Denise Chaila: “Is this is the part where I just tell you the exciting things happening?”

Limerick Voice Managing Editor, Molly Cantwell, sat down with the internationally acclaimed King of the 061, Denise Chaila, for an in-depth discussion on all things Limerick, why she hates the word “fan”, her musical transformation, and what’s coming next… 

Denise Chaila is in a period of transition. Re-defining the meaning of literature and art, the musician has taken over a year away from releasing work to deeply appreciate this change. Moving away from her work with God Knows and MuRli as narolane to become a single entity, the butterfly could complete metamorphosis sooner than some think…

To get to this period of reinvention, we must first look back. 

Originally from a small African village, the artist moved to Dublin with her family at quite a young age – eventually finding her home in Limerick. 

“I’ve never felt incredibly comfortable anywhere,” Denise states while she sips a pint. “Even when I was living in Africa, we were living in a place where everyone spoke a different language to even the languages my parents and I used, and nobody could really bridge the gap. So, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I had international friends who could also speak English but to the level my parents were expecting me to have and not necessarily what I actually knew. I made friends with a lot of immigrants, so I feel like I’ve been a part of this weird half space for my whole life. 

“We moved to Ireland, and it was fine – but I found Dublin to be such a massive tone shift from the village I had been living in. I have so many beautiful connections from these places, but to me, the place that you are as a child is not necessarily the place that you feel the most connected to. Those weren’t really my roots. I was blessed enough to hide under the shadow of my parents, but it wasn’t really me.”

Finally landing in Limerick, Denise describes the feeling of relief in finding the place that felt like home. 

“It’s like the experience that I hear people have when they move to Australia,” the artist laughs. “Limerick feels very attuned to me. I have a very interesting persona here. I have a very gentle personality and I like people who let me just be a gentle person. You’re not afraid to slag me, you’re not afraid to give me some shit. Maybe this is a function of my own insecurity but Dublin, as a metropolis, forced me to think about the way I was presenting all the time, whereas the gentleness of Limerick means that I always have familiar faces and ‘locals’. I’m a regular at different shops, I have relationships here, and it’s not so intimidating… I actually feel like I’m a part of something – and that’s sexy, you know?”

Denise Chaila performing in King John’s Castle – Photo by MJ Smyth @irishmj

This city is where Denise found her creative footing, starting with poetry nights in The White House and with the retired poetry collective, Stanzas. 

“I’d make my dad take me to The White House on a Thursday night and he used to stand there amongst all of these older white men,” the artist laughs. “I’m not Seamus Heaney, I wasn’t writing about my relationship with the bog or whatever. I’m not able to do that because it’s not my story… I wrote this poem about colourism, and I performed it in The White House for the first time. I know none of those people had even heard the word before or thought about being dark skinned or light skinned as a black woman, and how that impacts my femininity and my self-esteem. That’s not what they’re thinking about daily. But I felt so alive and so accepted. It’s taught me a lot. This city has taught me so much.”

The rapper switches her attention to the Dublin-centric mindset the Irish music scene seems to possess. 

“It’s boring to me to feel like I must have a certain narrative for success or to operate successfully. I don’t want to move to London, I don’t want to move to LA, I don’t want to move to Dublin… I actually have an unreleased song to that effect,” Denise teases. “There’s something powerful about saying that my people are enough.I can’t leave Limerick. I tried to leave – I tried to live in Dublin last year… It lasted about three months. I missed my community.” 

“Have you seen the page Limerick Against Fascism?” she asks with a devious smile. “I’ve very rarely felt such solidarity. People come to the city trying to make some noise and stir up shit and immediately there are at least 12 people in front of the library linking arms with one another with steel in their eyes saying: ‘No, you can’t touch my books, or my children, or my shops, or my people.’ You can’t touch us, you know, and it’s serious. Sometimes it’ll be a five-foot-nothing woman who has barely fought up against a giant of a man. This is a beautiful place. I’m excited to be just a small part of it.

“I’m a big believer in trusting what feels right. I think you injure your instincts if you’re not paying attention to them. Limerick has always felt right. I have a lot of love for Limerick as an underdog.”

Each time Denise stops off in our capital city, her slight American accent throws off taxi drivers – and most times she plays dumb and goes with it. The artist giggles while revealing how she uses this assumption to tell the taxi drivers about her love of Limerick and gets the opportunity to challenge their stigma. 

