While critics and fans alike have jumped on Lorde’s “Royals” as an anti-materialist anthem for the recession generation, Denitza Todorova, better known as DENA, got there first. What distinguished the Bulgarian native’s 2012 single “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” from its antipodean counterpart was not only its punchy bars and insistent percussion but the sense that being broke had never been so fun. It’s that boisterous personality, along with top-notch production from Berlin’s Kaiku Studios, that makes DENA’s upcoming debut album, Flash, such an attractive proposition. With a trademark Eastern European drawl, she deftly skewers everyone from pretentious clubbers to social media obsessees without compromising her leftfield weirdness. After all, who else would include both a Skee-Lo pastiche and a Kings of Convenience collab on the same record? We caught up with the rising rapper to discuss fame, fashion and Jennifer Lopez.
What’s the DENA origin story? How did you start off?
I’m originally from Bulgaria, and I moved to Berlin around 2005 after school. I came here, studied, played in a band, and began to write my solo stuff. Then I wrote an album and finished and it’s going to be out in March. That’s the fast forward version.
Walk me through it slowly.
A lot of things happened after my first single. I had these two songs, “Boyfriend” and “Games”, that I’d basically put out on the internet. After that I had this video for “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” that got released, then suddenly songs started to be put out through labels. The songs became more physical– the album’s ready to be released so my music’s way more in shape. Sound-wise, I’ve been writing a lot of songs in the past few weeks, and it’s interesting, I’m playing a lot of keyboard and composing. I think I write better demos now. That’s the biggest change.
You can definitely tell the difference between earlier songs and newer album tracks. Some, like “Total Ignore,” really bring to mind early ’90s rap flows.
When it’s about hip-hop, I like a lot of stuff coming out of the ’90s and early 2000s. I was listening to a lot of A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla, Madlib, Stone’s Throw, everybody from there. The ’90s were probably the time when hip-hop was most connected to jazz. But my personal love definitely goes to contemporary artists like Drake. I have Drake on repeat nowadays.
Your most recent single, “Bad Timing”, shows off a Drake-like side to you. Do you find it hard to balance your more vulnerable tracks with sassy kiss-offs like previous single, “Guest List”?
In reality, 90% of everything I write is “Bad Timing”. I only feel ready to share and put out a bunch of those. When I’m making beats and electronic production it’s a different feeling from writing piano songs. Before I started to produce, I actually did have a couple band set-ups, like me writing songs with other Berlin musicians. At one point I realised I needed to drop bombs and make the beats more heavy, but then I missed making songs based on simple piano loops. The goal is to have a balance between the two.
Your relationship with Berlin, and with Kaiku Studios in particular, seems to have played an integral role in your development as an artist.
It was the best decision ever to have moved here. There is a lot of creative spirit to the city, like the guys at Kaiku. When I first moved here everyone around me was a musician. There is something about Berlin that makes it super edgy. It’s not a yuppie city at all. There are always new energies. Music-wise, it’s not only about techno anymore. With so many people passing through, there’s room for new music, new vibes, new stories.
Your vibe is certainly very distinct, particularly when it comes to fashion. Very few artists rock oversized sweaters and space-age reflective jackets in the same video.
My whole relationship with fashion is based on a very spontaneous vibe. It’s unreflected and all about following my first instinct. I never know what’s going to happen. The sweaters thing started from the fact that I was basically using my own clothes for the first videos and slowly developed my own idea while getting sweaters from somewhere else. My main idea is to feel myself and feel real. The reflective material is the next level of fashion for me. I thought that it made perfect sense with my album being called Flash, and me having all these ideas about reflection and light.
You’ve modelled everything from Carhartt to Roberto Piqueras. Have you felt a special affinity to any designer?
There’s this super cool designer who’s also Bulgarian but based in Berlin called Vladimir Karaleev, and this Italian guy Marios. I’ve been wearing a lot of their stuff recently. I totally appreciate and admire the work of people who create clothes and fashion. It’s next level. Fashion isn’t my main field, but that’s why I think I have a healthy relationship to it. It all seems fresh to me, which is probably why I’m easily excited about it.
What’s next for DENA after the album release?
I’m looking forward to touring. That’s basically my goal until the late fall. I really want to play, play play! I’m already brainstorming topics for my next album. For me, writing is the best activity apart from playing live. I’m really looking forward to being able to reflect and think. I’m in this moment of evaluating my music. The thing about first albums is that they’re probably the artist’s best, saying the thing they always wanted to say. But weirdly I’m writing way better demos for the new album.
Finally, you often refer to yourself online as Dena from the block. Are you a secret JLo fan?
Not actually, but I like playing word games with ‘block’. One of the most common architectural forms in Bulgaria is the block. This is what I grew up in and where my parents live, so once you know that, it makes sense.