Undoubtedly the breakthrough artist of the pandemic, Denise Chaila has grown in stature after a lauded performance in the National Gallery and an appearance on the Late Late Show. We witness some of her grace, passion and articulation of a brighter now and better tomorrow.
“I am not a self-made woman, I am very proud to be part of a community. And that’s what makes the music fun.”
It’s extremely rare for an artist to accomplish their dreams, even over a career spanning several decades. There are certain milestones that, when starting out, can feel as far away as the stars that illuminate the velvet night-sky above. A place where our hopes for the future reside until it’s time to make them a reality. It’s remarkable, then, to consider the tremendous accolades and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that Zambian-born, Limerick-based artist Denise Chaila has achieved this year, long before releasing her outstanding debut body of work, the aptly titled mixtape, Go Bravely.
We first heard from Denise Chaila in 2016 on the compelling song, Isn’t Dinner Nice from Rusangano Family’s debut LP, Let The Dead Bury The Dead, the first (and only) hip-hop Irish album to claim the coveted Choice Music Prize award. On it, Chaila delivers a deeply emotive spoken-word poem centred on the continued cycle of injustice and abuse women face around the world. She commenced with the line, “I have promised myself that the only time I will ever allow myself to be seen and not heard is when I am leading by example,” a pertinent address that would set the tone for her career as a songwriter.
From there, in the midst of studying English Literature and Sociology, Chaila released her critically acclaimed debut EP, Duel Citizenship in 2019. In the space of ten minutes, she challenged preconceptions of gender and race before further stating, “What’s Irish rap? It’s a sound you can’t predict.” Throughout the early days of establishing her style as a solo artist, rapper and poet, Chaila worked closely with the people with whom she first discovered the thrill of making music with; God Knows and MuRli. The latter has been instrumental in producing her material, finding just the right beat for her words to bounce off. She continued to deliver sublime lyricism, driven by her nuance and conviction with the infectious Chaila, which arrived in May of this year. The song features on her mixtape, released earlier this month, and is just one prime example of Chaila’s ability to completely captivate her listener. When she speaks it is as though everything else stands still.
Her ascent marks a turning point in our cultural landscape, melding formative experiences from her upbringing in both Zambia and Ireland, where she relocated with her family as a child. In this regard, Chaila’s music proffers reevaluations of identity and home (“Home is where my art is. Home is where my dreams are never going to be at risk”). Furthermore, the cornerstone of Go Bravely, which seamlessly marries her past and present, also provides an overarching definition of Denise Chaila’s artistry as asserted on Down, where she declares, “I dance on the grave of dead traditions.” From the moment you press play, it’s apparent that this is an introduction to a deep thinker and visionary. Someone who, having found her voice, is giving strength to those searching for their own.
“This is the music I was looking for when I was growing up,” she says when asked about her approach to writing, especially now, as someone with the potential to instill confidence in her audience. “I put myself in a position where I want to hear the music I didn’t have. I see gaps in the market; things I wish were said but aren’t or versions of the same story that haven’t been told. I want to say them. If I represent something or someone through my music, it’s by accident. Right now, I want to represent myself properly. The older I get, the more I realise the intense variation in people. With that in mind, I’m trying to make enough space for my difference so that someone else’s difference can come along with me. I’m not trying to represent anything other than the right to not feel ashamed of yourself or your story because it’s very particular and no one else can tell it. Just because you haven’t heard someone else say it doesn’t mean it’s not the same.”
In 2020 alone, Denise Chaila’s story is an impressive one. Throughout the year, she has been omnipresent, her presence bringing boundless joy during a universally difficult year. When we meet on the first autumnal evening of September, our conversation takes place on the eve of her Late Late Show appearance – of which snippets of her speaking eloquently on the show dominated social media the following day – and a few weeks before she took to the stage of Dublin’s National Concert Hall for a live-streamed ‘Imagining Ireland’ concert. Leading up to those events was a succession of career highlights. She entered our homes via the National Gallery of Ireland with an outstanding performance for the Other Voices #Courage series, an initiative from the organisation to fill historical and cultural landmarks with the music of Ireland’s most exciting acts while their doors remained closed during the pandemic. This was followed by Chaila being named Limerick Person of the Month in August, becoming the highest-charting female artist in Ireland and ranking #1 in The Irish Times’ ‘Best 50 Irish Music Acts Right Now’ list, beating stalwarts of the scene, U2 and Van Morrison.
