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Dena: Who’s that girl?

With her debut album arriving in March, Bulgarian junior tennis champion-turned-epitome of Berlin cool Dena is poised to go global. Catch the princess of Kreuzberg pop on her home turf at Berghain Kantine on Wed, Feb 26.

Image for Dena: Who’s that girl?
Photo by Michal Andrysiak

With her debut album of perfect, made-in-Kreuzberg pop arriving in March, Bulgarian junior tennis champion-turned-epitome of Berlin cool Dena is poised to go global.

The other day I was surprised to catch my 10-year old humming “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” to herself. “You’re gonna interview Dena? Cool!”

Meet Denitza Todorova, a Bulgaria native who was fed Homo Faber and Goethe in school and once longed for Western bloc chocolates. She’s known for her effortless raps set to 1990s R’n’B and hip hop with a touch of Balkan beat and cred-boosting guest appearances by the likes of collaborator and friend Erlend Øye.

She hooks tweens with her catchy tunes while attracting older fans, who see in her persona some understated parody of the hipster lifestyle. As for hipsters themselves, they can only adhere to her brand of Berlin street-cool, as effortlessly displayed in her videos.

This, and the fact that she arrived 45 minutes late for our first scheduled meeting (I left), that our second one was postponed several times and that the day I finally met her I waited for 15 minutes in front of her building on Maybachufer (her doorbell didn’t work, a Berlin classic) – had me expecting some self-indulgent brat. Instead I was met by a long, serious girl with a focused mind and an endearing conversational style: a 31-year-old who can get away with dotting her sentences with “yo”s and hip hop gestures without looking like a moron. Add that to her impervious poise and a photogenic, pouty lower lip, and you have the evanescent, jaded demeanour of a star in the making.

Flipping through our January issue’s interview with Christiane F., Dena started chatting about drugs in Berlin.

Are you into drugs at all?

No. I know, it’s crazy… After “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” was out, so many people started to send me stuff like customised cigarette papers and I was like, I don’t even smoke!

So you’re in the Berlin music scene and you don’t do drugs?

I know! In the music industry, it’s crazy to be sober. The only thing is, sometimes I drink some red wine… I often feel like the super freak! With people I play with, it’s not that I forbid them to drink or stuff but it’s like, yo, if everybody’s going to drink it’s after the show. Sometimes there’s just no time, you play a show and you have to catch a plane in five hours, so you have two hours to sleep and it just doesn’t make sense. I can’t afford to allow myself to be out of tune. Sipping wine with friends for me is like… holidays!

So I guess right now, there’s no time to chill by the swimming pool?

Right now it’s crazy… I’m finishing a shitload of tracks – my album is dropping in March. The whole time, things have been coming up. For example, I got the test file and on the one track the mastering is fucked up and we have to re-press everything, re-do everything. That kind of stuff happens the whole time. The graphic designer asks, okay, what exactly should the text on the stickers be? I’m at the centre of the whole communication. Sometimes we work with people in LA, they email me at 2am. But mostly right now every day I’m in the studio practising the set…

Are you really into the live shows? Are you a stage person?

Basically for me, it’s like my mental holiday, where I’m like okay, it’s on. It’s the best moment, basically what I’m doing everything for in the end. But it depends, sometimes the chemistry is not there.

Do you have a worst memory?

That was in Rome in October. For some reason nothing clicked. It’s so crazy, I had played Milan six months before that – the best gig ever, there were 200 people really feeling it. So I was really like Italy, man it’s rocking. But we went there and it was like a Monday or Tuesday night and everything was such a mess with the organisation, it got super late, there weren’t many people and when we played at the end everyone was talking to each other. It felt like playing at a wedding or some business event. Some other musicians told me later it was “the classic Rome experience”.

Did you feel tempted to walk off stage and leave?

No! But there was this crazy moment in Bulgaria a couple years ago where Chilly Gonzales played his solo piano concert and there was some kind of misunderstanding. People thought he was gonna play his electronic set but he played his piano set and people were not paying attention, talking away… And then he stopped his concert! It was so crazy because it was like this scandalous thing, because it was the first time he stopped a concert.

Have you played in Bulgaria yourself?

