Denisa: Indonesian alt-pop singer-songwriter who wants her music “to be a friend for others”

The 22-year-old artist talks about growing out of her early idealism and honing her lyricism on debut album ‘Bloodbuzz’

For as long as she could remember, Denisa had always dreamed of standing out.

This dream of hers began when she was six years old, and the music video of Avril Lavigne’s monster hit ‘Complicated’ popped on her television screen. “I was, like, ‘What is this? Wow, this chick is so cool! With that tank-top and that necktie!’” the 22-year-old recalls to NME. “I wanted to be like her growing up: hanging out with lots of pals and jamming together and skating together.”

Sixteen years later, it seems that Denisa has finally discovered what makes her stand out. Her debut full-length album ‘Bloodbuzz’, which dropped October 15, finds the singer-songwriter navigating the aftermath of a failing relationship. The result of almost two years of work, ‘Bloodbuzz’’s alternative pop production is a far cry from the bratty pop-punk that ignited her musical awakening all those years ago. “I think my voice is too soft for that,” Denisa quips.

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Born Bernadette Denisa Dhaniswara, the Jakarta native spent her childhood listening to Lavigne but also Sum 41, Green Day, and My Chemical Romance. Her family temporarily relocated to Kuala Lumpur and then Bangkok, Denisa enrolling in high school in the latter city, where she says she was mercilessly bullied by her peers.

“At one point, I was too scared to go to school. It was unbearable. I would go home, then – like a typical teenager – I would put on my headphones in my room and be alone,” she says wistfully. “Music was my only friend.”

“Pamungkas once told me, ‘Just be honest in your lyrics’”

Denisa hit rock bottom when she started grappling with anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Eventually, she discovered that music was more than just a friend – it also served as therapy. To cope with her struggles, she “self-vented” by doodling random, original lyrics in her journal. Journaling is still a practice she keeps up today: “Every therapist I have ever known has told me that if I can only meet them every other month, just write [what I feel] in a journal.”

After graduating from high school, Denisa returned to Indonesia and studied audio engineering at SAE Institute Jakarta. She was often hired to work sound for live gigs by indie acts such as alternative rock band Glaskaca and pop-rock singer-songwriter Pamungkas. The latter eventually became her confidante and helped boost her confidence to start her own path as a musician. One concise, yet resonant piece of advice Pamungkas gave her: “Just be honest in your lyrics.”

In 2019, Denisa wrote, recorded, and self-funded her debut EP, ‘Crowning’. Instead of channeling the pop-punk music she adored as an adolescent, she decided to take cues from the acts she came to love as a young adult: Radiohead and Bon Iver.

“I don’t want to look back on my lyrics five years from now and cringe”

Looking back, Denisa admits that she might have been “trying too hard” to stand out. “I was being very idealistic back then. I just wanted to be unique and I just wanted to be a female singer that you cannot find anywhere else,” she explains. “Music-wise, I think ‘Crowning’ was pretty much a success, but back then, I wasn’t very keen on performing it live.” The benefit of hindsight also allowed Denisa to discover another major flaw of the EP: “Because I was trying so hard to be unique, I wanted my vocabulary for the lyrics to be so off-the-wall that people couldn’t understand them,” she chuckles.

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Denisa felt compelled to improve her lyrical craftsmanship. “I don’t want that, five years from now, I look back on my lyrics and I cringe.” She decided to draw inspiration from the Taylor Swift’s 2020 album ‘Folklore’ and Radiohead’s 2007 album ‘In Rainbows’, and also from the likes ofBleachers and Phoebe Bridgers.

She started working on ‘Bloodbuzz’ in mid-2020. Produced by Denisa, Johanes Abiyoso, Kevin Valeryan, and Lomba Sihir’s Baskara Putra and Rayhan Noor, the album follows a chronological narrative. It opens with Denisa facing the imminent end of her romantic relationship (‘Ben’) and closes with her finding bittersweet comfort in singledom (‘(Un)comfortably Alone’). For the distribution of the album, she partnered with Demajors, the prestigious Jakarta-based indie label that has supported household names such as Candra Darusman and Gugun Blues Shelter.

Instead of trying to deliberately score so-called unique points, Denisa decided to showcase every layer of her personality on ‘Bloodbuzz’. The album’s lead single ‘You Are Not My Savior’ flaunts her sarcastic side as she cheerfully shuts down her condescending former lover (“Everything made me feel gone / And you won’t admit you did me wrong / And well, I didn’t need you to pry / You made me kinda want to die”).

The ’80s-influenced ‘J Street’ articulates her emotional instability as she dreads but also anticipates a brand-new romance: “Right around the dark side of the street / In my room on my bed, I’d play dead / But I felt something when you came around / At this time of the night when you stood too close”.

Denisa declares her favourite lyrics on the album’s closer, the hard rock-influenced ‘(Un)comfortably Alone’. “I just want to feel again / Would God let this pain end? / Like a virtue I’d be by my own side / Would they stay even after I bite?” she asks. The song presents Denisa at her most emotionally conflicted – she has no problem being alone, yet she fears feeling numb because of her loneliness. “This is the phase where, like, ‘Will I ever love again?’ But, at the same time, I have wholeheartedly accepted that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life!” she laughs.

Now that ‘Bloodbuzz’ is out, Denisa thinks she’s finally discovered what makes her unique as an artist. Working on the album made her realise that the key to standing out is not by rocking Avril Lavigne’s necktie or turning herself into a female Thom Yorke, but by honing a signature lyrical style. “It all goes down to the wording. The lyrics tell a story without using complicated vocabulary, but I get to put one and one together and make it contemplative as well.”

On top of everything, Denisa hopes her music and its lyrics can help others the way her musical heroes helped her when she was a struggling teenager in a foreign city. “That’s why I decided to study lyricism, particularly how to [write] a lyric that is not just catchy, but also meaningful so that people could relate to it. That’s my purpose in making music – I want my music to be a friend for others.”

Denisa’s ‘Bloodbuzz’ is out now via Demajors

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