“Very few hours of my life will be spent on the request of something that I’m not interested in,” Jean Dawson says. His views on how he lives his life are, to say the least, inspiring. It’s a sentiment many of us will only ever idealize, fearful of the risk involved in taking such a leap. But for the 27-year-old artist, raised on the California-Mexico border, risk-taking, with all inhibitions out of sight, has not only been foundational in his creative pursuits but also paramount in his career trajectory.
Since his 2018 debut, Dawson’s music has spoken to people, with its dreamlike sound and lyricism relaying, and relating, itself to the audience like the soundtrack to his own coming-of-age film. He is the main character, naturally, and we have all followed him on his quest of becoming different iterations of himself as he develops both as an artist and a human. His melodies and lyrics are fitting to the growth, pain, reluctance, and knowledge that we all gain in time.
His sound could be described as alternative or experimental pop, but he subscribes to labels the way that Prince has — intent to create. You can hear inspirations from hip-hop to post-punk morph into a sound he’s been able to call his own. He gave us a tease of his new song with SZA, “No Szns,” which sounds like the perfect song for a montage of learning moments in a movie. On his most recent album, CHAOS NOW*, Dawson explores different sides of himself through balladry and brash guitar riffs. “BLACK MICHAEL JACKSON*” is a standout, with different genres overlapping and blending. That record’s predecessors, Pixel Bath and Bad Sports, were an introduction to Dawson’s world of nonconformist sounds. He’s always toeing the line but remains true to himself in every form — a trait shared by many other great artists.
Authentic, raw, and intense, Dawson’s music is a practice of “bleeding” himself out as a means of exploiting his emotions, in the best way possible. He is cheating death and immortalizing himself with pure, unadulterated lyrics and sounds from a plethora of genres. He leads us to paths of understanding by taking the scenic route, which, in turn, serves as another lesson.
Across his three albums and a string of surreal singles, Dawson’s stream of consciousness flows, relentless and full of wisdom beyond his years. At 27, he’s already lived so many lives, having grown up crossing the border of Mexico to California for primary school. The four-hour trek was a foundational experience for him, and while his own endeavors with music would come later, it provided exposure to sounds that would shape him into the multifaceted artist he is today, and the one he hopes to become in the future.
How would you describe your sound?
I wouldn’t describe my sound. When I was 20 years old, I had an idea of what I thought I knew what the fuck I was doing, but I think I’ve just come to the conclusion that everything that I make, one way or another, is like some form of coming-of-age music. It’s not necessarily dictated by format or tradition. I guess that I’m influenced by some traditions and music. So, there’s hip-hop in there. There’s specific eras of rock music, like post-punk music, but in the most simple way, I would just say it’s alternative. But honestly, it’s pop music. They have hooks and bridges. It’s, for all intents and purposes, just pop.
Do you still feel like you’re coming of age?
You don’t stop coming of age till you die.
You know about your frontal lobe developing at 25. Did you feel like you were coming into yourself as an artist and as a person?
I think I’m still going through my second puberty, for sure.
Oh, my God, I was just talking about second puberty with my friend the other day. That shit is fucking real.
It’s very real. Everybody right now seems like they’re in a very big transition. Some people blame it on the moon and the stars and shit. I don’t necessarily subscribe to what the constellations are doing to my own being, but when I turned 25, I felt like I learned to let go of a lot of things. I think one of the biggest ones is the pretentiousness of what making music is. I realized how much of it is just a service that I wanted it to be rather than it being a self-serving art form because it’s inherently sharing. You’re bleeding yourself to try and find something.
So, I think where I’m at now, versus where I was when I was 20 years old, all my ideas were and still are very lofty, but I had a complex of wanting to change something because I couldn’t get a degree in science. So in my head, I was like, “I should be able to change something in the arts.” And not so much now that I have the idea of changing anything. I think it’s just opening the idea that whatever change is for the listener or for you is all synonymous. I wanted to be a superhero.
Now, it’s not necessarily about saving anything. It’s not even necessarily about being, in quote, an “artist.” I think now it’s just rationalizing what it is to be alive with things that help pass by time. God hope, we get to 80, 90 years if you’re really lucky of that time with people that I love and things that I love and committing a service, to whoever wants to give me three minutes of their life that they’re never gonna get back. You’re gonna give me that? I owe you the world.
That’s a really beautiful mindset to have. I agree with you. When people start out with their music or their artist’s journey, you can feel very pretentious energy, but it is really interesting to watch people’s shifting mindsets.
I started making music when I was 13 years old. So it took 14 years to be considered a new artist. I’ve been practicing bleeding myself in public since I was 13 years old. So, you get to a certain point where you realize the blood that you let is really necessary for you. And blood that I let, I mean by exploiting my own emotions in a way that’s very particular to my own growth, but also has an effect on people that I’ll never meet in my entire life.
