight,” says Braham. “She walked out and told this terrible joke while the drum kit was being set up. And then sang this original song that she had learned to play the timbales specifically for. She was instantly captivating. Back then, I couldn’t get directly in touch with her because she was 17, so the school had to ask her if she’d like to get in touch with me. We met for coffee and instantly connected because we have a similar ethos and ambition.”

Compared with the trajectory of many young artists, Olivia Dean’s has been a relatively slow burn. She has been working with Braham for seven years and her first single, Reason To Stay, came out in 2018. In 2019, she released the EP Ok Love You Bye with AMF Records, which was then part of EMI. 

“I’m still proud of that,” she says. “I don’t look back and cringe… I can hear a correlation between the title track and Carmen. Carmen is the aunty to that song, but she’s so much more developed and rich and more deeply emotional, but I was exploring that sort of sound palette. You’ve got to try things out. Sometimes you’ve got to let the tap run a bit dirty before it goes clear.”

Her early live experience came from touring with Rudimental as a backing vocalist in 2017, a plan devised by Braham to help Dean gain experience on the road as a performer. The band have described Dean as “our little sister”. 

“It was a crazy time,” she says. “I was fresh out of college and hadn’t really played in front of other people, but it was lovely.”

This year should be the point when the various strands of Dean’s career come together to propel her into the mainstream. 

“I want to be accessible,” she says. “I want my music to be understood and to reach people.” 

Braham says this ambition has been there since they first met. 

“She told me she’d like to make an album, play Glastonbury and be on Later... With Jools Holland,” she says. “And this year will be when she completes all those dreams.” 

The mood is positive inside EMI too. Rebecca Allen has been looking forward to releasing Messy ever since her appointment in the summer of 2020. 

“Because of the pandemic, I started getting to know people by doing individual Zoom calls,” she says. “And when I asked which artist people were most excited about, Olivia’s name came up again and again. I’m so proud we’re putting this album out. It feels emotional, because we’ve seen the journey this young woman has gone on, both in her career and personally.” 

‘The journey’ is a popular concept in music these days, but for Olivia Dean, the word carries genuine meaning, and she is glad she waited until now to make an album. 

“I could have probably pieced one together,” she says. “I write a lot of songs, although some of them are terrible. I don’t think you should make an album just for the sake of it, because who cares? I wanted to wait until I had something worth singing about.” 

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For all her avowed messiness, Dean is clear about what she feels works for her. She’s an artist who feels truly at home on stage, but has a distinct dislike of social media. 

“I’m a pretty old soul,” she says. “I like live gigs, I like doing stuff with bands and I don’t like TikTok. I would never post a video of me talking into my phone because it creeps me the hell out.”

During the pandemic, this presented a problem for an artist who was just starting make in-roads in the industry. 

“I kept saying to Emily, ‘I don’t want to be an influencer,’” says Dean. 

That meant the team had to put their heads together to find another way.

“We had to really think about strategy and have Olivia think about that too,” says Allen. “And she did lean into social media, but it came from a very live perspective.”

The solution, in the end, was what Dean and her team now refer to as ‘the yellow truck tour’. Dean travelled the UK, sponsored by the shoe brand Clarks, playing socially-distanced gigs for whoever happened to be around from the back of a bright yellow truck with her name painted on the side. 

“We drove to Cornwall and played for 10 people in a beach bar, we drove to Somerset and played for three people in a prawn restaurant,” says Dean. “It was fun, I hadn’t actually seen much of the UK, I’d never been to Manchester, for example. It was a weird time, but what we were doing was cool.” 

It was a win for audiences who were hungry for diversions during lockdown.

“It was a fantastic content idea for her and we built audiences through that,” says Allen, adding that EMI has kept to a similar strategy since. 

“Recently, there was a clip from Brazil with just Olivia and a guitar on a balcony, we also filmed her at The Jazz Cafe in Camden and a clip of her singing The Hardest Part went viral. We knew there was something about the in-person moments with Olivia that we had to capture to drive social growth, and it worked.” 

