interview

Pop singer Tessa Dixson is a bunch of personalities: 'Don’t even try to put me in a box'

© Victor Pattyn

“I'm not just a singer, I'm an artist,” says the Brussels multitalent Tessa Dixson. Genesis, her debut album, is released this week, reflecting an unrestrained ambition through a variety of genres, moods, and personalities, bound by one hybrid identity.

Who is Tessa Dixson?

  • Was born in Belgium from a Belgian mother and a British father, who had met each other in the US
  • Started singing, playing music, and performing at an early age
  • Entered The Voice Belgique at sixteen
  • Studied Design and Visual Communication at the ERG (École de Recherche Graphique)
  • Was one of the winners of the musical competition De Nieuwe Lichting (organized by the radio station StuBru) in 2019
  • Released her debut EP Abyss in 2019, following it up this week with the album Genesis

"Yes, it's Dixson, with an 's',” the 22-year-old corrects me. She emphasizes the middle letter because a lot of people tend to forget it, and because she thinks it's special – she has never met another Dixson outside her family. Ending up in Belgium was a coincidence for her, as she will explain to us, but hearing her songs on the radio was not.

Her parents met in California, where both the families of her Belgian mother and her British father had settled. A job offer at the European Commission made the couple leave for Brussels, where Tessa was born. They later moved to the countryside in La Hulpe. At 18, Tessa returned to the capital to study. First she tried Publicity, which didn't go well. Graphic Design and Visual Communication at the ERG was far more her thing. “The teachers were pushing you to go wider than just your own course, and also try, for instance, photography, painting, sculpture, performance art. By doing that, they gave me the freedom to figure out who I was and how I wanted to make my art. It's a pity that I had to stop at some point, but my music needed all my energy.”

Dixson now cherishes the insights on visual arts her school curriculum taught her. Just as much as she is grateful to her parents – her father plays the piano, her mother sings, and they share an eclectic record collection – for the diverse Saturday morning music she woke up to back in the days in the countryside. Just as much as she appreciated the chance to participate in the musical competitions The Voice Belgique and De Nieuwe Lichting (Dutch for “the new generation”), which helped her to understand the ins and outs of the music business at different stages of her career. All this experience has now culminated in Genesis, an album of which four singles are matched with paintings. Striking, fearless videos and ditto artwork make it clear it's not just about the music. It's about claiming your identity with a visual representation that's closer to herself than she even realizes. “It's the reason why I'm not just a singer and I consider myself an artist.” She states it with a certain aplomb. More reassured and eager than ever, but at the same time she likes to go with the flow, not rushing things.

We talk while she's in Sicily, catching a bit of fresh air and vitamin D before the album is released in her rainy homeland. It's a pity our virus-free WhatsApp video connection blocks the rays of Italian sun. But her blossoming ambition is impossible to hide from the screen on the eve of spring. “I've always been a performer,” she recalls. “At my parents' place there are plenty of home videos with diva moments. (Laughs) Obviously, I had the natural born super star vibe in me. I always wanted to perform in front of my best friends and family. I started dancing when I was only three, and often felt bad about having to leave the stage at the end of a recital. I started playing the piano at eight, and later also picked up a guitar.”

1699 Tessa Dixson
© Victor Pattyn

At 16 Dixson entered The Voice Belgique. “It felt like it was where I had to be, stepping out of my room, posting my pop covers only on Facebook and YouTube. Singing on stage, being on camera: it was all part of a big learning process that eventually made me write my own songs.”

Rubens and Rihanna
She considers herself lucky to have parents who were very supportive. “They always told me that the world was my oyster, and no doors are actually closed. For me, not making it is simply not an option. For me, it's all about positivity, and manifesting what you want in the world.” To do so, Dixson closely collaborated with Vue Studio, a Ghent branding and digital marketing agency. “They were able to visually represent my identity. Sometimes I even felt that they understood me better than I understand myself. They developed my idea to tie every single that we are going to release with a historic painting that represented the song somehow, just making it more modern. For instance, 'Tender Me' refers to flourishing flowers and evoked a Rubens baroque painting. That's the benefit of our age: we can use a history of inspiration and appropriate it for today.”

Her album is called Genesis. But is she also a good Christian girl? “Not at all! I'm not so fond of the way religion was imperialized. But on the other hand, when you step into one of these majestic churches or cathedrals here in Sicily and think of the amount of work that has been put into it, you can only wonder. My grandmother being a Buddhist, my dad an atheist, and my grandfather a Christian, I grew up surrounded by many cultures and religions. As a result, I guess I became a very open person.” Which is reflected on Genesis, opening a whole new chapter, moving away from last year's Abyss EP, closer to who she really is. “I am a bunch of personalities: sometimes very up and sometimes very down. That's what I wanted to incorporate in this album. It's important for an artist to be versatile. Putting an artist in a box is so old school!” That's why her songs shift from very danceable to dark and atmospheric, from expanding electro pop on “Tender Me”, evoking the best of Lykke Li, to a cappella on “Promised Land”, a pleasant and powerful musing about her grandmother who passed away.

“I used to listen to a lot of pop: Rihanna, Avril Lavigne, Anastacia, I even had a big Justin Bieber phase. But today, there are just so many influences. Pop music used to be very happy-go-lucky, but it shifted from a product to be sold to the public to a freer space, closely connected to the lives of its performers, less dominated by old men and what they think people want to hear. Moulding artists into something they aren't might have worked fifteen years ago, but today it doesn't. Today, people like it that you are more fragile. Look at Clairo. She's doing great with a sad and vulnerable sound. For me, it's also easier to express myself when I am sad. For example, 'Stealing Eyes' was written in a time that everything around me seemed dull and grey. The song refers to people who see life in pink, think everything is great all the time…and stealing their eyes. But on Genesis I'm not writing just about my own experiences. That was a real challenge. Putting other people's lives into words was tougher than I expected, and required thinking outside the box.”

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