iann dior on his humble beginnings, musical mentors and forthcoming album
Like Joe Strummer, iann dior knows the power of a name. Born Michael Ian Olmo, the artist launched his career on SoundCloud—a trajectory not unlike the one taken by stars such as Post Malone, Travis Scott and Lil Peep—and garnered thousands of streams on the strength of a single song. Knowing he had to create more, he put out A Dance With The Devil in 2018. Not only does the seven-track EP demonstrate his early skills for blending evocative lyrics with trap beats, but it also took him to L.A. and landed him the label backing he’d need to get to where he is now.
In the same way that Strummer expanded punk with his love of reggae, funk and rockabilly, dior is imbuing alternative music with his fondness for hip-hop, R&B and pop—and, as a result, is pushing the genre in a fresh and exciting direction. Boasting collaborations with Lil Uzi Vert, Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker, as well as countless others, dior is an unstoppable force—and well on his way to becoming a radio staple. “I’m so hard on myself, and I always want to top what I did last,” he reveals. “If I get a No. 1, I’m going straight to the studio to try to make another one. That’s the mentality you got to keep to stay in here.”
Simply put, dior wants everything. His desire to become the biggest artist in the world outweighs his impulse to live fast, and he’s ready to put a plan in place to make it happen. Above all, though, dior wants his music to be a place of solace for his devoted fans—something they can lean on when life feels unbearable and, in turn, offer hope and resolve in the fact that they aren’t alone. In a conversation with Joel Madden, dior outlines his humble beginnings, the music he grew up listening to and being thrust into stardom on the back of a SoundCloud upload. He also shines a light on the mentors in his life, musical and otherwise, and shares his excitement for his forthcoming album, a journey that’s led him to become representative of the next generation of innovators.
So I was thinking about it, and I’ve been listening to your music before I even knew we were gonna talk. I feel like [with] our worlds, there’s a lot of inner crisscrossing going on with people that we probably both know. But it’s interesting because you’ve always been, in my opinion, an alternative artist. It’s apparent you grew up in all different styles. You have a way of writing and flow that absolutely has been influenced by hip-hop, but I’ve always thought your music was this alternative mashup of all these different styles.
I feel like you’ve been heavily influenced your whole life by rock, too. I look at you as the future of music. You’re 22, so, in my opinion, that’s when you just start hitting your stride. The next 10, 15, 20 years is all ahead of you because you spent the last however many years just really grinding and developing and figuring it out. And now you’re just hitting the ball. You’re just hitting your stride. How old were you when you discovered music?
So the crazy thing is that my parents were pretty strict. My dad’s in the Navy, and my mom’s Border Patrol, but they were on my ass about everything, and I couldn’t even watch YouTube, but I would always find these little pirate websites, and I’d find the artists that I like. And I’d listen to them, and my mom didn’t know I had my headphones in. But I would say when I found music for the first time—and it sounds super cliche—but I was talking to this girl, and she just fucked me up, and I was already into poetry. My best friend had just gotten a studio, and he was just like, “Yo, come over and record.” He was like, “I know you like to write poetry.” I was like, “That sounds stupid. I’m not gonna do that. I don’t even have a fucking voice.” And he just forced me to do it, and we did it. I just remember putting that song out on SoundCloud. I think it was almost like 20,000 streams. This is my first song. We were just like, “What the fuck? We got to keep making more.” And I made a whole project about the situation. I called it A Dance With The Devil, and it was seven songs. That’s what got me out into L.A. because I got hit up by some people to come out and work with them. I think I was in L.A. for two, three weeks, and then I had 12 label meetings after that.
[Photo By Ryan Allan]
Holy shit. First time to L.A.?
Yeah, I was so excited that I fucking left my luggage at the airport and ran outside just because I wanted to feel the air, and then I took a taxi because I didn’t know what an Uber was.
I know that feeling. My first time to L.A., I was 21, and it was my first time on a plane. I got flown out by a label, and I just was like, “Holy shit. This place is amazing.”
I’m never going home.
Yeah, I’m never going home. That was the feeling. Honestly, that’s amazing. I know that somewhere out there, right now even, there’s a kid who hopefully is making a song and putting it up. This is how we do it. We tell our story, and it shows other people. It’s funny with music. I feel like they don’t teach you in school that this is actually a real possibility for your life and that this is a real way to make a living and to build a life.
Part of that does have to do with, back then, I feel like [it] was a lot harder for something like this to happen. And now there’s so much social media, and so many platforms take off overnight. You can make a whole life out of this shit. So this generation is a lot different. You can really do anything and make it.
