Dean Lewis on Debut Album, Bruce Springsteen, and Self-Care [Q&A]
Lewis has been gracing our ears with introspective songs on heartbreak and moving on since his debut EP, Same Kind Of Different, in 2017. In the two years since then, Lewis has graciously given us a string of singles that have accumulated to create his stunning debut album, A Place We Knew. One of the most recognizable songs on the album is "Be Alright," which has gained over a billion streams worldwide and has landed itself on the Billboard charts, Hot 100, and basically everywhere else you can think of. Every song on the album is a narrative of his personal experiences, with a sprinkle of others' heartbreaking tales, and the true passion he feels shines through his ingenious songwriting. His genuinely painful lyrics paired with melancholic melodies perfectly portray the heartbroken man, trying to better himself and move on with his life.
Amidst the crazy rush of his touring life, we were lucky enough to catch the humble Dean Lewis right before his sold-out show in Cologne, Germany, to talk about his monumental success following the release of A Place We Knew. If you were lucky enough to get tickets to one of the dates below, be sure to scream the lyrics back to him, as it is one of his favorite feelings:
OTW: Congratulations on your debut album! Can you walk us through the process of what writing a song for the album would look like?
Wow. Ok. So, me sitting on my bed, having down time, sort of nothing to do, it's usually late at night, and I'll just get inspired. You know sometimes I'll just pick up the guitar and start strumming or I'll hear an amazing song and be like "Oh that's so good," and just pick up the guitar and be inspired by someone's really great work. And then I'll sort of just push record on my iPhone and start singing stuff. Usually I'll record for about 10 minutes, and within that 10 minutes, there might be nothing, but sometimes there's 30 seconds or something that are great and sometimes there's a minute or so that's great. And then you know, out of that, I'll sort of go "I have a verse that's really good," like a melody or idea lyrically, then I'll just keep playing it over and over again until I find a chorus. And then there's a second verse, and then I'll go in to record it. That's basically how some of it works. I'd say about half the songs came about that way.
OTW: I think it would be impossible for us to pick just one, but going through that whole process, do you have a favorite song from your album? And why?
Yeah, I'd probably have two. "Hold Of Me" and "Stay Awake." I think "Stay Awake" just because it sounds like there's such a groove in it, and I love the production. And the song called "Hold Of Me" because I just love how raw it is. It's really hard to get that raw epic balance and we tried to minimize it as much as we could. We put as little as we could in there. I'm really proud of the guitar riffs and how it feels. I'm also really proud of the production and songwriting. I'm really inspired by Bruce Springsteen's songwriting, and I love his techniques. I feel "Oh, that's a song that he'd be proud of," so I'm really proud of that one.
OTW: I know you said you love Bruce Springsteen, but if you had to hand it to one person, who was the inspiration behind A Place We Knew?
Oh, I would say songwriting by Bruce Springsteen. You could even condense it down into the song "Dancing In The Dark," the lyrics in that song changed everything for me. I'm going to be straight, I listened to it growing up, but never really heard it. When I googled the lyrics, when listening to it, but the one that really stuck out to me was in the second verse where he says, "Messages keep getting clearer / Radio’s on and I’m moving ‘round the place / I check my look in the mirror / I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face." I was like, that is so epic because I can imagine what he's doing, walking around the room feeling anxious not liking things, and I really connected with that sort of songwriting. That really inspired everything. In addition, I picture things like little movie scenes, and I try to write the movie scene. I also try to write really first person, very simply. And then I combine those things and it sounds like me. I mean when I really like a song, it's got those elements to it.
OTW: You know exactly how Bruce Springsteen's music made you feel, what do you hope your music will do for others?
Well I don't have any real major goals. Like I don't ever write songs to try and get some sort of message across. You know, it's actually even a little bit selfish when I'm writing a song. It's like what do I think is great? What do I think's good? And it's something that's real or a story that I can tell that I like, but then the amazing thing when you release it is that people hear it, and they connect with it and feel like they aren't alone, which is such a great vibe. To be honest, it's not the reason I do it, but it becomes the reason. When it's released, it becomes the purpose of the music. I just hope people like the songs, and they connect with it, but I'm never really thinking about what other people will think. You know, obviously I trust my gut and my instincts, and my instincts are to write songs that I like.
OTW: When did you know you wanted to make music?
I always wanted to make music. My dad always had music playing, like the Beatles, he was really digging the Beatles. So, on the weekends, we would always have music playing, we would have a big collection of vinyl and stuff like that. He'd always be playing stuff, and guitars were always around. But it wasn't until my dad played Oasis' live 2005 Manchester gig, and we watched it, and I was like this is so so cool. And I sort of just started watching all these Oasis videos on Youtube and all these acoustic versions and B sides, and I started writing songs or covering old Gallagher stuff. I didn't really know I wanted to do it, but I was just so interested in it. I was SO interested in it, and obsessed with it, and it was just a slow progression from that to writing my own songs.
OTW: Since you started off dreaming of this, what has it felt like, going from a small artist from Australia to a singer-songwriter icon gracing the Billboard charts?
