Travis Scott, Drake, Lizzo… and Jean Dawson. The list of artists that R&B superstar SZA has collaborated with in 2023 is stacked with some of the music industry’s biggest names, but a Gen Z genre-non-conforming auteur from San Diego gifted the “Kill Bill” singer her most poignant duet of the year just in time for fall (Sept. 22).
“NO SZNS,” a breezy reflection on the all-consuming stupor of California heat, combines both artists’ penchant for introspective songwriting, unflinching examinations of the most incomprehensible of human emotions, and instrumental arrangements that pull from indie rock as readily as they pull from hip-hop and soul. Its music video, a cinematic take on childhood laced with arguments and discord, finds Dawson stepping behind the camera, bringing SZA into his intimate and idiosyncratic visual world.
The new track follows a slew of projects (“side quests,” as Dawson describes them) that are filling the void between 2022’s Chaos Now* — a grungy, ambitious set that featured collaborations with Earl Sweatshirt and production contributions from Isaiah Rashad — and the Mexican-American artist’s forthcoming LP. While he is still unsure of the timeline for his next studio effort, Dawson is certain the album will be “beautiful,” mostly because he has completely rejected the compartmentalization circus that has consumed much of the music business.
“I want to build music without having to focus on everything that I am,” he says. “I want to fractalize myself.”
In paying special care to each facet of his being that makes him an artist who has enraptured a sprawling ever-growing audience across races, ages, and genres, Dawson continues to follow Prince’s uncompromising, do-it-himself blueprint. Whether it’s incorporating his native Spanish tongue into his music at his own pace or touring alongside acts as disparate as Interpol and Lil Yachty, Jean Dawson is currently undergoing yet another metamorphosis – and he’s particularly excited about what lies ahead and how he can continue to subvert everyone’s expectations. “I want you to guess,” he teases.
In an intimate conversation with Billboard, Jean Dawson opens up about his upcoming European headlining tour, his thoughts on the utility of record labels, trying to figure out “what James Blake would sound like if he was Mexican” with his upcoming project, nostalgia and iPad kids.
Walk me through how “No SZNS” (with SZA) came to be.
In the DMs. That’s how we started talking. She liked the music a whole lot. I think it was maybe a day after she had DMed me — she was working on her album [SOS] at the time — we hung out for several hours and just talked. It was sick. I didn’t realize how alike we were in a lot of different ways, and we worked on some other stuff.
[“No SZNS”] I had been working on prior, just like arrangements and stuff like that. There’s a lot of instrumentation on it, so I think I hit a wall at some point with the song — and then I met SZA. I was like, “Oh, maybe she can finish my sentence.” I showed it to her, and she was like, “Yeah, I’m super down. This is awesome!” So, she wrote her verse, recorded it, and workshopped it for a little bit. It’s not the most intense story of all time, but it’s definitely like, “You had to be there.”
What was your favorite moment shooting the “NO SZNS” music video?
My favorite moment in that video had to be when the two parents were arguing. In the video, SZA’s played by a little girl named Bliss, and I’m played by a little boy named Brave — that’s their actual government names. They’re sitting and coloring and their parents are behind them arguing. Like many people’s childhoods, my childhood was a lot like that. [I went to] the two actors that we had hired and talked to them about their intentionality, how they’re arguing, and what they should argue about. It was really real. They’re arguing about the father needing to be there, and the mom’s, like, “I just need you here.” And the dad’s like, “I’m working, I’m here. I’m here right now, but I need to work to provide.”
I almost cried. I was like Oh, s—t. It got too real for me. Bliss and Brave’s mom and dad are our family friends, so they’re sitting by, and I’m just watching [the kids] be like, Damn, our parents are not like that. That made me really happy. That was one of my favorite moments of shooting it and as being a director on that.
SZA is far from your first high-profile collaborator. How important is it for you to truly understand and know your collaborators on a personal level?
I never collaborate with somebody I don’t know. I have a rule of thumb in music. There’s a lot of people that come from a lot of different traumas and environmental factors that cause them to be a certain kind of way. Sometimes, you get people that have been treated like s—t their entire life, and now they’re in a position of power, so they get their lick back on people who don’t necessarily need it. Sometimes, I’ll look at artists and be like, “Damn, I really don’t like you. I like the music, but I really don’t like you.”
