Jean Dawson embraces the notion that tomorrow will always be chaotic. As life presents twists and turns like a “little tornado in the sunshine,” his new album, CHAOS NOW*, is a beautiful mess in its truest form.
Scrapping it twice beforehand, this iteration of his third studio album sees the 26-year-old San Diego native draw a fine line between personal anecdotes and the relatability that comes with them. It’s a deep reflection for us to figure out, as Jean doesn’t constrict himself or his music to a specific genre of people. Rather, he’s unbound and emotionally unparalleled — abiding to no rules but his own.
“I’ve been really mulling over the ethos of the record lately. A lot of it has to do with the chaotic mess of what tomorrow means, right? We have our everyday lives where we’re like ‘Oh, I gotta do this, I gotta do that,’ and I feel like there’s a lack of commas — or pauses — we have in our lives,” he said. “It’s kind of like the idea of how children speak. They don’t use periods or commas, but they use a lot of ‘and then’ phrases. A lot of the album uses these ‘and then’ phrases. It’s kind of like explaining a dream. There’s a lot of things happening, but they’re all very important. Every detail is important.”
His energy is infectious; delightfully unfiltered throughout the entirety of our Zoom call. In between our more focused chat, he lights a cigarette retelling tales of tour stops in Chicago and New York — recalling an instance where he fell ill and vomited in the middle of Wrigleyville while staring blankly at a police officer. If anything, no one seems to be more unapologetically themselves than Jean Dawson.
Providing wonder, nostalgia and predominantly perspective, CHAOS NOW* incites a fever pitch on all levels. Not only a ceaseless continuation of free-flowing thoughts, he boisterously replaces the mundane with “fireworks” — or asterisks — that burst at the end of each track.
Recruiting Earl Sweatshirt and Isaiah Rashad to aid him in this exploration — accentuated by highlights like “BAD FRUIT*” (assisted by Johan Lenox), “GLORY*”, “POSITIVE ONE NEGATIVE ONE*”, “SICK OF IT*”, “KIDS EAT PILLS*” and “BLACK MICHAEL JACKSON*” — each asterisk further illustrates the fluidity Jean illicits throughout the album and in life.
“[CHAOS NOW*] is like staring at yourself in the mirror for 20 minutes with full eye contact. I was practicing being very honest with myself about how I feel about the things around me in a way where I wanted to make something that was personal, but not about me — which is a very hard line to toe.”Jean Dawson to OGM
The term “unique” isn’t enough to describe his personality and artistic vision. The album itself is a calculated mix of neo-folklore melded with influences of punk rock, pop, country and hip-hop at the core of their alt-centric niches. However, Dawson found a way to assure that this album isn’t for the “misfits” or left-of-center ears that naturally gravitate towards his work, but is for anyone who “wants it or needs it.”
“Even though it’s personal — and some of the stuff I’m saying is personal — I’m not the only one that feels that way,” he explained. “As much as we’re all snowflakes, we’re all unique, but we’re all still snowflakes.”
Profoundly immersive, retrospective and eye-opening altogether, CHAOS NOW* not only represents the “CHAOS” Jean has lived through, but the overall sentiment of life being a neverending venture of ups and downs — evident within the guitar-heavy sonics he uses to complement his vocals belted from proverbial mountaintops.
While it’s been 912 days since Dawson has graced his fanbase with a full-length project — stemming from his eclectic 2020 effort Pixel Bath — the wait was well worth it, as CHAOS NOW* is the penultimate offering for intrinsic self-realization and discovery. It’s obvious that Jean knows this too, fanning the flames within this musical volcano that erupts in waves. This, though, is what makes the beautiful mess even better.
Channeling the carefree, cerebral nature that engulfs his mind, body and soul, Dawson proves that dreams can come true if you weather the chaos that’s around you.
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.
JB: First thing I’d like to say about the album is just, wow. I truly think this is going to be up there as one of the best albums of the year. If you had to base your life on an album title, would it be called ‘CHAOS NOW’?
