Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
One of the fastest rising names in indie-rock, homegrown hero Dean Lewis takes his swoon-worthy vocals and heart-melting acoustic strums to the centre stage on LP1.
Words by Matt Doria.
Cut from the same honey-sweetened acoustic cloth as Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and the Gallagher brothers, Sydney trailblazer Dean Lewis was an instant hit when he crash-landed on the pop circuit in 2016. Platinum certified five times over, the surfer-come-singer-songwriter’s debut single “Waves” has since founds its way onto soundtracks everywhere from Grey’s Anatomy to Riverdale, and in turn, onto the Spotify playlists of tens of millions of teens worldwide.
Behind his fame is a winning formula – heartthrob love songs a lá soft Maton twang and slick, luminescent howls – and a personality that’s simply impossible not to fall for. And now that Lewis has a debut album under his belt (A Place We Knew, which, unsurprisingly, shot to #1 on the ARIA Charts upon its release in March), he’s making even bigger strides.
So you spent a hellishly long time working on this record. What kept you from pushing it to the surface until now?
The album could’ve come out two years ago, but it probably would have had four of the same songs on it. I’ve just been really lucky to have the time to develop exactly what I am. For instance, when I released “Waves” [in 2011], I had “Be Alright” ready to go – the song was finished, I just basically spent the next two years rerecording that song over and over, just to help me figure out what my sound was supposed to be. And then when I released “Be Alright”, I listened to “7 Minutes” and “Stay Awake” [from A Place We Knew] and went, “Okay, these sound good, but I can make them both sound a little better.” If “Be Alright” came out and did okay, then we probably would’ve released the album as it was. But that success inspired me to keep working away at it.
The changes I made to those existing songs were all small, but the amount of songs I ended up writing for this album... Man, there were so many songs that could’ve made it – even some where my friends and family would say, “Why are you not putting that song on there? That’s my favourite one!” But I only release stuff that sounds authentic to me – even if it sounds like a massive song, I’ll be like, “Nah, it doesn’t feel like me yet. Maybe I’ll rework it for the second album...”
It always seems like a cool idea to strike while the iron’s hot, but there’s something really special about a record that you have a personal connection to.
Absolutely, man. I’m never the kind of guy who just finishes a song and puts it out. I’m kind of a weirdo – the whole label and everyone in my team will be like, “Great, it’s done!” And I’ll be like, “Nah, I think I’m gonna go rerecord it,” and they’re just like, “What are you talking about!?” And I’ll be like, “It just doesn’t feel right!” It pisses a lot of people off, but I just have this thing where I can’t stop until it sounds good. If you look at the album credits, you’ll see that on some of the songs, there’s, like, three producers – that’s just because I kept going at it and kept chipping away. And I think it’s amazing what you can do if you just keep working on something and not settle. Because everything can be made better.
What made you want to diversify who you worked with, rather than just link up with one person to lay it all down?
I guess it was time. When I was in England, I would work with Nick [Atkinson] and Edd [Holloway], who produced “Waves” and some of my EP. I worked with John Castle in Melbourne and we did some bits and pieces together. But one guy that actually came in near the end was this Australian producer, Dylan Nash – he basically ended up co-producing the entire album. We’d take all of these recordings, demos and different versions of songs, and he and I would sit in the room for days on end, just figuring everything out. Even though his name is on the album as the producer of one song and the co-producer of another couple, to me, he was the main guy. He’s incredible.
When I released “Waves”, [the label] sent me over to work with this massive big-name US producer – I won’t say his name, but he was very expensive, and it was the worst experience of my life. The song came out sounding terrible. And so that was a big learning experience for me, and I basically just went back to people that I really trusted – y’know, John, Nick, Ed, and especially Dylan.
Did you have the live show in mind when you were piecing this record together?
With some of the songs, yeah. There’s a song on the EP called “Lose My Mind”, and I didn’t really think too much of it at first. The first shows I played it at, I did solo on the piano, and it would go down well, but then I played it a festival and the vibe was completely different. It has this big chanty section, and the crowd were all singing along to it and I was just like, “Ohhhhh!” So that made me pay a little more attention with how the songs would go down live. When I wrote “Hold Of Me” and “Straight Back Down” for the album, I was like, “Yeah, I want these to be the festival songs.”
Do you play with a full band onstage?
I used to play with a setup that was just myself, a guitar and a piano, kind of going back and forth, but now I’m at a point where I can actually play the songs with a full band, and some of the them are more fully realised.
On the record, there’s this very powerful sense of intimacy between yourself and the listener. But when you’re onstage with a full band, how do you maintain that intimacy?
You do lose a little bit of that intimacy, but you also gain a whole different vibe. It’s always been important to me that with the live show, it feels like you’re just watching a band of friends, and they all really get into it. Sometimes you see guys onstage and they have these really static session bands – it looks like the guys are just there to take a paycheque, and they’re not even cracking a smile. But my band gets so into the performance, and they’re all really good dudes. We’re not a rock band at all, but my guitarist, Alex – he gives it a little bit of an edge on some of the songs, and he’ll add parts that aren’t even on the album, just to make the live show an experience of its own.