So, spending time with SZA only verified that I was a fan of her as a human being. And the same thing goes for anybody that I work with. I have the capacity to live on my own terms, so I just don’t spend time in places I don’t want to be in. If I already like spending time with you, then making music will probably be automatic. It’s like breathing, you don’t even have to think about it.
But there’s a lot of times where it’s not bad where I’m just like, “You’re cool to me, I never have to see you again.” SZA was not one of those people.
Her career arc has been incredible to watch. Do you want something like that for your career? Or are there bits of it that you’d like to make fit your vision for yourself?
It’s funny because a lot of people that have worked around us say our arcs are similar. I don’t necessarily look at people’s success rate in terms of how popular they are, I look at how great they are because that will stand the test of time. Mad people get popular for a little bit of time, they’re here and then they’re gone. I’ve made it very, very clear to myself that having a job in music is the only thing I want to live for — so I’ve been doing it for 13 years, and now I’m getting considered to be a “new artist,” which is totally fine with me. That just means that my legs are very long.
I got asked yesterday, “How do you feel about possibly becoming very, very famous?” And I don’t feel anything about it — as much as it sounds like a cool answer. Me being dismissive isn’t something for aesthetic. As long as I can make music for the rest of my life, I’m not really worried about much. I think that [SZA’s] getting the praises she deserves — and she’s been deserving of for a long time — and I’m just happy to stand with somebody that believes in me so much. She’s definitely stuck her neck out very, very long for me. If I have the success of SZA, awesome. If I have the success of somebody you never know, awesome too. It’s one and the same for me.
On your Wikipedia page, they describe you as an “experimental pop” artist. What do you make of that phrase?
You know what? I don’t mind. Experimental pop. I feel like that may be the closest thing to what I do. Me and DQ – my big sister, publicist — we’ve talked about this for a long time. We talked about how people perceived me and she understands, and I understand, that I don’t like being perceived. I don’t like my music being perceived in any kind of way, but you can perceive me. I feel like “experimental pop” is fine. I like hooks, and that’s pop. I like songs that people want to sing.
The experimental part… I also don’t want to be bound by any one construct. Early on I decided I’m going to find all the rules and then pick ones not to follow. And that’s kind of how I ended up making music in the first place. That’s why people were like, “But it’s rock, but it’s not rock, but it’s this and it’s that.” One of my favorite artists, Prince –I’ll never compare myself to that man, but what Prince was able to do was make music that was Prince: It wasn’t necessarily rock or pop or R&B. It was Prince.
When people started trying to define me for the sake of utility, like, “Oh, where do we place this?” — place it everywhere. It’ll work.
On the spectrum of visibility, there’s a middle ground where people see one side of you, but not all of you. The concept of the multiplicity of the self… how does that inform the way you incorporate different languages in your music?
As a Black and Mexican person, I’ve learned my entire life how to code-switch, because some language is going to make some people uncomfortable. So, I’m like, “OK, I can’t go up to this white dude and be like, what’s up, my n—a,” it’s not going to work. The reason why I’ll go from Spanish to English to quote-unquote Ebonics to whatever, it’s because the voice is an instrument. It just depends on what I need. I’m not going to use an electric guitar for a part that needs an acoustic guitar, and I’ll rather use a, you know, a f—ing baritone guitar. When I use my different languages, it makes it easier for me to understand myself because I’m not just one thing.
I’m trying to spend my time being more similar to everything than dissimilar. I think a lot of times creatives get in this place where they’re like, “I’m so different,” and I’m tired of being different. Not in the way that I want to assimilate to any idea — I’m tired of being different because it’s not a choice. A lot of people spend their lives separating themselves, and I want to spend more of my life doing what I do in my music. Spanish and English go together because it’s one and the same. Some things I can say better in Spanish than I can in English and some things I can say better in English than I can in Spanish.
My dad was a thug, so a lot of my tongue comes from my father, and then my mother learned English through Black folk. Her English is also proper because Mexican people have the propensity to have to learn English a certain kind of way because they think that they have to. And here, especially when you’re first generation or second generation, you adhere to a status quo of language, or else you’re considered to be “country” or something. And my mom could give two f—ks, but she also was, like, “Y’all going to read these books before you go to bed. A lot of them.”
Y’all wasn’t no iPad kids!
Bro, I’m telling you! You seen iPad Dog?
There’s an iPad dog. It’s fire. I played the game, and he jumps on the screen, and he taps the screen and s—t.
This is not OK.
I try and spend less amount of time on technology as I possibly can and everybody said, “You need to do this. You need to do that.” I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to take a walk.” I feel like we’re just getting to that age, where we’re turning into old people – because remember how much we were outside?
