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Jean Dawson Interview: ‘I don’t feel constrained by an idea; I feel empowered by everything.’

Photo courtesy of Nico Hernandez

Jean Dawson was never meant to fit into an algorithm. The 26-year-old’s image and music are fueled by experiences and identity, remaining unconcerned with the trends of the moment.

On his Instagram, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an outfit that conforms to one style or another, as the same comparison can be made with his art. Jean is as much a creative director as he is a musician, with an adept knowledge of visual art forms lending immense nuance to his artistic aspirations.

His previous albums, Bad Sports and PIXEL BATH, helped illustrate the fine-tuned experimentation with genre conventions — making it clear that he’s trailblazing his own path. The colorful array of differing musical touchpoints that blankets his music isn’t a choice as much as it is a reflection of himself and the many dualities and contradictions that have acted as hurdles in his life.

Jean is half Black and half Mexican. As a kid, his daily commute to school involved crossing the Mexican and American border, giving him ample time to build appreciation for the mixes of rap, rock and Latin sounds that his parents listened to. Art was the solace that allowed him to challenge the conventions of the many binaries around him. In an upbringing full of contrasts, it informs and reaffirms Dawson’s creative talents as not just an musician, but an artist who operates on an inherently humanistic playing field of reference points and lived experiences.

Poignantly vulnerable in his music, Jean shreds his insecurities and develops a trustworthy ethos in the process, where his emotions become a minefield of explorative transparency that he experimentally treads. He may draw innovation from all crevices of his life, but he finds a middle ground in lyrics and delivery to give audiences something to grasp onto and resonate with; it’s the necessary precursor to the messages he wants to deliver. Instrumentally, he refuses to latch onto any singular, comfortable sonic landscape or specific sound, lending Jean the freedom of expression beyond the borders and barriers of genre and description.

I love hearing an artist who is truly hard to put into words. Eclectic? Innovative? Genre-bending? It feels like a disservice to conveniently package Jean Dawson’s music into buzzwords, as “genre-bending” could very well be a genre of its own. His opposition to art’s conventions of categorization isn’t a performative one, it’s the exact opposite.

With Jean, the artistic medium of music isn’t mutually exclusive; he draws from many visual mediums — particularly film — as part of his role as an artist. That’s just one descriptive layer of how Dawson’s approach towards his craft is as meticulous as it is wildly unpredictable. Controlled chaos is tough to achieve, as finding a communicative middle ground between concept and execution can be a shrouded path for many. Somehow, someway, Jean pulls it off and doesn’t compromise. It’s all in service of his polymathic take on musical storytelling, asterisks and all.

His latest album, CHAOS NOW*, is particularly cinematic, as a plethora of varying arrangements, musical and cultural inspirations, and symphonically-backed introspection makes it apparent that his thematic motives are in tandem with his sonic experimentation. He’s going to give you an experience — a lived one at that. His own life experiences might be exclusive to him, but the emotions that he’s felt are certainly not.

As you proceed through the album, it becomes a visual journey with Jean’s hardships framed in simple, often poetic ways. Desperate longing morphs into emotional zeal and then to exuberant confidence, as emotions web and flow with evocative ease, never lingering on any note or falling into a comfortable cadence. Even if you’re expecting the unexpected from Jean, he’s still going to surprise you.

There is no independent variable with Jean Dawson. Intention interweaves with execution for him, and the air-tight assurance in his craft is refreshing. You know that purpose is nestled within his creative direction, and the energy behind his delivery of these ideas is more than convincing.

Painting a picture in your mind is no easy task for a musical artist, and doing so further involves us in the journey of Jean Dawson. CHAOS NOW* pushes that journey further, glistening beyond our headphones and illuminating your imagination.

In between a bathroom break and a cigarette, Jean Dawson revealed the deeper meaning of CHAOS NOW*, discussing his palpable approach towards music, finding accessibility within experimentation and how paving his own path opens the door for more voices to shine — a door that Dawson props open with a smile.

Read our conversation below!

Purchase tickets for Jean Dawson’s headlining “CHAOS NOW*” tour here! (starts 10/16)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

JC: For me, approaching CHAOS NOW* felt like I was flipping through a photo album of youth with a retrospective, mature lens. Whether you’re belting or rapping, your inflection and what you’re saying is all very transparent, truthful and relatable. I love how a mission of yours is to not only empower other artists and open the door for them, but hold the door open as well and pay it forward in your own ways. Why is it so integral for you to inspire this generation and the next to come with your music? How do you translate your messages to them?

