Even stuck at home, in Sydney Australia where it is summer and life has been somewhat normal by current global standards, Dean Lewis is itching to get back on the road and keep moving ….
Late January, the Island Records Australia artist was awarded a 10 x platinum sales disc for ‘Be Alright’, the lead single and global hit from his 2019 debut A Place We Knew. In an age of streaming as the main consumption of music, there are few songs that attain this kind of status in Australia and for the singer-songwriter to reach that milestone is, as he puts it, “an incredible honour”.
Still, the musician might have quietly expected as much. ‘Be Alright’, a ballad with reassuring uplift and a sky-high chorus, was Number One in Australia for five weeks. Plus, Lewis had already gone 3x platinum (now 7x platinum) with his debut single, 2016’s ‘Waves’. But it was ‘Be Alright’ – which has now amassed almost 3 billion streams (nearly one billion streams on Spotify alone) – that was the track that roared.
“The song was life-changingly big,” the multi-instrumentalist reflects with a slow shake of his head, recalling a track that propelled him up and out of Australia, breaking Europe and America to the extent that he toured every major US city, by his count, four times.
And, in a mark of the reach, range and winning adaptability of his song writing, it also put him on the radar of the European dance music scene. Lewis collaborated with Dutch DJ and producer Martin Garrix on ‘Used to Love’. Since its release in October 2019, the piano-house anthem that showcases the power of the singer’s soulful rasp has had 24 million YouTube views.
‘Falling Up’ is the lead single from Lewis’s hotly anticipated second album. Emotive, impactful, relatable and impossible to forget, it’s a masterclass in what the songwriter does best: connect.
“‘Waves’, ‘Be Alright’ and ‘Half A Man’ from the first album are true universal stories that I didn’t intend to be that way,” says Lewis. “They were just personal to me, but they’re the ones that people were really into. And ‘Falling Up’ falls into that category.
In writing the song Lewis keyed into lifelong feelings of frustration and anxiety. “I always thought I would be happy when I finished school or when I passed an exam, or I got a job or a promotion or if I went travelling and then I was like – ‘ooh, now I have a record deal, what if I have a big song? Then, I had a big song, and I was on the road for three years and when I stopped, I realised it had all passed me by and I was less present and more anxious and stressed than ever. I looked back on my life and at all of these points along the way and I realised that I’ve never felt any better, it’s always been onto the next thing, always moving.”
The lyrics paint a picture of a man in despair: “I’m alone in the spotlight / And the walls are caving in / And I thought I’d be happy / But I’m barely breathing.” In a period when we’re all stuck in shrinking rooms feeling isolated, when claustrophobia – actual, social, and otherwise – is real and widespread, ‘Falling Up’ is the perfect song for the times.
“Those lyrics are about being online and focusing on that one negative comment in a sea of good,” Lewis explains. “You feel the negativity and it affects your life and I took it on, and I found myself feeling more and more anxious and isolated. I really struggle with that.”
The video, shot at the end of last year in Las Vegas with British director Tim Mattia (The 1975′s ‘A Change of Heart’), amplifies those feelings. We see a suited and seemingly successful Lewis roaming a hotel and casino devoid of any other guests. Success never felt so lonely.
“And that’s a reflection how it all felt for me. I’ve made it, baby – so why do I feel so empty? I’d gotten to December 2019 and actually felt the worse I’d ever felt – I couldn’t even remember much of the past two years.”
In some ways, his forgetfulness wasn’t surprising.
Prior to breaking through, Lewis had slogged round the Sydney music scene for years, trying to get his songs heard and struggling to make ends meet. A committed Anglophile, he came to the UK in 2015 as a penniless artist.
Hooking up with writers/producers Nick Atkinson and Edd Holloway in a studio in Richmond, southwest London, he began writing in earnest.
“British music is all I grew up on, from Oasis to The Kooks, so I just wanted to come as soon as I could, and those three months were so fantastic for me. My manager and I were living in a two-bedroom flat on the Thames, I was doing Mahogany Sessions and wearing a terrible haircut. It was great!”
The studio partnership with Atkinson and Holloway worked as well as it did with another young singer-songwriter the English duo were collaborating with at the time: Lewis Capaldi. The Australian returned home to Australia with ‘Waves’ to add to his existing repertoire of demos which included ‘Be Alright’, a song he had written previously with Jon Hume (JP Cooper), and he was signed almost immediately.
And, finally, things took off… ‘Waves’ reached Number 12 in Australia and Number 40 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40. Then came the chart-topping feats of ‘Be Alright’ and a Number One album in the shape of A Place We Knew, which has gone on to reach great heights all over the world but most recently certified GOLD in the USA.
“I was just so hungry to prove I had something to give,” Lewis remembers. “I was starting out at an age when most artists are on their second, third album. But the success didn’t change me – because I already knew who I was!”.
Equally, he wasn’t taking anything for granted.
“I spent the next five years terrified that I’d end up back at my nan’s. Just when things were starting to happen for me, I’d had to move out of my apartment and in with her for 18 months because I had a huge tax bill. I was having meetings to go bankrupt, but if I went bankrupt, I’d have to hand in my passport, and I’d just got a record deal, so I couldn’t do that.”
With ‘Waves’, a melodic confessional about his fear of growing older, landing multiple syncs on US TV, Lewis was as in-demand in America as he was at home. But much as he loved taking his music to three radio stations a day, the travelling spun his head.
“I lost my voice; my eyes were fucked with viral conjunctivitis. I was going so fast, by the time it was over, I hadn’t seen anything. You only realise when you’re finished how amazing it was.”
By late 2019 Dean Lewis was, finally, finished touring, promoting, and trying to catch up with the global success of his debut album – and he instantly began thinking about his second album.
He spent three months in LA, a month in Nashville, then came back to London in early 2020, reuniting with Atkinson and Holloway at The Barn in Hitchin, and working with other UK talent including Phil Plested, and TMS. The music was falling into place and he was ready to go again.
And then, the pandemic struck. But the enforced pause, he now recognises, was a godsend. Spending most of the rest of 2020 in LA, Lewis made the best of lockdown, writing and recording in a studio he set up in his West Hollywood apartment. “I sat on my own and it was just peaceful,” he says.
Being isolated, being alone, being focused, being far away from home – the musician turned all that into a creative positive.
“As horrible as it is, the isolation was great for writing. I had time to home in, and time to reflect on the last two years, and time to think about what I wanted my life to be like.”
Suffice it to say that ‘Falling Up’ is a bright, bold sign of things to come. It is, once more, a jaw-dropping encapsulation of the rare skills of Dean Lewis: to make the personal universal, the singular relatable, and the innermost the most accessible.
“It’s how I live my life,” he concludes with a shrug. “I try to be authentic. I haven’t changed my life – I still drive a Corolla! I’m not interested in being anything other than myself. And that doesn’t mean I love me for me!” he laughs again.