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by Richard Thorne

Denel: Back Seat, Front Of Mind

by Richard Thorne

Denel: Back Seat, Front Of Mind

Denelle Bhagwandhin traces his aspirations to be a recording artist back to when he started writing and producing music in high school. Performing as Denel his June 2022 single Make It Right introduced him to the NZ Hot 20 chart and tops his Spotify scorecard to date. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

Making it better, he later set his sights on expanding his audience, and this November’s very slick single/video release Back Seat should comfortably achieve that for the steadily evolving Tāmaki Makaurau pop artist.

“The main thinking there was to expand my fan base and make music that’s appealing to not just urban listeners, but more on the pop side as well. I love that gap of bridging both pop and R&B together and I want my music to be a reflection of that.”

“My goal is to sort stay on the urban side of pop since I can pull out familiar sounds from what mainstream listeners are used to, while blending some of the more urban elements in there as well which still appeal to RnB and urban listeners.”

Released on the first day of November 2023, Back Seat fits that crossover mould with Denel’s contemporary gentle vocals gymnastically fitting the up-tempo pop production of Auckland songwriter/producer Will Henderson, who says on his website, “If punchy drums, beautiful synths, and hooky melodies are your jam then you’re in the right place.” Judging by the sharp upholstery of Back Seat, Denelle asked him for just that.

“Haha, it would seem the case! I actually met Will at a Dan Sharp gig a few years ago and basically got introduced to his production, which I instantly fell in love with. It was only a matter of time before we were actually going to get in and work on a track together. It honestly was one of my favourite studio sessions to date, just with how organically the whole track came together.

“I honestly think some of the best songs come out of collaboration. It’s been so epic to work with different producers as well as songwriters, as it helps to hone your own craft and learn things you maybe wouldn’t if you’re out there on your own making music. I think working together with Chris (Bates) and Will is a great reflection of that, especially with how the song came together on that particular day.

Not so much a driving around song at all, Back Seat is about reminiscing on better times had with special someone, revisiting those moments in your head. Some of us do that endlessly and Denel has turned the habit into a super catchy happy/sad track co-written with fellow Auckland songwriter Chris Bates, mixed and mastered by Edy.

“Chris is super cool and a talented artist in his own right. We have known each other for a while and we’re a little similar in terms of our love of certain melodies over certain chord progressions etc so it only made sense to bring him in for this track as well.

“The song really began in the studio with Will and Chris, and we were listening to a few references. Suddenly that guitar lick came to mind when I was sitting at the keyboard and we basically went from there. Guitar isn’t my strong point so we handed it over to Chris who tracked it and the rest is history! I fell in love with the overall feel and the production Will came up with as well. From there the song’s melody and lyrics came naturally between the three of us. I think it’s a pretty relatable tune to many.”

That makes the songwriting process sound just as snappy as his new track is, but Denel admits he laboured over Back Seat to get it right, including fitting the idea of reminiscing on better times into all aspects of the release, including the video.

“Definitely. I love what we came up with in demo form and I was pretty adamant about maintaining the sound of what we created on that first day in the studio. So that meant making sure we weren’t overproducing the track and making sure we maintained the feel of it as well through the mix and master process. Its funny how much the overall sound of a track can change from start to finish sometimes, especially the final mix and master.

“My reference to better times is a bit subjective, definitely looking back on certain moments of a relationship and reminiscing, almost wishing you could go back. With the video, I think we captured that with the locations we shot in Japan.

“Japan is very much a place you go to that almost feels like you’re entering somewhat of a time machine. It’s quite modern, but at the same time a lot hasn’t changed as well. In the video, I find myself trying to look for this girl in hopes I find her again in all these epic locations that could be me in the future, but trying to relive the past. I hope that makes sense!”

With the benefit of NewMusic Single funding secured in May, Denel contacted video maker Alex Hargreaves. He had no plans for taking Back Seat anywhere beyond Auckland’s boundaries, certainly not past the airport.

“The video’s absolutely on the money for the song, I’m so stoked with the outcome and what we achieved. From our small coffee meet ups, chatting about the initial concept, to actually story boarding and planning our trip and locations, and then to actually fly to Japan and shoot the music video, it was all pretty surreal. I think the hardest part was enduring the 30-35 degree days where I would just break a sweat on shoot and end up back at the hotel completely soaked in sweat!

“Alex is crazy talented. This is the third video we’ve worked on, along with VideoBuzz. She’s got an incredible attention for detail and going the extra mile. I would say that whole team are one of the best at what they do currently in NZ. It only made sense to team up with her for this when the funding came through.

“There’s actually a cool story behind that Japan decision! In my track Let It Happen, released back in 2021, there’s a line in the second verse that says, ‘Got two tickets to Japan, you coming with?’ When I met up with Alex and the team at VideoBuzz we had a chat about going overseas and doing something in Japan, without even thinking about that reference at the time. We wanted to go somewhere that kind of made you ask the question, ‘Damn, where is this place? Looks like some of it could be CGI or something.’

“And so we settled on Japan. About a month before we were about to leave, Alex sends a snippet of the video for Let It Happen referencing that part of the song to the group chat and we all had a good laugh realising we were actually going, after making reference to it in a previous song. Crazy how God works!”

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