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Formation: Queen of 2020 Denise Chaila opens up on her mental health struggles and how she learned to let her unique light shine

This year, Denise Chaila made her move into the centre stage, captivating the nation with her bouncing tracks, biting lyrics and ballsy attitude. Behind her public image, however, is a deeply thoughtful individual who struggled with depression, racism and the weight of expectation, until she found her tribe - and her purpose - in Limerick's music scene

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Denise Chaila photographed by Evan Doherty at Adare Manor. Bodice; skirt, both Helen Cody. Headpiece, Kyna

Denise Chaila photographed by Evan Doherty at Adare Manor. Bodice; skirt, both Helen Cody. Headpiece, Kyna

Denise Chaila wears: Dress, Natalie B Coleman. Headpiece, Denise’s own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise Chaila wears: Dress, Natalie B Coleman. Headpiece, Denise’s own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress; headpiece, both Sorcha O’Raghallaigh. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress; headpiece, both Sorcha O’Raghallaigh. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress, boots and headpiece, Denise's own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress, boots and headpiece, Denise's own. Photo: Evan Doherty

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Denise Chaila photographed by Evan Doherty at Adare Manor. Bodice; skirt, both Helen Cody. Headpiece, Kyna

'I'm feeling incredible. But also like I'm doing it on autopilot." Denise Chaila is describing how she is processing all that has happened in the past year.

From putting out her debut release, Duel Citizenship, in January 2019, to having the single of the summer, Chaila, this year, to that appearance on The Late Late Show in September which caught the attention of the nation, to her mixtape Go Bravely in October (the title is a message to herself), all has changed in the world of the 27-year-old Limerick musician. But it's hard to take that on board when you are mostly in lockdown, in your bedroom, thinking, listening to music, reading, chatting to friends.

If you're not out in the world, how can you see how much yours has changed?

"There are some things that have happened this year that I'll only process in, like, the next two.

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Denise Chaila wears: Dress, Natalie B Coleman. Headpiece, Denise’s own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise Chaila wears: Dress, Natalie B Coleman. Headpiece, Denise’s own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise Chaila wears: Dress, Natalie B Coleman. Headpiece, Denise’s own. Photo: Evan Doherty

"I think I'm coping with it pretty well now," Chaila says of the success she has achieved this year. "Just yesterday I was thinking, 'I'm so proud of myself for not giving up'. Because there was a point that I was constantly asking for and receiving reassurance from MuRli or GodKnows; 'Am I a musician? When will I feel like I am a musician? What will it take?'"

MuRli and GodKnows, MCs and producers, are the two close friends with whom Chaila runs Limerick-based record label Narolane Records. It was their encouragement that got her into the studio. But before that, it took dropping off the path she was on, and allowing herself to get completely lost, so she could eventually strike out in this new direction.

Music was not the career plan for Chaila. She moved from Zambia with her parents, Lydia and Elijah, and two younger siblings, when she was seven. The family first lived in Clondalkin, then Lucan, before moving to Limerick when Chaila was 18, just after her Leaving Cert.

Chaila's father, Elijah, a neurological consultant, was head-hunted for a job at University Hospital Limerick (Lydia works in radiography in Ennis Hospital). "I came down because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life next. I didn't want to be quite so far from my family when I was going through all of my mental stuff," she says of the depression she has suffered with for years.

She began studying, first politics and »

» international relations, then sociology. She also found a community of musicians. "And they ruined me for all academia," she laughs. "They just made it impossible for me to sit in a lecture hall, when I knew that I had friends who were doing everything else that I wanted to do."

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Denise wears: Dress; headpiece, both Sorcha O’Raghallaigh. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress; headpiece, both Sorcha O’Raghallaigh. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress; headpiece, both Sorcha O’Raghallaigh. Photo: Evan Doherty

Coming to Limerick felt like a coming of age, she recalls.

"I think that to survive puberty, I spent a lot of time denying aspects of my identity and my personality, throughout my teens. So that I could just get by. Because you know there's no racism like teenage racism. Being able to come to another place, and have people who would accept me as an adult, in all of my change, and all of my difference - like, as a whole, as a community, and not just like my friends here and there - that was really important to me."

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You get the sense with Chaila that, at one point at least, the weight of expectation sat heavily. Both her own, and her parents'. Her family are, she says proudly, cerebral people. "I used to write a lot about expectation," she reflects, adding that she has always written. At 11, obsessed with fantasy books, she wanted to be an author. "Is the pressure I feel external or internal? In the end, the answer is never one or the other. It's always both, and neither," she laughs.

