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Jean Dawson on Letting Go of Genre and the Narrative: ‘Whatever You Need Me For, That’s What I’m Here For’

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Ordering a plate of flautas at his favorite Mexican restaurant in Lincoln Heights, Jean Dawson is in his element.

The staff quickly recognize him — not because of his growing popularity as a genre-agnostic indie performer, but as a frequent patron of the restaurant’s Sinaloan cuisine, which feels like home for the half-Mexican, half-Black American artist. He cracks jokes with the waiter in his native Spanish, oozing with charisma as he sips his watermelon agua fresca. (He finds it to be a little “too sweet.”)

Within minutes, it’s clear that Dawson’s personality is a far cry from the elusive, hard-to-define character he embodies through his melange of sounds. His latest album, CHAOS NOW*, has something for everyone, relentlessly swerving between indie rock, punk, folk, country and hip-hop. On cuts like “THREEHEADS*” and “0-HEROES*,” we find the 26-year-old Tijuana native yelling an anthemic chorus at the top of his lungs, sandwiched between rap-cadence verses. For the cinematic album closer, PIRATE RADIO*, he delivers gentle country-tinged melodies and reflective lyrics, a soft exhale to follow the high-intensity tracks before it. As the title suggests, CHAOS NOW* is beautifully impossible to place, and that’s exactly what Jean Dawson wants.

“I don’t necessarily fight categorization — I don’t want to go to a grocery store where there’s gum in the milk aisle,” he says between bites of flautas. “Where categorization becomes a problem is when you’re pigeonholed into a certain category.”

CHAOS NOW* reached No. 35 on Billboard‘s Heatseekers chart, with “PIRATE RADIO*” also appearing on the Adult Alternative Airplay chart. Following the release of his album, Jean Dawson clocked in at over 100 million career streams and tripled his Spotify listenership to 1.4 million.

Born David Sanders, Jean Dawson grew up between Tijuana and San Diego, having moved back to Mexico as his mother battled depression. “My mom carried the weight of the world on her back,” he explains. “But my mom also did everything in the f—ing world for us.”

After his parents separated, the singer-songwriter’s father would send money to his mother to help support their family, but even then, it was tough to make ends meet. “I woke up every day and made sure we subsistence ate,” he explains — clarifying quickly, “Meaning we would only buy the groceries for the day. As a five- or six-year-old, my grandmother would send me to the store around the corner to buy tortillas, eggs, ham — she’ll make breakfast, then for lunch I’d go back to the supermarket to get meat and seasonings.”

While his father was largely absent from his life, Jean Dawson’s mother did everything she could to keep her multi-cultural son aware of the entirety of his heritage. “I was a result of my mom’s love for Black culture and my dad’s love for Mexican culture,” he says. “My mom made us recognize that the world was gonna treat us a certain way for not only being Hispanic, but being Black. But one of the biggest things for my mom was like, ‘Never let nobody take away your Blackness.’ She’s like, “Because you are Mexican as f–k. But you’re also Black as f–k.’”

Navigating the in-between became commonplace for the artist, who went on to study film at California State University, Los Angeles before dropping out, and later released his first album, Bad Sports, in 2019. Since then, his sound has evolved with time, but the essence remains the same. Now, embarking on his sold-out headlining tour, he continues forging his own path while keeping in mind the greats who inspire him.

“I’m informed by Prince [and] Michael Jackson,” he explains. “Do I make music like [them]? Absolutely not. But I’m informed by the decisions they made, because they were so them. That opens up a space where you’re not dictated by your complexion or your appearance. Now, it’s going to be like, ‘What’s your spirit?’”

Jean Dawson caught up with Billboard to discuss CHAOS NOW*, his creative process, his upbringing in Tijuana and more.

How are you feeling about the way CHAOS NOW* has been received?

I always go with zero expectation. Maybe it’s just a defense mechanism to protect [myself]. I reference Prince, who said it best: “When you’re putting something out, you look at it as a success before anybody else does.” So my opinion was fully formed about my album before anybody got a chance to listen to it. We tried our very best to [make] something worth the minutes that you spend listening. I’m really, really happy and grateful.

A lot of people that I played it for, they’re like, “People are going to have a super-tough time understanding it.” I feel like there’s a weird consensus that the audience is not as smart as they are.

Did you ever feel any uneasiness about how the world would respond to what you’re creating?

How people receive me never instilled fear in my heart, because I didn’t care to begin with. I’ve gone through all of that. I was judged when I was in high school and middle school. I lost 100 pounds during my junior year of high school and came back extra skinny. People were like, “Do you have a brother that goes here?” I’m like, “It’s me, in a different form.” I found out the shallowness of the world when I was really young.

What was it like growing up in Tijuana?

