"It Was Never, Ever In The Plans": dee holt's Success Is a Welcome Surprise
October 2, 2023
For most artists, seeing their name on global playlists and their face on a billboard is part of the dream. It's almost as if none of it is possible unless first imagining these accomplishments as a distant fantasy. But this was never part of the plan for dee holt, the 19-year-old Quebec-born pop darling whose face illuminated a Spotify ad in her hometown after the release of her debut EP last year, with songs from the project finding their way onto the most popularly curated playlists across the globe. Never did she imagine such a spotlight for herself, she tells me over Zoom, just under 12 hours away from the release of her follow-up EP i’ll be there. “Never,” she repeats whenever reflecting on the position she finds herself in today, incessantly adding a supplementary “ever” to drive home how far-fetched this life seems from the one she had imagined for herself. “I didn't initially want to start doing music. Like it was never, ever in the plans,” holt says. “I never was like, ‘I'm gonna write songs, I'm gonna be an artist.’ It kind of just fell in my lap,” she says with a smile, more of astonishment than of satisfaction. The more we talk, the more it all seems so coincidental to holt, the idea of her having a voice that people actually listen to. “For the past two and a half years, I've still been warming up to the idea that I am like an actual artist,” she offers with a chuckle, tinged with a sense of disbelief that can only be described as genuine.
Being an artist was never fully a foreign concept for holt, who was raised by a mother who is a painter and a father who played several instruments, filling the house with music and introducing holt to all kinds of sounds at a young age. She would often sing (but can’t dance, she freely admits), but became more secluded with her voice as she grew older. Where before she would sing for grandparents, holt had become reserved to the point where she would only sing in the shower. No matter how much she was encouraged by those around her (“Of course your mom’s going to tell you you can sing, right?”), holt bottled up her talents. And when you hide something for so long, it tends to reveal itself in the worst moments. While maybe not the worst scenario imaginable, holt’s moment of truth came when her boyfriend’s family united with her own for the first time, and her mom urged her to perform for the group. “I was like, ‘ah!’” she says with an exclamation that’s almost entirely facial, dropping her jaw nearly out of her Zoom frame and raising her eyebrows almost to the ceiling of the studio she joins me from. After “a lot of convincing,” they came to a compromise: “I sang facing the wall. I sang facing the wall because I couldn't face them.” When she turned around, she was met with teary eyes pasted on stunned faces.
After provoking that type of reaction from those who supported her most, holt felt enabled to imagine what a career as an artist might look like. Still, there were no fantasies of billboards and streams far surpassing 7 figures. Everything seemed immediate, and all too convenient. After the intimate performance in front of her boyfriend’s family, her new biggest fans introduced holt to family friend Benjamin Nadeau, a local producer who holt refers to affectionately as Benji. All of a sudden, things were falling into place in a way that was so convenient it couldn’t be coincidence. Still, holt was skeptical of it all. “It's so strange because as I said before, I never wanted to (pursue music),” she says of the early success she found with her songs. “It was never a plan to release and to try to make my name in music. Like never ever. So the fact that it's kind of happening just while, like…I'm working for it, but in a sense, I'm kind of just laying back and seeing what happens. It makes no sense,” her confusion born out of self-consciousness. It’s as if holt was the last one to be convinced of her merit as an artist. After only her second single, the slinky-sounding “Olivia,” labels were calling. “I think it took me like six months to finally say, ‘okay, yes, let's do this.’ That's how unsure I was,” holt testifies, scrunching her face during conversation as she recalls her thought process while offering complimentary explanations with frenetic hand motions. “But I was like, I'm gonna regret it my entire life if I say no and if I don't go with it, and I'm so, so, so, so, so happy that I did. I love it so much.”
Nowadays, holt undergoes routine reality checks as a product of her seemingly natural-born humility. Not once in our conversation do I get the impression that she’s taking her success for granted, nor does she feel it’s normal. “It's so, so strange to me still,” she says of fans messaging her from China and Europe. When she opens up a playlist to find her name next to Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, she’ll reflexively think to herself, “what the fuck? How does that make any sense?” Aside from her natural case of imposter syndrome, her family has kept her grounded as her name grows with each release. “I'm not getting used to it at all, but I'm happy that I'm not. I don't ever want to get used to the awe of it and like the ‘oh my God, this is crazy,’ because it's just so surreal. I don't know how else to explain it,” holt says, with an honesty that is unprovoked but much appreciated. After just a short talk with holt, it is clear that the heart she wears on her sleeve when recording extends past the studio.