Jean Dawson: “I appreciate that so much, man. But, I don’t think it would be titled ‘Chaos Now.’ I’d probably call it ‘What A N*** Said’… I’m playing — you can omit that if you want — but I really think I’d call it ‘Before The Sparks Went Dim.’”
JB: That’s awesome. What’s the meaning behind the ‘CHAOS’ you’ve tied the record around then?
Dawson: “I’ve been really mulling over the ethos of the record lately. A lot of it has to do with the chaotic mess of what tomorrow means, right? We have our everyday lives where we’re like ‘Oh, I gotta do this, I gotta do that,’ and I feel like there’s a lack of commas — or pauses — we have in our lives. It’s kind of like the idea of how children speak. They don’t use periods or commas, but they use a lot of ‘and then’ phrases. A lot of the album uses these ‘and then’ phrases. It’s kind of like explaining a dream. There’s a lot of things happening, but they’re all very important. Every detail is important.”
JB: I assume this is the meaning for the asterisks in the song titles? Is this used to carry on without pausing or creating that chaos?
Dawson: “You’re probably the first person to realize and ask that. Asterisks are the way I use periods. Instead of it being like a mundane little dot, it’s like a firework. I love it.”
JB: And every song feels like a different firework exploding in its own way. The album is not only colorful, but it’s totally genreless. Is this the root of the ‘Chaos’ you portray here? Like that sense of freedom both sonically and artistically?
Dawson: “I think a lot of it is my personality but fractionalized. This is actually the second or third iteration of this album. I had scrapped all that music and I was sitting there — when it was completely mixed and mastered — and was like ‘this is good, but it’s not great.’”
JB: When did you know it was great?
Dawson: “I was sitting with myself in my bedroom like drawing, writing and basically chain-smoking cigarettes. I looked like a crazy person in there. So much so that my significant other walked in and was like ‘yo, are you okay? This isn’t under control, I’ll come back in here in an hour and I’m calling your mom.’ I organized everything when she came back, and it was all good. Technically to me, this is like the same thing — like I had to practice my identity real quick. It’s like staring at yourself in the mirror for 20 minutes with full eye contact. I was really practicing being very honest with myself about how I feel about the things around me in a way where I wanted to make something that was personal, but not about me — which is a very hard line to toe. It’s all those things like, what would I want to tell my 7-year-old self? How would my 16-year-old self respond to things about vulnerability and what would my 26-year-old self say to them? So even though it’s personal — and some of the stuff I’m saying is personal — I’m not the only one that feels that way. As much as we’re all snowflakes, we’re all unique, but we’re all still snowflakes.”
JB: It’s crazy you mention that because I frequently ask artists how they view their younger selves and what advice they’d give them knowing what they know now. But on ‘CHAOS NOW*,’ you do this a lot — especially on “Bad Fruit*” with Earl. Tell me how this song came together and the meaning behind this track for you?
Dawson: “I was actually alone on that one for a long time. I really wanted to feel something that was bigger than me — as far as the storytelling, identity or the purpose of the song. Just building out something that felt very vulnerable, but at the same time make it feeling like a kid screaming from the top of a mountain trying to figure it all out. When I met Earl, it was kind of like an ‘oh shit’ moment. He’s like one of my favorite artists ever — like on my Top 5 all-time type shit. He’s my No. 1. We got closer and closer and when I told him I had this song, there’s just so much respect there and I didn’t want him to feel pressured to do this for me. And he’s like “I’ll do it,” and I was like ‘wow, okay.’ Fast forward, he pulls up to the studio and I felt like I put him in an uncomfortable position artistically because the track isn’t his usual format. But that’s the thing, he’s a legend for a reason and a class act altogether. He was like ‘Man, you got me on some Coldplay shit, what do you want me to do with this?’ I said, just close your eyes and stop thinking too much. The FIRST take, he bodies it. He’s doing melody, and since I’m a big Earl fan, I thought to myself, I don’t think there’s been many times where he’s done something like this. There’s nobody more talented, more technically sound that has more meaning in what they’re saying than Earl. I’m gonna get an Earl Sweatshirt tattoo and he’s my friend too. That’s how deep my love is for him. It’s crazy.”
