It’s a chilly Monday morning as autumn grinds into winter, and a second UK lockdown is looming. But Olivia Dean is raring to go. “I’ve somehow woken up in a good mood, so I’m rolling with it,” smiles the singer, who’s also battling a dodgy wi-fi connection when Music Week calls.
The 21-year-old is counting down the days to the release of her commanding new single Echo, a smooth jazz track she wrote in a time of loneliness. “I was feeling like I was giving support all the time, and when you need it most, no one’s there,” she explains.
Echo was written in anger in 2018 and East Londoner Dean says it’s taken on a new meaning amidst the chaos of 2020. “It wasn’t written about this at the time, but with Black Lives Matter and everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, it feels really relevant,” she says. “It has meaning for me, it’s like, ‘Can we get some support, please? Can someone amplify our voices?’”
Dean’s desire to write timeless yet modern songs stems from her love of Motown’s greats (“I love Diana Ross, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson’s Tracks Of My Tears is one of the best Motown songs ever”). Dean is enamoured not only by the glamour of the era – which she embodies in the video for soulful ballad The Hardest Part – but also the attitude.
“The songwriting is so romantic,” she says. “People [today] are like, ‘I don’t need a man! Love who? Love where? It doesn’t exist!’ [Laughs] But at that time it was, ‘I love you…’. It was all so emotional. Extreme emotion is what I love about the Motown era.”
I’ve grown up a lot, and the music has grown with me
That feeling defines Dean’s upcoming EP What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays? on which she deals with the lows of love. “I’d say it’s a break-up EP and is a little darker than my older music,” Dean says.
Her 2018 debut single Reason To Stay and 2019 EP OK Love You Bye have around four million Spotify streams collectively, but Dean is ready to take her sound into a new era. “I’ve grown up a lot, and the music has grown with me,” she says. “I’m so proud of it. The songs that haven’t come out yet are the best I’ve written in my life.”
The new music is coming via AMF and Dean is content with life on the label. “Sometimes labels can be quite scary, but they’re so supportive and aren’t breathing down my neck like, ‘You need to do this’,” she says. “We have a really good working relationship and I’m so excited for all the things we have planned.”
If Dean seems comfortable talking about the music business, it’s because she started young. While studying at the BRIT school, she met her manager, Emily Braham, who pushed her to audition to be Rudimental’s backing singer. Soon enough she was on the road, touring the world at 18 years old. “The first thing we did was Sziget Festival in Budapest, there were thousands of people and I remember walking out like, ‘How did I get here?’” Dean recalls. “It gave me so much experience and I’m so grateful.”
When plans to hit the festivals under her own name this year were shelved, Dean made the best of the summer, touring the country in a van kitted out with a stage. “I’d never been to Cornwall, Leeds or all these places,” she smiles. “It was so fun and I met so many random people! I feel very lucky I was able to do that.”
While 2021 remains an uncertain prospect, Dean is determined to blossom even further, with two nights in April at The Jazz Cafe in London already sold out. And that’s not all she’s got up her sleeve.
“I have a few things from when I was little, that if you do them, it means you’re a true artist,” she finishes. “I’d love to do Jools Holland and I’d love to play Glastonbury… Even if it’s just in a ditch somewhere!”
PHOTO: Fil Mawi