Deb Never: “No one can be me”
She used to be crushed by stagefright. But now a growing audience is falling in love with her indie-rap sound – and she’s taking it in her stride.
Deb Never may have performed on US TV with Brockhampton and been hand-picked to perform at The 1975’s now-postponed Finsbury Park gig in July, but she’s been hamstrung by shyness for most of her life. “The first show I played was at a little local coffee shop, a little singer-songwriter thing, and I got up on a stool and turned my back to the whole audience,” she remembers. “I fucked up halfway through one song and just stopped and left because I was so embarrassed.”
It’s hard to imagine, because on a sweltering mid-July Los Angeles afternoon in the back of her manager’s ramshackle Silver Lake backyard, Never exudes a charming breeziness, an effortless joy. But it seems like she’s been through some shit.
“I used to be a problem,” the 26-year-old says, puffing on a Juul. “Teachers would have to call my mom or my sister in. They’d ask me if everything at home was fine because I refused to talk. I wore the same thing every day because I was scared that if I changed, someone would notice. I was frightened to take off my coat because I was scared that the noise it made would draw attention. But ever since I started really writing music and getting my feelings out it has helped me. I just had an epiphany: ‘Yo, I can’t be like this. I don’t want to be me anymore. I want to be someone else.’”
As a young girl moving across Washington state and spending a year with her family in Korea, Never loitered on YouTube and was inspired by Nirvana, the glut of game-changing Beastie Boys videos and Avril Lavigne’s 2002 anthem I’m With You – the name of which she struggles to actually remember, so she just belts out the chorus for me.
She also evokes a late-millennial Beastie aesthetic: her black T‑shirt has the words “Pussy Builds Strong Bones” painted in white block letters and her jeans are Silvertabs, baggy relics from the 1990s that Levi’s revived when skate clothes and the once-reviled Hot Topic style became fashionable.
But Never’s music isn’t exactly a throwback. On her excellent debut EP, 2019’s House on Wheels, she combines contemporary rap production with emo-ish guitar riffs, lyrically tapping into a sense of modern melancholia. In May she released Intermission, an album of intimate recordings that resonated in the solitude of lockdown (all proceeds were donated to a charity for healthcare workers on the front line of the pandemic).
Music was a lifeline for Never in Korean middle school. “I don’t know how to speak Korean, so I was super-isolated,” she recalls. “My only connection to home was listening to music.” She would YouTube her sister’s faves (which is how she got to Nirvana) and let the recommendation algorithm take the wheel.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, America’s indie rock hotbed, also made a lasting impact. She was part of a local scene where typical venues were cafés and everyone wanted to sound like Bon Iver.
“It always frustrated me because I didn’t want to make just ‘band’ music,” she says. “I also grew up listening to hip-hop, and I love that.” It took her a while to realise the hybrid sound she was looking for. She’d listen to the jangly indie rock band Real Estate and hear moments where she’d long for the live drum kit to be replaced by 808s. Finally, with GarageBand, she taught herself production and started making beats.
In 2015 she skipped out of being accepted by the University of Washington after visiting LA and being struck by a burning desire to move there. “I got home, sold all my shit, packed my bags and was back in two days. I completely ignored emails from the school.” It was a long shot that paid off: in LA she met her manager at a party. After hearing her homemade demos he introduced her to Shlohmo, the renowned producer/remixer, who eventually put out House on Wheels via his Wedidit label.
Now, more than ever, Never is embracing her genre-bending bent. In March she released Stone Cold, a collab with rising rap producer Kenny Beats, and her next project includes production from Jim‑E Stack and Jam City. Aged 15 she was too nervous to order for herself at McDonald’s – now she’s recording with in-demand producers who are just as keen to adapt to her own POV.
“My genre is Deb Never. No one can be me,” she states with a swagger that defies her original desire to hide away. “If I’m being honest and making something true to me – you can try, but you can’t be me.”