Every great Motown Records artist had their identity. Marvin Gaye, the prince of the historic label, was a sensualist, socially-aware, and undeniably soulful. Diana Ross epitomized elegance in poise and glamorous form, while Stevie Wonder won acclaim for his true musicianship and broad-based appeal.
Joy Denalane, a German-born lady of soul and the newest Motown signee, is an ambitious artist with a skilled voice that can run in any music circle. Still, she is more concerned with her singularity as an Afropean and affirming the selfhood of those who belong to the same lineage from her unique perspective.
“Identity has many levels. The most obvious level in my life would be my Blackness, and the love for my Black identity in Germany,” Denalane tells Rated R&B, when asked about the identity she wants to convey with her latest album. “I would consider myself an Afropean. We’re in Europe, but we’re Black and that’s a whole different story. I’m trying to share my story because there’s lots of us here in Europe and we have our own interesting struggle. Not trying to say that I want to compare myself, but it’s just a different story of Black diaspora, and that sort of follows me.”
It is the Thursday before her album, Let Yourself Be Loved, will be released. Denalane seems to have a clear mind on the Zoom call. Her speaking voice is trusting and harmless; a contrast to her singing style, which is by turns robust, full-bodied, passionate, and classic.
At the beginning of the 30-minute conversation, Denalane is congratulated for recently signing to Motown Records, the legendary label home that helped change the sound of America. She admits her goal then was not to sign a record deal in the states. In fact, she was satisfied with creating music in a small town close to Munich, Germany, with a few close collaborators. But a labelmate, at the time, suggested shopping the album following its completion to Motown.
“One of them said, ‘Wow, this sounds amazing to me. I would like to introduce your record to Motown, if you let me.’ And I said, ‘Of course I will let you. Good luck (laughs).’” I was not really thinking anything. It was so out of reach in my opinion that I didn’t really concentrate too much on hoping for the best,” she says.
Denalane’s skepticism turned into confidence when she learned Motown Records was interested in making her a part of their roster. As a signing bonus of sorts, she was asked to record with one of the label’s prized artists: BJ The Chicago Kid.
“That just made me trip like, ‘What?’ I was just so excited,” she says. “I couldn’t really believe it because specifically when you do things in life, and you’re concentrating on a certain project for instance and you’re not thinking any further than the project itself and the quality of the project and then all of a sudden somebody you look up to is interested in your work, that’s just crazy.”
In July, the album’s first single “I Believe” featuring BJ The Chicago Kid launched Denalane’s Motown journey. It also gave her greater visibility with the U.S. audience. Denalane followed her horn-drenched introduction with the tastefully organic “I Gotta Know” and the terrifically bluesy “Top of Your Love.” All three recordings appear on the album Let Yourself Be Loved, which is now available everywhere.
In our interview with Joy Denalane, she shares why she is rightfully proud of her new album, how she found a great album collaborator in Roberto Di Gioia, how she does justice to the R&B sound of yesteryear, and much more.
Three years have passed since your last album Gleisdreieck. What inspired the process and journey to the new album, Let Yourself Be Loved?
I started working on Let Yourself Be Loved in 2015. I went to New York to work with a very great producer team called Lion’s Share. I met them through a mutual friend and he recommended me. I took two writers from Germany, who speak English fluently, with me because I also like to take care of the content of my lyrics and everything. We finished writing 15 songs, and then we started trying to produce it. That’s where I got frustrated a little bit because the idea that I had in my mind for the record, [which was to] create an album that is as close to the good ole soul music as possible, didn’t really work out the way I wanted. The problem also was that I really couldn’t verbalize or explain what I wanted. That was pretty frustrating for me; but also for the team because we put in a lot of effort in the work.
I decided to leave it where it was and then I went on and started creating Gleisdreieck, the album that I released in 2017. Then, right after the campaign of my last album, I decided I wanted to go back to the songs. I found a producer who I thought would be the right one — who was also very close in terms of distance because he lives in Germany as well — so the communication was a bit less complicated. We didn’t have the time zone problem and so on. I went to the studio with [Roberto Di Gioia] and started working on it and it was the most fun that I ever had while producing a record.
Why did you feel like you couldn’t articulate yourself to your early collaborators about the disappointment in the first draft of the album?
I don’t even know. Maybe there’s some musicianship that I’m lacking. I consider myself a singer. I don’t play an instrument, so it’s hard for me to explain in a music language that makes it easy for people to understand. I can express what I want and also come up with references. I can play something for you and tell you I’m looking for something in that direction. But if you have to become very super specific, you need to be around a person that totally peeps your style and understands you more than you understand yourself.
Working with one producer on an entire album is sort of uncommon today. So, I gotta know, what was it like recording your new album Roberto Di Gioia?
