Categories, labels, or even other people often frame the story when you’re writing about an artist. So what happens when you’re telling someone’s story who has no labels, who doesn’t fit into any traditional box? Someone like Jean Dawson. To call him a rapper, a singer, or even just a musician doesn’t seem fair. He’s been described as an “alt-pop polymath,” “a genre-defying artist on the rise,” and “a child of the Internet” by people I imagine struggling as I am to capture him. It’s the kind of chaos he thrives on. Because, to be fair, Jean Dawson’s just figuring it out himself.
The 26-year-old can probably be best understood by listening to his debut album — well, “technically” his debut, but we’ll get to that later — Pixel Bath, which dropped in October 2020. A whirlpool of lethargic xan-rap, indie rock, ’90s grunge, and nu-rave, Dawson experiments with his voice and with genre in a way that can only be described as revelatory. For any other artist, this album would be a sonic feat, but coming from Dawson, it just feels honest.
Making music that has listeners traveling through space and time feels like a full circle moment for the biracial kid who spent his childhood literally traversing borders everyday. Living in Mexico but going to school in California as a child might just have been the trigger for his sound that now forges together worlds and transcends all musical frontiers. But maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe we just need to leave the explaining and interpreting to the artist himself (a style of interpreting that includes, but is not limited to, designing the clothes he wore for this shoot from his brand Turbo Radio). Over to you, Jean.
So.... who is Jean Dawson?
That's the golden question; I have no idea. I'm just as much in-the-know as you are, I think. I don't come with an objective. It's not like I'm purposely doing it; I'm not trying to be a genre-bender or whatever they're calling it — I just like making what I make. I literally don't have a name for it.
Have you always had this style, or did it take you a while to grow into it and figure it out? Are you still figuring it out, actually?
I think you never figure it out. I think that's the point. My favorite artists, they're constantly chasing a dragon, so to speak, where it comes to the music in itself being more important than the description of it. I’m just figuring out how to make what I want to make sound good. So to answer your question, I don't think I'm ever going to figure it out, and I don't think I want to.
So you were born in San Diego, lived in Tijuana, now you're in LA. How have these cities made you the artist you are?
They all affected me greatly. I mean, I spent a lot of my childhood in Mexico and then a lot of my adolescence in Spring Valley, California; that’s when I was being a little thug baby, just being a nuisance to the general public. And Los Angeles, where I had to come into my adulthood –– I still don't feel like I've hit adulthood. I still feel like a 16-year-old, just trying to figure it all out. A 16-year-old who pays taxes.
All these places taught me different things. I mean, one grounded me, which was Mexico — that made me realize how much bigger the world was than my own backyard, and how little importance to put on luxurious things. Spring Valley showed me how to follow my own path and not to base my experiences on the people around me. And then Los Angeles taught me that a lot of people are lost and a lot of people don't have direction. And I'm not [saying] that I have the most direction, but being here and not necessarily being consumed by the bright lights, it’s because I came from an environment where you don't need bright lights; you need warm lights, you need a place to eat, and you need a place to sleep.
Last year, you dropped your debut album, Pixel Bath. What was that moment like for you?
Well, for me, it felt like album number two, because I felt like my first album was Bad Sports. But that's a whole ’nother conversation, just because it's like, "Oh, well, technicalities." But it was an enlightening experience, for sure. I think I really honed in on making exactly what I wanted to make without any reservations. I always say I put in my 100,000 hours to even be considered a new artist. But this album was definitely very enlightening on how I work best and what my intention is as an artist and what I want to contribute to the diaspora of artistry, rather than what I want to contribute to myself and my well-being. And it was beautiful, I'm really happy that it came out to be what it was, and [I] give glory to god that people liked it so I can continue to do what I love.
Did the pandemic affect your creative process?
I definitely felt the severity of the circumstances in the world, but because of how I am socially, my creativity has never been something I have to do around a lot of people. So, it didn't necessarily affect my creative process and it didn't even help it either; I think it just stayed the same. I guess the one thing that did hinder me is not being able to go to movie theaters, because it's a really big part of my creative process, just going and watching whatever movie on a Tuesday. I think that’s also because I went to film school, so film and music go hand-in-hand for me.
You direct a lot of music videos yourself, that makes sense now.
Yeah, I mean, I don't know if university necessarily helped me with that. I think I came in swinging because I had something to prove to myself with how much visual arts play a role in my craft. I mean, I direct, co-direct, and creative direct. I was thankful to be able to work with my homies Zach Bailey and Zach Madden — I have a lot of Zachs in my life — who are both amazing directors, and they're really young and hungry. So when I come at them with a crazy idea, they'll just be like, "Okay, let's try it."
And thankfully I've met a handful of those special beings who've been able to really bring my songs to life, so I don't take all the credit there. I play my part, I try my best, because it's super important to me.
There’s this monologue in your “Burnout” music video where you ask a very meaningful question: When was the last time you were truly happy?
I feel like 95 percent of my life I'm truly happy. But the last time I went like, “This moment is going to be with me for a long time,” was probably... it's fucking sucky that I had to think this hard about something so magical. The last time I was truly happy was when I found out my grandfather beat Covid, that was a beautiful moment, because he was in the hospital and it wasn't looking well. And he pulled through right when it was all going bad, and at the same time, I had so much stuff to do. So I couldn't check in as much as I wanted and I couldn’t see him, because he's in Mexico. Another time was when I went to Vegas for Valentine's Day, that was a magical time.
What are your plans for when this all hopefully passes?
Definitely touring and working with artists that I really want to work with. I'm traveling, for sure; I want to go back to Japan and spend some time there and make some records. I mean, always making more music, but whether I'm in a pandemic or not, that's always going to be the constant in my life. Yeah, I think just touring and then being able to hug my loved ones.
And what's next for you? What's your big plan... is there a plan?
Yeah. It's devious. It's going to be world domination.
When can we expect more music from you?
I think the best rule of thumb is never to expect it, because I just might just be like, "Fuck everything," and not make music for four years. Which probably won't be a thing; I probably would make music for four years and just not release anything. But I’m making stuff that I'm really excited about right now. So usually my excitement isn't contained, because I have the natural response to want to share things that I'm really happy about. So probably not long. I'm also in no rush. I really want to make sure that what I put out has meat on its bones, because we live in a microwave generation and everything is instant gratification. I'm never necessarily in a rush to give somebody another dopamine hit. But that being said, I have new music coming out very soon.
Stream Jean Dawson's new single "GHOST" here. Catch him live in 2022 opening for BROCKHAMPTON.