“Being black, I understand a lot about stigma,” the singer explains. “A lot of people that stigmatise and stereotype are just a little uncomfortable with what you represent. Limerick represents a fight back. Limerick represents a spine. Limerick represents having to make yourself from the ground up and feeling totally okay that it’s you and your people – and the world may not approve. Who cares? That’s what I’m here for. 

“I remember coming to Limerick for the first time. I can’t remember where it was – Moyross or The Island Field, I think. Someone called the area ‘Knacker-agua’ to my face, and I remember thinking to myself: ‘What a funny fucking way to just blend race, class, anti-traveller sentiment, and poverty.’ I don’t know who gets off on trying to make other people small like that. There’s something about arrogance that has never been something I could take sitting down. I also remember being in a religion or SPHE class where we were looking at articles about different counties – and Limerick was called the ‘waste basket’ of Ireland. I thought: ‘All black… I know what that means. I know exactly what is going on there.’”

Denise Chaila performing in King John’s Castle – Photo by MJ Smyth @irishmj

While Limerick’s completely outgrown reputation of ‘stab city’ has been long since left behind, Denise still knows there is a prejudice against the city.  

“There are a lot of things that have gone on in Limerick in the last six years that made people pay attention,” she states. “The hurling team is one of those things, definitely. Hopefully what I’m trying to do with my work makes people feel seen and wanted and appreciated… There’s so much life in Limerick, you know, and when people try to put Limerick down, I feel like we must remember that. There’s an anxiety there – you can’t put something down that isn’t high in the first place. I mean, you also can’t reach down a hand to someone without thinking you’re above. I think about that a lot.” 

In speaking about the Limerick hurling team, there was no way Denise’s incredible performance at the 2022 homecoming wasn’t coming up. In many ways, this time cemented the importance of Chaila’s 2021 single ‘061’, putting it in the ranks of ‘Dreams’ and ‘Limerick, You’re a Lady’. 

The creation of the track is just a riotous as the track itself. 

“I was in the studio, and I was having a bad day – I think I had my period. I was absolutely convinced I wasn’t gonna write a song. I was mad about people being loud and wrong on the internet and being loud and wrong about me,” Denise recalls. “There was a person in the studio who challenged the fuck out of me. He was in the studio coming through and having a great day – banging out song after song after song. I was intimidated. It was taking me ages.

“I remember he said to me: ‘If you really feel this way, if you’re really a rapper, you just have to do it. You just have to say everything you want to say – you either put up or shut up.’ That arrogance was almost encouraging, I felt like I had to enter the Dojo. 

“That day I was looking very like Neo Soul poetry salon, angel robes on, you know… I walked into the studio, and I was like: ‘I’m ready now.’ And I did it. Because of that song, I can’t hide. Limerick is the space where my decolonization came alive, right? This is where I decided to be out and proud on every level. I was emboldened, and not just by musicians, but also because I used to be a tutor with music gen, so I’d go around Limerick to the different kinds of estates, different parishes, whatever, from Caherdavin to The Island Field. At a certain point, I was so aware of how much I care. I’m deeply in love with this city. I’m also deeply in love with rap. 

“Everybody who I love as a rapper has always been very proud of where they’re from. If you’re from New York, you need to know, if it’s Harlem, you need to know what block – and people will fight you for that.  I like that too – I wanted that with ‘061’. I felt like whatever spirit that lives in the Shannon was supporting me in the studio that day. I came back to Limerick, and I was like: ‘It would be nice to have something released about home’. It would be nice to have a call to arms for my people.”

Despite bringing ‘061’ to Glastonbury, Electric Picnic, and many more massive stages, the singer still recalls her King John’s Castle gig as one of the hardest but most exciting things she’s ever done. 

“The King John’s Castle gig was the first time someone’s asked me to write my dreams out loud, to manifest them, and they gave me that space – they gave me people; they gave me time. I probably had them scratching their heads, and yet, there I was, cosplaying and doing all the things I wrote about in fanfiction, on a stage…”

Denise claims she owes that gig to one of Limerick music’s most well-known names – Mick Dolan.

