Singer/songwriter & self-described hopeless romantic Olivia Dean ties together different stages of a break-up on her brand new EP, but there’s one question she is trying to figure out: what is she going to do on Sundays?
It’s safe to say music helped a lot of us get through 2020, but stumbling upon Olivia Dean’s music earlier this year truly felt serendipitous; that thrilling moment where you find the exact artyist who can describe and define everything you’re feeling within a 3-minute song. The 21-year-old Londoner writes with a delicate grit, penning confessional songs about personal experiences and events seamlessly paired with catchy hooks and dreamy melodies. A year after her stunning EP ‘Ok Love You Bye,’ she releases ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’, a beautiful EP that highlights a mature shift within the singer/songwriter.
Like any true body of work shaped around a break-up (think Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back To Black’), Olivia Dean mirrors the feelings that arise when someone is navigating the different stages of the break-up—from gaining the courage to end things to suddenly realizing you have to actually feel every ounce of heartache. Olivia knows how we reach for music when we’re at our highest of highs and lowest of lows, which is why both authenticity and timelessness is woven into each and every lyric; she aims to make sure her songs could be heard 100 years from now and still feel and sound the same.
Back when it was still warm enough to sit in the garden, 1883 had a cup of tea on Zoom with Olivia where we talked about ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’, what it feels like to learn how to stand on your own, and the importance of letting her go of her music despite knowing people will question the most intimate parts of her life.
Attending the BRIT school must’ve been an interesting experience; everyone around you was there for the same reason and had very focused goals. What was it like to attend a school solely focused on music?
For me, the biggest thing was being around like-minded people. Where I grew up I felt like I stuck out a bit like a sore thumb, like there’s that annoying person that just wants to sing all the time! At BRIT, I realized that everyone is that annoying person and we can all be that together. I found it an encouraging environment; I met all of my best mates there and the people who are in my band now. It was an inspiring place to be. People have said things like, “Oh that must’ve been so competitive! It must be like ‘Fame’ and everyone stabbing each other in the back”, but I didn’t find it that way at all. It was inspiring to be in a place like that around loads of amazing musicians and talented people.
Your debut EP ‘Ok Love You Bye’ came out just over a year ago and now you’re prepping to release your next. How would you say you’ve grown since the debut EP and this new one?
I honestly feel like an entirely different person. I don’t know her, I don’t know that Olivia! [Laughs] Sometimes I listen to songs from that EP and I can hear how much I’ve grown up since then. I’ve learned so much about myself and my relationships with people in my life and where I want to go with my career. I feel like I own myself a bit more; I’m the more refined version of that Olivia from my debut EP. But don’t get me wrong — she’s still got work to go! She’s still growing! I’m on the way.
Especially during a year like this, you’re bound to change.
Yeah, even over the last few months in lockdown I’ve learned so much about myself and the way I behave. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, we’ve all been forced to take time to think about who we are and where we’re headed. To quote Drake — you only live once, so figure out what’s working and what’s not working.
Right! I feel like I just zoomed in on myself and analyzed why I do things. It’s been a period of reflection. It’s asking ourselves if we’re enjoying where we’re headed and if we’re not, we have to make a change.
Speaking of reflection — where do you normally pull from when it comes to inspiration?
It always starts with me going through something in my life. My music is quite personal and it comes through in a way of me trying to process something. Sometimes I find it difficult to communicate how I’m feeling just by talking with someone, I find it a lot easier to process it if I write it in a song. The entire process of it is quite therapeutic for me; it’s just me trying to figure my life out in music form!
Yeah, it takes what’s in your head and heart and materializes into something tangible.
It’s nice to be able to wrap up sometimes what can be quite a complex emotion, experience, or anything else I’m going through and summarizing it in a three-minute verse-chorus song. It makes me feel like I’m processing it and standing outside of the situation and feeling like, that’s it, it’s okay, that’s how I felt about that. I can sing it and look back and see how I felt and remembered it that way.
Like a bird’s eye view and seeing something from the beginning, middle, and the end.
Exactly, yeah. That’s normally why I start songwriting and writing scribbles down, but I listen to a lot of music. I listen to all kinds of stuff all the time so sometimes if I hear something that rhymes or sounds cool, I’ll record a voice memo—I’ll be in the shower and I’ll think of something and have to immediately record a voice memo in case I forget it. I’m always hearing things and ideas in my brain so it’s always fun to put it all together and make it into a more succinct thing.
The title track for the EP, ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’ is a beautiful & vulnerable track that I feel like every person can relate to. Immediately when I heard it I felt seen and thought how many people can relate to that feeling of loss and realizing you were my person, what am I going to do on Sundays now.
I’m so glad you said that. I know it’s not out yet but that song is slightly different production-wise than some of my other stuff so I was a bit worried about what people would think.
It’s a gorgeous song and it’s one that I immediately wanted to share with everyone I know. It’s so intimate and universal. What’s the story behind it?
