Olivia Devine had to sell her car to become a pop star. Or that’s part of her story anyway. Two years ago, while working a bog-standard cafe job in her hometown of Whitley Bay – a blustery seaside town not far from Newcastle – she realised she wasn’t going to be getting anywhere if she stuck around. “As you probably know, the North’s not really got the biggest pop music scene,” she jokes, clocking my regional Scottish accent as we slouch into a sofa in an east London rehearsal space. “There was no place for me there. It’s all indie bands who play their guitars halfway up their necks!” The 21-year-old was doing everything she could, playing to modest crowds at open mic nights while brash lads playing mediocre rock lapped up the limelight.
But the North’s cynicism wound up being a gift: it inspired her to move from Tyneside to London. With little more than the cash from selling that car and a grant from a local music charity, she signed a year-long lease for a room in a flat above a Sainsbury's and set her sights on breaking her own pop career. “I don’t know how I planned to get away with that,” she says, laughing. A few weeks after her arrival, plagued by the panic any artist gets during a dry spell, she contemplated slinking downstairs to the supermarket to hand in her CV. Broke and living with the fear of having to move back home, Olivia was, as she puts it “kind of shitting myself”.
Her patience paid off, though. Soon, as she tells it, industry people started to catch wind of the Geordie girl whose pop demos took a snapshot of adolescence and womanhood through a frank lens: they were doing the rounds on Soundcloud and winning her the approval of major label bosses. After moving here only hoping to become a songwriter on a publishing contract, just two months after Olivia’s arrival, she signed a record deal with Warner Music and became the pop star, L Devine (an adult film performer’s already using the name ‘Olivia Devine’) instead. But this isn’t the story of a young woman Moving to the Big City, adopting a stage name and becoming an overnight superstar. Not yet, anyway. A year after she dropped her first EP Growing Pains to pop blogs and “tastemaker” praise, L Devine is still waiting for that breakout moment.
She’s teased fans with effervescent and relatable pop (paired with arresting short films by Dua Lipa and Rihanna collaborator, Emil Nava). The sugar-rush sounds of this year’s “Like You Like That” and her latest single, “Nervous” exemplify what anxious young fans pining for love want to hear. And yet a year later – with her Peer Pressure mixtape out on Friday 16 November – it still feels like L Devine hasn’t yet pulled in a mass audience for her deservedly chart-ready tracks.
But this is part of a broader trend in British pop, and one she’s aware of. “Now, everyone knows that you’ve got to watch someone grow, and that there needs to be a lot more music before you get to the big stuff – unless you’re a viral sensation.” She shrugs. Her own trajectory, I say, reminds me of Dua Lipa’s: steady at first, and emblematic of how much harder it is to break British pop stars now. “Previously, you could burn through two singles quite quickly and there was also a big physical story to tell,” said Hannah Neaves, director of marketing and artist development at management company Tap, speaking to the Guardian about the new challenges in pushing UK acts to super-stardom. “You have to be prepared to spend three years getting to a position that previously would have taken you nine months.” And so it makes sense that Liv smiles while saying “For me, it’s been a nice upwards crawl so far – nothing too fast.”
It’s the kind of patience that women in pop were barely afforded a decade ago, as major labels swept up promising young talents, threw them out into world billed as ‘the next big thing’, failing to give them a chance to establish an identity before dropping them. As chart columnist James Masterton put it to the Guardian late last year: “It’s a potential consequence of ever-tighter margins. Managers are on less of a hair-trigger to write off an investment, which is to everyone’s benefit.” So for someone like Liv, that means Warner (also Dua Lipa’s label, by the way) are willing to wait it out while she bubbles on the relative underground. For Warner then, it seems, Liv is a long-term pop investment.
That may come down to the content of her music, which marries both a message and radio-friendly structure. It’s a model that worked beautifully for Dua, propelling her to fame with the feminism-lite of “New Rules,” several years after she was signed. Lead single “Peer Pressure" is a Heathers-sampling ode to teen anxiety, pingers and the arm-twisting so-called mates who try make us follow the crowd. “The party’s in an hour but I’m crying in a towel,” Liv sings in the first verse, “‘Cause this fucking picture doesn’t even look like me now.” There it is: the blend of a relatable premise – ‘don’t we all wish we could pull away from going along with things, and do what feels right?’ – with a bouncing, finger-clicking beat that you wouldn’t expect to find under a verse that includes the words “existential thinking.”
It says a lot about Liv’s knack for songwriting that “Peer Pressure” was almost recorded by an artist who famously writes all her own hits. A few days after Liv worked on it, the song’s producer Justin Raisen was in the studio with Charli XCX. She wanted to hear what he’d been working on; after hearing the “Peer Pressure” demo, "She asked Justin if she could [record] it,” Liv gushes. “If a producer had cut your song without asking you’d usually be pissed, but because it was Charli, I was like ‘I need to hear it right now!’” In the end, Liv decided to keep the song for herself, though you can still hear the Pop 2 star’s Auto-Tuned harmonies running through the final cut. The 21-year-old raises her eyebrows knowingly, smirking: “Win/win, cause now I’ve got a secret Charli XCX version of 'Peer Pressure' that only I get to hear.”
“After writing that song, I felt like I should have a strong message in every song I write,” Liv says, staring past me to gather her thoughts. After all, pop has never had to tackle anything, really. Driven by melody, lyrics can usually feel like an afterthought, but L Devine considers herself an artist pushing back against that. “Now, it’s harder to get away with saying nothing. Especially because of the...” – she pulls out air quotes – “‘political climate’ we’re living in. There’s a social commentary in pop now, because that’s what people’s lives revolve around. Whether that’s social media or things like #MeToo, it’s all become such a huge part of our lives.”
Liv’s tweaked and reworked her songs about young womanhood in rooms full of men much older than her, but insists that – despite what others think – she’s always the one in control. “I’m usually pretty ballsy and I won’t take any shit,” Liv laughs. “If a guy producer is telling me what to do, then I’ll be like, ‘Well you’re not gonna get a cut on the EP then!’”. She remembers the moment, not that long ago, when a male producer wandered into one of her writing sessions and picked apart her work. She rolls her eyes a little, imitating him: ‘‘I’m just not really sure a young girl would say that!’” he “So I said, ‘Well guess what? A young girl just wrote it.’”
The more we speak, the more I find myself hoping that L Devine's ascent to fame will be propelled by her blissful ignorance about the pop machine – and the expectations it holds for young women. She tells me she didn't know what BRIT School was until she struck up conversations with songwriters when she moved to the capital. And as for the fact that she doesn’t sing in her own accent? She admits, with a chuckle and a demonstration (“Pee-yah presh-sha!”), that that was her own call: “I don’t think anyone’s sang in Geordie before!” Based on her sound alone, Liv has the making of loads of top 40 hits in her. But for now she’s focusing on that long game. And she’ll be doing it without worrying about the indie boys, the people who doubt her songwriting – or, for now, having to drive that car back up to Whitley Bay.
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