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5th May 2022

Denis Coleman: Music, mental health, and Little Mix

Theatre Editor Jay Darcy sits down with Denis Coleman, ahead of him opening for Little Mix at AO Arena.
Denis Coleman: Music, mental health, and Little Mix
Photo: Cal Macintyre.

Not to flex, but I turn a down lot of interviews – or I pass them on to my writers. (That was definitely a flex). I simply do not have the time. It’s for that reason that I rarely reach out to people for interviews. Interviewing is one of my favourite things in the world, and I actually aspire to be an interviewer, but reviewing just about every show in Manchester, on top of my full-time TV job, prevents me from focusing on that. It is what it is…

So, if I agree to interview somebody (for instance, Scouting for Girls), it’s because I really want to talk to them. If I, myself, reach out to interview you – well, you must be really fricken cool!

Denis Coleman is so cool, he’s basically arctic.

An 18-year-old singer-songwriter and producer, Denis is one of Little Mix’s opening acts on their farewell (for now) tour. The other is, of course, Since September – which former University of Manchester student (and my mate) Patrick Ralphson is a member of. Since September won Little Mix The Search in November 2020. It was quite the exciting day: first, Joe Biden (finally) won the presidency, then Since September won The Search!

I always check out opening acts before going to concerts – and I always make sure to get there early enough to see them. I was a little late for Craig David, so I only caught the end of Nippa’s set, much to my frustration. Opening acts are an integral part of the show; they set the scene and warm you up. I checked Denis out shortly after it was announced that he’d be joining Little Mix and Since September on the tour. I was instantly excited by him – not only his dope ass music but also just him as an artist.

COVID-19 prevented us from doing the interview face-to-face (nobody’s allowed in the venue unnecessarily), but Denis agreed to sit down with me over Zoom – on Bank Holiday Monday morning, of all times! I’d been to see Blondie and Johnny Marr the night before (and went to bed very late), from which I was still recovering, but Denis quickly woke me up with his insightful commentary on music and mental health.

Photo: Cal Macintyre.

Denis the artist

Denis moved to London, UK from New Jersey, USA when he was just six years old (though he still has an awesome American accent). Whilst his parents do not have “much musical talent”, they have a lot of appreciation for music and have always encouraged him to explore his musical capabilities. He has been playing music since he was 6 and writing songs since he was 10! Initially, music was “more just a fun thing to do”, but by the time he was 13 or 14, it became the dream – and he has worked tirelessly to make that dream the reality that it is.

Denis’ music taste is very eclectic – which is obvious, just by listening to his music.

“My Spotify, which is all over the place and will take elements from The Police or Nirvana and sort of combine these different movements in rock but then tie it all together with the modern sounds that I like to use and the modern production… I co-produce or produce all the songs that I put out, so I always put my own little stamp on the sound that I’m trying to create. So, it is definitely a mix of various rock movements throughout history, with that sort of modern edge to it as well.”

In fact, he describes his music as a “Gen Z take on rock”. Whilst rock is not as popular with our generation, he loves it and thinks that it has a great energy to it (so do I – did I mention I just saw Blondie?!). Denis (who I’ve just realised shares a name with one of the only hits Blondie did not sing at the concert, and I’m still bitter) wants to capture that energy and remodel it to fit our generation and the world we live in today. He loves the “cinematic, graphic, larger-than-life, big vistas, big power chords” that we see in old rock. “[I’m] trying to capture a little bit of that super stardom and repackage it into a more accessible, modern type of track.”

That’s why I love rock – it’s so unashamedly theatrical.

I was very impressed by the revelation that Denis produces his own music. Even a lot of huge artists don’t produce their own music – at least not most of it. Denis thinks of a song as a complete package; it’s not just the lyrics and the vocals. When he approaches a song, he wants to be involved in every aspect of it to make it genuine to his vision and what he is saying – not only lyrically but also musically. He started producing pretty young but never really had the confidence to try it out in his own music, but, over time, he got more and more involved, and now he co-produces (or even sole produces) every track.