JB: You talk about putting artists in uncomfortable situations, and I felt like “Kids Eat Pills*” with Isaiah Rashad is another key example of this. I’ve rarely heard Zay on something like this before.
Dawson: “I try to look at everything from a whole point of view or ocular. But it’s funny because this track was another that everybody pitched earlier on. I think it was the Fourth Of July he asked me to come hang out. I ended up going to his house and it was a beautiful experience. [Isaiah] is one of the nicest humans I’ve ever met. He’s such a sick person. I was listening to ‘Cilvia Demo’ in 11th grade and songs like ‘Menthol’ and ‘Hereditary’ just came from such a different place. He was appreciative of that. So we pulled up to his house — it wasn’t a big-name studio or anything — and he definitely did his due diligence [on me]. Within a few minutes, it was done. We all looked at each other like, ‘yo, he just came and shit on it, then bounced.’ It was like he said ‘I came here to do the thing I know I am amazing at.’ He definitely knows how great he is.”
JB: Alternative is a pretty broad genre. The album obviously has a lot of rock elements to it, but there’s some country influence in the guitar melodies and punk singing throughout. It feels so live and in the moment because of this. How does your genreless intent embody you as a person and as you continue to evolve as an artist?
Dawson: “It’s hard, because look, I grew up in a place where my mom didn’t dictate my identity. I was able to be whatever I wanted to be in any capacity. I didn’t grow up with music dictating my identity. I didn’t grow up with anything actually… I fought. I had a lot of conflicting things when I was a kid. So the older I got, the more I realized people use categorization as a tool. It helps identify our identities very simply. It’s like ‘I’m a punk, so I’m gonna listen to punk.’ For me, I just had a lack of information because I grew up in [Mexico] at the same time I was [growing up] in the United States. My identity was sort of twisted in terms of my circumstance. By the time I got older, I felt like my music or the music I listened to didn’t belong to anybody but myself. Rap music doesn’t belong strictly to the kids that listen to rap, or rock music for rock fans. There’s no real scene to the identity of my music. It’s not me being subversive, but it’s like alternative everything because I feel so akin to so many different things. My grandfather was a car mechanic. My mom was a rocker and hip-hopper. My dad was a rapper. My best friends put me onto Nirvana. I have all these different palettes and I just needed my music to not connect to one specific thing. It’s for anybody who wants it or needs it. That’s the thing.”
JB: I can relate to that. We hear a lot of those Nirvana-esque grunge guitar riffs or those Pink Floyd type refrains where you’re calling out from the void, especially on “0-HEROES*”.
Dawson: “0-HEROES* is like my ode to Nirvana as a whole. I just wanted to have hundreds of kids singing ‘Oh I know I can,’ and that for me means more than anything else. I just performed this song in Seattle and it was crazy. I just wanted something to be bigger than me, but I also don’t want to save people. What I want to hear from people is like ‘dude, you made my Tuesday straight’ or ‘you made this 30 minutes on my Tuesday really special’ and that’s all that I’m down for.”
JB: Any expectations for CHAOS NOW* as it continues to settle into rotation?
Dawson: “It’s the kind of thing where I have zero expectations for it. I don’t fear it either. All I know is that I gave every ounce of what I had in the time I was making it. I gave every ounce I had to try and make something that meant something. Whether it’s renowned or [hated], that’s for the people to decide. If people are confused and they’re like, ‘what is this thing?’ That’s fine. As long as people don’t shit on my baby, and if they do that’s cool, but even then it’s all good. I’m just f***ing happy I get to do this thing. I just wanna be doing it better every single time and make sure that for the people that put stock in me, it’s something where it’s like: You’re giving me three minutes of your life, let me make it worth it.”