Dean Lewis was on a plane when he heard a phrase that struck him like a bolt of lightning.
“An in-flight-radio DJ said, ‘I wish that was a place we’d known about’,” recalls the Sydney singer-songwriter. “I went to my notes and wrote ‘A Place We Knew’ and was like, that’s the album title. That ties everything together.”
For Lewis, the title encapsulates the bittersweet memories of past relationships. “All the songs were written through relationships I’d been in and houses I used to live in and hotel rooms,” he explains.
That mood resonates through the title-track, a song of hope and heartbreak built around Lewis’s passionate voice, deeply personal storytelling and his familiar, raw brand of acoustic songwriting. He penned it about the seismic change in his life brought on by the success of 2016 debut single “Waves”, after which the songwriter found himself traveling the globe and living out of hotel rooms, to the detriment of his relationship at the time. “There’s a line in the song that says, ‘Your heart is my home’, and that was a line that this girlfriend of mine had told me, and it’s basically written about her,” offers Lewis.
The slow-building, anthemic “7 Minutes” recounts the first few moments after an argument he had with an ex, as the gravity of the situation dawns: “It’s been half an hour since I dropped you home,” he sings, “and I’m driving past the places we both know, past the bar where we first kissed and that movie that we missed.”
“Be Alright” – the devastating song of romantic betrayal that became his first Top 40 hit in America – is indicative of the honesty with which Lewis addresses those bittersweet memories that inform the album’s title.
“The songs always have to come from a real experience,” he says. “I visualise songs like a little movie scene and I try to almost talk through the scene. What emotions am I trying to get across?”
Lewis – a 6-foot-2 ball of energy with surfers’ locks and a brain that moves so fast he has to speak at the speed of sound just to try and keep up – got his start writing songs for other artists following a chance meeting with a publisher who once managed Savage Garden. Before long, however, he became dissatisfied watching others perform his material.
A trip to the UK in 2016 saw him team up with producers Edd Holloway and Nick Atkinson at The Barn studio in Hitchin, a partnership that not only led to “Waves”, “Be Alright” and a significant portion of A Place We Knew, but set in motion a whirlwind 24 months as Lewis went from an unknown to a globally recognised hitmaker.
Throughout that period, during which he toured the world and released his debut EP, 2017’s Same Kind Of Different, Lewis came to gain a better understanding of who he is as an artist.
“The EP was me throwing things at a wall. I didn’t really know who I was. Now I have a good sense of what’s me,” he states, pointing to three key ingredients that unite his work: “The way I write lyrics, which is very first person; the acoustic guitar; and the rawness. They’re the three things that tie it all together.”
While Lewis may have made his name as something of a balladeer thanks to the success of “Waves” and “Be Alright”, A Place We Knew demonstrates far greater breadth and depth to his songwriting. Case in point is horn-laden opener “Hold Of Me”, an uplifting, joyous antidote to some of the album’s sadder songs.
“I started realising that when I played festivals I didn’t want to be writing all these down, sad songs,” he explains. “It’s a great way to start the album. And it’s super-simple storytelling: It’s me saying, ‘I know you’ve been hurt in the past, but don’t worry, you’ve got a hold of me, I’m on your side.’”
Despite its forlorn subject matter, the title track also finds Lewis in an ebullient mood musically, as does “Stay Awake”, its shuffling chorus and stabs of horns lending the song a celebratory feel. The climactic chorus of “Straight Back Down”, meanwhile, is tailormade for festivals.
On an album that clearly hues close to the bone, Lewis pinpoints two songs that capture him at his rawest and most vulnerable: “Don’t Hold Me” and “Half A Man”, both written during a period where he “didn’t feel great about life or what was going on”.
Lewis penned the chorus to “Half A Man” in his bathroom (“where there’s a lot of reverb”), writing the line “How am I supposed to love you when I don’t love who I am?”
“There’s only been a very few times when I’m recording something and I get shivers,” he says, “and that was one of those times.”
Lewis sought out several producers to collaborate with on A Place We Knew. The British team of Edd Holloway and Nick Atkinson are ever-present (“Everything we do we’re really honest with each other,” says Lewis), while he travelled to Byron Bay to record “Time to Go” and the title-track “A Place We Knew” with Dann Hume (Evermore, Matt Corby). John Castle (Vance Joy, Cub Sport) worked with Lewis on “Don’t Hold Me” and “Chemicals”, the latter originally featuring on Same Kind Of Different.
Helping to give the record a cohesive sound was Sydney-based producer Dylan Nash, whom Lewis refers to as “almost like the co-producer for the whole album”, tying a thread between these songs that he’d written and recorded all over the world.
As an aspiring songwriter without a record deal, Lewis used to go on night drives where he’d listen to his shoddily recorded demos in the car and visualise where he wanted the songs to end up. Not even in his wildest dreams, however, could he have predicted the trajectory his career has taken since the release of “Waves”.
“But one thing I’ve learned,” he says, “is that the self-doubt never goes away: ‘Does my voice sound good? Can I play guitar well enough? Can I sing anymore?’” For a self-styled perfectionist, who in addition to writing every song on the album also played piano and acoustic/electric guitar, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about A Place We Knew is that Lewis is at peace with his creation.
“Every song on the album I can sit down and push ‘play’ and just relax and feel confident and know that they’re really good. I know the success of ‘Be Alright’ might have changed things a little bit, but I think when you release a new song, or an album, you start from zero again and you have to prove yourself.”