Last year. It was super fun, the scene there is kind of small but I was happy that everybody showed up. It’s always cool for me to play there.

You left Bulgaria to study here eight years ago – why Berlin?

It was a bit of an accident. I found that I could study video theory and visual communication in Potsdam. I wanted to get away and it was actually cheaper for me to study here than in Bulgaria. My parents couldn’t afford for me to study there. Education in Germany is more or less free, it’s 200 bucks per semester; in Bulgaria you have to pay way more and then you basically get bound into this system that works on mafia and family connections. There’s such a fucking hopeless vibe there that in my brain it was always clear it would be great for me not to be a part of this.

When you came here, you spoke German already. How come?

My parents put me in a German gymnasium because in Bulgaria, in eighth grade or something, there’re a couple of options. It’s actually pretty normal for people to go to language schools. You could also go to economics school or maths or whatever, but I went to language school. You have exams after seventh grade and basically get a slot depending on the grades you get – you get to either learn English as a first language or German or French. If you had the best marks, you could choose whatever, but most people chose English. It’s such a retarded system. My marks were in the middle… I ended up in German. People with worse marks were sent to learn French. It was like, “In which section are you? French? Go away, loser.”

Did you end up liking German as a language?

In the beginning I wasn’t naturally feeling it. Like everybody, I wanted to learn English. But I’m super into languages… for me it’s like this maths thing, super logical, especially German, like “this plus this minus this divided by this means this”. At some point it made sense and it was really fun to learn it.

I found out that Haskovo is famous… It’s in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s highest Virgin Mary monument!

[Laughs] It’s so copy-pasted… so typical of the paradoxical vibe of the place – things clashing into each other. There’s not a logic the way that we know it here. So basically they put the Mother Maria, the ultimate symbol of Catholicism, in this super crazy Eastern orthodox Christian church… to be honest, I really don’t have a clue how it landed there. I heard it had to do with a mayor, or maybe the aliens dropped it there. The crazy thing is that it used to be this communist monument called “the heart”, a concrete and metal structure that was totally abandoned and became a hangout for junkies and alcoholics. The alternative scene would go there to listen to Nirvana and you could skateboard up there – it was always this alternative, escapist place. So they renovated the thing and put the Mother Maria on top of it! And now it’s this tourist attraction and they built a proper skate ramp for the kids. Things look so clean and proper now. It’s crazy because in my memories there weren’t proper roads. Neighbours would throw their trash off of their balconies…!

What would one junges Mädchen do in the Haskovo of the 1980s-90s?

I grew up playing tennis. My father’s been busy travelling around and organizing tennis tournaments for the last 30 years. It’s basically his second job…

So, were you in the same club as world champion Igor Dimitrov? He’s from Haskovo, right?

Yes! It’s the son of my coach. It’s so crazy! Dimitrov’s mom was my sports teacher in school. I really grew up in the tennis club, so back then all the kids from the club watched big tournaments and now we watch Igor play the Australian Open or something – it’s surreal. No matter what time it is, we’re all sitting there watching live, everyone’s connected, texting each other…

Are you saying Denitza Todorova could have become a star – not as musician, but as a tennis player?

Or a tennis coach! I’m the only one from our whole club that didn’t become a tennis teacher! At some point I had to decide. It was a little bit of drama because I really played from six to 16. When I was 10, I was like number three in Bulgaria. Tennis is really big in Bulgaria, god, there are a lot of sick parents there. At the end of the day my father pushed me, but the good thing is he didn’t force me.

Were you already interested in music?

Yeah, I sang in the choir all through school and kind of did some writing but didn’t really know where the whole thing was going. Until I moved to Berlin… actually, the first thing I did was start a band with a friend. I’d met this girl named Ambica here from Canada. It was just the two of us, she played the drums, I played keyboard…

What were your first impressions of Berlin? Anything unexpected?

The coal stoves, I couldn’t believe that. Even in Bulgaria no one would have that. It would be like a war situation or something, that’s not something that exists. In general, this whole vibe of the city where the Wall was.

Is it different for you as someone who spent the first seven years of her life behind the Iron Curtain? Does the Berlin Wall mean a lot more to you?