Songwriters approach songs differently. Some artists write about issues that they have not gone through – much like most authors – or even totally made-up scenarios. Denis, however, prefers to write about topics that are close and personal to him and channel his experiences into his music.

“The way that I write, it sort of meanders around these different ideas and images that I create on the spot in my mind, but the underlying emotion of the song, and the underlying thoughts, are things that stick with me for prolonged periods of time…

“A lot of the recent topics I’ve been writing about, like dopamine addiction and relationships on social media, and all these kinds of things, are the thoughts that have been sort of percolating in my mind over the past few months and just sort of circling around in there. So, when it gets to the point that I’m sat down with my notes app open, and I’m typing down those lyrics in the studio, I start thinking, ‘what are the things that have been really challenging me or making me think recently?’ And then that’s what I start writing about, and that’s what feels both the most natural thing to write about and also the most important thing.”

Denis thinks that his music will probably always be relatively serious. “When I look at why I write, there always has to be an exigence or a purpose to what I’m writing, a reason why I’m writing it. It’s fun sometimes to freestyle and riff and write about any sort of throwaway topic. I think, as a writer and a songwriter, I love being versatile and writing for other artists and matching to whatever style that they feel suits them. But when it comes to my music, there’s always got to be a purpose to me, it has to feel genuine to what I’m interested in and what I think is important to speak about, so I think that is always going to be a mainstay to my music.”

Denis’ upcoming single, ‘Narcissist’, “is not quite in the same vein as the others, but it also has some little deep elements to it”.

My favourite Denis song is, without a doubt, ‘pillowTHOUGHTS’. When I saw the title, I was immediately reminded of ‘Pillow Talk’ by Zayn – a super sexy song by a pretty, Pakistani papito – so that drew me in. Surprisingly, Denis wrote this song very quickly. The writing flowed naturally because he’d been thinking about the idea for quite some time. The song is, essentially, about the thoughts that keep you up at night – that period where suddenly your mind wakes up and thinks about the things you miss, things you can’t let go of, etc.

“I kind of wanted to capture that period of time and that turmoil in the track… I ended up writing the chorus in these, sort of, almost run-on sentences, where the last word of every line starts the next one, so that it tries to mirror that wishy-washiness and uncertainty of the thought process at that time of night.”

Photo: Cal Macintyre.

Denis on tour

It’s hard to believe that Denis is only 18 – his music is so musically mature and lyrically lavish. On top of this, he has achieved remarkable success at a really young age. However, only now is he appreciating that he did “some cool thing as a little kid”. At the time, he was loving it, but he is very ambitious and driven; he was always focused on what to do next. He always “kept one eye on the future”.

Denis’ breakthrough was when he went on tour with The Vamps. Before the tour, he was used to playing to crowds of around 50 people, at pubs and bars around the UK. The most he’d played for was 100-150. Going from that to playing to arenas was “absolutely nuts”.

The tour came about when Denis got involved with a collective of artists who toured with The Vamps and invited him to join them. Denis said it was “definitely one of the most affirming and crazy moments on the journey so far”.

Whilst the Vamps are uber successful, no modern group quite matches Little Mix’s success. They are the biggest girl group in the world right now – and one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, outselling the likes of Destiny’s Child. Denis touring with them – what’s more, on their farewell tour – has to be the highlight of his career so far.

This opportunity arose because Denis’ manager knows a lot of people on Little Mix’s team. They heard his music and thought he was a great choice to open the tour – for which he is very grateful and honoured.

He said the experience has been “so surreal” – it took him multiple shows to process that it is actually real and not just a dream. “Up until those last moments, it was still not sinking in… ‘I’m actually going to be on tour with Little Mix, this band that is so iconic, so incredible, who I listen to everyday on the radio wherever I was going, as a kid.’”

