BBC Sound Of 2024: How embracing chaos made Olivia Dean a breakout star

Olivia Dean
Image caption,Olivia Dean takes second place in BBC Radio 1’s prestigious Sound Of 2024 list

By Mark Savage

BBC Music Correspondent

Olivia Dean forced herself to embrace chaos.

By nature, the 24-year-old Brit School graduate is a perfectionist. Her guiding principle: “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”

As an aspiring musician, that approach paid off.

Her throwback pop-soul sound and pillowy, jazz-toned vocals were so compelling that she sold out a European tour, gained two million Spotify followers and became a Chanel ambassador before she’d even released an album.

Then, she started to worry she’d set the bar too high.

“When it came to my debut album, I put real pressure on myself for it to be brilliant,” she says.

“It was so crippling. I couldn’t write anything unless it was perfect.

“It was only when I allowed myself to relax and be messy that I started making good things.”

Letting go became a theme of the album: letting go of expectations, of uncertainty, of youthful heartbreak. Dean stretched herself as a songwriter, putting a modern spin on Motown in Dive; and creating an atmosphere of alien disconnection on the heavily-vocodered UFO.

Released on the same weekend she made her Glastonbury debut, it went on to be nominated for the Mercury Prize.

Now, the 24-year-old has been named runner-up in BBC Radio 1’s Sound Of 2024.

“It’s bizarre to me,” she says. “When I try to process this year, I’m aware that I made an album that I love, but all the other stuff? I dreamt about being nominated for a Mercury Prize, I dreamt of being on the Sound Of poll.

“It’s bizarre. It’s bizarre. That’s the only word.”

Olivia Dean
Image caption,The singer’s debut album, Messy, was nominated for the 2023 Mercury Prize

Born and raised in Highams Park, north-east London, Dean knew she wanted to be a singer from an early age.

From a distance, she’d watched her cousin – So Solid Crew rapper and actor Ashley Walters – top the charts; but it was another Londoner who really inspired her.

“People always try and say something cool when they talk about their first record – but I remember my Granny taking me to Woolworths to buy Leona Lewis’s A Moment Like This on CD single,” she says.

“My head was really in that pop space, I was listening to Leona and JLS and loving it.”

Short presentational grey line

In the meantime, her dad was introducing her to Carole King and Al Green while her mum, a barrister, was playing Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Lauryn Hill (from whom Olivia gets her middle name).

Music may have filled the house but musical talent was not a family trait.

“My mum actually got kicked out of her school choir because she was so bad at it,” laughs Dean.

“They were like, ‘Christine, you’re sinking the ship, you have to leave’. And to be honest, I couldn’t always sing. I got a little bit of pitchiness from my mum. I definitely had lessons.”

What she did inherit from her mum was drive. Dean’s school wasn’t big on music, but she would insist on singing Alicia Keys during assembly until “everyone started getting tired of me”.

Then she enrolled in a Saturday school, learning musical theatre and drama, and experiencing her first bout of stage fright.

“I sang Tomorrow from Annie in a competition, and I was so nervous that I had to place my back to the audience,” she recalls.

“The pianist was just like, ‘Turn around, you can do this’. So I spun around and faced everyone, singing Tomorrow with tears streaming down my face. But it must have worked, because I took second place!”

Olivia Dean
Image caption,The 24-year-old says her ultimate ambition is to headline Glastonbury

Aged 15, Dean won a place at the Brit School, determinedly making a three-hour round trip to her classes every day. “I wanted to go there like hell or high water,” she says.

With Machiavellian cunning, she enrolled on the theatre course, having deduced she didn’t have the correct qualifications to study music. But once she’d completed a couple of terms, she switched disciplines and started writing songs for homework, on a second-hand piano she’d begged her mum to buy.

“You don’t start with the good ones, I’ll tell you that,” she confesses.

“The tap has to run brown before it runs clear. I just can’t express enough that I’ve written a lot of bad songs.”

