Denae deeply explores the vivid realities of living in dreamland.
The Detroit indie soul singer-songwriter recounts insightful tales of lucid dreaming on her latest hypnotic single, “Sleep Junkie.”
“For a period of my life, I got into lucid dreaming and traveled in this dream world. I was exploring my sleep life, but it was during a time when my depression was fluctuating,” Denae said. “This was at a low point for me when I was just not having life, and I ended up liking my life better in my sleep and in my dreams.”
Throughout “Sleep Junkie,” Denae becomes immersed in an alternate universe filled with wistful electric guitars, floaty synths, sweeping bass and booming drums. She quickly questions whether her nocturnal adventures are rooted in fantasy or reality.
Denae sings, “Count your fingers/Check to see/Dream or reality?/I left my body at home/Lyin’ between the sheets/Memories distant enough to haunt me/Haunt me.”
“I went through this period where I was working all the time, and anytime I wasn’t working, I was sleeping like 14 hours a day. It created this sense of paranoia when I was awake, and the longer I did it, I was like, ‘Is this a dream?’ I didn’t know sometimes, and I had to snap out of it and get my mental health together,” she said.
“‘Sleep Junkie’ is really a reflection of mental health and that need for escape, but it brings in the sleep element and lucid dreaming because that was my escape at the time. I don’t think many people think it’s based off real events, but it was really was.”
Denae breathed new life into “Sleep Junkie” with Ann Arbor producer Eon Zero. The duo transformed her initial stripped-down version of the track into a soulful, atmospheric rejuvenation.
“Eon did so much, but it was also a collaborative effort where I was picking sounds and instruments. I played the minimal guitar on it, and he played more of the electric guitar on it. It was this cool second generation of collaboration … where we saw the vision together,” said Denae, who’s known Zero since high school.
Denae also brings her “Sleep Junkie” dreams to life in a mystical new video, which eloquently captures her hypnagogic state. Directed and edited by Joe Cavanaugh, it shifts between dreamy shots in a paper-filled attic and a dimly lit swimming pool.
“I had a lot of ideas that surrounded the water and the events in the video. (Joe) found this really cool house in Hamtramck, which was his friend’s house that was gutted. He had this vision in this space, and the set design was us bringing our collaborations together,” she said.
“We also went to a pool of a friend of my parents, and we filmed at night. It got really cold, and it was like 60 degrees in this pool. Joe was shivering, and I was in this dress I couldn’t swim in. We had to have someone swim to the bottom of the pool and bring me up when I would go under for a take because the dress weighed so much.”
Tuesday with Denae
No longer a “Sleep Junkie,” Denae trades yesterday’s dreams for tomorrow’s aspirations on “Tuesday,” an uplifting ode to taking risks and making changes. Ruminative synths, silky drums, exuberant bass, jovial horns and chirping birds echo the promise of the future in Detroit.
She confidently sings, “I’m thinking I might go give it a try/My head’s shouting at me/But I’m smiling, so I think it’s fine/And maybe tomorrow I’ll get cold feet/But by next Tuesday, I’ll be back daydreaming/It’s all on me/No more wasting time.”
“I had been in quarantine in my house alone in Ypsi for the past year, and I thought, ‘I need some change.’ When I was writing this song, I didn’t have plans to move to the city. It was the beginning of me questioning, ‘Oh, should I do this?’” said Denae, who recently moved to Detroit.
“If I come out with this song, then I have to move. I can’t write this song about making all this change in my life and not do it. That was the deciding factor for me to move to the city. The day I started recording it, I started looking for apartments. It came out the month I ended up moving.”
Like “Sleep Junkie,” Denae collaborated with Zero on “Tuesday,” which features playful hip-hop beats intertwined with jazzy horns and serene bird samples.
“I just kept hearing horns on the song. He gave me the beat without them, and when I wrote the hook, I said, ‘It needs horns. This needs to be a sample, and we need to go to Splice.’ I found it, and he chopped it up a bit and made it even better,” she said.
“The beginning starts with rain, and at the end, he had rain as well going into a thunderstorm. It was a cool idea, but it didn’t really fit the tone of the song because the end is this resolution of ‘I’m going to go for it and do it.’ He just clicked on a sample, and it was birds, so we ended up using that.”
Before and After
Denae discovered her love of music at an early age. While growing up in the Ann Arbor area, she started singing as soon as she could talk and continued to sing at home and in the car. In middle school, she played flute, but didn’t share her voice publicly until adulthood.
“I went to Washtenaw Community College, and I signed up for a songwriting class. That was huge for me because people were going to know that I did this. I also posted singing videos on Instagram, but that didn’t really do anything,” said Denae, who’s influenced by Adele and Amy Winehouse.
“The syllabus said to bring a guitar to the first day of class, and I didn’t know how to play guitar, but my sister had one. I came up with this really crappy song on guitar and sang over it. On the first day of class, we had to get out our guitars and sing a song for each other.”
Denae’s instructor noticed her vocal abilities and offered to teach her guitar. After studying guitar and songwriting for a few years, she recorded the original version of “Sleep Junkie” and her debut EP, Posy, with Dyelow in 2019.
“Those songs meant a lot to me and were the first ones I wrote on guitar. They were ones I had been crafting for years, and that’s what I consider my first body of work,” she said.
“I played guitar on those, and Dyelow and I picked the instruments to go with them. He played drums on one or two of them, and then I had some of my bandmates play on them. It was a collaborative effort between a bunch of random people … it was a really fun experience.”
Denae also worked with Dyelow on “Thinking Too Deep” while Zero produced “Stuck in 2020.” Both soulful songs invite listeners to seek relief from daily pressures and re-evaluate their progress in life.
“Most of the music that I write and the goal for the music that I write in the future is to be therapeutic and connect with (others) on a deeper level,” Denae said. “I still want to have that connection with my audience of being a second thought in their mind and telling them that things are going to be OK. Or if I’m freaking out, then at least other people are freaking out, too.”
In addition to a growing roster of singles, Denae joined this year’s cohort for the Motown Accelerator program, which provides mentorship, industry connections and grant money for 20 local artists and managers. She received a $500 grant and consideration for Motown Accelerator’s 12-week program.
“It’s a huge honor … that I made top five this past year. That’s crazy for me,” said Denae, who previously applied in 2020 and placed in top 25 out of 500 candidates that year.
As 2021 comes to a close, Denae wants to hone her creative vision and assemble a band for live shows in the new year.
“I would like to come up with a more cohesive sound before I release all of these songs in different genres and pieces of work. I really want to find myself as an artist, and I have a lot of material that I’m going to be crafting,” she said. “I would really like to play shows again, and I just want to find people to play with.”