In Conversation With Joy Denalane

There is power in letting go. There is power in new beginnings. The next chapter seems possible once our wounds begin to heal and the light creeps in through the cracks. There is no universal recipe for mending a broken heart or grief, but the main ingredient is always time. 

One of soul music’s most vital voices, Joy Denalane, delivers a heartfelt tribute to her late father on her lead single, ‘Happy’ taken from her new sixth studio album ‘WILLPOWER.’ With the intention of wanting to differentiate from a traditional mourning song, Denalane opened her heart and let the light in that let all the beautiful memories take the main stage. 

I’m not even sure it’s a process. It feels more like a permanent state,” says Joy Denalane about her process of dealing with grief. As much as the journey never ends, she found an escape and a coping mechanism in writing that kicked off a whole new musical era. 

Denalane’s new project, ‘WILLPOWER,’ taps into more heart-wrenching themes that will become ultimate liberation anthems addressing life’s crucial moments like birth, death, beginnings, endings, and finding peace, purpose, and freedom amongst it all.  

Joy Denalane has been a jewel in Germany’s scene for the past 20 years and with the sonic significance of ‘WILLPOWER,’ at least for another 20 years more. 

How was the Summer of 2023 for you? What were some of your favourite memories?

This one was extra beautiful. I celebrated my birthday with my husband in a little hideaway we rented in Portugal. Right after that I shot two music videos there for the songs “Hideaway” and “Fly By”. A couple of weeks later I got the chance to visit my family in Johannesburg and Soweto, in South Africa, and I invited all of them to be part of my music video for the song “Happy”. A song I dedicated to my late father. I guess my work-life&love balance was on fleek this summer. 

You live in Berlin, what are some of its hidden gems, underrated places you love but not many people know about them?

Schloss Charlottenburg is definitely my favorite park. It’s a castle-park founded in 1695 in the district of Charlottenburg, right in the heart of the city. For some funny reason not a lot of people visit it. Berlin is a very green city so you can find parks everywhere. It might have to do with the fact that people stay close to where they live. If you don’t live in Charlottenburg you might not go to enjoy that gem as much as I do.

We’re very sorry about the loss of your father, would you be able to advise our readers on how to deal with grief, based on your experience?

It’s not easy to find universal advice for how to deal with grief. It depends on who you lost, when and how you lost them and what your relationship to them was. A good advice may be to keep your heart open and to listen to your grief. Talk to other’s about it, let them in. Try to remember the good memories you have and find a place in your heart where you can collect them. That way you can revisit them whenever you miss them a lot. 

How did it impact the recording of your album?

The loss of my father was the kickoff for me. I had the urge to write about my state of mind at that particular time, sometime in 2021.

Would you say you had to take some time to heal and process to write a song like ‘Happy’?

My way to heal and process was writing. I needed to write to understand my feelings and look at them from different perspectives. It helped me to position myself in this intense time of grief. Writing helped me processing and “Happy” was the first song I wrote for this record.

The accompanying ‘Happy’ visuals take place in your father’s hometown of Johannesburg. What did you feel being surrounded by an environment where your dad grew up?

My dad didn’t grow up in the Township of Soweto but in Johannesburg. After 1960 there was a law that pushed every black person into the Township but when my father was born it didn’t exist yet. Apartheid existed but black people could still live in the city, so my father grew up in Joburg. Eventually he left to go to Germany but his family was forced into the Township of Soweto. When we visited the family during or after Apartheid most of them lived in the Township. Nowadays I would say it’s split pretty evenly. The younger generation has moved into the city but the older generation still live in their houses in Soweto. 

It was a nice closure for all of us, since we didn’t have to chance to pay our last respect together. The funeral was during Covid and people couldn’t travel in that way. The video shoot was very emotional and very positive for everyone. I talked to them afterwards and it means a lot to them to be part of this moment that we had beyond the video. 

You have only one feature on your upcoming album. How did you and Ghostface Killah link up for the ‘Happy’ collaboration?

From the moment it was clear that I wanted a feature for “Happy” he was the first that came to mind. Ghostface Killah was and is in my opinion the king of storytelling. He has this ability to generate a whole world in a certain amount of bars that is emotionally deep. We had a contact in Germany that has been working with the Wu Tang Clan since forever and got us in touch with him. We met one evening in Vienna since I was there for a recording session and he was on tour with the Wu Tang Clan. He came into the studio, we listened to the song again and he started writing and talked with me a lot about my father and my family. It was interesting for me to witness his writing process, to see what it takes for him to get into a story. It was very genuine and heartfelt. He’s just a genius at what he does. 

What were some main themes you wanted to express in your next project ‘Willpower’?

The two motifs of this record were crucial moments in my life. On one hand the death of my father bringing sadness and grief but on the other hand happiness for my two grown sons. They have both left the house and moved into their own lives. So now me and my husband have a whole new situation ahead of us. We can reconsider our future and a new way of living. Both of those feelings were very strong, the happy moments and the sad ones. They characterized the album.

Your previous project ‘Let Yourself Be Loved’ was released during the pandemic, and you couldn’t go on tour with it. What do you have planned for the ‘Willpower’ live shows?

Not being able to go on tour due to Covid made me very sad. Performing live is one of my favorite tasks as a musician. For this campaign I am planning to go on tour in Germany in November and for next year I want to spread my wings a little more. I want to come to your cities so hopefully I will see you there at some point.

What else do you have planned for this year?

I am already working on my next project. When I listen to myself it feels like I only talk about work. Once our children left the house my husband and I talked about taking time to do new things but now we find ourselves working more than ever. But I enjoy it a lot. When the children were younger we had a deal that only one of us could do a campaign and be on the road. Now we get to do it at the same time and it’s very enjoyable. We just jump into work and make the best out of it. But there are things I like besides working, trust me. 

Follow Joy Denalane On Instagram

Photographer: Timothy Schaumburg

Words: Karolina Kramplova