Olivia Dean On Writing An Anthem For Healthy Relationships

The East London songstress discusses the inspirations behind her third EP release, Growth.

PHOTOGRAPHY Olivia LiFungula

“I like it when real events get captured in a song, like a moment in time that gets to stay there forever,” says 22-year-old Olivia Dean via Zoom. She’s sitting in a stairwell, mid-house move (which, I would argue, is invariably the worst day of every year) and is taking a break to shelter from the rain. It’s a far cry from the glorious sunshine of last summer, which saw the singer-songwriter refuse to let the pandemic spoil her summer festivals debut, instead hosting socially-distanced outdoor gigs in coastal towns and driving across England, in a yellow open-fronted truck, no less.

This summer has already seen Dean return to the stage, selling out both of her highly-anticipated shows at Camden’s Jazz Cafe, where Dean teased new tracks, as well as performing recent singles ‘Be My Own Boyfriend’ and ‘Slowly’. Much like most of her audience, this was Dean’s first in-person gig in a music venue since the pandemic began. “My gig at Jazz Cafe came at the perfect time,” she says, “and it was so overwhelming to hear what’s been in my brain for so long finally in the flesh.”

Now, with the release of her third EP, Growth, last week, we can all hear what’s been cooking up inside her head. Growth is an introspective, heartfelt collection of tracks reflecting on lessons learned over the past year. Chatting to Dean over Zoom on the day of the EP’s release, she says she’s “never felt more confident about putting music out.”

To celebrate the release – besides a trip to her local boozer with her closest friends – Dean shared a video of her Jazz Cafe live performance of ‘Cross My Mind’. It’s one of three unheard tracks included on Growth, with each song tackling a different stage of understanding relationships, sometimes romantic, other times with herself.

“There’s a line in the second verse of ‘Cross My Mind’ that sticks with me, it says, “you say I’m hard to read, but it’s hard for me / I can’t even read myself sometimes.” I was out playing pool on a date and the person I was seeing said, “What are you thinking about right now? You’re quite hard to read,” and I remember thinking, “I don’t even know what I’m thinking about!” she says, tossing her head back as she laughs and shrugging her shoulders.

While the 22-year-old may believe this to be true, her effortless vulnerability both on stage and lyrically suggests this rising star is deeply in tune with both the pain and power that linger following lost love.

From self-love mantras to songwriting techniques and nurturing a healthy relationship with her hair, below, we spoke to Olivia Dean about all the things that inspired Growth.

‘Be My Own Boyfriend’ was a song that I needed and I’m so glad that I have it now for the rest of my life as a mantra.

Olivia Dean

‘Be My Own Boyfriend’

Released as a single in April, post-breakup ballad ‘Be My Own Boyfriend’ is the first track on Dean’s EP and, she says, the inspiration behind it all: “It was the first new song I wrote, and once I had that it inspired the rest of the project and inspired my focus on ‘growth’. Things really shifted for me when I wrote that song – it was a song that I needed and I’m so glad that I have it now for the rest of my life as a mantra, so it feels very special as a piece of self-discovery for me.”

Falling in love again

“I think after my last project and after going through a break-up, I was a bit done with love – it’s time-consuming, and I’m someone who, when I like someone, I get very invested and emotional. It’s very all-encompassing for me, so when I started to write a new project and started to fall in love again, I was thinking about how to write about love in a way that was different to how I’ve previously done it,” she says.

“Sometimes as a songwriter, I think you can feel like you need to have this really tumultuous life and relationships as that’s what will make your music really interesting. People write songs about cheating and bad boys, but I want to have a healthy relationship with myself and the person I’m seeing, but I didn’t want the music to be boring either. So that was also my inspiration, thinking how do I create pieces of music that promote healthy relationships?”

Growth EP artwork shot by Olivia LiFungula.

Her hair

“Running alongside [the theme of falling in love healthily], this past year I’ve been trying to delve into my relationship with my hair,” she explains. “I started therapy at the beginning of this project and my hair was a big thing that we spoke about. I really explored it, and how I’d not been comfortable with my hair in previous relationships, wanting to hide it and thinking it was ugly and that I needed to ‘tame’ it. It can be hard being a Black woman, especially growing up – I grew up in quite a white area and always felt like the odd one out and that my hair wasn’t beautiful, so it was important for me to figure all that out.”

The EP’s cover artwork, shot by frequent collaborator Olivia LiFungula, sees Dean don an intricate floral hair structure. On previous photoshoots, she admits frequently feeling anxious about her hair and whether stylists would have the products or skills required to style her afro-type curls. “Just before [the EP artwork photoshoot] I had had quite an emotional experience because a stylist didn’t know how to do my hair and I was so unhappy, I was crying in the toilets,” she admits. “So when it came to the artwork shoot, I wanted it to be all about my hair, and I knew I wanted it to be growing with flowers coming out of it. I wanted it to feel really alive.”

It was then that she was introduced to hairstylist Shamara Roper, whose roster of celebrity clients includes Joy Crookes, Alewya and Laura Mvula. “Shamara is an actual artist – what she can do with hair is just incredible,” Dean gushes. “Having her, and just as a Black woman on set with me, I felt so supported and I’ve been working with her ever since. Working with her is an intimate experience and I feel lucky to feel so safe and comfortable with her, and it really translates on camera. I wanted the artwork to look strong and confident because that’s what the music is all about.”

It can be hard being a Black woman, especially growing up – I grew up in quite a white area and always felt like the odd one out and that my hair wasn’t beautiful, so it was important for me to figure all that out.

Olivia Dean

New collaborators 

The EP’s second single, ‘Slowly’, was co-written with Matthew Heales, whose writing credentials boast working alongside the likes of Liane La Havas, Paloma Faith and Birdie. “I wanted to work with Matt for ages and we had a day in the diary for about a year and it kept on getting moved around, but we finally found a day, bashed it out and ‘Slowly’ is what we made,” she says. “It’s the quickest I’ve ever written a song and put it out and it was such a good learning experience for me, because it showed me I don’t need to be a perfectionist about everything and sometimes what you’ve done already is good enough.”

In an ideal world, I was going to start writing my album and it was going to be fun and a bit more uptempo, but the world said no! It said no, you’re going to go on your own journey of self-discovery, it’s going to be quite hard and it’s going to be very exposing.

Olivia Dean

Lockdown 

“In an ideal world, originally I was going to start writing my album and it was going to be fun and a bit more uptempo, but the world said no! It said no, you’re going to go on your own journey of self-discovery and it’s going to be quite hard, it’s going to be very exposing and so I wanted the music to reflect that,” she shares. “On the song ‘Float’, the guitar at the start is super ropey, you can hear all the buzzing from the strings, but it was only supposed to be a demo recording. But on reflection, I needed to keep it exactly as it was because it sounded more human, and I want people to feel like they’re in the room [with me] when they’re listening.”

“On ‘Fall Again’ there’s a lyric that says “I haven’t seen you at a party yet / I don’t know how you move,” and it is just a crazy time to fall in love and date because in some ways it’s so intimate and it can feel like it’s fast-forwarded because you’ve spent so much time together, but on the other hand we haven’t even been to a party together or a gig and how we’ll work in those situations,” she says, and laughs. “But I also wanted to make sure I didn’t just sing a boring song about lockdown, because no one wants to listen to that!”

Olivia Dean’s EP Growth is out now. Listen to it on all streaming platforms now, and catch Olivia on tour across the UK here.

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