Phoenix artist Lissett Denis rises from the ashes

By Alexis Watkins

Photos by Anitah Diggs

The city of Phoenix is an urban sprawl filled with growing palm trees and cacti, and just as the flora continues to grow, so does the art scene. Among the young creatives in Phoenix is one who stands out — Lissett Denis. Blending different genres such as R&B, Neo-soul and Indie, she is telling her story through the art of songwriting and sound.

Denis grew up on the West side of Phoenix, and as an Afro-Latina, she was heavily influenced by her mother’s Mexican culture and her father’s Puerto Rican and Haitian roots. Although those were the most influential aspects of her upbringing that shaped her taste in music and artistic style, she also was shaped by the culture of her community.

“I was raised around what felt like true West Coast culture,” Denis said. “My little neighborhood was basically a mix of Black and brown kids. I think growing up in a pretty diverse area in Phoenix contributed to the way that I interact with the world. The way that I interact with music and how it's very important for me, and to highlight Black and brown experiences.”

Denis’ love for the arts started when she was a child. Being raised in a family that was musically inclined helped Denis on her musical journey, as she was able to cultivate her musical capabilities at a young age. The first ever recording that Denis did was for a friend.

“They were like, ‘Hey, do you think you could just do some background vocals?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And I did that for a while, just for different friends,” she explained.

This led to Denis experimenting with her own sound and music style through songwriting, recording, and, of course, singing. Writing was always something that Denis was passionate about, so the singing and songwriting aspect of making music was something that clicked for her as she found her own unique sound.

Years after her official start in music, Denis took the stage at the Funky Latina Music Festival in Downtown Phoenix. The festival celebrated Latin Indie music artists from Texas, California and Phoenix. Denis was the opening act, and although I had listened to her music prior to the festival, I was impressed by her ability to perform and connect with the crowd immediately.

While performing, Denis told the crowd about the sentimental meaning behind one of her top songs, “Yellow Butterflies.” Later, in an interview with her, I asked her about the meaning again in order to better understand why she named the song after the popular insect.

“The title felt like a good one for that track, specifically, because it was during a time in my life when I was making the hard decision of whether or not to stay in a relationship,” she said. “I was at a crossroads, and I wasn't sure what to do. Finally, I chose myself, and I chose to put myself first in a way that I hadn't before. I think knowing my value and knowing my worth somehow tied to a yellow butterfly for me. After I made that decision, I started seeing them a lot again, and I was like, ‘OK, I'm on the right path. So I think I'm gonna call the song ‘Yellow Butterflies.’’”

Spirituality is something that has played one of the biggest roles in Denis’ journey as an artist. Her connection to spirituality is what she feels keeps her connected to God and the universe in a way that allows her to be present and introspective.

“It’s a really big part in what I'm writing about, I think, for me, sharing my stories of love or loss, or even spirituality, and what that journey has looked like for me is, I would say, is pretty much the basis of my songs and of my music,” she said.

Not long after she explained the significance of yellow butterflies in her life, one appeared outside of the window I was sitting at while speaking with her. I felt compelled to let her know that I also took that as a sign that she was on the right path.

“See? They always make this funny appearance somehow and someone will see a yellow butterfly and be like, ‘I saw one and thought of you,’” Denis laughed.

Her creative process has been fueled by her own personal journey, and what she has been through, and she continues to share this with listeners on her new EP “Apartment 105,” which will be dropping sometime at the end of the summer. Denis started working on this EP at the end of 2021, and continued to work on it into 2022. After her relationship had fully ended, she knew she had so much energy to put out creatively through her music. The EP is focused on the grieving process of losing a connection, and the many emotions that come with that.

“Those stages of grieving when it's like, ‘Oh, I feel good!’ and then it's like, ‘Oh my God, I miss this person,’ and then also, ‘I'm learning so much about myself, and I'm healing, and I'm growing, and I'm thankful for life – but this is weird in that there's a lot of change.’ So definitely centered around a breakup and what that looks like, but also it's nuanced,” Denis said.

Although the EP isn’t centered on her first ever heartbreak, it’s a culmination of all of the different aspects of what she experienced, and what she has learned in her relationships and breakups. Denis asked herself questions like, “How can I move through this differently?” and “What can I do for myself to get myself through this?”

The answer for her was found in the creative expression of her songwriting.

“For me, it was like, ‘Go write. Go write a song immediately. Go record and say what you're feeling.’ That's pretty much what the process has been,” she said.

The process of making music has helped Denis with her own mental health battles and has provided an outlet for her to cope with the many emotions that she’s felt throughout her life.

“Music is one of those things that provides me with a sense of safety and security and it'll always be there,” she said. “I can rely on it always.”

The ability to be vulnerable through her own music is something that she hopes will inspire those who hear her music to also do. For Denis, there is strength and beauty in being vulnerable. Taking the time to sit with the thoughts and emotions that a person is having in such a fast paced society is an aspect that she feels is vital to eliminate the distractions and noise of the world.

“For me, it's like, it's OK to slow down. It's OK to rest. It's OK to feel, be sad, be angry, be in love, be confused, be open. Working on this EP has been one big reminder, and kind of a love letter to myself, that everything that I just shared with you are all things that I'm working on,” she explained. “I need to remind myself all the time that it's OK to be gentle. We don't have to be hard on ourselves. We don't have to beat ourselves up so much when life throws things our way.”

The upcoming EP is named after the apartment where Denis had to do just that. A place where she had to sit with the thoughts and emotions that she was feeling after heartbreak, and turn them into something creative to share with others.

A release show for the new EP is also in the works. Denis wants to bring the EP to life by creating an interactive music exhibition where attendees of the release party will be able to step into the world of the EP.

“I am very intentional in the way that I live my life, and the way that I approach music,” Denis said. “It gets me excited to continue to share.”

The best way to keep up with Denis, along with updates about the release party and EP, is to follow her on Instagram @slissettdenis.