It’s impossible to talk about contemporary tech without also speaking about algorithms. Has the rise of algorithms in the music industry impacted your ability to create freely, either explicitly or subliminally? How does it impact the way you promote releasing and promoting your music?
In the ‘90s, people hated MTV, because if you didn’t get on TV, you weren’t going to go up. Same thing goes with even before that. In the ‘70s, ’80s, if the disc jockey didn’t f—k with you, you wasn’t going nowhere. You’re gonna end up another vinyl that’s in the thrift store that people don’t listen to.
We’re in a time now where data collection is so important for people to optimize. It’s all about optimization. That optimization has become so clear that you don’t even have to pick your own music anymore. I think there’s a lost love there. It can lead to you not having the sense of discovery.
When I was coming up, I would have to go on YouTube wormholes to try and find new stuff. I’m like, “Oh, there’s this artist, and then there’s this artist. Holy s—t! What is this? This is crazy!” I think now it’s optimized to a point where so many of those steps are gone, which bottlenecks the industry. There’s, I don’t know, 100,000 songs uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music daily. There’s only going to be a few that get past the threshold of playlisting to where more people will listen to them.
Since we have so many people making music, we have lottery winners, which I’m never going to be mad at. We have people that win the TikTok lottery, or it’s like you had a single part of a song that people love, and it’s giving you a career hopefully. A lot of times, it’s probably a scary position, because you haven’t built an infrastructure to support that growth — so you’re going to topple over and people are not going to know who you are in the next following year. I don’t think there’s a good or bad way to do it. I don’t know if it’s necessarily going to decide s—t for us. It’ll just make it easier for us not to have to ever make a decision.
I’m pro-innovation, but I’m also pro-tradition. If you want to go look for music and find a diamond in the rough, do that. I was 17 when I first got found on SoundCloud. I think what’s conducive to me making music is Rick Rubin telling me, “Take your time,” and Jay-Z telling me in my face, “You’re great.” I’ll take that over the algorithm telling me that my s—t is popping.
I think your attitude towards the power of algorithms plays out in how you structure your releases – you’re not one to tack standalone singles onto a project to play the streaming game, for example. So, walk me through two of your projects from this year: Xcape and Destruction for Dummies.
It’s supposed to be a trilogy, there’s two out now. I’m trying to think when the next one will come out. The last installment is supposed to be called Arcoíris — “Rainbow” in Spanish – but I’ve just been doing a bunch of other stuff.
On ‘Xcape, Pt. 1’ Jean Dawson as “Phoenix,” [Phoenix] is the more aggressive, I have something to say, loudmouth kid. On the next installment, ‘Destruction for Dummies, Pt. 2’ Jean Dawson as “Nightmare,” I had just got out of a relationship, and I was feeling it for real. It was the perfect excuse to find this Eeyore-type personality. Boohoo is the next person for Arcoíris, and he’s the pity party guy, where it’s like: Feel bad for me, and not in the way where I’m going to tell you why to feel bad for me.
I think my headspace when I was making those… I wanted side quests. I wanted to make a chapbook or an anthology series that wasn’t canon. In anime, there’s things that are non-canon events, and that’s kind of what these side quests have been. It’s not like a body of work where my idea from A-Z is complete. It allows you to work out your own ideas without being constrained to the sound of an album, but also not an EP.
So, in that case, what have you settled on as far as the next album is concerned?
I’m trying to think when it will come because I have two plans. Either I’m going to go away for three years and just disappear, or I’m going to put an album out next year, I don’t know. I believe we’ll have a lot of Spanish. I’m also trying to do music in Spanish that hasn’t been done before because some stuff in Spanish — like trap music — has been done. The stuff that’s supe- popular with regional music right now, it’s being done. It’s being done very well. I’m trying to find the space in my brain to figure out what James Blake sound like if he was Mexican. I’m not saying that I’m gonna do that, but I’m just saying that’s my line of thinking.
There’s going to be more Spanish involved, just cause my grandma was like, “Why don’t you make more music In Spanish?” And I was like, “F–k. She called me out.” Honestly, the only reason I hadn’t is because some of the things I have to say, I can’t say in Spanish. Which is kind of a lame reason, and now when she put me on the spot, I’m like, “Damn, I really don’t have that reason, because it’s my first language.” I need to actually do it because I want to do it now. Before, I felt like it was maybe forced or something, and I didn’t want to use it as kudos or a pony trick. It’s like, “No, dude, it’s my language.”
