Three years ago, singer-songwriter Dean Lewis cold-messaged his demo to 30 managers. “I got no emails back,” he says, calling from the road in between tour stops in Vienna, Virginia and Philadelphia. “That was the extent of my trying.”
But a friend wasn’t going to let him give up, and later passed the demo along to former Savage Garden manager Leonie Conley at a boat party. Soon after, she signed Lewis to a publishing deal as a songwriter.
The gig was short-lived. “You can write a song for someone, and then their mom doesn’t like it, and then it doesn’t get released,” Lewis says. “It could be the best song that you’ve ever written. I hated that, because I didn’t have any control.” The Australian native remembers stockpiling songs for himself on the side -- a track called “Half a Man” will be on his upcoming debut -- eventually realizing that he wasn’t helping himself or other artists. “I was scared of coming up with something good that wasn’t mine.”
Lewis, 30, says he has seen enough of his friends try the independent route, only to “disappear,” and knew he wanted a team behind him pushing his music out -- so that’s what he got. Three months into his songwriting gig, he landed a record deal with Island in 2016.
Within a year of signing to the label, Lewis was in the states promoting breakthrough single “Waves.” The track got him solo gigs and slots on festival lineups, more importantly, its success made him realize “it is totally possible to make a living off this.”
Now, he’s already back for a second round -- this time riding on the back of a bigger hit, “Be Alright.” The hopeful ballad about moving past a breakup has racked up 39.6 million total on-demand U.S. streams (audio and video combined) since its June release, according to Nielsen Music. “I was sitting in a hotel hoping people wanted to talk,” says Lewis of his first promotional trip to the U.S. “All of a sudden, everyone wants to have a chat.”
Growing up as one of four sons, Lewis was raised on The Beatles and Oasis. By the age of 10, he had started playing guitar. “I spent five years watching every Noel Gallagher video that was on YouTube,” he says. He connected more with Gallagher’s melodies than his songwriting (he himself prefers to focus on lyrics) and it wasn’t until he read Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 Born To Run autobiography that his approach to songwriting, which he started experimenting with at 18, clicked. He kept writing with no end-game for six years while working with his dad, a cameraman, as a sound recorder for reality TV shows. (Lewis deferred from university after a semester of studying commerce).
Since “Be Alright” arrived just four months ago, the song has climbed to No. 16 on Adult Top 40. But its creation wasn’t as quick as its rise -- Lewis had to record the pop ballad four times in three different countries. After first laying it down in Australia, he didn’t feel that the chorus was right, so he took off for the U.S. to record with “a big name producer,” he says, “and to be honest, it was not a good experience. It was terrible.” From there, he went to England to seek out the familiar: Nick Atkinson and Edd Holloway, the guys behind “Waves.” They suggested Lewis take the chorus up a key, and that’s when it finally fell into place.
Now, Lewis is working on his upcoming album, which speaks to what’s relevant in his life currently—when he recorded “Be Alright,” a collection of breakup stories, his own was six years behind him. “I’ve been writing a lot of sad songs, and I got to the point where I was like, ‘You can’t write another one or you’re lying,” says Lewis, who is “quite happy right now,” and has started incorporating horns into his music, inspired by creating more uptempo festival sets (he says “Be Alright” is the slowest song on the album).
He will continue writing in the vein of Springsteen -- “Very first person. Very specific. That’s the easiest way for me to make people feel something.” And while writing for others again isn’t entirely off the table, for now, Lewis says: “I just want to prove myself. There’s so much on the line.”