“I was dumbstruck,” she says, an inflection of surprise remains intact in her voice of the latter achievement, “because I’m in such awe and gratitude that this industry I’m in has an awareness of me that goes beyond simply knowing what I’m doing but actually regards my music as something to be appreciated to that extent.” She continues, “After years of battling with that voice in your head which appears to doubt yourself with questions like, ‘Am I living up to my own expectations? Are my parents proud of me? Am I proud of myself? Am I doing things cleverly? Do I have enough money saved?’ All these questions build up inside and you become a different kind of person through that entire process. So, if you reach a point where you’re acknowledged for the work you’ve been doing, it’s really rewarding to feel as though the stars are aligning and you’re where you’re meant to be and you weren’t silly taking a risk on yourself. That’s where I find myself; I’m processing all of these big moments, in real-time. Simultaneously, I’m also processing how, at a time, I didn’t believe that any of this was possible for me. But I’m here.”
She stands tall in the company and support of God Knows and MuRli, during her performances and our meeting. While Chaila talks freely and earnestly about her career, how she addresses anxiety and the importance of community, particularly the one she’s developed through music, there are several sweet moments where God Knows and MuRli make a humorous comment relating to the topic at hand or the song playing through the speakers in the restaurant which are met with resounding laughter. There are several moments, also, during our time together where Denise turns to MuRli, curious about his process, notably, his approach when working on Go Bravely. “I have a question for you actually,” she directs a knowing smile his way. “Did you know from the moment we started recording that this would be a mixtape?” His answer is a perfect distillation of why he favoured this format over an album. “I always knew we’d do a mixtape because, at that point, we were calling you ‘Denise Chaila, spoken word artist’. But, we knew we wanted to offer other aspects of her artistry; elements of her spoken word work but also her rapping and singing. How do you pack that into an album? That’s when we decided to aim for a mixtape. That gave us extra freedom to experiment with the sound when we weren’t sure what shape or form the music would take. You can showcase all of that cohesively in the context of a mixtape.”
A recurring theme of our conversation lies in Chaila’s appreciation for her community of collaborators, how integral they were during the making of the mixtape which began in 2018. “This project, what I’ve created alongside my friends with narolane [their independent record label] is something beautiful. It’s homemade, it’s homegrown. It’s the result of faith, conviction and a dogged refusal to abandon our dreams. There’s been a lot of sacrifice on our journey. In a way, we sacrificed a linear milestone narrative where you go to school, college and then go on to forge a career. You abandon the very nice plotted out graph for yourself to go into uncertain waters.”
At this point, Chaila is overjoyed describing the passion she has for her work. “I love my music,” she beams. “We were listening to the songs today and spoke extensively about confronting any shyness we had going through it track-by-track. In the end, we couldn’t stop dancing! I think that’s because, at the end of the day, I didn’t make this on my own. Even myself and my career; Denise Chaila isn’t a single person. Denise Chaila is narolane. Narolane is a label of artists who are, honestly, like a family. So, when you look at the machine of me, you’re not looking at one individual who managed to pull this out of thin air and do it alone. I am not a self-made woman, I am very proud to be part of a community. And that’s what makes the music fun. I’m not being so critical of myself all the time, I’m enjoying the music I made from a genuine place with people I love. When I look back on it, I can’t not be proud of it because I’m like, ‘Wow, we made this together!’”, she says giving MuRli a euphoric look.
Whether it’s in an interview or a verse from her mixtape, Chaila consistently delivers this level of positivity and empowerment. Her voice is amongst the most important and inspiring in Ireland today, resonating with people of all generations and backgrounds. In this regard, it’s impossible not to become completely lost in her words as wisdom abounds in everything she says. Across Go Bravely, Chaila espouses self-belief, social curiosity and creating memories with friends. She communicates this in a vernacular that’s intelligent and wildly funny, showcasing both sides of her personality. In a short space of time, Chaila slips between profound statements of intent (“Everything I said I stand by”) to referencing spice boxes, Bilbo Baggins and Batman.