Every shade of dee holt is on display on her newest EP, i’ll be there, a six-song collection of minimalistic pop poetries. While minimalistic is the correct adjective to describe the project, it is not to be interpreted by its connotations: minimal does not mean simple, it does not mean devoid of intention. It in fact represents the opposite, with holt routinely doing more with less in what serves as a period piece of sorts for the young artist. The themes that populate the album are often delivered simply but hold an underlying complexity; “dishes” comes off as a plucky ear-worm but comments markedly on releasing toxic energy; “better” is a self-sabotage confessional that sneakily searches for answers; she goes soul-searching on “bird fly” but goes blind before finding what she was looking for. When I mention that my personal favorite track is “fell in love,” the EP’s finale, holt is overjoyed to discuss the experiment-gone-right behind the song. When I describe the song as feeling “doomed” and “traumatized”, she laughs with what I hope is glee in having achieved her vision for the song. “That's like my favorite track,” she confesses, going on to reveal that it wasn’t originally a part of the project. “fell in love” was written for another artist, but after repeated listens and a shared obsession with the song, holt and her trusted producer Benji decided it was too good to give away. “We were trying these new styles, these new sounds, and it turned out really, really good,” she says of the track’s origins. “And then as we were going, we kept adding and we kept going, ‘oh, oh, that's good. This keeps getting better and better.’”
While it may be a standout, “fell in love” is not unique in its creative arc. holt experimented with several new techniques when writing for the EP, including taking on fictional characters and projecting emotions onto them as a new kind of exercise. The results are apparent upon listening to i’ll be there, a project that wouldn’t have been possible 2 years ago. “The first time that I came into the studio, I think it took us about three sessions to come up with like the entire song; like a writing session, the whole thing,” explains holt. “And now, me and Benji, will sit in the studio and we'll come up with a song in like three hours: written, everything produced. I feel like I've developed so much. My writing, I feel like I'm becoming more comfortable with trying new things. I would be sitting in the studio on the couch, afraid to do ad libs because I was scared to sing a wrong note in front of Benji. Now it's like I'll try anything and if it sounds like shit, then it sounds like shit. And that's okay.” Everything comes with time, and the time is now for dee holt to take control of her artistic journey. What before was a whirlwind for her has now become a steady process of self-exploration. Her grip on the reins of her music have tightened, and holt sees more of herself in her artistry than she ever could have thought. “I feel that this is the project that I'm most proud of and that I feel represents me most as an artist so far,” she reveals, sharing that she’s more excited about her follow-up EP than she was for her debut. “Like a lot, a lot, a lot more,” she emphasizes, adding that it isn’t out of disdain for her first release but rather that she feels more connected to i’ll be there. “I feel that this EP specifically is a bigger milestone than the last one was…I definitely am very, very proud of this one. I feel so confident releasing it, which is really, really cool.”
Despite the immense amount of pride she holds in the project, dee holt won’t be celebrating the release of i’ll be there until the moment has passed. She has just wrapped a studio session before joining me in the virtual meeting room, preferring to focus on what’s next so as to not inflate expectations of what’s happening in the present. To be fair, there’s plenty for holt to set her sights on: she’s currently studying art and animation in school, a passion that comes out in the artwork that holt personally designs for her releases. She self-directs her own music videos as well, with a visual for “fell in love” releasing in correspondence with the EP (“I've always said if I could film myself, that would be ideal because I could have full control. That would be great.”). She’s still working on becoming more comfortable on stage, having recently performed a show in Toronto that served as only her second live experience so far. Unfortunately, she can’t turn around and play to the wall at these venues. “I was so nervous,” the anxiety palpable in her voice, “I did not eat all day. I did not talk to anyone. But I feel like once you're on the stage it just kind of goes away. I'm terrified of going on stage, but once I'm on, it's fine. But I do need to start learning how to get over those pre-show nerves because, oh my God.” She’s hoping to travel more in the next year, potentially in conjunction with a tour, if the opportunity presents itself. She’s open to working with new collaborators, venturing from her deep-seated roots with Benji but almost definitely coming back to him for validation: “I will always go back to Benji and ask what he thinks about it. Benji is like my big brother in music.” Last holiday season, holt put out a Christmas song inspired by Billie Eilish’s “come out and play,” an all-seasons tune that happens to sound better around the holidays. She hasn’t ruled out releasing a more traditional carol, and may continue to record songs in French. Not too long ago, even dee holt’s wildest dreams never included music. Now she’s opened Pandora’s box, opportunities jumping at her before they even enter her line of sight. We are often warned to be careful what we wish for, as we just might get it. What are we to do when we get what we never asked for, and it's greater than we ever imagined? If you’re dee holt, you pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming, and then do it all again the next day.