No stranger to indie and alternative music scenes, Gus Dapperton is difficult to define. That's on purpose.
His music is defined by its inability to fit into a specific box, sprawling instead across a wide range of influences as much as by its disarming honesty. Dapperton's lyrics are candid and cutting, guiding listeners to reckon with their deepest emotions even as they're comforted by his gauzy, saccharine melodies. It's this listening experience that Dapperton prioritizes when writing, taking pains to strike a balance between universality and emotional honesty.
"I want everyone to be able to relate to what I'm talking about," he says of his music. "I make it be really personal to me, but almost like a mad lib where you can kind of put in your own experiences, hopefully."
On Friday, the singer-songwriter performs at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Sunshine Grove for the first time. Dapperton, who hasn't been in Florida since he played in Tampa during his 2019 tour, is set to take the festival stage at around 8 p.m., itself a testament to how popular he's gotten over the pandemic.
"That's definitely one of the later time slots that I've played, so I think hopefully there'll be a nice crowd for our set," he says, adding, "I'm very excited to be in warm weather. I'm from New York, so it'll be fun."
The Okeechobee appearance comes on the heels of Dapperton's fall U.S. tour, his first time back on the road since he released his critically acclaimed sophomore album Orca back in the fall of 2020. The album was written after a particularly grueling tour, and Dapperton didn't feel it would be right to delay the album's release amid the pandemic, especially considering the relevance of its heavier, more introspective subject matter.
"It's very therapeutic to just write what you're feeling down," he explains. "And for me, it's even more gratifying and therapeutic to put it into a song that I can release with the world."
Still, festivals like Okeechobee present a long-overdue opportunity to share his newer music with more fans.
"The one unfortunate thing is I wasn't able to play that album for everyone, really," he says. "I do hope there are some people that are still really excited to hear that music even after it's been so long."
Orca represents a significant shift in Dapperton's repertoire; it brought with it a culmination of a sonic maturity and cohesion that had started to bubble in his 2019 debut album, Where Polly People Go to Read. The sophomore effort was also a space for Dapperton to rethink his relationship to music-making.
"My whole life, I really was just writing songs, and songs went with other songs," he says. "And I made Orca, that's the time where I was like, 'Oh.'"
Describing Orca as a concept album, Dapperton sees it driven largely by its focus on themes of "healing and being hurt." Indeed, from "Bottle Opener" to "Medicine," the album is resolute in its engagement with issues of growth, vulnerability, and pain.
Describing the process of writing the album's debut single — a key song in the album — Dapperton says "Once I wrote 'First Aid,' I was like, 'Oh, I can sort of see the concept I'm leaning into, and I can really kind of dive into all these other different sectors and details in this concept.'"
He plans to continue this way of looking at his work in future projects.
"Now I understand the purpose of a concept album, and it feels more like an art piece, you know?" he says. "Now, when I look at a whole project, I'm super excited about how a project comes together with a very cohesive concept and kind of storyline."
Orca was about self-expression and connecting with people. Where Polly People Go to Read was driven by beats and musicality. Now, Dapperton says his next project will be primarily concerned with "trying to innovate and progress, to grasp the destiny and fate of music and just try to be an essential part of pushing music forward."
Changing approaches for each project, he says, is critical in "finding new ways to find joy in making music."
Dapperton doesn't feel a need to restrict himself to one kind of sound or genre in his work, either. While this next project will carry on a lot of the reflective and dark qualities that defined Orca, it will also be edgier, more upbeat, and synth-driven.
"I don't try to have a sound, so the things I like to make are just about how I'm feeling at that particular moment in time," he says. "My next project is going to sound completely different from Orca, because that's a kind of a feeling I can't really recreate and sort of a time period and moment in time I can't re-create."
As the indie artist wraps up the finishing touches and aesthetic vision for this next album, which he expects will be out in late summer or fall, he looks forward to further exploring "what can be done and what can be made" when it comes to music. Innovation is the priority.
"I feel like I have something that needs to be made and something that kind of needs to be said," Dapperton says of why he decided to make music in the first place. "I feel like I wouldn't be able to live without doing it."
While Dapperton doesn't know when he'll be on the road again — save for an appearance at Governors Ball in June — he looks forward to touring again for the opportunity to create immersive sonic experiences.
"I'll never take touring or playing shows for granted," he says. "There's an opportunity to go meet new fans and play songs for people who know the words to your songs — it's like one of the most gratifying feelings."
Gus Dapperton at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. 8 p.m. Friday, March 4, at NOW Stage; okeechobeefest.com.