"I think that the truth is, being a woman, and being Black, in a country where I didn't always see reflections of myself, impacted a lot on my confidence, and my expectations of what success meant. And I didn't have as much freedom, in my head at least, to make success mean personal success. Because - I say this even about Black History Month - we will never go anywhere until we stop celebrating Black history and we start celebrating history and acknowledging Black achievement within it, you know? Telling the story properly.

"I was obsessed with achieving well in school. Because I wanted to make my parents' sacrifices count for something. And that's not very healthy," she laughs. "It's not a very safe way to interact with your own aspirations for yourself."

In the end, she wasn't meeting anyone's expectations. In 2018, she left university. "I ended up disappointing myself by trying to be something that I wasn't. And then I ended up disappointing a lot of people by dropping out of college and allowing myself to be as lost as I was; for that entire year I was like, 'I don't know what I'm doing with my life. I'm just at home, with my mom, watching Korean dramas and not doing anything'," she smiles.

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Denise wears: Dress, boots and headpiece, Denise's own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress, boots and headpiece, Denise's own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Denise wears: Dress, boots and headpiece, Denise's own. Photo: Evan Doherty

Not for the first time, she experienced a depressive episode. "I think that when things are worst, that's the time to dream. When you literally have nothing, and you are sitting on the floor, and everything seems to be working against you. That's the time to remember that it is always darkest before the dawn. And if I'd listened to my depression back in 2018 - I feel like if I hadn't held on, I would have harmed myself and missed the joy of these last two years.

"Your story is not over until you literally breathe your final breath. And there's always time for a comeback. I don't think we get second chances. I think we get mornings," she laughs. "And we continue to get mornings, and that's your second chance. You know you could lose everything today and wake up in the morning and you're still breathing. And that's your chance. To find new community. To find new hope. To stop you looking for your purpose and start looking for joy. Then you'll find your purpose."

A burst of energy out of the blue allowed her to get into the studio, her hand held, she recalls, by GodKnows and MuRli. What followed was a process of building up her confidence.

Chaila has suffered from depression for as long as she can recall, but where once she would have struggled to even put a name to what she was experiencing, she no longer finds it hard to reach out.

"My personality was huge: super drama queen. And then I turned 12, and my body started coming in, and I remember really struggling with the changes in the way I looked, and the way things »

» worked. The mechanics, of operating and wielding this body, that was constantly, constantly changing. I remember one day just sitting down on the steps after I came home from school, and just crying, and crying and crying. And not knowing why I was crying."

There were days, when she was 16, when she would wake up in the morning and feel like someone was punching her gut from the inside out. "I just wanted to stay in bed. I felt like I was sinking into the floor."

Aged 17, she lost a close friend. On top of that, she describes the pressure cooker of studying for her Leaving Cert. "All of that rhetoric: this is the rest of your life, and you're going to have to do well, or the ambiguous 'or else'. I think that a lot of our anxieties and insecurities are connected to the ambiguous 'or else'. You're not playing to win. You're playing not to lose terribly, and tank your life.

"I've stopped trying to convince myself that there is one way for me to be," she continues. "I treat my depression as though I live with arthritis. Some days, my joints can handle a run. And some days they really can't. And when I'm sensitive to my body, and I tell people what I need, then I get what I need, and I'm not forced to do a mini-marathon, when actually I need a day in bed, quite literally."

There is a close circle of old friends who will message her throughout a period where she might disappear slightly. "There are maybe four or five people who currently are living in my inbox. They don't push me. They literally just come into my inbox, and they love me, and they pour into me."

When she is feeling better, they are there, and it is like nothing ever changed. "I come and I'm able to be myself, because there's no shame. They never make me feel bad for taking the space I need to heal. I think it's so much easier than wanting to make me live to neurotypical standards of, like, 'If I text you, you have to text back within this period of time.' That used to really, really make me feel like, 'Oh gosh, I guess I can't have friends'," she laughs, adding, "maybe that's the secret: finding people who can understand."

She points to the common misunderstandings around depression. "I wrote that song Can't Stop Me Here because I got so tired of toxic positivity, and people telling me that I'll get over it. Because no, the point is not that I'll get over it. The point is that I may not get over it. But even living with this, I'm still going to be beautiful, brilliant, I'm going to be happy, I'm going to do the things that make me feel like myself, even with this thing.

