- Words Elle Evans
- Photography Nico Hernandez
Genre-defying artist on the rise, Jean Dawson, speaks to Notion about all things music, dogs, Anime and more.
Stepping out as one of the most artistic, un-predictable and genre-defying artists in the game as of recently is Jean Dawson. Born in San Diego, raised in Tijuana, and now living in L.A., the rising star is reputable for infusing an assortment of sounds and textures that are reminiscent of a wide collection of genres, which he has now – somehow – manufactured into his own distinct yet intricate style.
Between staring aimlessly at the TV watching Reality Shows with his dogs, downloading tracks onto CD’s, playing video games, and riding his bike, Jean Dawson creates top-notch music that has caught the attention of many. Following on from the October release of his debut album ‘Pixel Bath’, he took a ride down the never-ending road of nostalgia to re-visit his seventeen-year-old self. Pushing both artistic and sonic boundaries, his fearless demeanour, reckless behaviour, and all-round carefree attitude takes centre stage in this 13-track body of art. Having previously been labelled under ‘Alt-Pop’, even Jean himself is still unsure of what his sound is “The best I can describe it as is Pop music from different generations; I’m an artist that is still trying to figure it out!” he explained.
In creating music for the non-conformists, Dawson, along the way has shut down all stereotypes and flourished in what I would refer to as a vibrant, youthful-yet-mature, outlandish dimension filled with the unexpected.
Notion got the chance to catch up with Jean via Zoom and talk all things music, dogs, Anime and more – tap in below to see what he had to say!
This past year has been challenging for many musicians around the world for obvious reasons! How have you been? How have you been navigating your way around these uncertain times?
For me, it’s been prying in specific areas in music. Socially it has been the same for me because I’m not an outside person, I’m a real-life “homebody” so it’s been good! Musically has given me a lot of focus, but again, nothing has necessarily changed for me; I can’t see a lot of my contemporaries and stuff, I guess not being able to do shows has been the most obvious and biggest really!
I’d like to take it back to the beginning with you quickly, for those who aren’t aware could you tell us a bit more about how you were introduced to music? How did your journey begin?
My introduction to music was how I was born; my mother learned English through Rap music and my father used to rap – they met each other just existing or whatever! As I was growing up my fondness for music grew because I spent a lot of time in waiting periods, I had my first CD player when I was 7 or 8 and that’s because I used to cross the border every day to go to school from Mexico to the United States – music became very important to me very early one because it was the only source of entertainment I had when I was standing in line going into another country.
When I started going into eighth grade was the first time I recorded anything with a friend but it didn’t get serious until ninth grade until my friend Red took me under his wing, explained how recording works, how making records worked and it became something that really changed my life drastically when I was young because it occupied my time; it kept me out of trouble, out of the streets and I was able to build something that wasn’t necessarily tangible – it was a lot of that!
That was my introduction to music up until College when I made my first record, I started skipping class because I needed to work on the mix of the record! Even though there was no promise of anyone listening to it, at all actually, it felt more important for me to do that than to focus on my degree in that time. That record came out, it was really accepted, I was happy about it and I’ve just been going on since then.
You just mentioned your CD player – do you still collect CDs?
Yeah! I love physical copies of stuff; I download stuff still because I need it on something physical! I feel like one day something bad will happen and people aren’t going to have access to the internet or something; there are going to be people saying “Yo, I have this CD!” and people will be like “What?!”
I’ve only just started collecting vinyl myself.
The older we get, the more physical representations of our music become more important because they are extensions of us. I have Kanye West’s whole discography on CD for whatever reason; my car does not take a CD player either – I just have it! *laughs*
You’ve previously said that you’re influenced by the likes of Kanye West, Nirvana, Outkast and The Smiths. What was it about these artists in particular that you were drawn to?
A lot of it was to do with the bravado, there was always a drama within the music itself; there are two different sides to the spectrum so with Kanye West it’s very vivacious “I’m here, I’m present, you’re going to notice me I am the brightest light in the room” but rightfully so! It was like “I’m going to make triumphant projects of music in a format where it hasn’t been done before”. It’s like giving an architect the chance to write a song, it will naturally sound crazy because they are using their architect’s brain. With Nirvana, they did such a good job at highlighting the youth without even trying, just being the MP3 to anyone who was 13-26; their influence on me varied because of what they were able to accomplish without even realising that that’s what they were doing. I think Kanye knew exactly what he was doing, Nirvana might have known but I don’t think their intention was to be anything other than a band.
You can tell even looking through your Instagram that you are a very artistic being. You tend to push all artistic boundaries sonically and even through music videos. You definitely challenge the meaning of hyper-masculinity, how important is it for you to step out of what’s considered the ‘norm’?
For a long time when I was younger, I’ve only ever been young; well, whatever the cut off for being “young” is, like most of us we wanted to be liked, to be accepted – well not everybody for the most part – there is that long period where you want to feel socially inept to everybody around you, so your life is a constant juggle of “My friends are wearing this, people are wearing this so I want to wear this” – which I think is natural especially in the human condition because people want to feel a sense of kinship.
I got to my junior year of High School in eleventh grade and I went through a big physical transition because I started to exercise and do a lot of things that were good for me! I was tired of wanting to be something I wasn’t, so I decided to be exactly what I wanted to be. I realised a lot about myself because I spent a lot of time with myself, working out and running – just being on my own. I got accustomed to not being around a lot of people; not in a dark sense like “Ooo, I like being alone” like Batman *laughs* I got to see what I would be as a reflection of me and not as a reflection of anything else. Whatever the stereotypes may have been or could continue to be, I just shut them off; it was a drastic transition to the point where the year I came back to school people thought I was the younger brother of my actual self – I got more quiet, pensive, and started to talk a lot less and think a lot more.