Whilst Denis is finally embarking on his own headline tour later this year, he is becoming something of a fixture as a support act on other people’s tours. As well as The Vamps and Little Mix, he’s toured with HRVY and New Rules. I told Denis about a tweet I saw which said, “A concert isn’t a concert unless Denis Coleman is the support act, I said what I said” – much to his amusement.

“It’s such a great way to spread the music out there, ‘cause, at the end of the day, music is, a lot of it anyway, is designed to be heard live and to be introduced in that sort of setting, in that live setting. So, being able to show people who I am as an artist in a live setting, make those connections with people on the night, is a great opportunity, and it’s also very, very fun ‘cause I love live music so much.”

This reminded me of all the artists who have complained about not being able to take their music on the road, thanks to the pandemic. As Denis said, lots of music is designed to be heard live. Indeed, music predates studio recordings – before that, you had to go to live events to hear music. Without live events, the music industry arguably lost its origin.

Photo: Cal Macintyre.

Denis the activist

Denis’ newest single, ‘Healing the Process’, is about how he related to social media and the effect it was having on him – the overwhelming sense of uncertainty, being unsure, and a lack of control in the way he was behaving on social media. He noticed that social media was having a negative effect on his mental health – especially because we became so reliant on social media during lockdown. Whilst he realised this was unhealthy, he did not have a strong will to change it.

“It’s kind of one of those parts of our lives you just have to accept and live with, whether it’s good for your mental health or not.” The song is about having some room to grow, to improve, but not being fully sure what that is, or how to do it – “and just trying to, kind of, voice these thoughts, which, I feel like, sometimes you don’t hear in songs. You hear a lot of songs about the challenges or about how to take care of yourself, but sometimes just wanting to take care of yourself and not fully knowing the best way to do that, I think is something that a lot of us go through.”

This is what I love about Denis’ music – he sings about issues that affect our (young people’s) lives. This, along with his aforementioned appropriation (of sorts) of rock music – in that he is making it more accessible – makes it clear that Denis’ target audience is, unashamedly, young people.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Denis is also committed to issues affecting young people outside of music – especially mental health and anti-bullying. This came about when he was around 15 – a close friend of his went through a period of struggling with his mental health, which kickstarted Denis’ commitment to tackling mental illness.

He soon started working with a charity called The Power of Musik, which would go into schools and talk about mental health. After working with them, he did a series of independent talks. He estimates he visited between 100 and 150 different schools over the course of that time.

Denis the dreamer

From touring schools to arenas, Denis is quite the busy man. His main focus, however, is on his first ever headlining tour, which he is embarking on this August.

Whilst Denis believes in spontaneity – letting the sound and music drive where he is heading – he does have long-term goals. The most important thing to him is that his future music is better than it is today. He thinks his music has improved over the years and hopes that he will continue to grow and evolve as an artist. He wants to “speak about even more relevant topics, make more of a difference, and get my music heard”.

From a metric standpoint, he obviously wants to grow his fanbase and hopes to continue performing at arenas – one day as the headliner, “with my support acts under me as well and helping to bring through the next wave of emerging artists.”

He hopes to nurture the next Denis Coleman.

You can catch Denis Coleman at Manchester’s AO Arena this Friday and Saturday evening, along with Since September, as part of Little Mix’s Confetti Tour. Denis will be on at 7PM, so don’t be late! The tour continues until mid-May, culminating with three evenings shows at London’s O2 Arena on 12th, 13th and 14th June. The final date will be live-streamed globally as The Last Show (for now…).

Sadly, he is not performing at any of the matinee performances – including the Saturday matinee in Manchester.

If you’re attending one of the matinees, or can’t make the tour at all, you can catch Denis on his first ever headlining tour from 1st until 13th August. He will be playing at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on 4th August.

You can keep up to date with Denis on Instagram (@deniscolemanmusic) and Twitter (@deniscmusic).

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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