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Interview: Jean Dawson’s ‘CHAOS NOW*’ Is Tumultuous Mayhem Cloaked In The Desire To Be Heard And Inspire

The Southern California native speaks about his new album and why there’s beauty in self-discovery.

“Ex girl thinks that I’m f****d up. I am. Mom thinks that I keep a gun tucked. Yesss ma’am.”

That’s what Jean Dawson sings at the beginning of his song “GLORY*” from his just-released, new album CHAOS NOW*. And chaos is only the beginning of what plays out on this project.

The LP, which is his third official release, takes listeners to a point of self-reflection that is so brutally honest it leans into discomfort.

“Stare at yourself in the mirror for 20 minutes and not feel weird is very hard to do,” Dawson told BET.com. “And that's what a lot of what this album was – just staring at myself, and allowing people to see themselves in me.”

Dawson was born in Southern California but spent a large part of his childhood in Mexico, crossing back-and-forth over the southern border constantly for school and a myriad of other reasons. With his mother constantly working at a convenience store to make ends meet, he learned early on how to be self-reliant, which was both a blessing, and oftentimes, chaos in itself.

“After school in fifth grade, it was a trek up to my house, which was like three or four blocks away, I would drop my backpack down, I'd immediately go outside, and look for the first trouble I can get into,” the 26-year-old remembers. “In a nutshell it was like what bad things can I do? Because my mom gave me so much freedom to be my own person.”

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But as he grew, Dawson says music became a much more steady presence in his life. Whether it was decompiling chord progressions he loved, teaching himself how to play the $60 Walmart guitar his mom bought him, or just downloading thousands of songs from the internet for inspiration, Jean’s unimpeded curiosity began expanding rapidly.

“Somewhere around my senior year of high school, I was like, I want to do something that I have no idea how this works, so I had to reverse engineer rock music, but also understand what that genre is for other people in other generations,” he says. “So talking to my mom a lot – she loves The Scorpions, she loves Iron Maiden, that's her stuff. So I had to listen to all that stuff while I was young and not understand how any of it worked. Then as I got older my access got wider and my potential to do things physically got wider.”

It wasn’t always easy though…

“My homies is gangbangers, my daddy from the hood. My mom from Mexico. Like, I know what it feels like to listen to Nirvana and not tell the homies. And maybe my way of thinking is dated because I grew up in an era where like, the biggest thing we had was 50 Cent and The Game,” Dawson remembers. “I couldn't tell the homies I'm listening to [“Vicinity of Obscenity”]. I can’t tell them I’m listening to System of A Down. That's just weird. And not because I was embarrassed. It was just like, nobody in that genre looks like us. It’s not about being a Black kid or a Mexican kid. It's about the culture of what these things are.”

It’s perhaps part of the reason Jean made a transition from initially creating Hip Hop to what could be considered indie rock with CHAOS NOW*. To him, he’s making the music he wants to and he lets the fans decide how to compartmentalize it.

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With his latest album, Dawson stretches everything to the max, whether it’s the stark portrayal of coming on and off drug addiction on ”KIDS EAT PILLS*” to the paranoia that often comes with using those drugs on “SCREW FACE*”. Topics of spirituality and morality often coincide with references to gang life and the devil. It often presents itself as a tug-of-war between good and bad, reality versus imagination, and acceptance against doubt.

Dawson cites Odd Future as a huge barrier-breaker that allowed him the freedom to vividly relay all of these often scattered thoughts. So it’s no surprise that Earl Sweatshirt not only makes an appearance on CHAOS NOW*, but effectively assists in curating its message.

Nico Hernandez

On “BAD FRUIT*”, Sweatshirt comes in on the back half continuing Dawson’s musings about not being able to fit in, like a fallen apple that was “never picked.”

In my mothers eyes / Everything I did / Kind of undefined / Real deal real spill / Falling off the vine / And I was a little kid living off of Vine / And Sunset some said it was my time / I ain't done yet.”

First becoming an acquaintance of the Odd Future rapper and then a friend, Dawson explains that he never thought Earl would provide him with a feature for the project, and when he did, it changed everything for him.

“I played him the album and he was saying some really wonderful things and for me it was a really really big moment. We're outside of the house, he was in my car playing the album. Kinda like had a heart to heart and I was really taken aback by it,” Dawson says. “And I was like I have this song if you want to do it and I don't want to ask you because I know who you were from the outside but now I know who you are from the inside and I don't want to put you on the spot for something and he was like, ‘No, I'll do it.’ And I was like, oh s**t! That was one of the moments where God has some tricks.”

Ultimately, it’s the access and inspiration to create all types of music for weird kids, kids much like Jean growing up, that motivates him. He notes that being a Hip Hop lyricist is more accessible and cost-effective because it doesn’t necessarily require learning how to read music, buying expensive instruments, and/or playing with a group of other musicians.

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“When I started doing indie rock, I knew no Black person that was doing indie rock. And I wasn't doing it to be the only one. If anything, I was doing it to do the opposite,” he explains. “I think that it's turned a corner since then – since my first project, since my second project – it's a lot more common to see some kid holding a guitar with brown skin.

“One of my goals was to be not a martyr for it, because a lot of times when people run through a door, they bust the door open, they get trampled or they run through the door, and nobody knows who actually broke the door down,” Dawson adds. “I don't need to be a person that breaks the door down. I just know that I want kids to feel okay with breaking the door down themselves.”

Nico Hernandez

Hopefully with CHAOS NOW*, Jean Dawson will be able to at least continue the demise of the door that has been closed to so many Black and Brown kids like himself who want to express themselves in ways that don’t include a traditional switch off between verses and refrains. Sometimes the most beautiful music comes together in the midst of the mayhem that is life, especially now.

“I was literally racking my brain for a long time trying to understand the nature of my own being, which is humans are chaotic,” he concludes. “One moment, we're happy then we're sad and we're all these things. But what we can say is that we're human in the grand scheme of it and being human is also chaotic. You're a walking ball of flesh that needs to eat food and communicate. I'm trying to just understand myself. So within doing that, I understood that I wanted to be shapeless and formless.”

Stream Jean Dawson’s new album CHAOS NOW* here.

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