Talking "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” with DENA
Since moving to Berlin from her native Bulgaria, DENA has been making a name for herself as one of Berlin's hottest young artists. Her debut album, Flash, launched earlier this year with the addictive single "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools". A fresh mix of rap, dance, and catchy vocals, DENA's music has all the ingredients of a great hip hop album plus her own brand of unconventional lyrics. We caught up with DENA before her show at the MYKITA HAUS Warming to talk about her debut album, the music scene in Berlin, and her favourite spots in the city.
For those who don't know you, where are you from and how did you end up in Berlin?
(laughs) I’m from Bulgaria originally and came to Berlin 10 years ago after finishing high school. I ended up coming here for my studies. I got a bachelor’s degree in Media Studies, which is a mix of visual communication and media.
Most Berliners have a special attachment to their neighborhood or Kiez. Is that true for you, too?
I totally have a special attachment to my neighborhood. I live in Kreuzberg, actually not so far from the MYKITA HAUS, and I’ve been living in the neighborhood for most of the time I’ve been in Berlin. Yesterday, I was in Mitte (Berlin’s city center), and I realized that I’m almost never there, unless it’s for gigs, when I’m playing or DJing somewhere. I’m very happy to live in Kreuzberg. Most of the time I don’t have to go anywhere else because everyone comes here.
Do you have a favorite spot in town?
Yes, I do. I mean, who doesn’t? In my case it would be probably the Spree River. I hang out a lot there. I just discovered this place behind the wall, you know behind East Side Gallery? You can sit, have a drink, and hang out. I really love that.
Now back to your music. With "Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimmingpools,” you make clear that you're not high-maintenance. This is a far cry from most hip-hop/rap artists' lyrics. How else do you think that you differentiate yourself and your music from that of the usual hip-hop artist?
The things I care the most about are friendship, love, and good times, not so much about the diamond rings. And that’s mostly what I write about. I suppose that song is my way of questioning the traditional status symbols, especially those that define success in the genre.
So, fame and fortune were not your reasons to start a career in the show business?
When you’re starting in the business you think about that stuff, but once you have them, then you want more and more. But because of how I started my career, at the time I didn’t have them. I mean it is like if you’ve never tasted good champagne, you’re like whatever, but if you’re used to drink only that, then it isn’t easy to go back to beer.
You said that you took a very DIY approach for your debut album. Besides writing the lyrics for the songs, and of course singing, how else were you involved in the production?
I basically wrote all the songs and by that I don’t mean only the lyrics. I mean, once you finish a song, then there is the actual production process. I luckily had Jonas from Kaiku Studios and my Finnish crew here in Berlin to help me with that. They did a great job making everything sound fat and proper.
The remix that Berlin based trio Ballet School did of your title "Bad Timing" seems to be everywhere these days. Do you think that being based in the city has had an impact in your career and the sound of your music?
Definitely. Being in the city has allowed me to meet all the people I work with and has had an influence in the sound and the way I think about music. With the guys from Ballet School we’ve been in the same “gang” for years. We have the same management and production studio.
What’s the story behind the title of your debut album “Flash”?
There’s this curious expression used in German to express excitement about something: “Ich bin so geflasht”. I don’t think there’s a proper way to translate it into English, but it makes sense if you think about it. Being flashed, not in the literal sense of the light, but referring to extreme enthusiasm or inspiration about something you’re seeing or doing, like being overwhelmed by it. When I was writing the first songs of the album, this was the word that described my mood. Everything was coming in a flash.
After finishing the album I thought a bit more about it, and the next thing that came to my mind was this reflective material you find in a lot of sportswear. You know, this gray surface you see in running gear for example. It doesn’t look like anything special, but it makes an amazing reflection when you put some light on it. We live in a “pic, or it didn’t happen” kind of time, so everyone is taking photos of everything all the time. Flashes are now a part of our daily lives.
In the early days of your career you provided vocals for the now-extinct band "The Whitest Boy Alive.” Tell us a bit about this experience. Did it have an influence in the music you make now?
Oh yeah. Those guys are like family to me, and I still do some stuff with them. Actually Daniel, who plays the keyboard in my band, used to play the keyboard for them, too. Erlend, who is also a good friend of mine, helped me a lot in the beginning. He’s even featured in one of the songs of my album. We all met when I had just moved to Berlin, and we used to record in the same studio, so it was very spontaneous.
What I did with them at the time wasn’t a lot, just a couple of backup vocals, but it was kind of a big thing for me. I was a big fan.
We were big fans, too. Actually we saw them once playing live in the courtyard of Tape Club quite a while ago.
That’s so crazy! Actually, that day was one of the first times I played with them. I had already written a few songs and in the after party I sang with them as my band. I will never forget those times. They jumped in as a band for me more than once, and I even have some demos with them. I had my first experiences singing in front of a big crowd with them.
We've seen you featured in several magazines sporting very fashionable ensembles and you the video for "Bad Timing" debuted on vogue.com. What role does fashion plays in your life? Is there a fashion item you can't imagine living without?
I definitely love fashion, on an aesthetical level at least, not so much as a status symbol. I think Fashion is 100% involved in our lives, and although I completely appreciate the work of the talented designers and artists working in the industry nowadays, it is very important for me keep it casual and fresh, and that’s why I try to keep a healthy distance from the whole fashion cult frenzy. I suppose that when you look at any creative industry from the outside everything looks kind of crazy, and fashion is no exception.
My can’t-live-without item these days is nail polish. It’s so crazy, but I think I’ve developed a light obsession for it. Recently, I was going to meet some girlfriends to hang out and ended up bringing like 20 different colors. My favorite shade is from Chanel, a greenish metallic gold hue.
Now that we're talking fashion and style, you were just trying on some MYKITA frames. Which one did you choose for your performance tonight and what do you like the most about it?
For my performance tonight I got URSULA in this lovely matte gray color. It’s an oversized frame, but so comfortable and light! It is kind of extravagant in an old school way, but at the same time a bit futuristic with the octagonal shape and the mirrored lenses.