It’s true. Anything’s possible. So when you were growing up, what were you listening to? Walk me through the stages that you went through when you, say, discover music as something you like. Not even a possibility that you think you could do it. You’re just listening to music, and you’re like, “I fuck with this.” We all listen to music for different reasons, but walk me through the stages.
So the only time I’d really get to actually jam music in the car would be with one of my parents, and my mom would always be playing Marc Anthony. She’d be fucking dancing to that ’cause I’m originally from Puerto Rico, but I grew up most of my life in Texas, so she’s Boricua. She’s in there jamming to Marc Anthony, and my pops, he’d always jam Jay-Z’s Blueprint and shit like that. He would just come and go like this [holds up finger to his lips]. “Don’t tell your mom you’re listening to this.” But I just had my hoodie up, banging my head in the car. From there, I just started adventuring into different music. I really fell in love with
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye. It just sonically sounded good. I really didn’t understand what he was saying, but I knew I loved the feeling of it. Then eventually I got into J. Cole in high school. He taught me basically [that] you could tell a full story in a song. From the beat to the lyrics is just all the way through [like a] movie. So he was my No. 1 artist. He still is. And then I just started venturing off. I started listening to Paramore. I started listening to Panic! At The Disco. You guys, blink-182. Once you dive into punk rock, it’s just so much. You could just listen to it all fucking night.
[Photo By Ryan Allan]
There are so many scenes inside of scenes inside of scenes. You can go down the rabbit hole.
So once that happened, I feel like I really started embracing that side of myself when I moved out into L.A. Because it was more open to [the idea that] you could be who you want to be, and everybody is their own little character. Back home in Texas, if you looked different, you would get called out on it. I wasn’t able to really embrace myself. But once I got out here, I feel like a door opened up for me where I could mentally just let all this crazy shit out.
I feel that. Honestly, I feel that in your music. By the way, it’s really interesting you say J. Cole because, to me, [he’s] one of the best of our time, lyrically, delivery, records as bodies of work. My son, actually, J. Cole’s his favorite. I think it’s interesting because he’s so artistic. I think J. Cole’s got a very artistic way of delivering. I think when you get big as an artist, it gets harder sometimes. It’s almost like you go back full circle where it’s harder to be vulnerable sometimes, and the artists that do it successfully, that’s part of the reason why I think they succeed. I think they still dig deep and let it all out. You could say that about a lot of the artists you named actually.
I feel like one thing about me is I can’t make a song if I’m not in the mood to make a song. I have to hit that vulnerable state where I’m going through something that I need to just get off my chest because music is therapy to me. I’d rather put my feelings or whatever is going on in my head into a song than just speak it to somebody. Listening back to that song after you’re done with it is just a feeling you don’t get from anything else
It’s true. I’m trying to imagine this kid moving around. You were in Virginia Beach first and then Texas, or Texas, then Virginia Beach?
So I went from Puerto Rico to Texas to Florida to Virginia Beach and then back to Texas.
So I’m imagining this kid. Comes from Puerto Rico, moves around. I feel like that’s a little lonely in some ways. So you have to have an imagination. You got to have some creativity to survive moving around. Most people only live in one or two places their whole life.
And that’s something that I never got to experience. Whenever I moved to Texas, there’s this place called Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is a beautiful city. It’s not very big. They don’t really have much, but area’s just nice. You got the beach in Texas. For spring break, people tee up over there, but there’s no creativity there. And that was the thing that scared me about that place. It was a bubble. I would like to ask my friends, “What do you wanna do when you grow up?” And I’m thinking they’re gonna say, “I want to be a fucking astronaut. I’m gonna be the fucking president.” But nah, they’d always be like, “I’m just gonna start a family and just work at the oil refinery out here.” That shit would just freak me out ’cause it’s so hometown mentality. I was so far from that. I wanted to see the big cities. I wanted to see L.A.
Also, I’m thinking about it, and I’m like, “OK, so you weren’t built to stay in one place because you never did your whole life.” You probably appreciate the stability of being in one place when you are a lot like me. We had to move a lot because we didn’t always have places to live. My parents worked really hard, but they struggled a lot to keep up with life, so we had to move a lot. Whether it’s money or a place to live—or for some people, it’s food, or for some people, it’s love—we all have the thing we didn’t get enough of. I thoroughly believe that all of us are shaped by our experience growing up.