A beautiful experience. Being a Black Mexican kid, I was always culturally uninformed. When I was here, I didn’t know how to be American. When I was there, I didn’t know how to be Mexican. We lived in a house that my great-great-grandfather built. Nothing fancy — when you used the bathroom, the toilet [didn’t flush]. It’s a very humble reality. My day revolved around doing a lot of studying because my tias were on my ass. I have been raised by women my entire life. My tias would take care of me around the time my mom was going through [something] that was very unfortunate for our family.

What was your childhood like?

We were poor as f–k. And not in a “I made it out the mud” way. That s–t sucked. My mama always had exactly what we needed, never more, never less. By the time I lived in the United States, I was a latchkey kid, so I was alone a lot. In fifth grade, I’d get myself up in the morning, make myself breakfast, walk to school, come back and make myself dinner. I was way too introspective way too young. It f–ked me up. I had my first existential thought when I was like, nine.

My mom worked two jobs: 7-Eleven and for the school district. I’d go to sleep by the time she got home, so I didn’t see her much. She’d just give me a kiss before she went off to work. Because my pops had worked for the military, he gave my mom money to support me and my brother. [But] in all honesty, my mom carried the weight of the world on her back. I don’t glamorize being poor.

Are you supporting your mom now?

Yeah! I fixed her whole house. She lives in San Diego. I’m trying to get her to move [to Los Angeles] because I want to have babies in the next few years. I want to be a dad so bad.

Were your parents supportive of you making music?

They had no f–king idea. My mom always knew I loved music. I used to rap when I was a little kid. When I was in the eighth grade, I was going over to my friend’s house to record, He taught me pretty much everything I know. He taught me how to record, how to count bars. We’d record on Magix Music Maker 6 with a USB microphone.

When it comes to CHAOS NOW*, what inspired your lyrics?

This album, I was having a really hard time toting a line that I was trying to create for myself. I wanted to use myself as a conduit to talk about something bigger than myself. Imagine writing a novel about yourself, without once saying your own name.

One song that stands out to me is “0-HEROES*” — what was the inspiration behind that?

I don’t want people to feel like I’m out here trying to save anybody. I have kids in my DMs saying “Your music made me not kill myself,” and I’m like, “Dude, so unhealthy. I get it and I really appreciate the sentiment, but you need to get help. You need to tell your mom and dad this. If you don’t have anybody, here’s this hotline.” So, I made the song. There’s this part [going] into the hook that’s saying, “Oh, I know I can” over and over again. Having a crowd of kids saying “Oh, I know I can” with this guitar ringing out, for me felt like I was doing something.

What’s your creation process like? Do you like making music with lots of people in the room?

If you’re here, it’s because you’re contributing something. The place is supposed to be a safe space for us to feel uninhibited. I have friends that really like having a bunch of people in the studio, because it adds to that quote-unquote vibe. But not me. We’re not hanging out as much as we are having fun and exploring our own abilities and propensities to do things. It’s kind of like a construction game. You’re not just sitting around on the job-site.

As a Black artist in an “alternative” space, what are your thoughts on how you’re categorized?

I cared a whole lot after my first album. People were like, “You’re pop-punk.” And I [associate] pop-punk to these Southern Californian, predominantly white boys that have gone through a very specific life that I hadn’t. I don’t consider myself punk. And at first, I wanted to control [the narrative]. I’m like, “No, I’m not that.”

Then what would you say you were?

I wouldn’t. I relinquished control. I’m not dictated by [any] perspective. I feel like once I [categorized my music], it would sully it. What I follow a little bit is Freddie Mercury. Freddie was like, “I’m gonna make this ballad album. I’m gonna I’m gonna make this club album. I’m gonna make this thing that’s acoustic-sounding.” He was touching everything in a way that’s just Freddie. So, what do you call Freddie? Well, Freddie was a star.

Do you want to be a star?

I want the music to be bigger than me. The disassociation of myself from the music. I romanticize the everyman, because I don’t live it.

It’s also because I grew up with very humble beginnings. The idea of what a star is, to me, is profoundly confused. It’s very hard for me even to be considered important. I’m important to myself. I’m not a fatalist in any kind of way. But I want to be as big as the world wants me to be. Because then I can open up institutions to help kids make music. Like a sick, state-of-the-art musical recreation center for kids — because I was a rec center kid. I want to have my famous friends come in once a month to talk to these kids for 20 minutes. That’s one of my life’s goals.

What are your goals as an artist?

I think about this a lot. My ethos was to be a proverbial sledgehammer to the door that people have to knock on. I don’t want that door to ever be closed. I want that s–t to be stuck open so you could just run in. It became less about genre-defining and [more about] generational-defining.

But no matter what I say I want music to accomplish, it’s not up to me. I’m just the conduit. What it does for people is definitely indicative of what they need. What I would hope is that music just serves as a supplement. You plug me in and whatever you need me for that moment, that’s what I’m here for.

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