“I think I was always really scared growing up that I didn’t want to capitalise or cash-in on my sexuality,” says L Devine, curled up on a sofa at the East London studio she rehearses at. “It’s ridiculous now when I think about it.”
We’ve relocated from Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club – the backdrop of our photoshoot with the star – and have started to discuss how important it was to L Devine to be open about her sexuality from the start of her career. The often-told story when it comes to LGBTQ musicians is that traditionally they have been encouraged to keep their sexual orientation under wraps. A new generation, however, have found themselves with a very different problem: they are resisting their identity potentially being exploited as part of a marketing narrative.
“I just didn’t want people to think I was using it as an arc or something like that,” L Devine continues. “Obviously there’s something in society that’s told me that that’s what I would be doing. Even when I was 14 and I thought, ‘I really want to be a singer but what am I going to do about being a lesbian?’ I thought I’d have to say I am bisexual so that I could still appeal to boys. It’s just so weird that I would think that sex appeal would have to come into me making music.” She stops. “Now I realise that I should just be me and my sexuality is part of my story I’m telling through my music.”
And what some storytelling that is. The opening track of last year’s Peer Pressure EP is a fine example of how L Devine overcame a direct experience of homophobia and turned it into a glorious pop bop. “So say your worst, trust me your ignorance don’t faze me, she’s my baby,” she sings on Daughter; a song inspired by a real life situation where in her teens her girlfriend came out to her mother and they both faced the parent’s negative response to their relationship.
“It’s interesting with that one because it’s something I went through quite a while ago, but I’d never really thought about writing about it,” L Devine says. “That was weird because for me it was such a big thing that happened in my life. I was only young, but that was probably the most weirdest thing I’ve had to deal with so far. It’s just about the first time I ever fell in love. It was amazing and everything that it should be, and then we came out to her mum and she was just so not okay with it. We were really surprised by that. It totally got flipped on its head and she was really against us being together. We had to see each other secretly. It’s mad looking back on it because I remember at the time thinking, ‘Yeah, of course she’s not okay with it. This is so bad of us to do.’ And now I look back on it and I’m like, ‘Woah, how can someone be so ignorant?’ I guess I’d never wrote about it because I needed time to reflect on that and see both sides of it.
“Stuff like that takes time to process. I was a kid – like, 17 – when that happened, so at the time I didn’t know what was going on really. Now I can see it for what it is. And also I kind of have sympathy for her in the song because she’s dealing with something that she didn’t expect she had to deal with.”
I suggest that the song also exposes the growing generational gap that’s emerging right now – not only when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance, but across a number of issues including politics, climate change and mental health to name but a few. She agrees, adding: “Something I’ve struggled with coming of age and going through adolescence is realising that your parents aren’t really these all-knowing superheroes. That was the biggest shock factor for me about that song. Now I look back and realise just because that was her parent it doesn’t mean she was right about anything. It’s actually okay to feel like you’re right and sometimes less ignorant than your parents.”
L Devine – real name Olivia Devine – grew up in Whitley Bay in Newcastle upon Tyne in a part of the country that appreciates what she describes as “indie-centric” music first and foremost. That was at odds with her own dreams of pursuing a career in pop. “Wanting to do pop music was weird in the sense that nobody took it seriously,” she explains. “Also, I didn’t really have an outlet there. I couldn’t do anything but go on my guitar. All the stuff I was doing was very Taylor Swift at the time, just because I was singing these pop songs over a guitar. So it was kind of hard to get out of there, but also to meet producers and collaborate.”
That being said, L Devine wouldn’t change her childhood for the world. She loved living so close to the beach, and her family are very close and fully accepted her when she came out. In fact, there was no coming out moment at all. “I didn’t really have to tell them,” she laughs. “I just kept having this girl over every week and they totally knew what was going on!” However, armed with her pop dreams she relocated to London. After putting videos on YouTube and Facebook she realised she was actually quite good at this songwriting malarky, and decided to see if the big-wigs down in the Big Smoke would think so too. But she didn’t go to London with a view of seeing her own name up in bright lights.
“I never really thought about being a pop star – I just loved writing songs,” she admits. “So I guess that was the biggest surprise to me. I came in and record labels actually wanted to sign me as an artist. I really, honestly never thought that was going to happen. I thought I was going to come down to London, sign a publishing deal, and hopefully write for pop stars. That was the dream to me. It’s not that I didn’t want to be an artist, I just never thought it was possible. I had this cookie-cutter idea of what a pop star was and I was just like, ‘I’m definitely not that.’ When I started meeting with labels, they really believed in me and I realised you can kind of do whatever you want. I started looking at other artists that in my head I thought were left-of-centre and way more weird and contemporary, and I was like, ‘Oh wait – they’re actually pop stars too. I can be like that.’ When I was younger it was Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, but we have people like Christine and the Queens and Lorde who are pushing all of these boundaries. They’re doing really exciting stuff.”
