Future Icons Olivia Dean and Knucks front two special edition digital covers of Notion, in collaboration with Gucci at Flannels. We chat about Olivia about her personal style to being meticulous with her music, and so much more.
Olivia Dean’s just finished making herself a nice carbonara when we speak. “I’m doing alright now, quite full”, she jokes. The mention of the ultimate comfort food sets the mood for the rest of the interview, as Dean happily tells me all about her new break-up inspired EP, ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’ as well as her latest fashion obsessions. Because while pasta carbonara is quintessentially Italian, so is the fashion brand Gucci.
Dean says that her interest in fashion overall is somewhat of a recent development. “I feel like over the past year or so, more than ever I’ve really enjoyed playing with my style and exploring. I’ve just started taking a bit more time with it”, she explains. “I’ve just fallen in love with matching colours, and specifically the seventies patterns. I also love the exaggerated colours and flares”.
Sometimes, Dean wishes she was actually born in the era of Soul Train and The Supremes. “I want the big afros back and the big sunglasses”, she sighs, before excitedly telling me about a book that’s all about The Supremes’ sense of fashion. “My mum and I went shopping a while ago and she got me “Supreme Glamour”- which includes all their looks and details of their dresses – I love the matching things, the coordination and two-pieces”.
Those preferences certainly seem to match perfectly with Gucci’s current collections, which are heavily inspired by the early 70s as well. But it’s not only the aesthetic that she finds appealing, but it’s also the playful attitude towards blending gender norms in fashion – as most recently seen on Gucci posterchild Harry Styles. “I would say I’m quite feminine, but I really enjoy wearing quite masculine things – vests and suits, like I did in the ‘Echo’ video. I like being on both sides with things like this, and I enjoy not being pigeonholed into one particular sense of fashion – I just like playing with it all”, Dean tells me.
There’s more to it than that, though – being able to express herself through both fashion and her hair aren’t just fun; they’re empowering. “I really feel with my hair especially, growing up, it was something I was incredibly insecure about – like, having my natural hair. Growing up in East London, I straightened my hair every day – it was something I felt like I had to do to assimilate and not feel insecure. Recently I’ve thrown all that out of the window and I feel so empowered by my natural hair, so I really hope that other Black girls, mixed race girls – all women, really, can take something from it and follow along”, she adds. “I think being natural and accepting what you have is one of the most beautiful things in the world”.
Most of all, Olivia believes that you have to be bold in life, and just have confidence in whatever it is that you like – regardless of what others may think. In fact, one of her most prized fashion possessions is a constant reminder of exactly that sentiment. She grins as she tells me about a furry, purple coat that’s “almost like a pimp coat”, and how her manager played a pivotal role in her actually trying it on. “When I entered the shop, I remember thinking ‘I could never wear that’. But my manager, she said ‘of course you can, if you love it, you can wear it’. And from then on, I thought, ‘she’s right – I could just wear whatever I want, I can actually do that. There’s no such thing as ‘I could never…’. So I bought the coat, and I love that coat. I wear it all the time as a reminder that I’m way past those misconceptions”.
Similarly, that awakening of self-confidence led her to create the music she wants to create. “Style and music, I think, all sort of come as a package. The moment I stopped worrying about how I should dress or what I should say in my music and how I should have my hair – the more I focused on what I wanted to do. I just needed to decide one day to just forget about the notion of “being cool” and “what should I do today to make cool music or be cool?”. Because it doesn’t matter. Cool is whatever you’re really interested in, and whatever makes you feel good”, she shares passionately. “It all sort of came at once, where I decided that I’m just going to do me. I’m going to wear what I want, and I’m going to make the music I want to make – who cares?”