Haha! Icon. I feel like I'm just getting started. I feel like I'm one of those people who feels like we've done this, but why are we here? I really struggle with it. I appreciate what's happening, but I'm also looking to the future, like how can I write better songs, how can I do things better, have a better live show, because I want to keep figuring it out. I guess I don't see myself as any of those things – I started quite late in the game. I think if I was maybe 18, then maybe I'd think "Oh I'm pretty cool." But since I'm not, and I've been on the other side, I feel like the exact same person. I'm kind of on the way to where I want to go, I just don't know where that is and I don't feel like I'm there yet. But it is really cool seeing people singing back the songs. It's also been kind of weird releasing an album. This is real champagne problems, but I feel like someone has almost died. When I released the album, it was like every breath, every show, I was working towards this, but now I feel like, "What is my purpose?" It's this weird feeling of I don't really know what I'm doing – and now I'm just playing the songs, and it's a really weird feeling of releasing the songs, the album. It's like I don't know what to do with myself, and it's been an interesting adjustment as well.
OTW: Do you think all the pain and heartache paid off, as you are receiving such amazing feedback for your album?
Totally. I think you can write a whole album about one breakup. I think for "Be Alright," where I saw the message on an ex-girlfriend's phone was the best thing to ever happen to me. That literally was almost like me winning the lottery. Absolute best thing. I guess it kind of screwed my trust for people at the time, but it is honestly the best thing and I'm so grateful for it. I guess it was all worth it in the end. I must say, you can expand on little things. Also, there are things I hear from friends. They tell me stories, and sometimes I'll put things in there. In "Be Alright," I did that. I combined a couple weird stories friends and family told me over the years and kind of melded them all together. So, I'm using other people's heartbreak as well, not just mine.
OTW: Since "Be Alright" did get so much recognition, is it nice hearing people sing back the songs to you? Were you expecting people to react to your music in this way?
It's surreal. I don't know anyone in Dallas. I don't know anyone in Cologne. And to have everyone sing it back, it's insane. It's really surreal and what's cool, now that the album is out, they're singing back the other songs. So, it's really cool, and it all seems to be changing right in front of my eyes. It all seems to be growing at a really exponential rate, and it's the best feeling in the world. I remember artists used to say "Oh it's the best feeling when people sing your songs back" and I was always like, "Oh really?" But it really is.
OTW: What was it like selling out your North American tour, coming from a completely different country?
It was amazing. I remember like two years ago, we came over and did this show in Portland and one in Oakland. Literally 10 people came in a venue where you could fit like 200-300 people. That was when I had that hit in Australia, "Waves," but it didn't really do anything anywhere else, and I remember thinking "How do you have success in America?" I remember thinking, "This song is huge back home, and I can't get more than ten people at a show," so I never thought it was possible. With "Be Alright," now I guess I understand what it's like, when a song actually hits the mainland.
OTW: With all this touring, is there any place you dream of playing?
It's constantly changing because amazing things are happening, but venue wise my goal is to play at shows with 5,000 people around the world. I've got goals, and I want it to be as big as it can be and connect and play to as many people, but for me, I don't necessarily need to be Ed Sheeran. Although that is an amazing goal, and I'm striving to be as big as we can be. I also strive to be an incredible artist who is putting out songs. It's not just about being the big guy or taking short cuts. I don't want to do that. I want to do it all myself.
OTW: What has been your favorite place to play so far?
Montreal was the best. Also, last night in Stuttgart, the biggest show I've ever played. I've never heard that much straight singing. They were singing so many songs back out loud that I've never heard. There was a show in Montreal that we did, it was quite big, 1100 people, awesome venue, and they were clapping for like 30 seconds after every song finished. It was almost like, "Jesus this is crazy stop." It was very overwhelming. That was an amazing experience.
OTW: With all this touring, how do you find time for yourself? What would be the ideal Dean Lewis self-care day?
I love just going to get breakfast by myself at a nice café. Get eggs Benedict, have a cup of coffee, have my notebook, and write down things that I need to do, things I've been thinking about, and then I'd probably go to the gym, or go for a run, and then just play some computer games, or watch some streams or something. Then maybe write a song. Super chill. My kind of day.
OTW: After all that relaxing, you'll probably still go back to touring. What has been your craziest fan interaction?
Nothing really crazy, they give me letters and really nice stuff like that. There was this guy, in a really stressful period with a lot of stuff going on, and he was waiting outside my bus after a show for a couple hours. I went back to my hotel, not realizing anyone would be waiting, and he was waiting there, and he goes "Are you into rave culture?" And I was like "Nahh," and he said, "Put your hand out." He gave me this bracelet that said "Lucky" on it, and it was just really good timing. I've kept it with me, and I think it's really cool. That's probably the best thing.
OTW: Lastly, who are three Ones To Watch?
I'd look out for Jack Gray, he's an Australian artist who's amazing. Also Mallrat, who is amazing from Australia. And Noah Kahan, who's opening for me.