Allen says that engagement was so great that, last year, Dean only released one track and sold out Koko and The Roundhouse. 

“She was building this audience by putting out very little, but it was quality content,” Allen says. “Her streams and social growth kept going up, The Hardest Part [Dean’s biggest track on Spotify with 36 million streams] was the hardest working asset ever. What that one piece of music did for Olivia was phenomenal.”

Dean’s preference for an old-school approach also showed up in the making of her album. She chose to work on it with just one other person, musician and producer Matt Hales. 

“From a young age, I’ve had it in my head that this is how you make an album, you write the songs, find a producer, get a band and then record it,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it over email with people in America and all that stuff. I thought, ‘Who could it be?’ but it obviously had to be Matt. We work really well together and I’ve learned a lot from him. So I said, ‘Matt’s doing it, guys.’ I’m very stubborn. No one could tell me otherwise.” 

“We’ve never forced her to work with anybody,” says Allen. “And, in fairness to Olivia, she would always push back on things that we suggested that didn’t feel authentic to her. So we allowed her to be herself, gave her time and patience to discover who she is, to experiment and write and create. She wanted to make this album and we allowed her the space to do that.”

Dean worked at Hales’ studio in Bath, staying in a Travelodge. 

“It was Travelodge, sleep, go to his place, write,” says Dean. “No sightseeing, very professional.” 

She hopes this approach, combined with her steady ascent, will result in an album that stands the test of time. 

“I want it to be good fuel, like good bread or muesli,” she smiles. “I don’t want to be a Tangfastic and fizzle and be sexy for a second and then go away. I think about albums like Carole King’s Tapestry, or The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill – and I’m not comparing my record to those fantastic records – but the way that you come back to them, and they’re just there for you. I would love my music to be that for people.”

EMI takes a similar view, with Allen emphasising that the label sees Dean as a career artist. 

“This is an important album, but it’s certainly not the last album she will ever do,” says Allen. “Allowing Olivia to grow, develop and explore is going to be a theme that continues through her career with us. She is going to be around for a very long time.” 

Manager Braham echoes that sentiment.

“I think it’s really important to build an artist fully, build a dedicated and substantial fanbase and have a consistent high level of output,” she says. “Instead of having one big break, it’s about building a really good business and catalogue of music.”

Dean is also supported by Jordan Jay, the A&R who originally signed her. Their working relationship paused when AMF Records left the EMI stable and Dean was moved to the main EMI label. Jay, who now runs Karma Artists Management, is on board as a consultant A&R, which has made Dean very happy. 

“I love Jordan, and I’m really proud of the record we’ve made together, he’s been so helpful,” she says. “Then there’s Jo [Charrington, EMI co-president] and Becky [Allen], two women at the head of the label. So, thank you very much, that’s cool, that’s a godsend.”

Dean clearly appreciates all of the people around her and views projects like Universal Music Group’s scheme to get more women into A&R as a positive and a chance to break down the industry “boys’ club”. 

“I would love to see it,” she says. “But also, just men that aren’t weird. I don’t even think it’s about them being women. I mean, I love working with women and the majority of my team are women, but if the men just aren’t weird then we’ll be fine.” 

Moreover, Dean has plans to change the business herself. 

“I personally have just decided to build my own club,” she says. “I have a lot of amazing women that I work with, and some amazing men too. But the men I’m referring to when I say boys’ club, I think we all know what I mean. There are the people in the industry that are cool and have integrity and actually care about music, so we’ve got to wait for these other people to get fired. Then when we hire people, they’ll be really cool and respectful and won’t say inappropriate things that are ‘just jokes’, but it’s not a joke.”

As her streaming numbers rise, the bookings line up and the international markets start to pay attention, it’s clear that the team around Olivia Dean take her very seriously. But before the campaign reaches fever pitch, she reveals that any precious downtime will be spent knitting, to keep her hands and brain occupied, and riding her electric bike around her home city. 

“I’ve become that person who has a speaker attached to their bike,” she smiles as we say goodbye. “It’s not too loud and I reckon you’d be lucky to pass me, because I’m playing really good music.”

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