South West London’s Dexter is making relatable music for her generation with honest lyrics set against a backdrop of blissful, dreamy bedroom pop.
“I don’t think you understand the extent to which I am obsessed with London. Why is my song over the tube? It’s funny because I didn’t even take that picture for it. I took that picture for fun,” Charmaine – better known as Dexter – jokes over a Zoom call, referring to the cover art for her single “Same Way”. Her love for the city comes through in her visual decisions too: the video for “Blues Skies”, released in June, was made by Amity Bloc and filmed in her community in South West London, visualising that hazy sound “Blue Skies” has perfectly.
She became immersed in a different world to the one she had grown up with in London, when she began attending a private school where the student body was mostly white, “I was there on a bursary, so not only did I come from a different racial background, I also came from a different economic background from most of my school,” she tells me. “I was like, ‘what is this?’ I became very aware and vocal about all the stuff that comes with being surrounded only by white people, from a young age.”
Last summer marked an intense time for the antiracism movement, and as the world woke up more to the existence of systemic racism, she felt disillusioned with the sudden surge in interest after silence and disinterest from so many of her peers: “When I was twelve, I was talking about BLM everyday,” she explains. “This was in 2015, trying to educate people in my school. People saying I didn’t have to talk about race everyday were the same people posting about it on Instagram last summer. I think people were aware of racism, but it’s like, ‘what are you actually doing beyond that?’ It’s not really, in my opinion, in the hands of Black people to continue this conversation.”
So, how can the music industry adapt in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement? Dexter argues that it all feels a bit “forced” – “[the music industry] will be like ‘20% of our musicians are Black!’,” she says. “If you want to scout a Black musician then just do it. You don’t get a prize for it. Whatever,” she laughs.
Her time at school marked a restless period. Music became her focus as she turned her attention away from studies and to song writing. “Oh, I don’t do work,” she says, firmly, when I ask if it was difficult to study for her A Levels and record music at the same time. “Music was not in the way of anything, because I wasn’t doing anything else. School should have been a distraction, but it was… not. Whoops.”
Dexter has a calm attitude that’s infectious, refusing to take herself too seriously. When we talk over her influences, she makes fun of herself, recounting a story about the time she spent fourteen hours lining up outside one of Tyler The Creator’s (“biggest favourite person ever ever ever ever”) gigs. “I queued from 5am and no one joined the queue till 10am. Me and my friend were lying down on the floor for five hours. But it was worth it, because I was at the very, very front. It was a bit extra. I didn’t need to do that,” she says.
There’s a chaotic, facetious energy to Dexter, even when tackling more serious themes, including her relationship with her father, which was the inspiration for her track “Still Got Time” – the fourth and final song on her EP. “Some parts of it don’t make sense. Sitting in the park with my friends has nothing to do with the situation,” she laughs. “I wrote it during lockdown, I wrote it at 2 a.m. on a random day in April. I thought, ‘let me write a song about my Dad’.”
Whether it is the ongoing debate on the fairness of streaming royalties or the precarious status of independent venues across the UK, the pandemic has shined a light on accessibility and income issues in the music industry. Common Knowledge, a “creative incubator,” tries to combat this, taking a grassroots approach and supporting young artists in the early days of their career. Dexter is currently on their roster – “it’s kind of like a distribution label through AWAL. It’s more of a platform to give [artists] funding to do more stuff. Without it, I don’t know how I would have made videos for songs or paid producers. It gives you a platform to elevate your music without going full throttle into the music industry.”
She explains this further: “The guy who runs [Common Knowledge] is also my manager. I can discuss how everything’s being spent. It’s up to the two of us, not some big executive.” That independence gave dexter the freedom to explore her sound outside of the limitations of a large record label, and in just a couple of years, she has seen her style evolve in an exciting, varied way: even her process has changed, with her earlier tracks recorded on her mobile. “The first song I ever made was a garage song, and if you compare it to my other songs you’d be like ‘shut up, no you didn’t.’ That was the kind of music I wanted to make, initially. I want to make different music, and I don’t want to reach the point where my songs sound the same.” Her current bedroom pop style was borne out of more of a collaborative process with her producer, Dom Valentino – she describes him as “amazing at the guitar…” She adds: “It wasn’t intentional. We thought about the songs we made and how each song could connect and build on it.”
In her video for “I Like Me” – the final single from her debut EP I Do Love A Good Sandwich – Dexter wears one of Slowthai’s ‘Fuck Boris’ t-shirts. Learning how to navigate her place in a country that is increasingly right wing has forced her to decide how she engages in politics, trying to find the right balance and avoiding what has been dubbed as ‘activist burnout’. “I have quite strong political opinions but I don’t think I’m political,” she says. “It makes me quite upset, especially knowing I live in a country where the government doesn’t favour people from my background. When you’re a person of colour, you either disassociate yourself completely or you become the biggest activist. It can be really overwhelming. If I became really political, I wouldn’t know when to stop.”
Released this summer, the uplifting, contemplative “I Like Me” is dexter’s self-acceptance anthem. In her words, she has managed to avoid a lot of the pressures the music industry puts on young women to look a certain way, by not showing her face in her music videos until this year, albeit unintentionally. That didn’t last long, however, as she reflects on the clip for “I Like Me”: “it’s so ironic because the song is called ‘I Like Me’ but I absolutely hate the way I look in that video. I cried about it. I thought ‘this is so stupid that I’m crying about a video.’ It was the first time I felt pressure about how I looked. That I had to present myself [in a certain way] physically. Hopefully it was a one-off thing.”.
That pressure to look a certain way stemmed from going to parties as a teenager, as well. “I was really insecure,” she says, pointing at herself, explaining, “this was the only thing I wore. This, and jeans. I don’t like dresses. It was a joke that I was like a boy.” The opening verse on “I Like Me” addresses this, as Dexter sings, “Maybe I should go and put on a dress / And I won’t feel alone.”
She recalls her experiences, the basis of these lyrics – “Any time I was at a party everyone would be in bodycons and I’d have to force myself to wear one.” She doesn’t want to be defined by what she wears; “I’ve been constantly made to feel like I’m different,” she tells me, “and I’m not a normal girl. Or that I’m less feminine or my femininity is less because I’m not wearing lipstick.”
Dexter began releasing her music in secret, without telling her family. “I wanted to do it as a career, I put the songs out because I liked them, as opposed to doing it for attention.” But, why the moniker “Dexter”? “It’s my favourite name. I genuinely think there’s no better name on earth than Dexter!”