Australia has a new favourite voice to sing along with. Sydney’s Dean Lewis shares the story of his debut album, A Place We Knew, as well as the evolution of his live performance and the challenge of competing against himself in the industry spotlight.
Dean Lewis’ debut album is polished and bursting with emotion. Powerful stories of love, heartbreak and rebuilding flow between each of the 12 songs, prompting many listeners to wonder if music’s newest ‘nice guy’ is doing alright… “People expect these songs to mean that I’m a sad person” Dean reveals, “I always say, you can write an entire album from one experience. Everything’s good!” He sounds convinced, and of course I believe him. “I’m actually quite a happy guy… my life’s good right now, life’s great!”
Over the last five years, Dean has written, recorded, performed and work-shopped his songs countless times, ensuring that his debut record would be as real and honest as possible. “I’ve been re-recording and working on stuff for a long period of time. I’m always changing stuff, and I also know when something sounds right and it’s okay. For ‘Waves’, it’s about the excitement of youth and I don’t know if you can get that feeling back – I’ve got to come to terms with that. Some songs I have more understanding of at a certain time.”
Originally released in 2016 as the lead single from his first EP, Same Kind of Different, ‘Waves’ was the song that pushed Dean into the public eye. “I knew [‘Waves’] was a good song. I remember I got the train home and I called my manager…” he recalls, “I’d recorded a voice memo in front of the speakers in the studio, so I was on the train home and I was listening to that shitty voice memo and I thought ‘this feels kind of different, kind of interesting’ and it felt really good. I’ve felt that way about a few songs, one was ‘Be Alright’, one was ‘Stay Awake’ and I feel really confident about ‘Hold Of Me’ too. That’s probably my favourite song.”
Writing an album based almost entirely on personal experiences is not an easy task, but it’s one that Dean has approached with a surge of confidence and complete vulnerability. “The song ‘Be Alright’ was based on messages I’d seen on my phone, and a bunch of other things my family had told me. That was actually my older brother, who said ‘you’ll be alright’.”
The record closes with ‘Half A Man’ – in my opinion, Dean’s most raw, heart-wrenching track from A Place We Knew. It’s a cry of desperation; a period of pain captured within the space of a few warming piano chords and a few short minutes. “I wrote [‘Half A Man’] when I was writing songs for other people… It was the song that got me a record deal,” Dean tells me, “I held onto it despite everyone saying I should get rid of it. I thought [the end of the album] was the perfect place to put it; if I didn’t put it there I wouldn’t have put it anywhere to be honest.” Despite feeling confident in his songs and their success, Dean faces new kinds of challenges about this release. “I’m kind of scared about that song because I wrote it four years ago; I wrote it about not feeling good enough. It was a different time then and I don’t feel the same any more. I also don’t want to be the ‘piano guy’, I don’t want to be the ‘ballad guy’. There’s so much noise out there, there’s so many incredible voices doing ballads, [there’s] no way on earth could I stand out doing that, or getting the sound out there that would let me achieve what I wanted to achieve. But I think it’s going to be a fan favourite that one.”
With leading singles such as ‘Be Alright’ reaching half a billion streams worldwide, gaining hundreds of thousands of social media followers, claiming US TV spots on Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel and TODAY, as well as being named as America’s most Shazamed artist of 2018 – all in less than two years – it’s a wonder how Dean Lewis keeps himself grounded. “I guess I don’t feel like I’m there yet. I know people have achieved so much more than me… It’s sort of hard to stop and go ‘I’ve achieved that’. “I really struggle to appreciate things because I feel constantly like it’s all about to end, so I keep thinking ‘Ok, what’s the very next thing I need to do?’ I constantly feel like I’m just juggling stuff to make everything stay together.”
Although he’s too humble to accept it yet, Dean has found incredible success; and at the heart of that success, there’s a fire burning for personal growth and competition. “I’m very very ambitious, I’m very competitive – not with anyone in particular, but now with myself a little bit,” he admits, “I always set goals, I write down what I want to achieve with a song. Usually it’s that I want to play bigger venues. I want the songs to do well, I want them to be streamed and added to radio, but these are goals that I’ve set after. I don’t go ‘I’m going to write a song that is going to appeal to this kind of person’. I’m never thinking about that, it’s kind of selfish. I’m thinking ‘what sounds really good to me?’ and ‘what’s real to me?’”
In addition to Dean’s own self-discovery, surrounding himself with supportive people has definitely made an impact on his musical journey so far. Encouraging open communication and being honest with one another has allowed them all to work harder and smarter, together. “I think that’s important, for me and my whole team, so we all have a vision of what I think [the music] is going to do and where I want it to go, so we’re all aligned. I think if I wasn’t like that, we’d just be kind of floating a little bit. We don’t take a day off, we keep going and going, it’s all building and it’s really exciting.”
Perhaps the most exciting part of being a musician is receiving direct support from the fans. Not only are Dean’s fans already loving every track from A Place We Knew, but they’re already showing incredible support at his live shows. “You know a song is good when they’re singing the words by the third time they’ve heard the chorus,” he laughs, “‘7 Minutes’ has been going crazy live! I love playing that one because it’s got this soaring chorus; it gets really really exciting. [The crowds] are all really into it, it’s been fun to play.” He continues, “[the live show] used to be just my piano and my guitar. I said I wanted my songs to be bigger – I play with a full band now, I can bring a full band on the road and play these songs how I record them and how I wanted them to sound. That’s been awesome. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better playing live. I’m not a natural performer and I’m still a little awkward and uncomfortable playing live, but I’m getting much better at it.”
When & Where:
The Forum, Melbourne (SOLD OUT) – Friday May 17
The Forum, Melbourne (SOLD OUT) – Saturday May 18
The Forum, Melbourne (NEW SHOW) – Sunday May 19
Tickets on sale for the new show April 12 1PM AEST.
Written by Zach Edwards