This last five years of growth [and] development is just the beginning of you getting started, and now you’re coming into your own as an artist. But you’re outside of everything, and I think it’s really interesting. You’re becoming this character that you’re gonna grow into. You’ve been digging a little deeper with each record, and I think there’s substance there. I love an inspirational record where someone’s talking about what they have, but sometimes I do want to connect with someone on an emotional level—what they’re going through. I think that most people are going to music for that as well. So we need the motivational records that make us aspire to have more, do more, be more. The hip-hop records I grew up listening to, they saved my life for that reason. They gave me this idea that I could have anything I put my mind to and that it was OK to want the finer things in life. So I love those records when I’m in a certain headspace.
But when you’re not, you would just want to listen to something you could relate to.
[Photo By Ryan Allan]
The emotional experience we’re all having in life, it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re having it. And so you could deny that you’re having it, and you could be any which way, but we’re all having it because we’re all human beings. I hear that in your music, and I guess I wonder where that came from.
You know, blowing up at 19, going from not being able to do shit to being able to do whatever the fuck I want? I was being reckless. I was doing everything. I would say honestly, 22 is whenever I was like, “All right, I need to slow down, and I need to gather myself and figure out how the fuck I’m gonna become the biggest artist in the world.” Because now I have this platform, and I gotta take it serious. And in the process of all that, I made all this music. You could just hear my mind is over here on this one, my mind’s over there on that one. And there’s some songs where a listener would think that I’m talking about a girl, but I’m really talking to myself because, right now, there’s two of me. That’s why I’m really excited about this album because I feel like I’m growing into myself as a person and as an artist, and it’s just crazy to see. I feel really good about it.
It’s really interesting and cool you said you feel like there’s two of you. There is two of you. Who you have to be to survive the game, you do have to put on a certain armor sometimes. You have to go out and be bigger and larger sometimes than you feel, but that is you. That person that I had to be when I was doing it onstage, it was me, but it wasn’t me, in a way. Because it was a big fucking thing. You blow up, and then you’re like, “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” You weren’t planning on blowing up. You wanted to not knowing it, but you weren’t thinking about how or what it means.
What it comes with or anything. Whenever I say that, you’re right. I’m always myself. I treat everybody like a normal person because that’s what I am, and that’s how I want them to treat me. But it’s whenever you step on a stage. I just lose myself onstage. The best way I could explain it is I black out, and I have to see videos to remember what the fuck just happened. Because you know that feeling [where] there’s so many people that you don’t even realize it after a little bit? And then you watch a video after, and you’re just like, “Holy shit.”
That’s art, though, because you do that when you’re making a song, when you’re writing. You lose yourself, and you black out a little bit in a weird way. I just think it’s great art. I think when we let ourselves go and we don’t have any rules and we don’t think too much and we just have fun, play, we make the best art. And we connect with people. And listen, art’s subjective. I’m sure there are a hundred people that would love to get on this call and tell me what is art and what’s not art.
That’s their opinion.
I think it’s interesting, too, when you talk about being reckless because I went through that too, of course. I think we struggle to understand, and we’re in an industry that’s kind of funny. We have everyone telling us we’re lucky. I know we’re lucky. I feel lucky. But also, there’s a side to it where, in the beginning, you go, “Oh, this isn’t gonna last. This is gonna be a moment.” At the very beginning, I was like, “This is never gonna last. This is magic. Somehow this magically happened.” And I know now it’s not magic. It’s we show up every day, and we work and record.
It’s that feeling that pushes you to keep working harder every day. That’s one of my things. I’m so hard on myself, and I always want to top what I did last. If I get a No. 1, I’m going straight to the studio to try to make another one. That’s the mentality you got to keep to stay in here.
I agree with you. Also, I feel like as people, we have to do something productive.
Or you’re just gonna sit there in your feels.
Yeah, and you deteriorate if you’re not productive. You know how it’s weird how they say you don’t live in a house and it falls apart, falls into disrepair? That’s how I feel if we don’t, as human beings, if we’re not excited and inspired and working toward something always, then we just deteriorate, and we fall into disrepair.
Or like you have no purpose. I was just watching the Woodstock documentary, and they were talking about how all the kids, they would come because they wanted to feel like they had a purpose. All together is one. They would come to these shows, and it would just be love, music and everybody’s loving each other. I feel like that’s what music is for me. It just makes me feel like I have a purpose because now I know for sure I’m not the only person out there that feels this way. There are multiple people out there, millions of people that feel the same way that I do. Even at that, I’m helping people. I just feel like I have a very important job. It’s like a superpower.
[Photo By Ryan Allan]
It is, and it’s for real. Your experiences that you had and your take on it and how you’re putting it into songs, it’s resonating with a lot of people, so what that says is the way you say things helps people understand what they’re going through. And that’s what we’re all looking for.
