Jean Dawson defies expectations. It’s what the 24-year-old artist thrives on. He prefers to exist in the in-between, as he's done since he was a child living in Mexico but going to school in California. Crossing the border every day was a necessary task, and now he is similarly traversing genre boundaries, creating a unique sound that escapes even his own definition. “I have no fucking idea," Dawson says. "I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. I just know I’m doing something.”
Dawson’s aesthetic—think Hype Williams meets early 2000s internet—is evident in his hyper-stylized visuals and a carefully cultivated online presence. His 2019 EP Bad Sports features new wave synths, poppy indie rock melodies, and hints of trap. At first listen, the instrumentals provide a jarring juxtaposition to his thoughtful and often painful storytelling. Dawson is a product of the internet, so it only makes sense that he is just as much of a beautifully disjointed mess that can be zoomed in on endlessly.
Over the phone, Dawson places the same amount of priority in telling me about his Gundam figure collection as he does his struggle being a biracial California kid just trying to listen to shoegaze in peace. His hip-hop influences come in part from his parents—Dawson’s father rapped and his mother learned English by listening to the genre.
Dawson is proud of scouring music pirating sites instead of record bins, as well as creating a tight network of musician friends he admires through sites like Tumblr. He is taking full advantage of the era of convenience where music and people are more accessible than ever before, especially as a self-identified low-income kid of color. His identity has shaped his ethos. “I wanted to be able to express these worlds that kids that look like me or even feel like me didn't know that they could, just off of cultural bias,” Dawson tells me in his Californian drawl.
Still riding the high of releasing Bad Sports, meeting the legendary Rick Rubin, and creating an immersive world of visuals and sound, Jean Dawson is ready to unravel himself.
Tell me about where you grew up.
My upbringing was a little nomadic. I grew up in San Diego, California, and also in Tijuana, Mexico. I'd crisscross the border every day [for school]. And that happened for a few years, probably up until secondary school, then I just moved to San Diego, and then went to L.A. for college.
How was it crossing the border every single day?
It's actually more common than people talk about. Some people are really touchy about it because of the documentation and stuff. It was not the most fun experience. I'd do it with my older brother, and we'd mostly do it alone. It was very moving. I got to see two extremes of poverty, and then I went to school in a predominantly affluent neighborhood because my mom prioritized us going to good schools. So I'd go from it being really bad and then go to places where I wouldn't say it was better or good, but definitely different.
"I took the ideas that I had for an album and condensed them into a few points where it's like, 'Hey, I'm a kid just like you. I go through pretty tough shit just like you.'"
At face value, Bad Sports seems like it would be a full-length album. What made you decide to make it an EP?
I think it was more of a decision on logistics. I knew that my rollout was going to be a specific kind of way. I knew that the way I wanted everybody to understand the project was going to be a little different. [By presenting] it as an EP, it gave people a choice, and you don't have to dive necessarily into a whole world that's super new. It's to build familiarity with what I'm doing and how I wanted it to be heard.
Was other music that you were making a drastic shift from what is on Bad Sports?
I think a lot of it was an experimental process. I was trying to figure out how I can make these things cohesive enough to be on an album, but not so strict to where it would be something that I have to emphasize on every song. Coming at it from a rap perspective, it's like a mixtape. What I consider a mixtape is a group of songs that you just made in a certain amount of time. But this definitely had more intention than just a bunch of songs. These songs are going to tell you a little bit of story, not too much, not too little.
So it's more than a mixtape, less than an album. It's in a cool little middle space that I really appreciated. I think achieved what I wanted.
Was there a specific story on Bad Sports that you wanted to tell?
I think for me it was just the story of growth. It's all a coming-of-age story for a kid with my kind of upbringing, which I knew more people than just myself had. My intention is to show that I have more in common with people than I give myself credit for, and the way that I can express that is through music. I'm a romantic, I guess, and I'm a person who likes to question a lot of things. I took the ideas that I had for an album and condensed them into a few points where it's like, "Hey, I'm a kid just like you. I go through pretty tough shit just like you."
Did pirating music with YouTube-to-MP3 converters and services like LimeWire impact your own work?
Hell yeah. Those were super important for my growth as an artist. My mom went to work, and my older siblings moved out of the house. I was the baby in the family, so I had a lot of idle time because I was kind of a latchkey kid. I could have done one of two things. I could have found solace and family in gangs. A lot of kids don't necessarily have immediate family, so they create one [that way]. I had friends that took that route, but instead of doing that, I just stayed in the house and became a product of the internet. I could speak fluent internet when I was super young. When Napster was around, I think my older brother was downloading music. The idea of having free access to anything musical that you wanted was huge for a lot of people, especially if you come from a low-income family that could afford internet. It gave me an open source for anything that I wanted to listen to, which was crazy because I could explore. I'm a data hoarder, so I was like, "Oh, I want this album, and I want this album." I'd be downloading 18 albums at once, and it would take four days or whatever. I would look up "hidden JAY-Z verse that never got put on whatever album" or "Kanye West third verse on this song" and very specific things like that.
I remember getting music recommendations from my friends and I downloaded Nirvana’s In Utero because my childhood best friend’s older brother was in a band. He recommended Nirvana and Disturbed and I took it upon myself to download all that shit and listen to all of it. I think that's why there's such a weird genre blur in this generation. Even to this day, I'm like, "Man, my shit's going to be on The Pirate Bay." I'm so excited, because there's going to be some kid that really wants to hear it and can't buy it, and that's totally fine. I’m not promoting you do that, but at the same time, it's there. It's like those teachers that say, "Look, it's open notes. Don't cheat, but it's open notes." And that's the kind of way that I think of music. It's like, "Hey, it's there. You do what you want to do.”
