There’s a science behind the ideal summer jam: it needs to be peppy, silly, and catchy. Dena’s genius “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” hits all our buttons, but it was the fantastic fleamarket-set video that really made the internet sit up and hit replay again and again. It was high time StilinBerlin’s music expert Florian Duijsens met this Bulgarian artist to talk about just how she pulled off writing 2012’s perfect summer jam.
How did you get to Berlin?
I’m originally from Bulgaria, and at the beginning of the 2000s there was this huge wave of migration where a lot of people left the country. A lot of Bulgarian kids went to countries where they spoke the languages. Now, I had learned German in school and came here to study, not music but Media Studies. It was a mixture of design — practical stuff — and theory. I also went on an exchange to Turkey where I studied hardcore design and photography, but parallel to all that I was always writing. I was always in a band, developing my stuff. My first band was here in Berlin, with a girl from Toronto. She was playing drums and I was playing synths, we were trying stuff out. But then when we split, I realized I had to work on my own beats. I got some beat machines and software, and at some point I kinda switched. I realized I had to focus much more on my music, so when I finished my studies that was that, I was out of there and dedicated entirely to writing and producing.
You’ve always written in English, right? Is it hard to write in your third language?
I think when I write I have this switch to English, and it’s of course a practical decision too, because who’d understand me if I’d write in Bulgarian? Or even in German, it’d be a little bit limited. It’s my working language.
Do you remember first hearing Hip Hop or R&B music in Bulgaria? Or how did you get into that kind of music?
It was actually pretty crazy, there was this guy in my hometown who in his garage would use to make pirated copies. Now I don’t know where he got the original tapes from but my dad brought me one of these tapes when I was super little, on the one side was MC Hammer, and on the other Michael Jackson. We had this cassette player and I got totally obsessed with it, listening to it on repeat. So basically my focus was MC Hammer and Michael Jackson for a while… This was the 90s, everything came to Bulgaria with a little bit of a delay. I realized way later, ‘why was I listening to something when it was already over in the rest of the world?’
Isn’t it strange to come at your kind of music from such a throwaway pop angle?
Totally, the thing is that the only source of pop music was MTV. My first memories were those pirate tapes, but then came cable TV and MTV. That may have been the same in Germany, but in Bulgaria we didn’t get all the CDs and stuff. My first CD memories are really from the 2000s, before then we would make mix tapes on video, recording songs off MTV.
I remember when Michael Jackson played this epic concert in Romania, watching that and being totally blown away. I didn’t really realize it was so close, if we’d been grownups everyone would’ve just have made the short trip over and gone, but I didn’t realize it was that close.
Did you ever play music when you are growing up in Bulgaria?
I was singing in choirs and stuff, but it wasn’t until I got to Berlin that I got into sampling. I got an MPC from friends of mine at some point. I had people showing me how, first introductions. Thank god there were a bunch of guys around that cared a lot about samples, where music comes from, the totally nerdy side of things. It took me some time to free myself a little from that super-exaggerated geekiness and make basic demos. I’m not a producer, at least not in terms of compressing and EQing stuff, the post-production tools are not really my thing. What happened was that I learned how to be in control of the technical stuff on my own.
I now work with this Finnish producer at Kaiku Studios, Jonas Verwijnen, and in the beginning I was totally like ‘this is how the song is, no one is changing anything!’ But then at some point I realized that it’s really super-inspiring, it can open up a lot of new horizons. For instance, on “Cash…” I made the beat, the melody, the baseline, the claps, the snares, but I was happy that Jonas also wrote a hook line and added the crazy doorbell sound. Which is really cool, I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Can you tell you us about your videos? How involved are you?
The one for “Boyfriend” was only made of found footage, so for the second one, “Games”, I realized I should kind of be in the video for a second but I had no budget and no time. It was supposed to be found footage combined with shots of me lip-syncing in front of a white wall, but when I gave it to a friend to edit, he said, ‘why don’t we just use this footage of you?’ He just went crazy with the colors and the layers and everything, which actually turned out great.
For “Cash…”, I went to some other friends, and we tried to come up with something together, because they’re great artists, their stuff is in museums and everything. One’s a photographer, also from Bulgaria, so I brainstormed with him in particular about the content of this song, because it was really important for me to add more of a visual explanation to those lyrics. Listening only to my own lyrics, I wasn’t really convinced that it was explained enough.
Can you tell us more about that song? The chorus is so infectious, it’s practically made for parody videos, but what does it really say? We couldn’t find it on Rapgenius, but it isn’t about how all that swag is amazing, right?
Well, it’s a little tricky, the chorus goes on: “Cash, one thing I ain’t got in the hood. Diamond rings, I don’t need them, all I want is chill with my friends by the swimming pool.”
The things is that, of all of my songs, these are the most minimalist lyrics I’ve ever written. For me it was a total experiment to strip down everything I wanted to say to just some key words. My producer convinced me that this should be the next track, whereas I was like ‘whaaa?’ It’s so minimal, I knew that in order to explain myself properly I need to visually add more content, to show what I mean. We were trying to think of places in Berlin, trying to reflect our everyday truth, or at least the vibe of it. We thought of flea markets, the director had one in mind, the Grenzallee one in Neukölln, and I’ve always liked images that are full of objects, so then we knew we had it.
The people on the market responded so well, it was the most epic time ever. It was a bit crazy for us, because while we were shooting, we were just three people, a shitty lens, no makeup, no anything. Everything was spontaneous, but the fact that we had this compact team and we built this cart with wheels so we could move the camera around, we were totally invisible there. I mean everybody knew we were shooting something, I was lip-syncing and interacting with everybody, but we weren’t separated from the other people there. The amazing thing was that everyone was feeling it. We played the song for everyone, asked them permission. Between takes I was waiting, talking to people telling me how they moved here from Serbia in the 80s, I heard so many stories. I had the feeling it was cool for those people too, something was happening, everyone wanted us to go to their booth. It helped that we spoke Bulgarian mixed with a little bit of Serbian and Turkish, and took our time to hang out with people, even selling some stuff. It was so cool.
Making the video we were just obsessed with finishing it, with making sure it looked good. Of course we knew some people were going to see it, I thought, at least I’d have been happy just to show it to a Berlin crowd, just to share it with Berlin. So when it showed up on the Fader blog, and it started popping up all over the place internationally, it was a kind of success I’d never even thought about.
And what’s next, are you working on an album?
Well, there’s a lot of new material, a lot of new songs, and we’re now finishing the next single and also already brainstorming for the new video. I wanna do do that in the next weeks, and then there’s an EP that we’re talking to some labels about, and eventually a record, hopefully at the beginning of 2013. Now it’s a lot of talks and meetings…
How do you feel about that whole music business side of things, and about performing at big festivals like SXSW?
The live shows are really fun, because the beats are fat and when there’s a mic nothing can go wrong.