I’m super tripping when I talk to friends from West Germany and the difference of how this whole thing was perceived. We were definitely on the other side of the Wall. The good thing is that when you’re a kid you’re like “whatever, this is how it is” and I was able to outgrow the whole thing a little more playfully than the older generations. My parents get so emotional when they’re here!

Do you have memories of communist times?

Stuff like tripping on Western objects because you never see them, like toilet paper or bananas. I remember some point where there were bananas only for five days in January and everyone was going crazy because the whole production got frozen, there was nothing produced in Bulgaria anymore, import, export. Those were some crazy times. Or there were those Kinder Surprises and those plastic animals with chocolate bonbons in them, and that was like the symbol of paradise. Haskovo is super close to the border with Greece and Turkey, and there were those Western currency shops… But no one could really afford to go.

There’s a big Turkish community in Haskovo. Did this help you feel at home in Kreuzberg?

That, and me going to Istanbul in 2008 for a university exchange. Until that moment I had never been in Istanbul, which is crazy because it’s 300km from my hometown. Twenty million people live there, it’s like Mexico City in Europe, it’s crazier than New York! This constant noise and this crazy energy are something I’ve never experienced before. It just expanded my horizons. And the crazy thing is that when you say you’re from Haskovo, everybody knows the place! It’s not like here when they are like, “Where are you from again?” – they’re always mixing up Romania and Bulgaria. There it was like, yo neighbour! It was really incredible. Six months later I came back here and was like, Kreuzberg, what’s up – it was like, yeah, this is home. I can even buy Bulgarian stuff here in the market because the Turks sell it!

So, no question, home is Berlin?

Definitely, although it’s difficult to generalise – you know: “Home is where the wi-fi is.”

That sounds like a lyric from one of your songs… Where are your best friends, here or on Facebook/Skype?

My best friends are here, now. My sister also lives here. She’s one of my best friends – that’s so important, just someone who you know, no filter. She just became a mother, that’s what she does now.

In your track “Games” you seem to have a very disillusioned idea of friendship – was it written out of personal experience?

“Games” definitely came out of a personal thing. It was somehow such a private message, actually like a diary complaint. To my old friends. Basically realising that you never actually know when you can be 100 percent open and to whom. It’s so much about intuition, sometimes you know who is real and who’s not, but there are so many layers in between that make you blind and then at some point you realise you were always right, your heart was always right.

As a young Bulgarian in Berlin, have you ever felt like a second-class citizen? I guess I’m thinking of “Guest List”.

I used that club metaphor but the primary motivation for this song was, yeah, another guest list – basically me asking myself if I’m in the right queue at the airport or at the Ausländerbehörde. “Guest List” was something that I always wanted to say, from my experience living in Germany and living in Berlin, especially before Bulgaria joined the EU. When you move somewhere it’s a process and it’s never easy, but feeling excluded on a social level, somehow it’s really so fucked up. Or when you study and your visa says you’re allowed to be here only to study this and the moment when you stop studying, goodbye!

In January, Bulgarians and Romanians were finally granted first-class European status, allowed to work freely in the EU. How do you feel about the paranoia it triggered in Germany and the UK?

My first reaction was more like: “So I was illegal until now?” I didn’t really realise… It’s crazy to read all over the place written in big blinking letters how Romanians and Bulgarians will ruin your life. Especially in the UK, where papers like the Daily Mail are really creating this hate paranoia. It feels kind of fucked up because it’s supposed to be about EU equality and the rules are the rules. And just think… if there are reasons that would drive a professor or something from there to here and become, like, a cab driver, then that speaks a lot for the circumstances that they had in their country. It’s so fucked up just to have this vibe of “you’re not wanted here”.

The fact you decided to set the video of “Guest List” in Bulgaria drives the political point home. Was it your idea or [Bulgarian music video director] Plamen Bontchev’s?

It was right away super clear that I wanted to do it there. There are a lot of layers in this song. On one side the lyrics, then you see all those prom night freaks. The prom night is another symbol of the desire to be on the guest list… But the political layer, how I meant it, it could have been set in an airport or a prison.

How did you experience your own prom night?

I missed it! I didn’t go, I was kind of rebellious back then… But it’s just so crazy, seeing the contrast of what those people are wearing, forcing their parents to find thousands to pay for those dresses… and behind you is the ruined housing block.

