The Rottingdean songwriter mines dream-states and rebirth on her epic two-part debut album
The Fleet is London‘s largest underground river, moving urban slush from the Hampstead Heath ponds in the north to an outflow under Blackfriars Bridge. Every year, hundreds of people carrying pencils and wearing Patagonia fleeces listen to the rush of the Fleet through gratings in the Farringdon and Camden pavements. They follow the path of the water and know it’s there, but they’re never able to see it. I meet the Rottingdean-based musician Dewey at the mouth of the Fleet because like these river chasers, she has hang-ups of her own.
The unknowable that guides most of Dewey’s creations she likes to call saudade – a Portuguese word describing a feeling of lingering melancholy, a listlessness that has burrowed its way into your heart. On her debut album Sóller pt. 1, out October 30, she takes us to the places she has encountered this familiar unfamiliar before, like Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis where she stayed for a month, or the vast farmland that her mum’s home backs onto in Sussex.
The album’s two parts – the second she is hoping to release before 2021 – were written across trips to Sóller, a town in the Balearic island of Mallorca. It signifies the duality of Dewey’s life before and after she was struck with a serious disease: part one is saudade, about chasing the fantasies of love and the mirrors we hold up to ourselves when people are watching; part two is the reckoning, the wrecking ball that wrenched reality to the surface. Five tracks both sides, the music is a wash of strange and bending pop, a magic orchestra that has floated into your ears through a window.
Hello Dewey, we’re standing on the path of the River Fleet. Explain to me what you interpret from the word saudade.
Dewey: Without sounding like a pretentious wanker, this saudade thing is like the feeling of an old home or a past lover or even a past life – yet not knowing it being attached to this 3D world. It‘s kind of like a déjà vu feeling. There‘s something connected to that, when I think about writing music. I know the feeling, I know the chords and I know the melody, but I’ve just got to work my way through all the other stuff to get to that thing that I know. But it is fresh, because it ends up being a fresh sound. I suppose because it‘s really visual for me as well, it feels like I‘m trying to reach that place that is that saudade. When I go on a walk, I can never see a correlation between what I‘m seeing and what I’m feeling. But it‘s not a scary feeling, it‘s a really warm feeling because you know it, it‘s like you've been there before. And that’s how I feel about music – I‘m trying to create this scene, and picture. It seems so esoteric, but it feels so natural. It‘s always been like that, since I was a kid. I was always creating these mad little scenes.
What happened on your trips to Sóller?
Dewey: I went for a few years in a row. It‘s a very isolated, haunting place, and because it was wintertime there was nobody around. I was in the second part of writing this record – I started it there, and ended it there. It's actually kind of a cycle, the album. There are these little miracle references (in the album), all these walks that I used to take. I was isolated to the point of actually being quite unhealthy. My only friend was a 90 year-old Californian pirate, she was incredible. I heard someone swearing up the hill by a cemetery – this was a place she used to go to. So I ran up the hill to see what was going on and I saw this old lady busting her scooter in, because it wouldn‘t work. It turns out she owns loads of land there. Her son was somebody I already knew because he'd been looking after the villa I was staying in. He actually converted her house into (what looks like) the hull of a boat. She was a captain of the oceans back in wartime – she was the first woman to be the captain of a boat in the war, apparently. I think the BBC wanted to make a documentary on her, but she‘s staunchly anarchist. Sóller is a really magical place, kind of trapped in time. And that's what I feel that record is, it‘s trapped in a time. I don‘t know where that time is, it’s sort of a place in my head. That saudade thing.
Once you‘ve written a song, can you finally see what the feeling trapped in you looks like?
Dewey: Yeah, sometimes it can be as simple as giving it a name. Like “The Slipped Dark Boulevard on the Way to the Desert” (one of Dewey’s older songs) – I already had the thing in my head, I've got the picture. How can I make that come across in a song? That‘s why they're so truncated. With the album more specifically, because I was writing a lot of it in Mallorca, I felt the heat of it, and the olive trees, all of the beautiful rocky walks that I’d go on. I think that’s why all the songs are generally named after places – like there’s “Minneapolis”, which is an instrumental. I just went there to check out the music scene and ended up staying for a month.