[People] hear me speak Spanish, or when they hear a song in Spanish, they’re like, “No, you don’t understand what that makes me feel.” So, for that full-length project, I’ve been working with some legendary a– people that I’m super excited about. I can’t name them yet, but just as a callback, they’ll know later. I think the next album is going to be beautiful, from what I know right now.
You have a couple of shows towards the end of the month. What can fans expect from those performances?
Yeah, I have a show with Interpol – the legendary band – and we play the Greek in L.A. I have some headline shows as well. I’m excited. The West Coast is my region. Then, I’m supporting Yachty in Europe, which is going to be awesome — I’m a massive Yachty fan. The West Coast gets a lot of me because I live there, so the West Coast and Denver are the two places I’ve performed the most for some reason. I mean, Denver … I love those mountain kids, they’re sick.
I’m approaching the music that I already made differently. The way that it’s structured, the way that it’s played, I have the band learning the songs again — but in a different format, just because I don’t want the perception to be like “Jean Dawson is rock and roll” or Jean Dawson is this or that. No, I want you to guess. And I don’t want it to be spoon-fed to you. I’m just going to make them a little more interesting and just like… What the f—k is going on? I learned that from watching Björk live a few times, where I’m like, “What the f—k is she doing? This is crazy!”
Then when we head over to Europe – it’s my first time — so we’re going to do all of it, starting in Oslo and ending in Vienna. Growing up Mexican, travel is not something that is normalized, because our parents can’t do it — a lot of [our] parents are undocumented. I’m going to make a lot of music out there too. I’m stoked. And I know my European audience and my U.K. audience is stoked because they were like, “Jean’s never gonna come here,” and now they’re going to travel with us! There’s caravans of people that are going to Stockholm, Cologne, Paris, they’re going to see it all.
How does it feel knowing that you’ve built all of this from the ground up?
Grateful above anything else. I got jaded to it a little bit at first, because I was never popular in school, and I was never deemed as cool. So, when it first starts to happen, I kind of have an [aversion] to it because it doesn’t feel real… until I toured the first time. I saw the Black, the brown, the white kids — it felt like I came home from war every time they saw me. They’re like, “Oh my God!” and I’m like, “Oh, s—t!” I got to see their faces and… if it’s not for [them], I really can’t do this.
Anything that they want from me, I’ll stop in the middle of my food and take photos. They find me at the airport now, and it’s f—ing crazy. Y’all just need to relax, but anything you want, you got it. I’ll sit and talk for two hours with some kid that’s telling me about how they want to start making music, and I’m just like, “Do it!” I don’t like giving advice because I don’t know s—t, but here’s what I could tell you I did wrong, and maybe you can circumvent those wrongs. I feel very blessed above anything else and privileged to be able to have my job just be expressing myself and people relate to it. It’s f—ing crazy.
You mentioned that you weren’t considered cool growing up, and now you’re kinda the epitome of cool for a lot of people. Who are your style icons? Who are your film icons?
I was never cool in high school, because the high school I went to wasn’t hip on Tumblr and I was a Tumblr kid, so the s–t that I knew, they had no idea. I was wearing like post-[A$AP] Rocky style — who is definitely an inspiration of mine, amongst a lot of different things, but style specifically.
Post-Rocky Tumblr was crazy as hell, and I was just showing up to school in San Diego, where nobody gave a f—k about what you’re wearing, in some crazy s—t that I got on eBay. That made me a weirdo. Even when I was getting fits off that — if I was in New York, they’re like, “Oh, s—t, he got that s—t on” — where I was from, it was like, “That’s weird. He reads anime. He always has a girlfriend. He don’t talk to nobody.” I smoked cigarettes in the parking lot like, I had no f—ing cool points.
I go to college and it’s still kind of the same thing. It’s like, frats and stuff like that, which is all fine. But I’m not gonna wear no Sperrys. The Internet gave a place for whatever I am to be deemed as cool. Rocky, he’s the best-dressed person, period, I think ever. I don’t have Rocky’s body, nor Rocky’s paycheck, so I’m not necessarily doing what Rocky does, but he definitely is the most well-dressed person taste level-wise. Also, Kurt Cobain — ‘90s grunge is something that lets me be super lazy and people think that it’s tight.
