Being the next big thing in Australian pop music machine comes with expectations and pressures. The country has been spitting out singer-songwriters with regularity seemingly month-over-month, from breakout major label success stories like Vance Joy, artists like Amy Shark, Tash Sultana, Mallrat and countless others waiting to break big not only in their native country—which they all have—but in the U.S. as well. That makes Dean Lewis a bit of an oddity.
Lewis is a 28-year-old who is riding a wave of success after being convinced by his brother he should try singing because he might like it. He didn’t get into music until his father played him an Oasis DVD, which flipped a switch. He spent a brief time as a writer for other artists before he scrapped that plan, wrote downbeat ballad “Waves,” and has seen the popularity of the song continuously carry him to higher elevations since initial release in 2016.
“We thought we would put out ‘Waves,’ then we would put out the EP, and then we would put out the next bunch of songs,” Lewis said following a soundcheck at the Independent; the second of three Bay Area shows in three months. “But it’s a year later, and the EP keeps growing and growing and growing. It’s a curse and a blessing when things do well, because I have all these songs I want to show everyone. But you kind of can’t because you have to let things run their course. You can’t cut yourself off.”
While in Australia, he performs with a full band, adding an electro-pop sheen to his earnest folk, but he can’t quite afford to do that in the U.S. yet. It’s just Lewis, his keyboard and an acoustic guitar, and during the soundcheck, he bounces back and forth between the two to make sure he’s satisfied with the levels, the reverb and the crunchiness of the strings. When he’s alone, fiddling with the sound mid-show is not an option.
His brother Sean, two years younger, stands in the middle of the room, providing feedback, filming with his phone. It was Sean who initially suggested Lewis should try singing, and the two of them wrote a few songs together until Lewis was able to kick off the training wheels.
Even when he performs at BottleRock, he’ll be on stage by himself. That may be for the best, as Dean Lewis’ songs are of the deeply personal variety. Whether love, heartbreak or a take on the complexity of life—“Waves” is about the reflection that as he grows up, the wonder of childhood and youth begins to wane—the stories are his own.
He has already followed up “Waves” with another tune rippling outward: “Chemicals” is about the dopamine rush of love. The song came within minutes and eased any uncertainty that Lewis didn’t know what he was doing. His debut EP, Same Kind of Different, followed in May 2017. The first hit, meanwhile, has been making the rounds on U.S. TV shows like Suits. A full-length album is done and will be released later this year.
With everything Dean Lewis has coming up, it’s safe to say he has no intention of writing for other musicians anytime soon.
“I want to prove myself first,” he said.
RIFF: You grew up a huge Oasis fan, and that band inspired you to pursue music. Why them?
Dean Lewis: I’ve always obsessed over their attitude. They’re cool, and their songs are so simple and hooky. And I just got hooked on them. And it’s so weird because my music is so soft, know what I mean? Also, it’s two brothers that are singing. I’ve always loved that concept. And I love their songs.
Do you have a brother?
I do. I have three. [Points at Sean Lewis]. That was my brother doing the soundcheck. We don’t look very alike. But he, Sean, comes on the road with me.
Do you ever sing together?
No but we used to write songs together when we first started. He gave me confidence and said “You’ve got the voice, you should sing.” I picked up a guitar and we started writing songs together. I kind of kept going and he’s more a fan of it all.
So he suggested your career, and now he’s coming along with you.
Yeah. He put everything on hold to come out and tour-manage. He’s having a ball. Like, he can drink after shows and stuff. I’ll be like, “I don’t want to lose my voice,” and I just did a music video the other day. So I want to look fresh and not tired. But he doesn’t have to. It’s been fun for him.
You started in the industry by writing songs for others. Would you have been happy or satisfied if that’s what you kept doing?
No. I’d signed a publishing deal first, and I thought it was terrible. It got me into the industry, but if someone’s mother didn’t like a song, or someone’s friend … and it could be the best song you wrote for them or with them, and it just wouldn’t get released. So it was really unsatisfying. Also, people can take it and do whatever they want with it. You have no control, and it’s very political.
It’s been almost a year since you released your first EP. What have you learned about yourself or the music industry in that time?
I guess I learned how important relationships are: meeting people and being yourself. I’ve learned how to be more confident on stage. Sometimes you’re opening [and fans] aren’t there to see you. So maybe I’ve learned to look them in the eye and be, like, “Yeah, I’m playing for you.” Sometimes if you don’t do that, you can lose control a little bit. The last year I’ve [also] learned a lot about songwriting and looked at what I’ve liked. It gives you confidence when you have songs that do well because you … can trust your gut. Whereas before, I didn’t even know if my voice sounded good. Most people don’t, but now I’m more confident and believe in myself more.
What do you most like writing about? You’ve so far gone the personal, heart-on-your sleeve, vulnerable romantic route. Will the album have larger variety?
“Waves” was actually written about getting older. A lot of people think it was written about depression or relationships, which it’s not. And there’s some other songs about a fear of not feeling good enough. A lot of songs are about relationships, but a lot of the new ones for the album; I kind of got over it. If you write eight songs about breakups, it becomes sort of obvious that you’re stretching the truth. These new songs are about different things that are happening, but maybe some happy things as well.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.