Jean Dawson: “Man, honestly, I really dislike the generation twice before mine. They just shut the door. If we’re talking about rap music, people are like ‘What is Lil Uzi? What is Carti? What is all this? What is this!?’. They were like, ‘This is not us.’ That’s so opposite of how we should treat music. Think of rock music, right? It has every subgenre of rock in its umbrella. But for whatever reason, rap music is just considered rap music. It’s always just like, ‘if you’re not with this, you’re not one of us’. My ethos for the last album was like, I don’t know if I’m here alone because I didn’t know if anybody was doing what I was attempting at that time. I’m a super competitive person, and there’s a lot of people that take my videos and all this other sh*t. That doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is if you feel happy, you feel good about this thing.”

“For me, I want to open up an organization, like a rec center but it allows underprivileged kids underprivileged or underserved communities to come and learn instruments, be able to take classes on those instruments, then be able to teach the next generation of kids to do that as well in community service for high school. I think Each One Teach One is super important, especially for the development of music and culture. Not that I’m like a hero and I’m about to die on a hill or something. It’s less gaudy than that. I’m more just like, dude, I’m gonna’ die one day. Whether people remember me or don’t remember me, I don’t care. But I would really like that if at my funeral somebody can be like ‘Yo, this guy was okay. He was an okay guy.’”

“I just want people to feel welcome. Whether you’re f*cking rich, poor, gay, straight, anything in between, I want people to feel welcome; to feel like they’re in a safe space and they don’t have to be a certain thing to like a certain thing. You can be everything that you are, as multidimensional as you want, and at least you know that there are some artists that don’t care either way. I just want to give you a hug and say have a good day.”

JC: Relating to what you said earlier on sanctions and subgenres, I think a lot of that is done to give a sense of comfortability to the listener and blogs that can then place these albums and musicians into certain categories. That’s why I think calling your music “genre-bending” is one-dimensional, as the music is so wide open and doesn’t really fit into any algorithmic equation that’s a necessity for many artists now. You have a vision and that can’t be sanctioned. What kind of artistic freedom do you feel from not being bound by genre?

Jean Dawson: “Categorization is a really divisive tool and a tool for comfortability. We create things to make information very palpable for a lot of people. But sometimes, it just takes a little more digging.” 

“My dad and I had a very specific relationship. It took a lot of growing, it took a lot of this or that. Our relationship was predicated on the idea that I wasn’t really like him in a lot of different facets. It took a lot for him to like, even know that I was doing [music] on the scale that I’m trying to do it, right? That’s just because my dad is a rapper, you know, I mean, to this day, he’s still a f*cking rapper. He’s never signed, never done none of that sh*t, but he can f*cking rap his a** off right and he’s one of my biggest inspirations in that way. His biggest thing to me was saying ‘Yo, you make music like Outkast.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t,’ but that’s sick because Outkast is amazing! For him, the closest thing to something unfamiliar was Outkast, where it’s like, what is going on in this record, right? So, for me, it’s not like ‘Oh, I hate people talking to me.’ I genuinely just don’t care. I don’t care if you do that or not. People are like ‘Oh, you make this music or that music?” Sure. If that makes you happy, that’s fine. I don’t care. Call it what you want. But an imposed identity on me will never dictate my actual identity. And that’s something that took me a long time to realize unless it’s something like physical. If you were a firefighter and somebody was like ‘You’re a firefighter,’ and you’re like ‘No, I’m not’. It’s like, well, you kind of are.”

“For me, it’s way more blurred than that. I don’t feel constrained by an idea; I feel empowered by everything. Right now, I’m super into classical music and the things that I’m really empowered by are things that I barely even understand because I’m not classically trained. But since I come from a place of having so much nuance through my own music, when I listen to that through my filter, it translates completely different. I’m really happy do be able to do a stadium rock record or a punk record or a rap record and have the ethos of that record be ‘Man, this is just how you heard it.’”

JC: I like how you talk about reference point: your dad’s reference point to OutKast, your reference point to classical music and that you can appreciate these artistic mediums through whatever of experience you may or may not have. I also know that you have a formal education in film, which is something that I also have. I think this lends so much more to who you are as a creative, and I’m curious how being such a viscerally palpable multimedia creative and film lover goes in tandem with you being an artist? How do those ideas and practices bounce off of each other?

Jean Dawson: “Oh man, everything that I do is hyper visual. I see the thing before I know the thing. For me, it’s an easily translated language. I dropped out my fourth year, and I didn’t learn much other than just Foley work which was like, I’m already recording things. You’re gonna give me a Tascam [microphone] and tell me to go figure out how to make the sound of boots walking on sand. Like, I get it. It’s a lovely art for somebody that cares about it.”