In my everyday life I don’t make an active part to say “I’m not going to be like anybody” because I think when people are different, they’re just different. Challenging what is masculinity and my emotiveness, it became much less of an exercise to be myself than it is to be myself – if that makes any sense?
Sonically, listening through your catalogue it’s very unpredictable and you infuse a variety of sounds into one. I was reading through your past interviews and people tend to box you into ‘Alt-Pop’ but for me, your sound defies all genres. How would you go about describing your sound?
When I’m making music, I think less about genre more so than a feeling because it feels like it belongs together. When I think of my sound as a home, I use genres as rooms within the home; where I live within that home is in the living room where all genres can sit, have their own sections but at the same time they live under one roof; when conversation starts in the living room there is a perspective in each room that comes into play in one way or another. When people ask me what genre I would classify my music as, it’s really hard because I’m not actively thinking about it! The best I can describe it is Pop music from different generations. I’m an artist that is still trying to figure it out! *laughs*
At the latter end of last year, you dropped your debut album ‘Pixel Bath’, tell us a bit more about the thought process behind this body of work? What sparked the title?
The album title is a homage to my best friend Red, he took me from a person that enjoyed music to a person that was making music, and although it may not have been the greatest; it was a clinic, learning how things worked, how music was structured, I got a crash course from someone who I believe has been doing it since sixth or seventh grade.
What sparked a lot of ideas behind the album were memories of when me and him were making music and it felt like nothing else mattered. At a certain point in High School, he was going to change his name to ‘Pixel Bath’ he never went through with it, but when I was making this record, I wanted it to be a reflection of my seventeen-year-old self, so it only felt right as it was so important to that time. I asked him if I could use that as the name and he was super excited. I tried to put everything I was listening to together, not like a weird music sandwich, but it was giving everything its own space to exist at one table and not having to consume everything at once, but in little bits instead.
A lot of the making behind this record was a retrospect which was really fun because I got to sit alone with myself, as always, and figure out the feelings I was feeling when I was seventeen that I didn’t have time to analyse because I was living it. I remember being seventeen and feeling indestructible because for one, you’re naive and two, there’s not a fear of you in the world yet, “I’m young, nothing is going to happen to me and I’m fine” and that feeling is so powerful and scary, now looking back in retrospect I’m like “Yo, I could have died several times” *laughs* – but I didn’t and I’m thankful!
How long did it take to put together?
It took about a year and some change to put the base structure together and then fully hit every mark that I wanted to hit.
I know you’ve previously mentioned that you like to create in an “isolating” way. What is your creative process like? Do you have any mantras or anything, in particular, you like to work to?
Well for one it’s usually night-time when I am making anything, there are less things going on and less concern – people are usually asleep! Since I was younger, my creative process has always been thinking rather than practice and action, so I will come up with an idea and practice it by repeating it over and over again in my head and the action would be trying to execute what’s in my head. That is the funny thing about being an artist, it might sound one way in your head but when you make it into the physical thing, you’re like “Wow, this is horrible!” *laughs*
Gradually, the more I make stuff with other people the less night-time it is becoming, I have been working on stuff earlier on in the day so it’s giving me a new perspective on music. It’s like making songs that are super dark with birds chirping outside – you can’t do that! I was like “I’m going to play with more piano, so let me make this a little brighter and make sure that there is some colour here” – my creative process is dictated by my environment! It’s a lot of failure before success I’ll tell you that much! *laughs*
I’ve read that you’re quite the Anime addict! What is your go-to choice?
I really like Fantasy, Adventure and Comedic stuff! My go-to right now is ‘The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.’, which is based around a Japanese kid that is born with powers, it’s not about him having powers it’s more so about him trying to avoid everybody and live his life under the radar; he’s telepathic so he hears people’s thoughts but can’t turn it off so! He genuinely dislikes most people because he hears what they think and gets hyper-annoyed by most things in life and it’s the funniest thing I have ever seen because it’s really dry yet fast pace, but it’s also meant to be an experience of a kid who is kinda edgy but for a valid reason!
What else do you like to do for fun? I see you are quite the art collector!
Yeah! *shows me his wall*, it goes from paintings to art to all my music stuff! What do I like to do for fun? Hmmm *laughs* I’m like a young person old person, I’m boring but not in the typical sense because the video games I play are Fantasy based so there is a lot of wizards, magic, swords and stuff like that going on. I do like to exercise a lot, I like riding my bike, jump-rope and boxing – a lot of cardio stuff! I like hanging out with my dogs!
What dogs do you have?
I have three babies! An English Bulldog his name is Oz, I have a Doberman called Midnight and my second daughter who is a Frenchie called Mala! I have a house full of dogs, I got them all through quarantine too – you go a little crazy being indoors and think “I have time for three dogs!” *laughs* It’s been the best thing ever, having my own dogs as an adult is funny because you watch them grow a personality because when you’re younger you’re like “Oh, this is my dog, and he does dog things” but now my dog looks at me funny and you can tell what they are saying! Let me just grab one real quick for the sake of introduction! *in enters the cutest puppy in the universe*
Every time I see a dog, I get like that, I just want to touch the dog, but you’re always scared to ask the owner “Can I pet your dog?” now I’m the person who’s like “Yes, absolutely he loves it!” and now I also understand the people who go “Nahhh” *laughs* They’re all around 10 months now!
What else can we expect to see from you this coming year?
More music, more of everything and more me!