Denitia Odigie was feeling stifled. She had relocated to Brooklyn from Houston in 2010 after landing a room in the Clubhouse, the music and art collective housed in a scruffy Victorian in Ditmas Park. The move was central to her development as an artist — and where she bonded with local scene veterans like Sly5thAve — but she felt the all-too-familiar claustrophobia of life in New York closing in on her. So she moved to the beach.
“I was starting to feel like I was going nuts,” Denitia recalls. “I couldn’t really record much in there, because there was, metaphorically speaking, so much noise around me. So I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I find a sublet for three months in Long Island, and just go and write, and get the fuck outta here?’ ” Denitia never made it beyond the city limits, but she did find a spot in the Rockaways, in an apartment complex right on the beach. “When I first thought about moving to the Rockaways, I was like, ‘This is insane, it’s so far away,’ ” she says. “But as soon as I got out there, I said, ‘Yep, this is me. I’m about to come out here and write my ass off.’ ” That change of scenery inspired Denitia’s Ceilings EP, a stirring four-song solo project that addresses self-actualization, anxiety, and liberation with strength and honesty.
Denitia, 33, is best known for her work as one half of the r&b duo Denitia and Sene, a group she formed with fellow Clubhouse resident Brian “Sene” Marc. Solo projects often involve a certain anxiety, what with the weight of expectation, but Ceilings banishes those concerns from the opening chords. The subdued minimalism of her work with Sene is absent here, with Denitia opting for something closer to the warmly futuristic soul of a Solange or Jessie Ware. Opener “Bound to Happen” sounds like someone waking up for the first time, a fog lifting. Ironically, it was also the last song included on the EP when Denitia was putting together a tracklist with her friend and producer Daniel Schlett, owner of the Brooklyn recording studio Strange Weather. “When the songs put themselves together, I looked back and said, ‘Oh, wow, this is a reflection of a journey that I have been on,’ ” she says.
Denitia’s journey began on the rural outskirts of Houston, where the airwaves were dominated by the twang of country and where her home was filled with the sounds of Al Green and the Temptations. Blazingly intelligent from a young age, she skipped grades as a child and learned piano at five, writing her first songs and playing talent shows and church concerts before she turned ten. She took her first formal songwriting course as a student at Vanderbilt in 2000 — she was just sixteen when she began classes at the university — and started considering music as a career. Doubt about her talents lingered — she has said that her family wanted her to “do something smart, like brain-smart” — and she toyed with the idea of going to culinary school after a stint as a vegan chef in Nashville. Ultimately Denitia resolved to give music another year and dug in her heels, writing, recording, and playing as much as she ever had. The effort led her to New York and, at long last, stable footing in a world defined by its ephemerality.
But freedom and stability aren’t the same thing as space, and so the Rockaways beckoned. “When I was a kid, we lived out in the country,” she says. “Something about having access to the city but being able to go home to something that’s just a little more chilled out really resonates with me. It just really felt right to be out there.”
Denitia went to the beach with a renewed sense of purpose. “I’d gotten to this practice of being very intentional about just writing shit,” she says. Ceilings is a culling of sorts, then, the result of countless hours spent recording demos and seeing what fell into place where. Of the recording process, Denitia recalls, “I was getting as far as I could with it, and just tracking drums, bass, keys, guitar, vocals, and getting the vibe there, like painted out.” She credits Schlett with lending Ceilings its cohesion. “Daniel just understood it. He said to me, ‘Oh, you wanna make something bangin’, but still feels like you?’ So we took those demos that I made at the beach and went to his studio to re-create them.”
The openness of Denitia’s surroundings shines through: Though Ceilings runs just over thirteen minutes, the collection doesn’t feel hemmed in or truncated. “Waiting” pulses with frustration; the title track plunges the entire project into longing and loss; closer “Planes” breathes the whole thing back to life with bouncing synths and the crash of a drum kit. The most hopeful track on Ceilings, “Planes” is also a natural concluding statement from an artist who has taken the well-trod path of self-doubt and anxiety to emerge somewhere completely different. But even with this first solo project barely in the rearview, Denitia’s got her eyes trained on the horizon: She’s already working on a full-length follow-up to Ceilings that’s focused on “stretching out.” “I love Ceilings, but that was the ‘then’ me,” she says. “I’ve absorbed so many beautiful things since I finished recording Ceilings, and I’m excited to sculpt something as the ‘now’ me.”