“But when it came to me in school or any facet of the visual arts, it’s that naivety, right? That’s what makes my videos what they are. I’m naive enough to think this idea will work and I’ve always leaned into that nuance of myself. Even the directors that I work with: Bradley, who I’ve been working with on all of my new stuff, Zach Bailey and Zach Madden have all leaned into the nuance of me being like, ‘Yo! We should do this.’ They try and figure out the best ways to achieve this thing and then bringing ideas to the table as well. So it all informs the same way where there’s such a level of naivety because I don’t belong to a certain class of musicians or artists or anything like that.”

“Everything is just like, ‘What does the seven-year-old inside of you wish that he could do?’ Now do that! Lean into that really tough. The seven-year-old in me wishes I could fly. Alright, how do we make me fly? It’s the “what ifs” for me that are so important. It makes everything not rational in a very fundamental, functional way. The rationality [can be] that it sounds good or looks cool or feels good, but there’s no, like, ‘Oh, the reason we have to use a Dutch angle right now is because things are about to go left.’ It’s not as practical as that would be.”

JC: I can tell from your music videos that it’s so intentional, it’s all there. You have that vision and that is something that was obviously apparent with CHAOS NOW*. Something you spoke towards earlier was making this album, it’s a personal thing for you. But, it’s not overbearing, it’s emotionally evocative for others. How do you balance that line between telling your own stories that affect you and matter to you, and then also making it accessible for your audience? 

Jean Dawson: “Man, I think it’s speaking back to what I was saying about making something bigger than me. My identity is kind of the jump off point, whereas my song is the end result of something that doesn’t necessarily have to be direct.”

“One of my my biggest things in this album is like, how do you make something personal but don’t talk about yourself? It was a really challenging ordeal to undertake because I can talk about things that are in my life and things that I’ve experienced – and I know people resonate with that – but I want it to be more resonant. More like, ‘This isn’t necessarily this guy’s story.’”

“Yeah, there are facets of my story, but the more important part is that I allow people to see themselves in me. It’s a really hard thing to do. It’s very scary to do because you’re servicing as a mirror and if they choose to look in that mirror or not, it’s definitely indicative to their own choice. I fully adopted the fact that I’m merely something you look at your reflection in, rather than the mirror itself being the most important thing. The thing in the reflection is the most important thing, I just happen to be here when you look at yourself.”

JC: Before we wrap up, I have to go back to the asterisks. It’s the coolest thing ever, in the way that you do it and how it essentially carries as a motif throughout your work. We’ve seen it exponentially grow and where it was just on a few tracks on your last albums, it’s now on every track. I found myself trying to dissect and articulate it like I would for a Paul Thomas Anderson scene or something like that. These broad, eccentric ideas are just that. They’re big, they’re out there, but not everybody might get it. For some people, that’s a concern. But for others, that’s the beauty, that it is so wide open. What’s it like crafting that symbol over time?

Jean Dawson: “It’s toting that line of nuance. I don’t want to make something that’s so niche that no one understands. I can make an art record for the sake of it being just an art record where it’s like, yeah, my 15 friends like this thing. I still have the general consensus that I want it to be open and vulnerable and accessible. The only thing is like, going from point A to point B is not going to be so simple. One of the biggest things is that simplifying something for the sake of simplifying it is a disservice to what actually could happen. But if you want to do something simple because that’s the complexity of it, that’s really the thing that matters. So for me with the asterisks and all these little details that people may or may not understand, I’m less feared by people going over people’s heads than I am people not giving themselves a chance.”

“A lot of artists think that their audience is dumb. I just don’t feel that way. I feel like my audience or anybody that will come and listen, they can be as smart or as not smart as they want and they’ll still have something to walk away with. I’ve had many people be like, ‘This sounds like Weezer!’ or ‘This reminds me of this!’ and it’s like, dude, your scope is super limited, but that’s okay. Like, that’s fine. If you want to look at it through that lens I’m not going to stop you because what you eat doesn’t make me sh*t. The difference between a Kendrick Lamar and anybody else – and not calling myself that by any means – is that Kendrick understands that his audience have something to say and have something to understand. But, if I treat everybody like they’re dim witted and have no idea what’s going on, then I might as well just be making the corniest nursery rhymes for an audience of people that have a five second attention span. Instead, why don’t I give you something exciting for three minutes of your life that you’re never going to get back again? So maybe it might not be the first listen that you get it or the third or the fourth, but by the time you do get it, you’ll understand that it was for you the whole time.”

Read more about Jean Dawson’s ‘CHAOS NOW*’ below!