I’m someone that if I love someone, I’m completely in. I don’t do things by half measure. I’m very much a hopeless romantic and I was in this very serious relationship and it started to break down. This song was me thinking, well, what am I gonna do without this person? How am I going to be single? Do you know those moments when you’re the most dramatic?
[Laughs] Oh, I know exactly those moments.
I was someone who was in relationships since I was 16. I love love. I got to a point where I needed to figure out how I was going to do this by myself. It was important for me to be able to be by myself and feel comfortable in it. That song was at the breaking point where I realized how hard it was going to be. [Laughs]
That moment when you’re like, oh god, emotions!
You know you’re about to be devastatingly sad. I wrote ‘Hardest Part’ after that, so they are sort of coming out in the wrong order but ‘Sundays’ happened first and then ‘Hardest Part’ was all yeah babe! You got it! You’re good!
I love that they fit together; two sides of the same coin. What was it about ‘Sundays’ in particular that made you want to name the entire EP after it?
I was quite interested in having a long title. I think that’s something that summed up all of the songs that are on it for me. I like that it’s one of the songs and I love that it’s a question. It makes people think. It was weird and long and a bit of a mouthful and I like that.
Yeah, it’s how that whole time felt — weird and long and sad.
You posed a question to force people to think about what they are going to do on Sundays!
Yeah, like you tell me because I have no idea! [Laughs]
A track like ‘Sundays’ is incredibly confessional — are there ever moments where you’re like Oh god do I want to be releasing this for the whole world to hear?
I used to feel that way and then I read something that said the moment you write something it’s not yours anymore. That instilled something within me. I feel like it’s important to just give it up and let go when it comes to worrying about it. I stopped stressing about what people I don’t know will think about my real life and what people from my real life will think about these moments they might not know about. The bigger picture is other people might get something from this. Without sounding super cliche, I had to let go of the embarrassment or feeling like people know what’s going on in my life because they don’t. I know the context, those closest to me know the context, and people can attach their own lives and heartbreaks and situations to these songs now. That’s why I loved Amy Winehouse so much when I was growing up because while you’re listening you’d think Oh my god, what goes on there? I want all the details. I thought I’d throw it all out there and people can think what they want. [Laughs] I think that’s the best way to relate to people… to be super vulnerable. People will feel like they get it and you’re connecting with people. That’s what I want to do with my music.
Look at the legacy Amy Winehouse has created because of her music, too. So many people still talk about her incredible songwriting and the vulnerability she showed.
Exactly. It becomes a universal thing even if it starts with something quite painful.
In each description for your YouTube videos you like to add a little note, like ‘For when you’re ready to move on.’ or ‘For when you’re too in love to see how bad it is’. What would you say this EP is?
Oh gosh, how would I describe this EP… I think it is sort of when you’re ready to move on but I think it’s a bit more than that. It’s almost like… for when you’re realizing that you’re a different person now. For when you’re seeing that you’ve changed and you know you’re going to be okay by yourself and you don’t need another half, that you’re whole by yourself.
The video for your single ‘The Hardest Part’ was inspired by Motown stars like The Supremes where you performed all three parts. I’m sure you were spending quarantine in your room learning the choreography, what was that like?
Yes! In my knickers in my bedroom dancing around at 2 am. I had this idea of being all of the Supremes and to do this cool dance. I danced a bit when I was younger but I don’t have any sort of background in dancing, so I don’t know who I think I am agreeing to do this! When it came to the actual dancing, I was like …uh oh, I’m going to have to actuallydo this. I was sent some videos and spoke with choreographers over Zoom and they were fantastic, so chill and understanding. I had to initially get over the anxiety of not wanting to look awkward and constantly thinking about what people would say.
The video is amazing! It’s stunning and so captivating.
Out of any of the videos I’ve done it was the most fun while also being the scariest. It’s exposing; there are no props, just three Olivia’s dancing. I have a lot of happy memories attached to this video because my friend who has dance training came round to help me and we were just dancing in my garden. I’ll never forget it.
What do you hope people take away from your new EP?
Hm… I’d say I know it’s hard breaking up with someone, whether it’s a romantic relationship or even a friendship that comes to an end, but I hope people know it’ll be okay. It’s okay to feel sad about it. In a way, the EP is stages of a break-up and by the end you should feel like you’re going to be okay…. Even though the title doesn’t suggest it! [Laughs]
Yeah, are we going to be okay Olivia? [Laughs]
You will be, I promise! I was talking to my friends the other day and everyone is going through some form of break-up and it’s just a part of life. Someone’s gonna break up with me at some point and you know what? I’ll be okay. It’s just one of those things. This EP is a helping hand to anyone going through that.
Olivia Dean’s EP ‘What Am I Gonna Do On Sundays?’ is out now.
Interview by Kelsey Barnes
Photography by Fil Mawi