This endearing and very human aspect to her lyricism was born from a time where Chaila was confronting deeply personal matters. “This [Go Bravely] is the healthiest representation of what I was working through at the time,” she reveals. “I consider myself a great coward. But I was trying to teach myself how to be a coward and do the right thing: Be a coward and defend yourself. Be a coward and do all these challenging things. You don’t have to be defined by your flaws. Every year, I’ll find new bad habits to work on and break no matter how many I defeat. You might as well begin the process of embracing, loving and respecting yourself now and not wait until the future. I know that there’s no magical future version of myself that’s going to fix or save me. Instead, I choose to claim myself in this moment. That’s what I’m trying to communicate across Go Bravely. Can’t Stop Me is one of my favourite songs because it was written from the depth of my depression, yet it wasn’t coming from a position of defeat. I’m probably going to have anxiety and depression for a very long time. However, I’ve been able to perform in front of really big audiences with my anxiety. Not because I wasn’t anxious, but because I’d given myself the support to do things in a healthy way.”
Recently, those big audiences have included London’s Barbican Centre and the opening of the Museum of Literature in Dublin. How is it, then, that Chaila is able to confront the sometimes debilitating symptoms of anxiety to give the level of performance that she does. “Don’t switch it off. Look at it. I think it helps to realise what anxiety is and where it comes from,” she suggests. “Anxiety is your brain’s best attempt to protect you from a pursuit that feels dangerous. It stems back to when human beings were developing instincts that serve to save you against actual predators. In our society, you feel stressed in an exam as though you’re being pursued by a leopard. Your brain is trying to help you get out of harm’s way. Your heart rate’s up because blood is pumping around your body. Your breath is shallow because that helps you run faster. Your stomach is queasy because your body wants you to relieve yourself so you can feel lighter to be quicker. Your brain is going a hundred miles an hour because your faculties are moving much faster than they ever have because you need to think sharp if you’re in danger.”
Beyond the physical manifestation of anxiety in our bodies, Chaila breaks down the emotional side, as well. “It’s also why, when you’re nervous or under pressure, you’ll find the best of you comes out. Someone will ask you a question and you’ll give a great answer which makes you wonder, ‘Where did that come from?’ When you understand that your anxiety is there to serve you and it’s not something to harm you, I think you can be kinder to yourself and not try to reject it. If you’re in a position where you’re doing something and you’re nervous, that means you care. Fundamentally, your anxiety shows you what you care about. If it matters to you, then you know that you’re in the right place at the right time. Like a week from that moment, you can probably imagine you’ll be proud of yourself, right? That’s the best feeling. I would be willing to work through any moment, as long as I know I’ll look back on that day and feel proud I made it through that particular moment and on to the next one because of what I accomplished, even though I was terrified.’
With the release of Go Bravely, Denise Chaila enters a new stage in her career. As she embarks on a new wave of uncertain waters off the back of her mixtape, what are her aspirations for the coming months and years? “I hope this project develops a life of its own. I hope it edifies and encourages people and inspires vulnerability and confidence,” she considers, thoughtfully. “My next step as an artist is to get better technically; I want to develop my pen more than most things, and my voice. I want to write stories in different ways because there are a lot of them to tell. For the next couple of months, I’m opening a door into exploring different parts of myself. Go Bravely is just the beginning of a journey. That’s how I intended it to be, it’s the first step into saying; ‘There’s really nothing to be ashamed of anymore. So what happens when you just have fun and make things for the joy of recording music and for the joy of being who you are?’ That means your relationships get better, your confidence develops and your vulnerability gets deeper. The intimacy between you, your music, your dreams and your people all become richer. At the end of the day, the dreams that I have stopped staying two-dimensional. At the heart of Go Bravely, I wanted to have faith in something, and usually, that’s yourself. Whenever I’m not able to move forward, I make a point to say, ‘Just go! Go bravely!’”
The pace which Chaila delivers this sentiment ripples with the same fluidity as her unstoppable flow throughout her verses. Such is the unity between Denise Chaila, the undeniable star we see on TV and in magazines and the woman still full of dreams for her future, who continues to reach towards that velvet sky.
Go Bravely is out now on narolane records.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photo: Róisín Murphy-O’Sullivan