Still, by the time she performed her graduation concert, she’d written enough “good ones” to attract the attention of a manager.

“The only problem was she couldn’t get my email address because you weren’t allowed to message minors.”

Once they connected, Emily Braham (who still manages Dean today) put her forward for an audition with Rudimental. To her surprise, she passed.

Her first show was in front of 16,000 people at the Sziget Festival in Budapest; and she featured on the band’s 2019 single, Adrenaline.

That year, she also released her own song, Reason to Stay, a warm and soulful introduction to her heartsick love ballads.

An EP quickly followed, recorded in a converted east London pub but, crucially, using live instruments instead of samples and synthesizers.

The title track, OK Love You Bye, was streamed millions of times, landing the singer a deal with EMI Records. Over the next three years, she charted her development – as a songwriter and as a woman – through her music.

“Some people keep diaries, but songs are more concise,” she says, “and over that period, I grew from an infatuated, hopeless, heartbroken girl, to someone who’s really empowered”.

She highlights two songs, Be My Own Boyfriend and The Hardest Part, as being particularly important. The latter witnesses her dumping a boyfriend who can’t handle her growing independence.

Your opinions would define me / This time, I made some for myself,” she sings. “You had the chance to love me, but apparently you won’t.”

“I really found myself in that time,” she says. “Ever since, I’ve been like, ‘I’m an important, grown woman’, and I won’t let people take advantage.

“I want to inject that into other people’s lives, to remind them they don’t need somebody else to exist.”

Olivia Dean
Image caption,The star begins a European tour in May, including three nights at London’s Hammermsith Apollo

Female empowerment and independence have been well-worn themes in pop ever since TLC adopted their staunch anti-Scrub stance in 1999.

But Dean’s messages are more complex and human.

On the recent single Ladies Room, she marries a vintage soul beat to a thoroughly contemporary idea – that people need time and space to themselves, even when they’re in a couple.

And her breakout radio hit, Dive, captures the nervous excitement of plunging into a new relationship.

“I was in love!” she exclaims. “I was happy, I’d had an Aretha resurgence, and I just wanted to write something joyful and fluffy.

“It’s a very happy song for me to sing. I have a lot of sad songs, so it’s nice to end shows on a high.”

On another note, her album closer, Carmen, is a Soca-infused tribute to her grandmother – who moved to the UK from Guyana as part of the Windrush generation.

“She was 18 when she came to London, and I was like, ‘What the hell was I doing at 18?’

“I certainly wasn’t travelling across the world, completely up-ending my life, working two jobs and having four kids, you know?

“She’s a reminder of how lucky I am to be here. I say it at every show, I’m a product of her bravery.”

Growing up mixed-race in east London, Dean says she “felt quite ‘other'” for a lot of her childhood.

But as a musician, the melting pot of influences and cultures made her comfortable in multiple genres.

At first, she says, that was confusing.

“You think there are rules about what you’re supposed to make. I love singer-songwriters like Laura Marling, but am I supposed to make R&B?

“Then I realised, I can do all of those things. I can do whatever I want.”

The industry still hasn’t caught up with that idea, however, and Dean was dismayed when a streaming service put her alt-pop ballad UFO on the cover of its R&B playlist.

“I was asked to post about it and I said, ‘I absolutely will not! Perhaps I have other songs that sit in that lane, but there is nothing R&B about UFO, and I won’t allow it to be categorised in that way’.”

Olivia Dean
Image caption,Dean is also expected to receive nominations for the 2024 Brit Awards later this month

As she matures, Dean has become more comfortable with “not sitting” in one predefined corner of the music industry. In fact, she reckons that might even be her superpower.

“I feel like I could do anything. I could springboard from any of the musical touch-points on my album and do something completely new.

“Whatever it is, who cares?”

You get the sense Dean’s story is only just beginning. But she has a goal in sight, and it’s a pretty lofty one.

“For me, the endpoint is headlining Glastonbury. It’s always been that.”

Pyramid Stage – you have been warned.

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