Then in the film world, music for me is a visual language. If you listen to my songs, most of them are metaphorical. Most of the time I’m talking about something that I can see, but I’ve never seen. I’ve been really, really inspired by movies my entire life. I spent a lot of time by myself, meaning that I spent a lot of time in front of the TV because when you don’t have nobody around, the TV’s gonna keep you company. I guess that was my version of my iPad.
Let’s talk about hype. How does the concept of hype register in your mind? Whether it’s industry hype or hype from fans, how do you keep yourself from getting lost in all the different voices trying to define you?
Hype is important when people are excited about you. When people are excited about you, you should feel excited. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling connected to a moment that feels more potent than most. I also idolized people like Earl Sweatshirt, who, in my opinion – he’s someone who since has become a friend and collaborator — Earl was always able to circumvent the current of something. In one of his albums, he said, “trend-dodging,” and that stuck with me. It’s like, “Why do that when I can do the thing that I actually like?” But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with trends. I feel like some people just need a sense of identity and they need a little help to get there.
I think the idea of hype or your audience being excited about things is cool. Industry hype — it’s hard to get. It’s easy to get disillusioned by industry hype because everybody at one point is going to have their moment where everybody looks at them, and I feel like if you don’t get caught there, you won’t get Medusa’d. And being Medusa’d, it’s like you’re gonna get turned into stone because you’re watching too hard how people are watching you. I think if you acknowledge it and move on, then you’ll never get stuck trying to chase that high. That’s how you end up the oldest n—-a trying to be cool with young kids. You want that same feeling you felt when you were 21 and brand new. It serves its purpose, but as long as you don’t get caught in it, you’ll be fine.
You’ve accomplished an incredible amount while being independent, where do you stand on the utility of record labels?
People have always asked me, “Why don’t you like labels?” It’s not that I don’t like labels, I just have never been signed because the business that I’ve been offered, I’ve never been aligned with. The things that they offer I don’t necessarily need, and the things that I need, they didn’t necessarily offer. So, I’m not pro-label and I’m not anti-label. I’m anti-bad business. I’ve structured my career in a way where the utility of a label wasn’t paramount. It’s totally fine if you want to go buy your house in cash, but I don’t think you should be mad at the bank for giving you a loan. I’m not saying labels are just banks, but one of the biggest things that they’re able to do is give you utility that you might not be able to get or have.
Since I didn’t need that — not because I came up rich, but because I figured out a business strategy early to circumvent the fact that I don’t need to take out the highest-interest loan — I can get it to a place to where I go to a label and we can see eye to eye on what utilities I need and what numbers they want to see back as a return on investment. I wanted to become an artist with a high ROI, and in order to do that, it’s going to take time.
I haven’t necessarily needed a label on my come-up because I’ve had such a strong foundational team from management. We’ve built a little army. We’re small, but we’re scrappy and we get s—t done, and I don’t think it’s because we’re particularly talented. I think it’s because we care a lot. Now, at this point in my career, I’m most likely going to sign this year to somewhere because I think the growing of our infrastructure is super important — just for the growth of our artist project. My entire team is Jean Dawson. It’s not just me. I’m the face and I’m the word, but we need to grow and in order to do that, there’s going to be some things that we need facilitated that are outside of our abilities.
In the beginning, I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to not only own my albums — I own all my albums — I didn’t want the constraints of “this needs to be successful or else somebody loses their job.” And that’s because I care about other human beings outside of myself. I think that doing it indie is noble and I think it serves its purpose, but at a certain point, you’re gonna hit a glass ceiling. And, also, starting off with the label, you’re gonna hit a glass ceiling. I think you need to get your career to a place where it’s stable enough to where you don’t need a label. Then go to a label. Or get your career to a place where, with or without a label, you’re going to be fine, because then you can add fuel to the fire by having stronger arms. You need to know how to allocate your money.
I got offers from my first album to my last album. Offers have always been on the table, but I’m like, “I’m not gonna waste your time and y’all money because I’m not gonna waste my time, and I’m not gonna waste my sanity trying to chase some money that I know I couldn’t get back.” I guess the best advice I can give to anybody that’s thinking about signing or not signing is to really know what you need. If you need money, go do shows, and if you’re not in a position where your shows pay you, then work more and get to a place where doing shows pays you. And then when you get to a place where you need money to expand, then you can go to a label and know why you need it. For anybody that wants to stay indie, do a lot of shows, sell merch, get really comfortable with direct-to-consumer, and having your audience be proud to pay for what you do.
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