That's why I have songs like "Napster." And I would have called it "LimeWire" too, but nah, because I used FrostWire and LemonWire, so I was kind of biased.
"I say 'welcome home' a lot. Even at shows, I say that because I want everybody to feel safe. I want people to feel accepted."
I had a similar trajectory. I wonder if you had that intense fixation—almost obsession—with collecting this music and finding new stuff like I did?
Hell yeah, definitely. I don't have an obsessive or addictive personality, but with music it was so weird because it was such an escapism thing where I wanted to be in another world so bad. Not because of circumstance, but just as a kid anything that takes you away from the mundaneness of sitting at home is appealing. I had friends, and I would go skate, but music still played a part for me. I would always have headphones in.
I remember the first CD that I got, it was a Mike Jones album. I had a pretty intense obsession with finding everything southern. I had no idea what that world was like. And I remember just listening to shit, and I'm like, "Yo, Screw music? What the fuck? It's slow. It's muddy. It's dispersing fucking tone." I found that and then [British band] Thompson Twins which is at the opposite end of the spectrum with shoegaze music.
I didn't know what shoegaze was, but I was like, "Why can't I hear their vocals? What the fuck?" Then I realized that their vocals supplement the instruments. It's not necessarily the lead. I guess I took it upon myself to be a student of music for a long time before I [released something myself]. Bad Sports came out when I was in college, and I started making music in high school, but I wasn't super focused on getting popping or anything like that, I just wanted to do it right.
Having that hyper fixation on finding the music was super important to me. I remember being on Tumblr and finding new artists through that. And it's so funny, because now the artists that I found on Tumblr are my friends. I remember finding the Tyler, the Creators of the world or the ASAP Rockys and feeling like nobody else knew about it. I feel like a lot of people overlook that moment. You feel the special bond between you and an artist. You feel like you're the only person on earth who knows that they exist, even though you're probably one of several thousand. That shit means something, and it's special.
You talk a lot about representing the kids like you. What do you mean by that?
When I say for the kids like me, I put a certain amount of emphasis on the kids that felt that weird sense of needing it to fit in. The kids that are so multi-dimensional that they don't fit in one space. I feel like they don't get talked about a lot because we always want to categorize everything for ease of access and that need to understand who somebody is immediately.
I say “welcome home” a lot. Even at shows, I say that because I want everybody to feel safe. I want people to feel accepted. I can’t force what I want them to feel on them. I can just suggest it. "Hey, this is a space where you can be anything. We're pro-LGBTQ, we're pro fucking every ethnicity." There's no room for disqualifying anybody and that's the way that I want the people that support me to feel. I’m there for them.
If I wanted to make money, I would have stayed in college. If I wanted to be famous, I could've kept playing sports and all this other stuff. That's not the goal.
I’m mixed like you, and I wonder how you deal with the perceptions people have about you and your artistry because of how you look.
The first indie rock song that I ever made, I showed it to somebody that was super important to me, almost a mentor. I remember the first thing he said was like, "Why are you trying to fit in with the white kids?"
So the fact that he's asked me such a presumptuous question offended me and I'm like, "Man, you're somebody that I thought would applaud my versatility.” That's the shit that I'm trying to fight against. There is no fucking white kid culture, black kid culture. That dividing line that people are trying to put up is super harmful and people don't understand that shit stops growth on every level.
I have a song “Antiwarp” on the end of my album. For all intents and purposes it's a fucking indie rock record. My debut singing that live, with a fucking grill in my mouth and people didn't understand it and I'm like, "How do you know your favorite artist doesn't like fucking indie rock?”
I’ve read that you don’t like to reveal too much in your songs, and Kurt Cobain had a very similar ethos. Tell me about that.
I think I come from the same school of not saying why something means something or what it specifically means. Not to say that the questions are invalid. I love people that are inquisitive.
The way that I write stuff, it's hyper intentional because I take my time when I need to take my time on something. When I'm talking about something that's very personal, I like to be very clear about my experience, because [in those cases] I don't like interpretation. There are things like how I didn't come from anything but had a hardworking mother, my dad wasn't necessarily around, and I have to take medication every day to keep my mental health in check. There's no interpretation, I take pills every day to feel okay.
Those are things that I'm very on the nose about, but other things I'm not on the nose about, because I like to give people room to find what they want to in the song. Everybody comes to something different. When I listen to Björk, for instance, there's a lot of records where I'm like, "I don't know what the fuck she's talking about, but this is what I think she's talking about." And then I create that world for myself. Whatever I feel like that record is about, it becomes true and nobody could tell me otherwise.
You could say “Bull Fighter” is about me literally being a bull and I'm fucking getting stabbed by a matador. You can think that, but it's not that. It's about being a black kid in America or a person of color in America without me being like, "This is a song about racial injustice. You need to come listen to me on this fucking soapbox talk about why I don't trust police officers."
[The music] is not supposed to be something separate from me. It's supposed to be something that you feel, and there's nobody that can tell you that it's not for you. It is exactly for you, even for the people that don't like it. I write music to tell a story, but not a definitive one. I hate absolution.