DENA. She’s a female artist originally from Bulgaria but living in uber cool Berlin since 2005. She’s been described as a mix between ‘Grimes and a Balkan M.I.A’ and her tracks are said to be ‘catchy as hell.’
DENA has supported the likes of Das Racist, Icono Pop, The Whitest Boy Alive and LCMDF, really living the live performance side of things and leading her to be seen, recognised and nominated by Spiegel as one of the Top 10 International Pop acts to rise in 2013.
Now it is 2014 and her debut album Flash drops on March 11th through Normal Surround, so we caught up with her whilst she was on London soil. Or should I say pavement.
Which musicians inspire you Dena?
I love music in general and I listen to a lot of female vocalists. From the UK specifically I love Katy B. But I think it is just music in general that inspires me – I don’t know how to make a difference between people that I’m a fan of and those who actually influence my music and my beats.
There is a 90s Hip Hop R’n’B flavour to your music. What sort of artists were you growing up with when you were younger?
I grew up with TLC, Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child. That’s the sort of thing I was listening to a lot, and specifically when I was working on Flash, my album, I had a lot of influence from Destiny’s Child. I just love their combination of singing and rapping, or better put, singing but using a lot of words, which create those melodic raps.
Got to love Destiny’s Child. So Dena, you’re from the Balkan region originally?
Yeah. Well, I’m from Bulgaria. But I moved to Berlin in 2005 so I’ve been in Germany for a while. So it’s more about Germany for me now but originally I’m from Bulgaria, and that’s were my parents are, where I went to school. So I’m from both places.
Okay, so with your music, what’s it about?
I like to make beats, and for Flash I worked with a producer who definitely spiced up the production and moved it towards a 90s vibe. But in my tracks I also channel House music. I think in general, it is a mixture of hip hop and vintage Destiny’s Child but also contemporary sounds which inspire me.
What about the lyrics? Because you rap more than you sing, so tell me about the words.
Life and drama in general; when things get complicated is when the spark hits me and when I start to reflect, so I think just life in general.
Is it more negative experiences which get the ball rolling?
No, it’s more about the angle. I think I have quite an investigative angle on things; for me to write about something, it means I [was] occupied with a certain topic for a long period of time and then it is always a life event which triggers the words.
In this album now, there are so many topics that I have been living for a long time. For example in songs like Guest List, or Games…
Of course, you write about things that are close to your experiences.
I was going to mention Guest List because it would appear you’re criticising the ‘cool’ people, the scene…and about those who are trying to get in with the crowd. What do you think it is about celebrity culture that people are so obsessed with nowadays?
That is so interesting because Guest List is actually the only song that I’ve ever written which has more of a social and political background. In this song I am using the metaphor of being from somewhere else, being an outsider, and the chorus is about how I am expressing that I don’t see myself as being on the Guest List; basically channelling my own experience. It is a bit of a dialogue between who is on the guest list and who isn’t. Considering the fact I am from Bulgaria originally, what I am channelling is being an outsider, not belonging to the European Union and it is a hidden metaphor for this.
This is what I talk about in the verses. When I talk about ‘being in the line’ I’m referring to being in airport lines and passport lines. But of course my intention was to transform that into the context of clubs, and use Guest List as a metaphor. I knew a lot of people would immediately relate to the feeling of waiting in a club scene. So everything I feel is hidden in the lyrics.
I like this metaphor! My good friend is from Brazil and is studying her PHD here but she still has a nightmare every time she travels with immigration, so I’m sure she would understand the feeling of being an outsider in the EU.
Exactly! Especially because of the current situation, since the 1st of January, and the way Bulgarians have been portrayed in the UK media…this was exactly what I was talking about when I wrote the song, so it’s kind of funny how relevant it became.
Yep, the song has ended up fitting in quite nicely to the current situation.
So what do you think sets you apart from other female artists/rappers? Is it the fact you’re from somewhere different like Bulgaria?
Yeah, it could be because I have tried to work with language and I’m from somewhere different. But I don’t know, it’s very difficult to say.
What about the comparisons you get with M.I.A on the YouTube comments? How do you feel about that?
She is a very political artist, and also personally I really love M.I.A as she stands for questioning life from a different perspective and also geographically, politically and globally. However in terms of writing and production…I think I’m more into pop and I sing more. I think she’s more of a rapper.
Her music is a little more aggressive than yours? You’re a little more chilled out?
Yeah, I think so. I do think she is amazing as an artist; an incredible political artist and I definitely have a lot of respect for her.
Yeah, absolutely. So tell us a little about the comparisons between the music scene in Berlin and what you see here in London.
First of all, every time I come to London, for a second, I always want to move here! I’m really into the fact that people really care about music and I love garage and house music! That’s what I’m into and I love the stuff that comes out of the UK.
I love Berlin. There are a lot of new bands and House music happening. But I don’t really go out a lot! Weekends for me mean I’m playing a gig somewhere, and if I’m not playing a gig I still need to be somewhere and get up at 6am. And I think Berlin is pretty famous right now for partying 3 days in a row – you see people at 11am on a Sunday just getting back from a party.
Yeah, I can’t handle that…not anymore. I used to! Here in the UK we do see Berlin as a super cool place. I’ll have to go soon!
You should! It’s so cool, has got a great dynamic vibe, for sure.
Is there anything you particularly like about the music scene in Berlin or how things are done there?
The latest phenomenon is that there a lot of are new interesting parties where new artists will play and expose their music. And nearly always they will be from the UK! That’s the thing for me; I’ll go out and see UK artists so every time I’m here I just want to stay for longer, like a month or two. I’m actually playing here in April at a place called Birthdays.
Yeah, Birthdays in Dalston. Awesome. It’s great you’ve mentioned that because I was going to ask, what is your plan for 2014?
First, the album drops on the 10th March, which is the most exciting thing ever! And then it is all about playing gigs, so I’ll be here in April to play Birthdays and then I have two other dates in Manchester and in Sheffield.
Ooh, venturing up North.
Yeah, exploring! Then further along the year, summer festivals of course. At some point I think there will be a small US tour, and then a proper tour around UK and Europe.
And then my wish is to write more material and brainstorm about what is next. So a combination of all these things!
That sounds really exciting for you Dena. And it’s great to have artists from outside the UK coming in – it’s good to mix things up.
Good luck with everything!
Words: Irune Rue Chamberlain