Right, and I love to take a sad story and put it on an uptempo beat because it allows the person to release that energy but at a fast and a high frequency to where it feels good.
I feel the same way. I feel like I used to do that, too. So, if you could say you had three mentors, who would they be? Say one in life, one in music. Obviously, you could say one of your parents is your mentor, or maybe not, or maybe it’s some people around you now. Because also, it’s tough. You get that early success, and maybe there wasn’t anyone around at the beginning that said, “Yo kid, slow down. Pump the brakes for a minute. Stay on the road. Don’t veer off.” But maybe there are a few people around you that you feel like had a really big influence on where you’re at now and what you’re doing now. If there were two or three people, could you name any?
One person for sure I can name is MGK. I would move around with him a lot in the beginning. Me and him are like the same type of person. We don’t pull up with security. We just pull up dolo. He respected me for that, and I respected him for that, but he would always just spit wisdom. He’s been in the game for a minute now, and he understands it, and he sees that I’m fresh in the game, and he’s letting me know, “You ’bout to go up.” So I really respect him for that.
That’s great. I really like Kells. I’ve known him a long time, too, and he is that guy. He takes the time. He takes the time to have a real conversation with you, which is really nice when you meet people like that.
Right. You could smell real instantly, and it’s all over him. But I would have to say the second role model is my mom because she’s like an angel. So she just reminds me that this is ’ight. She tells me I’m crazy every day. So, I just love her, and she’s very religious. So, she prays for me.
Hey, my mom, too. She’s very religious, and she prays for me, and I appreciate it. And we don’t have to agree on everything, but I know she loves me no matter what. And that’s the thing. With your mom, you can call her, and you know she’s praying for you every night.
Right, that’s one thing I learned. When I first moved by myself to L.A., I was 19. I’m thinking all my friends care about me. You really learn quick that nobody gives a single fuck about you except your family. And that’s why you keep family close because those are the people that love you, with or without what you have. So that was a big step for me. So I just got my mom a house. My sister just had a baby. Life feels very real right now. I’m an uncle. I feel like lowkey I got responsibility. I have a child-type shit. I got to make sure shit’s good. This time around, I just feel like it’s a whole different vibe for me when it’s coming to the music and just how I’m approaching everything.
I really feel what you’re saying. I said this to my brothers: “I like that kid. He’s one of us. He’s a real one.” This isn’t, by the way, this time around. This is it right here. This is the real jump-off for you. You’ve been building over the last few years. You’ve just been finding out who you are. You’re so young, and now you’re actually, in my opinion, really jumping off into your own lane and doing your own thing. I think that you’re gonna keep doing that, and that’s gonna be the fun part to watch.
And my brothers, we are so tight, and my sister—there’s four of us. We’re all we really had in life. We always had to stick together. And what they taught me actually about friendship and everything was like, now I have a lot of really great friends, built a life here in L.A. I’m married. I have two kids. I have a real community-based life. And I think I can be closer to people because my family and I are close. I also know the difference between a real friend and someone I can be close to and someone that’s just there for a good time. And, by the way, I don’t hate anybody, so I can be in a room full of a bunch of people who want to have a good time.
Yeah, exactly. One person that taught me how to maneuver right without even telling me anything was Post Malone. The first time I met him, he was the nicest guy I have ever met. And, if you know who Post Malone is, you know the guy has everything he could ever ask for, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not a person. That really taught me a lot. I treat everybody just like I want to be treated
Some shit you learned in kindergarten. Everybody gets taught that shit. Everybody knows.
It’s crazy you’re saying that because we talk about it all the time, but it’s so simple. If you want to do well in life, treat people how you want to be treated. It sounds crazy, right? But it actually is that simple. I really feel like that just serves me to this day, has always served me. I like these conversations. This conversation we’re having is cool because when else would you really have this conversation in your day-to-day work life when you’re out there? I’ve been there promoting records, and I know the deal. And, by the way, it’s work. Some days, it hits, and some days, it’s just going through the motions, but you’re trying your best, and you appreciate [interviewers are] working too, and you’re not trying to make their life harder. So I was always respectful of people, but very rarely did I get to have really meaningful conversations around my music, and music in our lives, they all bleed together.
I wouldn’t even call this an interview. This is a conversation. I appreciate that because I feel like most interviews, they ask you the same questions. They want to know the same things. Ask me something different. We’re talking about things that I’ve never even spoken about to anybody. So this is the first time that I’m having this type of conversation with somebody.
Me too. Well, I know you’re on tour right now. How’s the tour going, by the way? How was the first night?