Your most famous track, “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools”, is a lot less political. Yet in the words of The Guardian’s Paul Lester there’s that “ambiguity” hanging over your songs. “Is she joking?” So, Dena, are you being ironic?

I’m not so much into irony, I really meant 100 percent everything that I said… There’s not so much mystery behind it, actually. People reacted so crazily to this hook – “cash, diamond rings, swimming pools” – but I’ve never meant something more straightforward. “Cash, diamonds…” can be a metaphor for materialistic wealth, which it also is, but then… it just meant that I don’t have all those things but I don’t care about them either. I just want to hang out with my friends and have a good time. So there’s not so much irony about it really.

Maybe because of the video? The contrast between a Neukölln flea market and the bling of the lyrics… that’s irony, isn’t it?

The thing is, I’m not interested in singing something and spoon-feeding you exactly the same thing in visuals. For me, music videos are always about having this second reality of the songs – and of course, if the combination is good then it creates like a third thing. It’s not that it’s always possible to achieve that, but that’s kind of like the mission I guess.

This and “Thin Rope” (set in Kreuzberg) really gave you an edge as the ultimate Berlin hipster – a special shabby brand of hipness. Was it studied?

It really felt like the most natural thing to do… Berlin definitely has some kind of a broke bohemian vibe that’s connected to the fact that people here are forced to come up with DIY solutions. Economically it’s not like London or New York with everyone working five jobs and waking up at six in the morning – it’s crazy that everyone is fucking killing it there whereas Berlin is so chilled. But it’s very interesting if you don’t know Berlin, you’re from Tennessee or somewhere. People think [the video] was shot in Bulgaria or something.

What’s your new track “Bad Timing” all about?

It’s about always longing for someone or something and always missing each other. It’s a little bit like talking about the impossibility of love and communication and when things go wrong.

How do you start writing a song?

It depends so much. Sometimes it’s about something bothering me, it just comes out. This is when the lyrical part is first, but sometimes I just make beats or write chords and I hear something and think, “this is it”. Ninety percent of the songs I write are keyboard love songs, like real singer-songwriter love songs, and five percent are like, let me put that beat on.

Do you usually write in English?

Yeah, sometimes for fun I try to rhyme stuff in Bulgarian. At some point it would be fun to write something in Bulgarian for other people, but I don’t know if it’s going to be some plastic pop or what exactly…

Bulgaria is known for chalga. Is this brand of trashy Balkan pop a source of inspiration?

[Laughs] Oh my god, this genre is so absurd! Speaking about irony, that is probably my only layer of it – where I’m a little bit referring to that and making in my head a little bit fun of that principle, but it’s not so much get-able because it has so much about porn visuals and that stuff. Once I met a manager from Warner from LA and he knew everything about it. I was like, what the fuck? I thought it was our best kept secret. One and a half years ago I was like, we are on this thing, this is the ultimate inspiration shit. I think now it’s kind of over. It’s kind of like a broke Balkan version of K-pop. Once with my Korean friend we did a night where she played me shitloads of K-pop and I played shitloads of chalga.

One of the Finns from your producing team (Kaiku) told me to expect “more mature” stuff… How is this supposed to sound exactly?

I’m not sure… I’m basically already writing the new album. I feel like I’m a little bit back to the roots, which is like, talking about me and you and the problems between us… I really love piano and playing chords and stuff, so now I’m really working on demos that don’t have beats at all. Maybe that’s what it means!

And the influence of Erlend Øye – you’re good friends, aren’t you?

I’m so thankful for his feedback – he was one of the first people I would play a song on the piano to and he would be like, oh my god, such great pop songs. He showed me so much. He’s my ultimate friend to check stuff with. The other thing I’m super-thankful for is that I was doing some covers with Whitest Boy Alive sometimes at the end of their live shows covering some 1990s house music and those were some of my first experiences in front of 1000 people. I had like bands and experiences and stuff, but thanks to those guys I basically had this first bungee jump, metaphorically, when you realise you want to do it on your own.

Catch Dena on her home turf this month: she plays Berghain Kantine on Wed, February 26.

Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.