It doesn’t mean she’s any less of a perfectionist when it comes to her music. In fact, it’s rather the opposite, as Dean tells me that she’s incredibly careful about what she does and doesn’t release. It is all her, after all. “I’m so invested in my music – it’s so personal to me. It really feels like I’m chronicling a time in my life, so I’m very meticulous with details. I want to make sure I’m telling the entire story right”, she pauses. “Whenever I put something out, I always think – one day my grandkids will hear it, and their grandkids will hear it too. So it has to really be what I want to say, and what happened”.
So what exactly did happen, for Dean to write the songs featured on her new EP ‘What Am I Gonna Do on Sundays?’ A break-up that inspired her to explore all the different stages of her journey through processing it. “It’s, in essence, me exploring the emotions you go through when you separate from someone you really care about”. Two of the songs off of the EP are already out – “The Hardest Part” and “Echo”, who sit in the middle of the four-piece. The title track, in particular, feels the most vulnerable to Dean.
“It’s essentially the lowest moment – I think I was feeling a little bit lost, and asking myself that question. What am I gonna do on Sundays now? Who am I gonna spend it with? To me, that’s a sacred day”, she reflects. “You spend it with your family and people you love, and you relax. So I suddenly was wondering – what am I gonna do now? With all this time? I’m gonna have to completely change my perspective of my life, my time and what I want to do”.
It’s not a coincidence that the single artwork included a lot of mirrors. “They represent me reflecting on what’s happened – like I’m having a conversation with myself, I suppose, and asking where are we going now babes, what are we doing here?”
Similarly, in the artwork for recent single “The Hardest Part”, Dean is shown having a somewhat different conversation with her reflection. “It’s me looking at myself, and telling myself that this is the hardest part, but you’re going to get through it and you’re going to be fine”. But it wasn’t until she had these two songs written, that she realized where her work was actually headed. “They felt sort of like a two-piece, like two different ends of the same spectrum – once I had those two, I knew what the project was going to look like. The other two songs, “Out” and “Echo” sort of naturally flopped in between there”.
Even now, months later, it’s one of the cornerstone tracks that she identifies with the most. “It’s hard”, she admits, ‘because all aspects are part of me. But I heard a quote the other day of someone saying progress isn’t linear. When you’re getting over someone – you know, you go back and forth. Some days you feel amazing, and then you go back ten steps and think ‘what have I done’. But I think that’s why my favourite would have to be ‘The Hardest Part’”.
Dean elaborates that “it actually, in my mind, uses a quite positive lens. You’ve done all the growing you need to do with that person and you’ve changed. And sometimes change can be a really good thing, and the hardest part sometimes can be accepting that. So yeah, that’s the most beautiful to me, that one really helped me get through it the most, I think”.
It only further solidifies Dean’s commitment to meticulously crafting the messages that she shares through song. She knows that personal experiences can really be felt universally, and so can messages of hope or simple recognition. “I’m very conscious of that – even though they are personal stories, I feel they still give out a message. I want to be conscious of what I’m putting out into the world and what I’m saying”, she explains as we talk about her song “Echo” in particular and how people relate to it.
It’s one of those tracks that has found a new meaning over time. Dean doesn’t mind when a song comes full circle like that, straying from the initial idea she may have had for it in her head. “When I wrote “Echo”, I was still sort of in this relationship and place in my life. In general, I was feeling quite unheard in my life, and a little lonely.
People find it funny, but I do find it hard to articulate my feelings and I can be quite closed as a person. I think that’s why I like songwriting, I think it gives me an avenue to express certain things. But yeah, I was just feeling really lost and needed some support. So it was a relief to write that song.
But now since it’s come out and everything that’s gone on with Black Lives Matter it’s become so relevant to me again. Plus, with the pandemic as well, people are really looking who their true friends are in their life and who are the ones in their lives that want to support them. I’m so glad it’s sort of taken on a bigger meaning and that people have been relating to it, it’s been so beautiful”.
In a way, it echoes (pun intended) the major role that Solange’s album ‘A Seat at the Table’ played in Olivia Dean’s life. Citing her as not just an inspiration when it comes to fashion, but also music, Dean gushes that the album changed her life when it first was released. “I felt so heard, listening to that. She’s incredible, I still haven’t seen her live. I’m just praying that I can, one day”.