It was crazy. Like you said earlier, it’s that time. You know how you have that feeling in your chest that something crazy is about to happen? I have that right now, and doing each show, I feel like it’s slowly, slowly, even more, just taken over.
It’s because it’s real. It doesn’t feel that way if it’s not real. Because you know how you go on a cold-ass stage, and you’re in front of a crowd that doesn’t know you, and it’s a hard show, but you’ve been there. I remember those days, and even as long behind me as they are, because now at this stage in the game, if we tour, which is just not ever— every few years, maybe we tour—we’re playing to our audience. And it’s just a big audience of people that, generationally, know our music.
It’s like riding a bicycle because you’re not really having to work for them to connect with you because what you’re doing up there is actually just trying to connect with people in a physical environment. That’s a memory. We want people to come and leave with “I’ll never forget that.” You know in those early shows when it’s a cold-ass fucking stage? Like, “No one out there really gives a fuck that I’m up here because they’re waiting for the headliner.” But when it starts to connect, though, that’s when you’re like, “Oh shit, it’s working.”
Yeah, and my first two tours that I ever did, like my first very show, I was the headliner. And what I did is I would just take my friends with me because that’s how I wanted to do it. I want to be with my friends, and they open up for me, we all teed up, and then I go out. I just remember the first time I walked out on that stage, they were screaming from the top of their lungs. There was probably only 500 people, but it just felt like, “Wow.”
That’s a good crowd, though.
And then last night, I think we sold out. It was like 5,500. So just to see the growth, you know? I just did Lollapalooza. There were 70,000 people just jumping to my music. It’s a feeling that I’m very thankful and grateful to have.
That’s tight. Congratulations, by the way. That’s a big deal. And 5,500, that’s the perfect-sized crowd. Small enough that you can see everyone but big enough that it’s crazy when they get moving together.
It was packed. The city I’m really excited for is New York. New York always shows out, so I’m really happy to go over there this year.
When’s the record come out?
So I’m dropping my next single during Fashion Week on [Sept.] 8, so it’s me and Uzi. It’s a hip-hop song, but I just performed it for the first time last night, live for the fans to hear before anybody else.
That’s cool. I’m a big fan of Uzi, and that’s great. By the way, this is the thing. I saw the pictures from the photo shoot. I think it’s iconic. I think that what we need in music is iconic people who are a little bit outside of what we are. And we’ve got to, in my opinion, aspire in life, always, to be ourselves. Whatever that means. It’s really hard. As much as we live in a time where you can be anything and there are no genres, it’s really still hard because you’re in this constant echo chamber of a large crowd commenting on what they think about you constantly. And so I didn’t have to deal with that in the 2000s. We started in the ’90s, went through the 2000s, no social media. You got to deal with people’s opinions. [It’s] microscopic, always commenting on this, this, this. All of us live in that today. If I want to find out what people think about me in general, I could literally go on Twitter and just type something in, and then people will respond and tell me how they feel about me.
Honestly, though, the thing about me [is] at first it used to really bother me. Because I’d have my core fanbase, but then I’d also have those other people that [were] saying how they felt about [me], and I just slowly stopped giving a fuck. Nowadays, I’m not even on my phone anymore. I’m just living my life.
[Photo By Ryan Allan]
That’s the freedom that I can feel in the music, and I could see it in the photos, too. Photos never lie. I look at where music is, especially alternative, and the alternative to everything else is what we’ve always been about. In a very positive way, we always looked at ourselves as different, so we always wanted to be ourselves, and we had to gain the confidence to continue to do that. But iconic people are the ones who inspire us to be ourselves, to become iconic ourselves. And when I saw the pictures, I think they’re iconic.
That’s why I said I think you’re at the beginning, the precipice of your career as an artist, what you’re doing out in the world and what you’re saying to people and taking the time to be thoughtful and think about who you are, and it doesn’t have to be deep all the time, but if you want to be deep, you can be. And that to me is the key— learning how to be ourselves and live our lives and accept what comes with that because, ultimately, everyone’s always going to have an opinion. And there are certainly things that, if you picked apart all of our lives, you can criticize something about us because we’re all just human beings. But when you’re honest and you’re making music and art to inspire people and to help yourself—because that’s it for me. Music was about the people that I was singing to. It really felt like there was a community of people who needed to hear the same thing I did.
It’s easy to let that out onstage. Not that I forgot to mention, but watching Prince onstage, he was so free. He did exactly what the fuck he wanted to do, and nobody could stop him. That’s one person that, my style and my presence when I go out, that’s what I look up to.