27-year-old experimental alt-singer/songwriter Jean Dawson is the embodiment of a misfit in music. Dawson was raised in a blended household with Mexican and Black parents who treasured underground hip hop and rejected the way the world pummeled the dreams of those who look like Dawson. “My reality was really informed by the way the world seemed to perceive me, [and how it kept] me in this two-dimensional space,” Dawson recalls of his early adolescence.
To make it to class, he would cross the border of Tijuana into San Diego everyday. “I got to see extreme poverty on both sides of the border. I got to see affluence in America, and then understand the greed and socioeconomic disparities in Mexico compared to the U.S. I realized that [when I was] really young, and it made me really depressed. I was always overthinking everything,” the singer remembers solemnly. During his 5-hour treks he would flip through songs on his CD player. “The first CD my mom ever gave me was a Too $hort CD,” Dawson chuckles while telling me how his father used to be a local rapper. “I also listened to a lot of Nirvana because of my friends in school.”
Dawson is a polymath when it comes to alchemizing sonics into a sort of scrappy, genre-shattering sound. His music makes you feel like you can conquer the world, then afterwards crawl into a dark space to retreat from reality. His recent EPs XCAPE and Destruction For Dummies are part of a trilogy, with the final project yet to be named. “My whole life has been a border town,” Dawson tells me, explaining how music has always been his mechanism for escapism. “I spent most of the time traveling between Mexico and San Diego but music was a foundation, [it offered] stability. I spent so much time going between the borders and music was constant.”
The last year has been challenging for Dawson, but he’s presently overflowing with inspiration. While creating the trilogy of EPs, he went through a metamorphosis, and by the time he was ready to create the sequel to XCAPE, Destruction For Dummies arrived organically. The musician eventually emerged from his previous state of disarray. “It is not necessarily the song that changes the way I create art or the why. It’s the organics or the events that happen to you within your normal life outside of music.” In order for Dawson to create — he has to live and feel.
“When I was making “Delusional World Champion” it was coming towards the tail end of a relationship that I had been in for a while. Then, when I got to Part 2, I was fully out of that relationship. So a lot of my intentionality with making those songs came from a place of needing to absolve myself of those feelings.”
Both 2023 EPs, XCAPE [PT. 1] and Destruction For Dummies [PT. 2] serve as guttural releases for Dawson. The first project includes hi-tempo tracks of teenage rock nostalgia, and the follow-up is full of melancholic, existential ballads. “I always say that I’m a three-headed monster. I have three minds – the middle one is the most stable, the right and left are anger and sadness. The middle [mind] is where all the base level emotions happen, where I think: ‘I am going to be fine.’”
Outside of the musical realm, Dawson was the recent face of Nike’s Air Max 2023 campaign. He was photographed stoically wearing black Nike garb and a pastel green beanie. His partnership with Nike is a rare occurrence because the shoe brand doesn’t often collaborate with new artists for their well-established catalog of sneakers.
For his third project, Dawson hints that it is going to have more Spanish and more optimism; consider the dust that settles after a storm or the light glowing on the horizon. “It can have exciting moments, it can be sad, it’s all because the rain already fell,” he pauses. “So it’s kind of just me picking up the pieces, and looking at the ones that I want to amplify. [That’s] not to say that it’s perfectly nice outside, you still might get mud on your shoes, but the sun is up.”
Before the release of his third EP, Dawson has released a song with the R&B singer, SZA. “No SZNS” is Dawson’s response to the ephemeral nature of summer and joy. He sings in the chorus: “In the spring, you can’t hear a thing, nobody thinks in the summertime… in California, we ain’t go no seasons it is all the same to me.” Then, SZA enters with her raspy tone to sing about the anxieties of seasons changing and how this innate cycle leads to new beginnings even if you aren’t looking to start over.
“When SZA and I met in the studio, it felt kind of like talking to a mirror without taking out her own individuality. We really connected on a deeper level. So when we worked on the song, “No SZNs” felt like it had been made four years prior,” Dawson recalls.
“When [you] listen to something [you] make, you realize you are just carrying the torch of whatever that emotion is and when you pass it off to the next kid or the next group of people that listen to that music, it’s much less about the entertainment,” Dawson comments about the intentionality behind his music. “It’s more so about the supplied information that you’re not alone in this and as an artist, there are so many ways we can tell people: ‘I felt that too.” Nearing the launch of a tour all his own, Jean Dawson is ready for visibility and to experience more life.
Malik Peay is a music, travel, film, and fashion journalist. @MalikPeay