When you‘re trying to get inspired, do you turn to people, or things, objects, like art?
Dewey: I just get really obsessive about things. It’s films more than it is music, because it’s the visual thing. I try not to be too influenced by the music – of course it‘s naturally in my subconscious. I don‘t even realize it‘s there, it’s ingrained in my youth. For that record, I think it was Polica that I was listening to loads. And David Lynch, and the amazing soundtracks in his films as well.
He uses visuals to paint a mood, but he doesn’t tell you, “you’re feeling this way”, or “that way”.
Dewey: You have to leave a space – making sure that I have left enough space so you can put your own experience into it. I don‘t want to give the whole story away. Generally, I write in a very visceral way, where it just all comes out. It‘s all feelings based. Like, if I don’t really know how to articulate what I‘m feeling – because I never really start with the lyrics first – then I‘ll construct a massive vocal stack, and see what I can build off of that and where it takes me. It‘s kind of unpredictable, kind of trance-y. I‘ll start singing a note that resonates with me, and just press record. I‘ll probably give it a BPM so I can shape the song around it, and let it run for like a minute, and then start looping it so I can hear the other one playing back to me, and then just build the feeling from that. It’s kind of Roy Orbison-esque, it‘s all kind of overwhelming, it’s a release. I think my voice is the quickest way to get there. But then it does happen where I’ll just sit down and it comes out, but that’s super-rare. That happened with “Letting Go”, that just came out in one thing, written in like 10 minutes. But then “These Wicked Tears”, and songs like “Ballet Dancers” and “In Basque Country”, they’re all vocal stacks.
For the “Is It Infatuation?” video, you film yourself from the sky with a drone. Explain the thinking there.
Dewey: The drone was the perfect escapist hobby for lockdown. I didn’t really start with much of a formed plan, and didn‘t have the chance or the money to make a proper music video. And I thought, well I don’t know how long I’m gonna be locked down in the Sussex Downs for, and it’s the perfect spot. I call it the haunted village. There’s this crazy walk, you reach it at the top of the hill, and then everything just stops and all you see are these crazy fucking ominous hills – no trees, just Hawthorns, really barren. There used to be an asylum there, I think they used it in the war. There are some spirits chiming around! Every time I took my drone down there, something weird would happen, and the footage would come back really shit. It’s like an episode of Countryfile or something. So I don’t have any footage of that place. It’s a walk I do everyday, and I've got a drone license. The drone video concept came because I needed to film myself without having to hold a big camera or a selfie stick and I wanted to get some more cinematic shots. The whole thing is kind of tongue-in-cheek – I’m swapping around clothes and playing different characters. It felt like a very meditative process because I wasn’t thinking about myself so much, I was concentrating on the framing, for example. Music is so memory-based and reflective, you’re constantly diving into this hermit mode where you’re like looking around at yourself. Whereas with that it was like, I’m looking at a beautiful tree. How can I make this tree look even weirder or more beautiful?
The tone switches in the second half – it’s darker, right?
Dewey: It was definitely an exploration of my sexuality. So the first part was very much the infatuation and fantasy and desire of a woman, who wasn’t a real person, a fantasy. But you know, it was one of those lustful obsessions that never came to fruition, in a committed relationship sense. I was comfortable with my sexuality at that point, but I wasn’t sure how to vocalise it. So that was a really freeing way for me to start singing songs about women. Because before that point, really, I think I was quite scared to be that transparent – we’re talking sort of 18, 19, 20. So part one is all about desire for a woman. But part two, that relationship ended. That whole second part is just talking about things ending and the duality of life, accepting the darkness.
People never talk about death positively, as if it isn’t one of the most natural and mundane things you can do.
Dewey: It’s a thing that we don’t talk about, and it’s something I want to talk about more, what with everything that happened to me last year. I feel like I’m in a place where I’m confident enough to understand that subject personally, that pendulum swinging, life and death. I think I can talk about it now, not from an exterior viewpoint where I’ve lost someone. But it’s a beautiful thing, because it makes you embrace the reality of that, also that melancholy that everyone has to go through. I wish in our culture it was more present.
There’s definitely a counter-narrative way of approaching death. It’s cloaked in sadness and shame, but really it’s pretty formulaic.
