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NewTracks New Artist: Denzel

NewTracks New Artist: Denzel

Tāmaki Makaurau artist Denzel is fresh to our pop/RnB scene but has started out strong, working with well-known local songwriters and producers including Dan Martin and Greg HaverNZ On Air Music included Denzel’s latest single Perfect on their April NewTracks compilation.

What’s your full name, where are you from, and what instruments do you play? 

My name is Denzel Kelemete, and I’m a Samoan/European singer-songwriter, born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau. Other than my voice, I’d say my main instrument is the keys, and I dabble a little bit in the guitar. 

Was any high school or other music training important to you? 

Growing up Samoan in Tamaki Makaurau, music was everywhere and a part of everything, so my musical training comes largely from what I absorbed being surrounded by my very musical family and in the church. I’m predominantly self-taught, or taught by family members, and my dad has had a huge influence on my playing and arrangements. At high school, I was involved in Smokefree Rockquest.

Any other previous (or current) projects we might know you from?

In 2019 I recorded and produced my grandad’s Samoan album ‘Aleluia, Fa’afetai Aleluia’, which gained more than 50,000 streams on Spotify. I was also a part of a pop-punk band named Joe Says No. We played some pretty gnarly shows back in the day.

What’s the background story of how Denzel, the artist, came to be?  

I was super fortunate early on to catch the attention of well-known NZ producers like Greg Haver. They really helped shape and mentor me. Greg ended up putting me in touch with the super talented Will Henderson, who then introduced me to the great Dan Martin! Will taught me a lot about songwriting and structure and really helped start that journey with me. When I started working with Dan I learned about honing in on vocals, performance and melody. It’s been a total journey so far, and I want to give a huge shout-out to all the people who have helped me along the way.

How has your writing evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?  

Oh, man, don’t even get me started on those early songs! I think my writing has definitely come far since the beginning. I started off spending a lot of time trying to imitate and study my idols, but eventually, we started to hone in on a sound that was different and unique – and feels like there are nods to my influences but is also very much ‘me’. Dan really helped push me outside of my comfort zone and inspired me to get comfortable experimenting. 

When did you settle on using your first name for your new project?

Pretty recently! We didn’t really commit to Denzel until about three months ago. It just seemed like the right way to go. 

What makes Perfect stand out for you as a single?

Perfect stood out to me because it felt super raw and personal. I wanted to start off with something a bit more stripped back and romantic, and that would help people get to know me. The vocal arrangement and strings are also a key part of my sound, and this song does a great job of highlighting them.

What is the lyrical story behind Perfect?

Perfect at its heart is a story about a relationship gone bitter, and of never meeting expectations. I see that taking so many different forms because whether it’s a love relationship or your relationship with yourself, there is this struggle that comes with striving to be perfect while also wanting to be your true self. Dan and I wrote it during the lockdown in August 2020. Like everyone, I had a lot of uncertainty and a lack of control in my life. It perfectly describes what that felt like.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

My favourite vocal moment is probably the end of verse two, where I sing those high ‘over’ runs. It was super fun recording that bit! I also love the strings outro we added to the end, which segues super well into another song on the EP.

Who did you write/record/produce the single with?

I wrote and recorded Perfect with my producer Dan Martin at both his house and studio in Kingsland. I ended up singing about 100 takes of the first line as Dan and I couldn’t agree on the delivery! Being the first line that starts a capella, it had to be strong. We ended up coming back to it on multiple different days, but eventually, we got the take, and we were both like, “Aha!!”. Overall we also experimented with 4-5 different versions of the song musically before I knew we had hit it. We tried a kind of sloppy soul/funk version, a more electronic version, and neither was quite right. Eventually, we realised it needed to stay centred around the guitar and vocal, with additional elements being mainly organic. I’m glad we pushed so hard to get it just right. 

What would you like listeners to take away from this song?

I really hope the listeners enjoy the song and can relate to the deeper message. I poured a lot of raw emotion and truth into the lyrics, and I hope it all translates!

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

We’ll usually sit down and decide what songs are the strongest and which we are the most excited to share with people. With Perfect, I liked that it was a mash-up of the RnB/soul genres.

It started out super raw with just the guitar, and then we lined it with trap drums and then kept adding elements (and stripping them back out) until we landed on it. Strings are important in this song, and to me and my own sound, as I’m very inspired by an era of music in the ’80s where they were very prevalent. They are in every song on my EP, literally the string that connects all of my music and sound together. In Perfect, the strings help tie it into the rest of the project, while also bringing a unique take on the RnB genre. 

Who else is in your team?

I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside my incredibly talented manager and stylist, Kate Stacey, with help from Māia and DRM. Kate has been instrumental in bringing this whole thing together. She’s got such an incredible eye for detail and for what looks good. DRM has been incredible in distributing the single, and Māia has done an amazing job covering the PR end, helping to get me and my song out in front of people so that they can experience what I’m about. 

Aside from this release, what’s been the big highlight to date?

My biggest highlight to date has probably been performing at the OtherSide Festival. I got to perform in front of 10,000 people, which was just nuts! 

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for?

Perfect will be followed up by a few more singles and then an EP later this year. We really tried to explore a wide range of sounds for this project and write the strongest songs possible. I think we auditioned about 30-40! The rest of the project has more of a pop sound which I’m super excited about sharing. It has such a fresh, funky vibe. 

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song. 

  • Larissa Lambert: Weak 
  • Sam V: Biker Boy 
  • Reuben Fleetwood: U 

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? 

This was my first NZOA application, and I felt really excited and humbled to be selected. As a new artist, it’s hard to tick off the requirements when you don’t have any music out. In our case, it all came down to the song and their initial reaction. To be honest, I don’t really know why I was selected, and I think the best piece of advice I could give is to get a song as polished as possible before sending it in for consideration! 

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

I’m really into The Needle Drop and The Writer (an online producer/songwriter’s podcast). I also highly recommend Charlie Puth’s online songwriting/producing course. The course dives into Charlie’s creative process and serves as a really helpful blueprint for other up-and-coming artists.

Who did you make the music video with?

I was fortunate enough to work with the amazing Liam Simpson on the Perfect music video. It was such a dream come true, he’s incredible.