Jean Dawson Controls the Chaos

The musician’s new album, Chaos Now*, is an ode to misfits that’s delightfully hard to pin down.

A portrait of Jean wearing red eye makeup, a black cap, a navy sweater, and tan blazer with buttons ...
Photograph by Nico Hernandez

The musician Jean Dawson spent months in his bedroom in Inglewood, California, chain-smoking cigarettes and ripping his hair out, trying to figure out what was wrong with his latest album. “You should have seen it, the room looked crazy,” he tells me. “You know those movies where a dude is trying to figure out a crime and they have pieces of yarn connected to pins on the wall? It was essentially that, with drawings and guitar progressions written out and shit. My significant other would see me in my room and be like, ‘Hey, do I have to call your mom? Cuz you look like you’re losing your mind.’”

The result is Chaos Now*, a record that explodes with Dawson’s hard-to-pin-down sound and the ebullient energy of his personality. The artist says he completely scrapped two previous versions—one, because it resembled an EP (“I really hate EPs,” he tells me over Zoom, “like, vehemently hate EPs,”) and the other, because it wasn’t “profound enough. I was just saying words.”

Dawson embraced mess as part of his process—one which he refers to as similar to method acting. The emotions and ruminations of his real life are the source of his music, which recalls the pop-punk guitar riffs of Blink-182, the vocals of emo bands like Brand New, the emotional prose of The Shins or Fleet Foxes, and heavy drums mixed with bars and beats that could easily be interchanged with a radio-friendly rap song. Oh, and there’s a sprinkling of country and classical elements in there, too.

The genre-less aspect of Dawson’s sound has left the industry scratching its head, grasping for an artist to compare him to, in hopes of making him easy to understand. But his record—the release of which coincides with the start of a U.S. tour—was made for those who might not fit in a societally accepted box. “I’m just a dude making music,” he says. “I have to allow them to form their own ideas of it. I don’t know how the world looks at me. I’m just my mama’s son.”

In his lyrics, Dawson covers topics ranging from anxiety, depression, feeling like an outsider, and fragile masculinity. The 26-year-old grew up on the Internet, making music with a friend during high school, then posting his first songs onto Soundcloud and Bandcamp before pursuing a more traditional route into the music industry after leaving Cal State Los Angeles, where he studied film. Growing up, he split his time between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico (Dawson is of Black and Mexican ethnicities: his mother’s family is from Sinaloa, Mexico while his father hails from Long Beach, California). His mom, he says, learned English by listening to rap music—so there were plenty of West Coast OGs on the radio at home, in addition to Michael Jackson and corridos, a kind of Mexican folk song, which his grandmother adored. It makes sense that the work Dawson is putting out on Chaos Now*, which will drop on October 7, is just as mixed as his upbringing.

Dawson is hesitant to share the personal revelations he experienced while working on Chaos Now*, because he hopes his listeners will take away from it whatever they need at that very moment. He will say, however, that making it made him realize why he’s pursued music as a career: because he loves it, and because it provides a space for those who might feel alone or misunderstood. “When people ask me what genre I make, I’m like, dude, I don’t know,” he says. “What genre of music did Prince make? I’m not comparing myself to Prince—he is a god among humans. But his music was just Prince. It was everything you needed it to be at the time.

“I don’t want anybody to feel excluded,” he adds. “One of the things I value most is inclusivity. Giving people a safe space to listen to music without having to be a certain thing is really important because I feel like there’s a lack of that. That’s the environment I want to create. We’re all trying to figure it out, and we live in a troubled world; every generation of people has always lived in a troubled world. A little thing that we can do is just to say, Hey man, come over here. I got a hug for you if you want it.”