Dewey: There’s a weird shame around mourning. But I don’t feel the same at all, I think you can embrace all those dark edges. It gave me a piece of humility, another level of stepping outside of myself and my ego, more than I ever have done. And the simplest things, like just losing that hair that I had – it doesn’t matter. It was a really interesting refining process for the people that were around me at the time too, I think. I definitely noticed that I lost some friends, because of the heaviness of that situation. I don’t think everyone’s prepared to sit with that, which is fine, you know, different processes. I also lost the previous person that was me, which was an amazing thing. I felt like there was something in the identity of having that ethereal hair, this kind of feminine thing that didn’t really fit my soul. I’m feminine, but I’m both things. I’m either-or, but I think that identity is so wrapped up in hair. People just put you into a box, you know? It was a really strengthening thing for me – it’s not like I didn’t give a fuck before, but that was sort of the point that everyone was missing. Whereas now, I really don’t give a fuck. The weirdest thing is that it really wasn’t that long ago. It feels like a long time ago.
“If I don't know how to articulate what I‘m feeling, I‘ll construct a massive vocal stack and see where it takes me. It‘s kind of unpredictable, kind of trance-y” – Dewey
Because you’ve had such a profound experience, you can play around with the narrative of your life.
Dewey: That’s really important, this is not my narrative. This is just a speck in the fucking ocean. Yes it’s important, but it’s not a victim story at all. It’s just a story that will hopefully show people to not be scared of the things that are scary. Obviously, I was really fucking lucky that it didn’t go down another route. There’re so many lessons to be learnt in getting closer to death. And just people’s kindness, like, you know, my friends, my family, the nurses. It was more about getting to the root of my authenticity and it’s really fun to play with that, with the character pen. It’s such a blessing that it happened at the time that it did because we were gonna release (the album) as soon as we made a music video, and the day after I made that video I went into hospital. It was sort of divine intervention. I was not in a good place in my life – I was in a bad relationship, I was just working so much and then coming home and squeezing in as much music shit as I could. I would never complain about working hard, but it was compromising. The first part is my own creation and my own illusion, which is wrong, you know. If that person was everything that I thought she was, it was just a creation of my own fantasy. Like, she wasn’t that person at all, she was just a human being. I do this thing where I put someone on a pedestal or create this world, but that’s not something that can last. And I think that the second half is about revealing the reality. It’s more tender, it’s the acceptance of my delusions, which is hard to admit. Sometimes it’s fun to escape, you know, in a creative way. There are healthy ways to do it that are really stimulating.
Your feelings around the typical album-release cycle changed last year, could you explain?
Dewey: I‘ve been sitting on (the album), warming it like a little chicken and its egg for a really long time now. Having cancer forced me to stop everything and throw down the sword and look at who I wanted to work and go on this journey with, and how I want to release this music. I just don’t want to compromise anything, and it has taken a really long time. But I’m not in a rush. I’m not prescribing the formulas of the music industry, by which I mean, even in the simplest way, I’m having to work out how to visually represent myself by making my own videos. My friend Ali (Kate Cherkis) has taken some photos of me (for the cover art), which we took nearly a year ago when I went to New York. I’d rather use my friends’ work, it just makes more sense. I think it‘s pretty strange that I‘m pulling these poses where I’m kind of revealing something, it was quite an unconscious thing. It’s like I’m pulling something away, like a curtain. It comes back to that strange duality thing we were talking about. She’s one of my best friends who has taken all my photos through the years, she shoots a lot for the New York Times.
Is it a worry that you will one day find what you are looking for, creatively? Because once you’ve done that, there’s some sort of light that goes out, but you’ll never know that’s happened until it does.
Dewey: I don’t know if I‘d even be in a privileged-enough position to be able to experiment as much as Bjork did, for example. It’s just me and my laptop, you know? I think it’s because I have a bit of a producer head, it comes back to these soundscapes for me so much more than the song. But the song… You’ve got to fit the melody in there, because I love a melody that draws people and connects them to the place. I‘ve always got ideas for places, so I don‘t know if it would ever die because it‘s just finding a new place to go to. It would be sad if that stopped happening, because that‘s how I live my life. I think the next batch of songs that I make will be really refined, I want to only use elements, and see what happens with that.