"Sometimes, I'm gonna take days off and lay in bed and eat depression meals again and again and again. But the things that I'll do cannot be limited to this broken arm," she smiles. "Because I'm just going to put this arm in a cast some days, and still destroy you with the strength of my pen alone. It doesn't sound like weakness to me. It doesn't sound like I need to get over it, to be this whole individual."

During her appearance on The Late Late Show in September, Chaila spoke to Ryan Tubridy about the racism she has experienced, the toll at times of speaking, and the online abuse she has received.

"Some people have the luxury of having opinions, and having voices," she says now. "In Ireland, we're very liberal, but we champion tolerance a lot more right now than we're championing justice. And it's creating room for the far right to speak. The more those people speak, the more they normalise their voice. And when someone challenges that voice - or that narrative, as I've experienced this year - there's a lot of reverence because whether it's verbal, physical or emotional, people don't like to revisit the pillars upon which they've built their lives, and be told that actually they might be wrong. And what we say, as women, as Black people, as both, is not necessarily received as a challenge to a system, but a challenge to someone's personal identity."

There is a huge personal toll in speaking out the way she has, she acknowledges. "Even now, as I'm saying this, I'm terrified. I'm always scared, because I feel that people create two-dimensional characters out of public figures. But I am a real person, who's going to receive real backlash. I have an ongoing frustration with the fact that sometimes I wish I could take a microphone and just be a person, and just share my personality. Because I'm far less weighty than the topics that I cover," she laughs.

"But as it stands, the reason I do all of this, and I go so hard, is because there are certain things that are not being said in certain arenas, that need to be said. And it would keep me awake at night in a couple of years if I said, 'Oh gosh, I had the opportunity, I grabbed the microphone, and I was in this space, talking to these people who probably have never spoken to Black people who aren't afraid to speak back to them before'.

"And to say, 'Hang on, actually, you say things in this way often, but that doesn't actually represent me, or my community'. There are a lot of people who are way too loud in the opposite direction, who have licence to dictate the narrative of an experience they've never had. And I object severely to that."

Representation isn't enough, she points out. "I've always wanted to grow up in a world where I could see Black presenters on RTÉ, representing a part of me that I felt wasn't represented. But more than representation, just being comfortable and confident, and happy. And not in a position where they were just so grateful to be on the TV show in the first place," she says.

Where does she feel things are now, after the months in the summer where the Black Lives Matter movement was so loudly supported?

"I think that intensity is not a measure of progress. It's a measure of emotion. I think I do not trust anything except real change and what I haven't seen yet is real political change. I think that it's very easy to slip into a cycle of saying the right things, but not actually implementing anything. You know, people do say, representation matters. But representation alone, it cannot »

» substitute for transformative change. I don't want a seat at the table, I want Black people to be in the kitchen deciding what we eat. I want legislation that protects all Irish people, not just some."

Confidence, Chaila says, is the most valuable thing in your profession. "You must not let it go. I still believe that your confidence is a political statement."

That is not to mistake confidence with a denial of vulnerability.

"The more I speak about pain, the more it loses power over me," she says. "The more that I speak about not belonging, the more I belong."

The more she reveals her vulnerabilities, the bigger a response she receives. "The more I feel like I've spoken all these things out into existence, people have heard me. It's like I'm a lighthouse, and I'm looking for other lighthouses.

"I shone my light into the darkness, and then on the horizon, it's like four or five other different lighthouses, other people, that I didn't even know existed, are there. And they were like, 'Oh my gosh, no, me too'. And this keeps happening. All you need is for one person to say it, one time. And suddenly it's just OK."

And when you open yourself up like this, then the conversation, for example, about Irishness, about who we are, our nationality and what that means, becomes so much the richer, and more layered, she points out.

"I think that now I feel a lot more peace. Because I don't belong to any nationality. It belongs to me. And it belongs to me because I love it.

"We're stronger together. Together we sing. I am extremely, with my American accent, and my black skin, and my big-ass nose, so Irish," Chaila laughs. "And it makes me proud, to look people in the eye and challenge them. Every day. And say, 'You don't like it but you can't change it. And the more you tell me that I'm not, actually the more I feel that I am'." l

Denise Chaila's new single 'Anseo' featuring Jafaris is available now

 

Words  & styling by Liadán Hynes

Photography by  Evan Doherty


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