In the summer of 2017, L Devine was introduced to the world with her brilliant debut single School Girls. “Let me tell you about the real life,” she starts, before the track bursts into an instantly addictive slice of pop, presenting itself as the song equivalent of Mean Girls. Like You Like That and Panic helped form her Growing Pains EP, quickly gaining the star a committed following. The last year we received the Peer Pressure EP, which includes the title track, the aforementioned Daughter, as well as recent single Nervous. In the space of two years, L Devine had cultivated herself quite the little music box of pop gems.
But not only are these songs brilliantly written and finely produced, they came with highly stylised visuals. The Peer Pressure film in particular cemented L Devine’s presence as one to keep a firm eye on. At the time she explained that the film symbolised “existential crises, toxic relationships and anxiety”. So how did songwriting help her through these experiences, I ask. “It kind of puts things into perspective for me. It’s funny having all these really confusing feelings and not having a clue what’s going on with your life, or what you’re doing, or who you are, but then being able to put it so clearly in a song. It sounds so cliché, but it’s so therapeutic.”
Which brings us to L Devine’s new single Naked Alone. It hears the star step away from the squiggly pop she has previously released, and sets her on a more funk-driven path. The song was written very early on in her career as L Devine, very shortly after she first moved to London and writing it helped her through a tough time in her life. “Basically I was super lonely and I had come to a city where I felt very small,” she explains. “I didn’t really have many friends here yet and I missed home a lot. I also hadn’t had any special friends in a really long time! So I just wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself and turn that into this really fun, tongue-in-cheek song.”
It marks the next phase of L Devine’s career; one that will see her experiment with different sounds and enjoy releasing a few stand-alone singles rather than mini collections of songs. “I kind of just want to do a few songs that are completely different from each other, and show what I’m into and what I can do,” she says. “I listen to all kinds of music and I’m inspired by so many things, so I don’t really want to limit myself. I think when you’re making a body of work, there’s more pressure to have some cohesive stuff in there that all makes sense amongst each other.”
Work towards that debut album is still happening, but L Devine recognises that she still needs time to grow before that moment. Being a keen songwriter, she’s always committing ideas to song and hopes that eventually they will all come together for a fully-realised body of work. Part of that process will involve working with plenty of female music talent behind the scenes. That’s something Devine is naturally passionate about. I ask what more needs to be done to support women from all corners of a very male-dominated music industry, where female writers, producers, managers and musicians are continually overshadowed by their male counterparts. There’s immediately a fire in her belly.
“I was actually a part of an all-female songwriting camp called She Writes,” she says. “They are an amazing organisation that basically put together a camp where it’s solely female artists, female writers and female producers, and it’s proven to be really successful. It’s amazing to be in the same room with loads of women, but actually now they’re getting results and songs are getting cut by huge artists, and it’s an all-female credited song. That is so cool. More stuff like that really helps to get numbers up. But then it’s also like, don’t be stupid. If a 17-year-old girl is writing a song about her experiences, you don’t need another male writer who’s in his 30s who, just because he’s got hits under his belt…” she pauses for a second. “At the end of the day, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a 17-year-old girl.”
It goes without saying that there’s a new generation of music fans out there now who crave authenticity. Young music fans aren’t stupid, they can smell a manufactured act a mile off. “It’s cringey man,” L Devine adds. “There’s nothing worse than hearing some over sexualised song sung by a teenage girl and then looking at the writing credits and it’s been written by a 40-year-old man.”
That craving for authenticity has certainly helped LGBTQ artists, with more being open in their music than ever before. There’s a generation of role models that just didn’t exist a decade ago. “When I was young I would have killed to have artists like Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko and King Princess, and all of these LGBTQ artists,” L Devine says. “That would have changed my life when I was younger. It feels really good that I can be that for someone.”
It’s an exciting time for queer music talent as wave of new LGBTQ acts have finally been given the freedom to celebrate who they really are. “I didn’t want to get put in the box as a ‘gay artist’ whereas now there is genuinely so many great LGBTQ artists,” L Devine admits. “All of my favourite artists are part of the LGBTQ community. I think different is the new mainstream now. That’s what you need to do to be seen. You need to be as outlandish and out there as possible, but I think artists within the LGBTQ community have always been doing that. That’s what they are known for.” Out, proud and continually serving nuggets of pristine pop, that’s why L Devine is our new music obsession.
Photography Laura Allard-Fleischl
Words Lewis Corner
Fashion Umar Sarwar
Hair Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management using AVEDA
Makeup Beth Alderson at Carol Hayes Management using NARS Cosmetics
Fashion assistant Tara Pertwee
Location Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club