“Mick Dolan has been a real source of life and energy for the music scene – he’s so committed to it and that’s rare,” the musician says. “We need to continue to celebrate people like that. Mick has been one of the architects of the birth of my career. We’re not raised in vacuums; we owe a lot to one another. Mick Dolan is a person who I owe a lot to. As well as Boris Hunka, Patrick O’Brien, Steve Brian, Brian Cross (B+). It seems strange to me that I have almost a Rolodex of white men, 20+ years my senior, were essentially my midwives as an artist, encouraging me, standing beside me, trying to gently drop advice into my pool that wouldn’t make me feel like they’re overcoming the authority I have to take control.

“It’s kind of like we’re all pollinators. We’re all little bees jumping into each other’s garden,” Denise chuckles.

This time period when Denise played the castle, the hurler’s homecoming, and a plethora of festivals was extremely active – but since, it feels like she’s almost dropped off the map. Maybe her split from Narolane is a way to explain this?

“Narolane was a really interesting journey, but we no longer work together,” the artist casually reveals. “I think a function of this industry is that you fall out of step, out of alignment with people, because we’re all growing. I realised at some point that as much as I loved my friendships, my career was becoming way too defined by the men around me. The music itself had this message – this bold-faced self-actualization. 

“I am a woman, and I am proud of who I am. I am not ashamed to stand on my own. I was nurturing relationships that sometimes shared a sense of co-dependency, and you start to feel like you can’t do anything without certain people by your side. Unfortunately, for the three of us, having that conversation was not the easiest. I think it would be too much of a fairy tale to say that everything is wonderful all the time. Right now, I’m entering a space where I’m redefining my music completely.”

Denise Chaila performing in King John’s Castle – Photo by MJ Smyth @irishmj

Chaila continues: “I’m really unimpressed with the idea of a music industry, any industry actually. I’m not willing to accept that I have to be a certain kind of person to achieve success. I’m not willing to accept that I have to kiss the ring or do the political tango in order to get ahead. I have been as honest and transparent as I could be from the beginning of this journey and honestly, my rules for life, my code of honour, has never changed. I want joy, I want liberation – I want that for the people who are around me. I don’t care if we’re fighting, or we have beef or not. That’s not the point. 

“The point is that integrity means you are making every part of you harmonise with every part of you. You refuse to forget the complicated stuff and you refuse to leave yourself behind. That’s the only way we’re going to survive. You know, it seems like no matter if you’re a friend or foe, I want not only for you to survive, I want pleasure in your life. I want you to not just to be happy, I want you to feel abundance, because that’s going to fall on me too. I think that for everybody who’s had a significant relationship and then had a divorce or a breakup – the rebuilding is always the hardest part because when you feel you’re a ruin. You’re not able to recognise that the stained glass is its own wonder. Stained glass is part of the art – we’re not broken, actually.”

In a revelation-like moment of clarity, Denise asks: “Can I say something?”

Who are we to stop her?

“I don’t like the idea of the word fan. Right? I don’t think that’s what’s happening in my career. I really do not. I really think I’m a service musician. To be honest, I have some really cool people around me. I feel like I’m generating something, and I feel like those people are a part of the same thing as me. It’s all vulnerability. 

“I feel like I’m being raised by a community of people. There’s a weird dance going on here. But I don’t think it’s the relationship that for example, someone like Beyonce would have with their fans. You know what I mean? I think it’s something gentler. I think it’s clear that I’ve always needed someone to hold me, and I found like, a bunch of people somehow, who are just like: ‘I’m gonna hold you.’

She pauses, then adds: “I don’t feel like there’s a lot of dignity in calling people fans. We fall into that trap of thinking about these relationships. It sounds transactional – I’m on a pedestal and you’re down there. And that’s not the case at all. I mean, I would not be anywhere without these people. And that’s what community is about. Everybody needs a community. Otherwise, your confidence is shot – it’s actually not something I believe we can self-generate all the time. Because you’re vulnerable. 

“That’s what humans are, you know? You hug someone and your face fits perfectly in the crook of their neck – our bodies are literally made to hold each other. And with that in mind, my music is just a body that is looking for somebody to hold. When people come to me, I don’t want to do them a disservice of saying like, ‘Oh, yeah, you want me don’t you?’ ‘Cause that’s what it feels like. You’re looking down your nose at someone who is a fan and it’s beyond money. I’m giving to you because you’re alive. 

