Dean Lewis on Writing Personal Songs That Reach Millions
Fresh off the release of his sophomore album "The Hardest Love," the Australian artist reflects on the biggest moments, both past, present, and to come, of his storied journey.
There's a particular moment that Dean Lewis can trace back to the beginning. It took place a few years back, not too long after the artist's debut EP had made waves, and a follow up first album was continuing that momentum. Dean committed to a small yet serious gig at a bar, where he'd expected a crowd with the sole intention of listening to his performance. After all, songs like "Be Alright" and "Half a Man" were playing on radio stations across the world and garnering streams with ease. But instead of marking an inspiring starting point, the gig has only offered Dean contrast.
"Turns out no one was listening. I played for 20-25 minutes while everyone was talking so loud. [...] Going from that to upgrading my show in Cologne to 10,000 people is crazy. I sold out the Margaret Court Arena in Australia, and I’m doing these crazy shows and festivals," Dean said, reflecting on the last few years.
The most fascinating thing about our conversation was listening to Dean make sense of his experiences, and in turn granting even more meaning to his already profound body of work. He journeyed down his own past as an emerging artist who was deliberately crafting an identity, and then shifted to a more vulnerable conversation about his dad's illness and how music has been an outlet to cope with those heavy feelings. As I listened to Dean unravel his process, I realized that he single-handedly has deconstructed the label of "songwriter" in order to merge it with "storyteller," and that's why although it comes from a personal place, Dean Lewis' music will reach you no matter what you're going through.
Before he sets out for his global tour, which will encompass Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, several countries in Europe, and Canada, Dean sat down with MUD to reflect on how the biggest moments of his life – both past, present, and those yet to come – continue to define his one-of-a-kind artistry.
You posted a TikTok about your first gig ever. I would love to ask you, how has that journey been? In retrospective, is there any advice you would give your past self?
D: Yeah, I remember the first show I played. My dad flew over to come with me, and it was at this place called “Elephant and Castle” in London. There was a PR person there with my manager, and they were looking to sign me. She was quite a big deal. I didn’t have a record label or anything yet. I brought my piano out and I thought to myself, “it’s just a show, right?” It’s a bar, but people would be there to listen. Turns out no one was listening. I played for 20-25 minutes while everyone was talking so loud. I was playing “Be Alright” and “Half a Man” which were my biggest songs, and yet no one was listening. At one point I looked out to my dad and I could just tell he felt so bad for me. I remember thinking, “oh, God, maybe I don't have this cut out for me.” But the PR person actually ended up signing me still. Going from that to upgrading my show in Cologne to 10,000 people is crazy. I sold out the Margaret Court Arena in Australia, and I’m doing these crazy shows and festivals.
The advice I would give myself is that no one knows what they're talking about, but people will look you dead in the eye and say “this is the move you should make” and they can be dead wrong, and you'll fail from it. Then when the failure happens, they're gone. They might still be there, but they don't even talk about it. It's like it never happened. And I've always been really good about trusting my own instincts and not just doing what people say. I think that's why I was successful at the start. Ultimately, the advice is to stay true to yourself because no one knows what they're doing. And when it doesn't work, you fail on their terms. And I'd rather fail on my own or with my own, do whatever on my own.
I love that because you’ve remained true to yourself. Between your new album “The Hardest Love” and what you were releasing three years ago, it’s all evolved but at the same time, it's so uniquely yours.
D: Absolutely. Now more than ever, I’ve been looking back at the songs that connected with people the most. As I reflected on them I kept asking myself, why did these connect? What’s it about these ones? There’s a sound in “Be Alright,” a style of songwriting that's unlike anything else. For better or worse, it's a unique sound. One thing that's really important for me is to establish a sound. I don't necessarily want to be different. I want to have my own thing. And that’s really difficult nowadays, especially in the TikTok world, to have your own sound.
As an artist, during your first two albums and maybe even three, focus on defining your sound and then start to angle away a little bit. Just push a little bit, but don't do the 90 degree turn. I think a lot of artists release that first album and then just turn 90 degrees in a new direction, and fans are like “What's going on here?”
On the topic of songs that connect with people, your song, “How Do I Say Goodbye” has left an impactful mark on so many people. I would love to hear the story behind it and how you brought it to life because it must have been a difficult and emotional process.
D: I’ve noticed that my most successful songs have a universal theme, but it's not meant to be universal. It’s always personal. I wrote “How Do I Say Goodbye” because my dad was really sick and they gave him one year to live – 20% chance to live past a year to be exact. It was impossible to process. He had a really aggressive form of pre leukemia, the worst you can get. While this was all happening, I wrote about what I was going through. And it's very rare that a song feels complete to me. I’ll write a lot of songs but there’s always something missing. This time around it was incredible. As I was listening to it, I kept getting emotional and I’m never that emotional with my music. I'm very analytical about it. I remember listening back to it and crying. I thought to myself, if I’m feeling this, then this is going to be crazy.
When I finished the demo, I went to England to where I recorded “Be Alright” and “Waves.” I worked with Nick and Ed, my produces, to get the song to where I wanted it to be. I then had it in my back pocket for a long time, but I didn’t release it during COVID. People kept telling me it was a “death song” and that it wasn’t the right time. But it’s the best song I’ve ever written, and once it came out and became a hit, I felt a rush of excitement.
It made me so happy when it came out because it proved what my best mate told me years ago, which has always stuck with me: Art always finds a way. That doesn't necessarily mean something's going to be a huge hit, but it means that in life, art will find an audience, it will find a place to be big in. It will find something.
Your creative process is truly fascinating. Was there a different journey with your latest album, “The Hardest Love?”
D: This one took too much time because of COVID. We waited to see how things turned out, but it was a weird time. There’s this song from the album called “To Have You Today” and I was so sure it’d be a hit. When I released the album, the streaming numbers weren’t there, and I realized how much the world had changed. I used to put a lot of importance on things that don't really matter. My new goal is just keep swinging for the biggest and best I can do and not worry about what I can’t control. Try to make every song as good as it can be. I think that's my plan now.