You’re not being a freaking superhero, but you are being somebody that people look towards for some guidance of themselves because we’re all trying to figure out who the hell we are. So, that’s why I say it’s coming-of-age music. There’s not a genre list, or genre-bending, or whatever the fuck they want to call it now. It’s just not being dictated by whatever else the world wants to simplify you because we’re not simple. For me, I change every two days.
How have your two cultures, being Black and Mexican, shaped your sound?
I spent a lot of time in my childhood crossing the border from Mexico to the United States, California specifically. It definitely shaped my perspective on society, which I guess will definitely affect the music that I make. I got to see extreme poverty, and then from the poverty perspective, extreme wealth, which was just an average household, but that was extremely wealthy to me. I spent a lot of that time listening to music more as a distraction than as a means of feeling anything. I needed a distraction because I was waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning as a child. It’s not “woe is me” but more like that just was the circumstance that I lived in to get to school by 8 o’clock. I’ve had an experience for four hours of the day that kids could never imagine.
So what made you take music seriously as a career?
I spent a lot of time by myself. My mom had to work two to three jobs. My older siblings were all very much older than me, so they were out of the house. 80% of the day, I was by myself. Music gave me the first version of a diary. It gave me the first open-source, open-platform way to speak. I didn’t have that communication with everybody, and some people do with their families and still choose music as that format because it doesn’t judge you.
Music wasn’t judging, and essentially what it ended up becoming was a format to communicate with myself. It became very important to me to have that line of communication so I wasn’t empty on the inside. I spent time thinking about words. One of the best technological inventions humans will ever have is the fact that we can communicate. We understand each other. I speak two languages. So I’m constantly trying to communicate. I’m translating what you’re saying into English from Spanish. I wanted to learn how to take the communication to a place that wasn’t so straightforward.
I wanted to play around with getting an idea to your head, or to the listeners’ head, without very much. When I started, figuring out music was going to be a career for me, I think I was 17. I realized that nothing made me feel that way. Nothing on Earth made me feel the way that writing a song and putting a puzzle piece together of my own thoughts made me feel. I realized that if I could find a way to do it for the rest of my life, I would do it for the rest of my life.
When I was 20, I was in my fourth year in college, and I was studying a bunch of shit, and I dropped out. I spend dismal time doing things I don’t want to do. Very few hours of my life will be spent on the request of something that I’m not interested in because, whether it’s the most famous person on Earth or the most unknown person on Earth, we don’t have a timeline, and we don’t know when it’s coming. That scares the shit out of me. I chose music to be my career because it was the only thing that made me feel like I was cheating death when I leave. People may or may not listen to my music. I don’t give a fuck, but it’s there in eternity and a vast emptiness of space that if it does exist for somebody, and if it means something for somebody, I’ve done my job and fulfilled my own destiny, which is to immortalize myself in a way that isn’t about myself.
You’ve been making strides in your career — you’ve worked with SZA now. What is your dream currently?
I think my dream is prolonged. My dream is to die with a smile on my face and knowing that I’m ready. I want to win a Grammy for my mom because she likes trophies. I will have a Grammy, and you can quote me on it. I would like to start institutions for kids that think a lot. Whether it be for the arts or it be for coding, I want to start an institution for kids that aren’t inherently gifted. They don’t have superpowers, but they do have nuance in their life.
Whether that be from poverty or from social distress, whether it be from emotional distress, starting an organization that branches off probably into the world hopefully that really identifies the things that are going to help us grow in the future and not some sort of tax write-off. I want to start an institution that helps us identify what we will become, how we will become the skills that it takes seems to be coming, and that is a better person at the end of the day. And I want to work with Björk.
What are some visual inspirations that you reference in your music, videos, or even your image? I feel like you don’t really like to think about your image like that too much, but maybe you do.
No, it’s the opposite. Girl, I’d be putting that shit on. You know I got the Louie mules right now with some nice Japanese denim. We are multidimensional in this vibe. My visuals have been influenced a lot by anime. I have main character syndrome, for sure. When I’m walking down the street, the world is about me. There goes that Gemini, right? I don’t want to be seen, but the world is about me. It’s very anime-inspired — the color palettes, the visuals, the animation style of things.
I’d like to think that the world is a lot brighter than it actually is. My brain tries to animate pretty much everything. It’s my favorite thing to do visually. As a human being, if I can see the 7-year-old in you, I’m like, “Oh, we’re friends.” The way that I imagined the world visually is very indicative of wanting something more. So everything has to be brighter. The smallest detail has to be emphasized.
Do you have another album in the works? What’s the future holding?
I don’t know about an album this year. I’m always working on several albums. So that shit doesn’t stop ever. I work on albums that are never going to come out. I started doing that when I was young and I learned that Prince was making albums for his roller rink. I have more music that’s coming out this year, definitely. That serves a purpose. I’ve just been going through a series of emotions. So I’ve made music that caters to those emotions because I feel like I have some sort of responsibility to myself to allow myself to speak. An album’s worth maybe, not sure. But definitely something really big and fun. Not just the songs are fun, but some big, fun, interesting news on things.