“Being honest, I don’t have to be a musician – it’s not a stable career. It’s not fun to worry about when someone is going to pay you, and how you’re going to pay your rent from moment to moment – its anxiety inducing. But I really cannot live without the moments I have when I look into the front row, and there’s a woman holding her hands to her chest, and I have no idea who she is, but she’s looking at me to share that bond. I feel like I never have to be in love with somebody on a personal and committed level ever, as long as I keep on having the space in my life to share with these people who have given me so much. I’m so lucky. I’m given so much trust and so much love.”

Her passion for the people who attend her shows or listen to her music is beyond admirable – and not a quality you see in many musicians of her calibre and stardom. 

“I think that’s why brands find it really hard to work with me. I refuse to sell a hairdryer to anybody who has trusted me with their heart. I don’t believe in that. Sorry Dyson,” Denise laughs. “There have been parents that have told me that I’ve helped them explain really difficult things to their children. I have this new song that I’m working on that I’m cautiously calling the cornerstone to deviation from all the work I’ve done so far. Sometimes when I perform it, I see in the front row like three eight-year-olds, and someone who’s clearly their guardian, at which point, I actually stop my show, and I’m like: I have to disclaim this, I have to give you an opportunity to be a parent and empower you to know about the content of what I’m going to share with you. I want you to continue to trust and trust that I have you and your family’s best interests at heart because you brought your children to my home, and I will make sure that you’re taken care of in return. 

“It’s so wild to me how often people are like, ‘we trust you.’ As recently as two weeks ago, parents said to me that they trust me not to say anything on stage that they’re unable to explain to their children. It’s so wild. I’m growing, and I know that things are getting harder and more complex… And that’s really great, because that’s evolution. But then at the same time, I’m growing with people who want to grow. How crazy is that?”

Denise Chaila performing in King John’s Castle with fellow Limerick musician, Michelle Grimes – Photo by MJ Smyth @irishmj

Evolution as a topic is now fresh off the lips – a topic that must be further prodded. Once it’s poked, there’s no going back. The cocoon is wide open. 

“Is this the part where I just tell you the exciting things happening?” Denise beams. “On March 17, I’m headlining Collins Barracks for the St. Patrick’s Day Festival. That’ll be really interesting… And because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to be using that opportunity to kind of come out into the world again. My next single is going to be dropping that day. 

“I made a film with B+ called Energy: A Visual Mixtape, which I’ve been teasing for a couple of months, but I’m ready to release it completely on St. Patrick’s Day as well. It’s very much about the Irishness in my bones. I won’t tell you the title of my single yet, but it’s coming and it’s fun. 

“What else is coming? I did a lot of work around St Bridget’s Day. One of my dear friends David Curley is a director as well as owning a studio. He asked me very recently to score and feature in a film called Imbolcwhich you can look out for at the end of this year/next year.”

Another massive project the singer has been working on is a film with the photographer and filmmaker B+. The project sees Denise take on the role of creative producer and stars as the lead singer of The Supremes. Focusing on The Supremes’ 1981 tour of Ireland, the film has yet to secure a release date.

“It’s the kind of project that keeps generating,” Denise reveals. “The more we tease the story into the world, the more that people who were involved in it, or someone turns up somewhere and wants to be a part of it. It was kind of meant to be finished already, but it’s ever evolving, which I think is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. 

“We’re in a space where we’re talking about Irish unification. We’re in a space where we’re talking about black liberation. We’re in a space where we’re talking about the reformation and transformation of the music industry. Because so many of us are tired and sick of archaic institutions demanding that we are people that we’re not and I think that when this film comes out… I’m nervous but I’m excited. I’m going to be broken open by having people really witness me fail, truly witness me. But I also can’t wait because I think for the right people it’s going to be a breath out that we didn’t know we were holding in. It’s a bridge between Ireland and black America. That is something I want to nurture.” 

Finally, for now, Denise adds: “I’m working on a research project with a woman called Laura Sheeran. She’s a dancer, a singer, an artist, and an incredible filmmaker. I feel like I’m forming a constellation of very empowered women who are going to do something quite special. We’re gonna do some things – but I can’t say too much yet.”

And with that final note of ambiguity, all that can be said is keep your eyes on Denise Chaila’s social media. You’re in for a wild ride. 

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