It was amazing. It was free. It was fun. It was like playing on a playground because we didn’t really have anything to lose. The songs were already written. There was not a lot of budget. It was clear from the beginning that this would be a love project; and that gave us so much freedom. We took the time that we needed and wanted. We are friends as well, so that made it easier for us. Musically, we have so much respect for one another that it was interesting to work with someone who would listen to every bit of my thoughts. Every thought that I mentioned was a thought that he considered serious and thought of quality and vice versa. That made it so beautiful.
Let Yourself Be Loved not only sounds free, but also it sounds incredibly nostalgic. Oftentimes for an artist, pulling off a familiar sound that puts listeners in the headspace of timeless music can be risky business; but you seem to do it with ease. How did you get it right?
I don’t know (laughs). I did not have rules to follow. I just thought I was in a great environment. We played and we produced until we thought this is how it should feel. Also, what you do a lot of times when you produce a record, as an artist, you would ask your friends, your colleagues. There’s a lot of exchange going on. You would show stuff, and they would show you your stuff, and then you have opinions in the room and they would flip the whole work. They would take a deep impact or maybe not a deep impact, but they influence you and your work. I didn’t even do that. I didn’t feel like sharing the process with my friends and colleagues. Not even with my husband, who is a very important person in my life, and he’s a producer of three records of mine and he’s a musician himself. But it wasn’t necessary. I guess that’s maybe that’s what you can hear.
Speaking of influence, the album track “Hey Dreamer,” instantly made me think of Angie Stone’s “Wish I Didn’t Miss You” and The O’Jays “Back Stabbers,” which Angie Stone sampled for her song. What did you dream about when you recorded this track?
I was thinking about holding on to love. It’s never easy, specifically when you’ve been together for a while. Sometimes when you realize that it’s worth holding on [to], it’s the greatest feeling ever. I tried to put myself in that moment because I had experienced that. I love the fact that sometimes you have to hit rock bottom, seriously, if you’re in a relationship. There’s so many ups and downs. There’s so many times where you have to lift yourself up and look at each other in the eye and say, “We’re still up for this?” Once you overcome the hump, it’s the greatest feeling. It makes you feel safe and alive.
You also sweetened the wait for the new album with a few pre-releases, including a personal favorite “Top of My Love.” How did it come about?
The song is about loneliness, finding your voice, [and] identity. I was born and raised in Berlin, and I was born to a South African father and a German mother, so that makes me a mixed race. I was always a minority in a white majority, and it can be very crazy when you’re the only one because there’s not a lot of areas where they’re a lot of Africans or just all mixed up. So, you’re going to school, and all you see is people who don’t look like you and to find your way through that and to find your voice and not to lose yourself, love, and trust, I think that’s a huge task we have to accomplish. With that song, in particular, it’s dealing with the young Joy that was lonely but still feeling self-love and decided to love herself so much that she still can make her dreams happen. That’s actually a true story (laughs).
“Wounded Love,” the album opener, is buried deep in emotional pleas. Do you believe that wounded love can bring out the best in an artist?
Yes, I do think so. We have the privilege to filter our emotions and experiences throughout the music. It’s not only the writing that helps us to reflect on our joy and pain, but it’s also the physical work that you put in when you are recording. When you’re playing an instrument or using your vocals, that’s a very intense situation that you’re in; and you’re going through the lyrics and you have to feel them. So, it goes through your body, literally. I think that helps us a lot of times to express a feeling that a lot of other people, consumers, [and] listeners are going through as well. They’re just not singers or musicians. They do other jobs, but they have the same feelings. So, I think the wounded love is a very important part in an artists’ life because it helps them express the pain and the pain is a common feeling that we all know.
From your social media, your personal mantra seems to be “soul is my truth.” What does that phrase mean to you?
(Laughs loudly) Well, I mean soul stands for a lot of things. First of all, it stands for the music that I grew up with. My father would make me listen to a lot of soul music because he collected records and he would play for all of us. It sort of helped me find my musical identity, and it made me relate to certain parts of the stories that were being told by the protagonist. Soul to me is also being authentic. It’s also being real. I would definitely say that [being real] is one of my characteristics. I’m always honest and I’m real. [I’m a] what you see is what you get kind of person (laughs).
Who are some artists that you identify with here in the states?
I think a very interesting person that came on the map was Frank Ocean. He redefined R&B and soul music or hip-hop, if you will, and added new melodies and new stories. He talked about things that aren’t really talked about in that scene. I think he’s a milestone in the younger history of R&B and soul. I love Jazmine Sullivan. Her ability, her variety, her voice, her tone, everything is just perfection. Of course, I love Erykah [Badu]. I look up to Erykah a lot because her career has been going on for so long. Tiana Major9 is another contemporary artist who I think is interesting. The one song that I like a lot is called “Collide” for the Queen & Slim movie. She has a very interesting voice.
What is your idea of a perfect reaction when listeners press play and listen to the album in its entirety?
“Wow, this feels good. It makes me feel good. I want to hear it again.” I want people to be embraced, and I want them to identify with the stories. I want them to feel good, and I want them to feel hope.
Listen to Let Yourself Be Loved by Joy Denalane below.