There are some signs that touring may pick up sooner than expected, but for the foreseeable future, Dean is going to plan for more open-air gigs. She already successfully completed a tour over summer, playing songs from a custom yellow van, and is going to bring it back in spring. “I have it now, so I might as well make the most use out of it”, she enthuses. “It’s a self-running venue, and I really want the van to be something everyone can enjoy. The whole ease of it and why I started it, is because I wanted to bring live music back to people. In my mind, I want other artists to play on it and have DJ sets, and go and tour around the UK. I’m thinking to sort of frame it around the two shows that I’ve sold out – I’m doing the Jazz Café, which is insane. So hopefully all around that time I’ll be out and doing gigs”. Dean pauses, clearly daydreaming about the gigs that still await her. “Honestly, I just crave it. It’s my favourite part of what I do. I just love the gigs so much”.
She finds it hard to not be able to perform in physical venues. “People say I’m quite an old soul – I don’t really use Instagram, like, casually”. Dean rushes to say that she uses it for work and to interact with fans, “but I try to stay off of it as much as I can. So doing livestreams, yeah”, she trails off with an uncertain smile. “I mean I like people and I like human connection so I can’t wait to actually be in the same room as well”.
For now, the question playing on her mind and that of millions of others around the world is whether or not she can even be in the same room as her family for Christmas. “I live with friends at the moment. I think for Christmas we can mix with three households so I think I’m going to go back home and be with my parents and my brothers in East London and try to have a nice time”.
Her family isn’t strong on traditions, except for watching movies and listening to music together. One of her favourite Christmas tracks is “Fairytale of New York”. “When I hear that song, it just reminds me of being 16/17, just loads of people in the pub where I grew up, singing along at the top of their lungs – it’s just very visceral to me, that song. It just really feels like Christmas – just like Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”, that one’s beautiful as well”.
Still, Dean will miss out on the chance of celebrating a Caribbean Christmas with her mum’s side of the family due to Covid restrictions. “We play soca and dance around the Christmas tree and get really drunk. It’s my favourite part, but I can’t imagine we’ll get to do that this year”, she tells me.
Perhaps they can continue the tradition over Zoom, or Facetime. If anything, Dean knows all about the power of built-in cameras on phones, as she actually shot her album cover on one. “I went on holiday to Cyprus and had the idea. I was with my manager and in the moment, we thought – let’s do some test images and then shoot the real thing when we get back to London,” she recounts. “So I just laid on the floor, on the pavement in Cyprus, and then we saw the images and realized ‘That’s it! I don’t think we can get it any better than that’. I was so happy with it. I wanted it to feel expansive, and represent that idea of the emptiness without the person. It’s just white, blank now – a canvas waiting to be rewritten. Does that make sense?”
The emptiness is meant to be both scary and exciting all at once. New beginnings, getting to start again – they’re peaceful, but scary moments and Dean’s proud of how they managed to capture it both in song, fashion and album aesthetic.
It’s also the final question she answers. What is Olivia Dean going to do on Sundays? Did she end up discovering that for herself? She smiles and nods decisively. “Yes, I think I have. I think I’m definitely at a place now where I’m over that part of my life. This music was written almost a year ago, so once it’s out I’ll have closed that chapter for sure. And yeah, I’m doing lots of yoga and being kind to myself, and just being super comfortable with my own company”.
“I really believe that you don’t need someone else to complete you. I don’t believe in this idea of an other half. Some people say that everyone’s looking for their other half, but you know – I think you’re whole by yourself. Anyone else that walks into your life is great, but I think that if you’re cool on your own then you can do anything”, she affirms.
“That’s where I am right now, and I’m writing music at the moment with this message, and I can’t wait for people to hear it”.
Check out Olivia Dean and Knucks’ Future Icons campaign with Gucci at Flannels here: www.stylenews.