Name: Joy Denalane
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Nationality: German/South African
Current release: The deluxe edition of Joy Denalane's Let Yourself Be Loved is out via Lesedi / Motown Records.
Recommendations: I'd recommend the work of a painter called Noah Davis who made many beautiful paintings documenting black life. He was also a huge fan of a South African painter called Marlene Dumas, who I also love. Noah Davis was also one of the founders of the Underground Museum in LA, which is one of the most important contemporary museums. And he's the brother of Khaleel Joseph, one of the most important contemporary black directors of our time.
I would also recommend a very beautiful Tiny Desk show of Yabba Smith. I think she's one of the greatest singers of all time. It's beautiful the way she expresses her emotions and her grief. Highly recommend.
If you enjoyed this interview with Joy Denalane, visit her official website for everything you wanted to know about her. You can also stay up to date on her work on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing when I was about 19 years old and had my first band. My musical influences were obviously soul, r&b and hip hop artists that I identified with.
I don't really know what it was that drew me to music, it's something that's inexplicable. I think it just resonated with me. It made me feel good and safe. And I was just very curious about that world.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I probably developed very slowly. And I think it started with imitation. I think a lot of times you imitate the artists that you look up to. And they are like your vocal coaches, because you try to dive into their inner emotional state and you try to analyse what they might have felt when they made this or that tone. So I started imitating a lot and then slowly but surely, started to develop my own voice. I think this is often the way for artists, imitation before you start having your own stories and narratives, and emotions, then you become your own person as an artist.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
You probably can’t separate the two from one another. I guess your identity really plays into your music.
The way you perceive the world is something that can be heard in your music, and the way you express yourself - the way you use your voice and energy.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think one of my biggest challenges as an artist was always writing, because I always want quality in my lyrics. And sometimes I struggled to express myself in words the way I wanted to.
So I started working with other people and now I’m most comfortable when I’m working with others. When I’m surrounded by other writers in a room, we can really exchange our thoughts and ideas, and develop lyrics.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I always try to surround myself with people who can help me produce a record, who understand my vision. I'm not an instrumentalist or a producer in a classic way, I'm more of an executive producer. So I always try to surround myself with people who I look up to and who I admire.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Of course, microphones can do that. They change the way you sing in the studio because they all work quite differently. And often you have to lean into whatever particular microphone you have. You have different microphones for different sounds, for different styles, and it can also be used as an instrument.
For instance, for my current album, Let Yourself Be Loved, one of the basic instruments that leads throughout the record is a bass, the Fender Precision Bass. That really defined my sound for this record.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
With collaborations I would say anything goes – but it depends on the situation and how comfortable you feel. Some artists like to be in their own studio and just send files after they talk to you about the record, and others prefer to be in the room with you.
I'm totally open to any kind of situation but my preference would probably be working remotely, so that I am in my own studio and can really concentrate on my performance.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I do not really have a regular structured day as I am an independent artist. It depends on whatever is on my schedule! If I am free then I will probably do private stuff. But I'm working a lot so my schedule can be very wild.
I try to have a morning routine and have a tea or a coffee in peace and go through whatever’s on my mind. Maybe I go for a run. And then I just jump into work mode, and whatever I have scheduled.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I think my breakthrough was probably my first album release - Mamani. I did have a single before that, a duet with a musician (who then turned into my husband), and we had a really great hit here in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
But I would say my breakthrough followed that when I decided to make my own record - and to start talking about my heritage, which is South African and German. That’s something that hadn’t been done at that time, in popular music. People really wanted to understand where I was coming from and it really resonated with them.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
My strategy is concentration. I always have a goal to finish writing a song in one or two days, it must be done by then! I do everything for it to happen. So I always try to find a space where there's only me and the songwriter in a room. And we lock ourselves in for a couple of hours and be very strict about working, without any distractions. I do have my mobile phone there, but I don't really look at it. I find this a very productive way of working.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Oh yes, music has the power to be hurtful or confront you with painful experiences or memories. But it can also be very healing. I'm in need of both feelings, because it helps me to understand myself and the world better.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
That's a very interesting question. I'm happy that it has now finally entered the building of debate as there is a fine line between cultural appropriation and inspiration. I think when you use sounds or music from a group that you don't belong to necessarily, and don't speak about it, or don't really know about it, and then you capitalize on it, that is a no go for me.
But we do have to make a difference between appropriation and inspiration. We all are inspired by others, and we learn from others and we automatically install things that we see and hear from other people. I think as long as you are able to speak about it, and to learn from it, to educate yourself about it - the reason why people do what they do, historically and musically, then I think that’s a positive thing to do.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I think the sense of smell is very interesting as it activates so many emotions and memories - memories of your childhood or moments in which you feel felt good or bad. It's quite amazing.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I like to be touched by art because art tells stories, at least when it's good art … which of course is a very personal thing - it's very individual what you find good or bad. But to me art can activate many, many emotions - positive and negative. And it can also make you feel that you're not alone.
Art to me is also representation of the present, the past and future – so it’s like a history book of a particular artist, and it tells you a lot about their perspectives. And it can make you think about subjects that you haven't really thought about before. Art plays a huge role in my life.