D.H. Lawrence, the celebrated early 20th century British novelist, lectured his readers and fellow writers on the need to separate the writer from the tale he was telling. The music legend Frank Sinatra once expressed a similar thought about the singer and his song, telling an interviewer back in the middle 60’s that all he owed his audience is a great performance, not, he suggested, a great story of his life.
For the singer, pianist, songwriter D-vvine (pronounced Dee-vine), born Dunja, who has been described by the Oscar-award-winning screen writer, Pulitizer, and Tony-award-winning playwright, and director John Patrick Shanley as a “brooding contemplative musical goddess”—the song and the life of the singer can never be separated.
That life for D-vvine, whom I interviewed in her Manhattan recording studio last week, began in Yugoslavia 1981—just ten years before the start of the country’s tragic Civil War in 1991. For D-vvine, memories of that war, which claimed approximately 100,000 lives and displaced more than two and a half million people before it finally ended in 2001, will remain with her forever.
“I can never forget the bombings,” she told me, “living on and off in bomb shelters with my ailing mother…. Being separated from my father, two brothers and sister. … Hearing the frightening sound of sirens. … Learning the names of the dead over the television and radio. Mourning for those whose names I knew.”
It was based on those painful years that D-vvine composed the critically acclaimed song “People Be Strong,” a composition she told me she wrote shortly after arriving in New York City in 1999.
Audition Amid Rockets
Because until then I was unaware of the exact chronology of her life, I was caught off guard when I heard the year 1999. Thus, at first, I found it difficult to believe that an 18-year-old from a war-torn Eastern European nation could, beyond writing a hit song, ever find her way to New York City. But, as D-vvine began to tell me more about her native country and her life, her story all began to make sense.
“Even during the war, we tried to maintain our everyday lives,” D-vvine explained. “The children as best they could continued to go to school, and the adults continued to go to work during the day and go out in the evenings, even while bombs exploded in the skies. That brought some normalcy into our lives. For me, I also found a sense of normalcy and, yes, even a strong sense of peace, love, and tranquility through my music.”
That music, which she first began to play on the piano at six years old, led her to perform, she told me, on a series of television and radio talent shows which, even during the darkest days of the war, reached large Yugoslavian audiences, making her name and her music well known—first, throughout the nation, and eventually, beyond Yugoslavia.
As D-vvine explained, “In the early part of 1999, I received a long-distance call from New York. The caller was an executive from SONY records who had heard my music through a friend. She requested that I audition for her over the phone.”
It turned out to be an unusual audition. “Just as I started playing the music on the piano and started singing my song, I heard the deafening sound of rockets that were blasting on the street right out side my apartment,” D-vvine recalled, “but I was able to put it out of my mind and continued on. … Fortunately, she liked what she heard, even with the sound of rockets going off in the background, and invited me to come to New York to audition in person.”
Though aware that when she arrived in New York City, she would be without family or friends and would have very little money, D-vvine jumped at the invitation.
“At that moment [when she received the invitation], I truly felt I had received a miracle from the Lord,” D-vvine explained, “so I didn’t allow my fears of being totally on my own stop me from the opportunity to present my music in America.” D-vvine was to take full advantage of that opportunity.
In addition to “People Be Strong,” D-vvine wrote a series of songs containing similar themes, even as she was beginning to desire to change the direction of her music.
“Every time I was about to move the tone and message of my music away from the theme of the tragedy of war, news always seemed to spread of new conflicts going on around the world. As I read about what was taking place in countries like Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, I found myself relating to their circumstances, and expressing it through my music, as the main theme of my music.”
But all that appeared to change in early 2015 with her new song, “Hit It Big.” The song, which I listened to on YouTube a few days before the interview, begins with the lyrics, “I need some loving, some luck on my side, deep satisfaction, that keeps me young, young, young,” and then is followed by the equally upbeat lyrical refrain, “I’m one in millions, millions who look for the stars to hit it big like a rock star.”
Those apparently optimistic beginning lyrics, which are accompanied by an infectiously fast-paced, radio-friendly melody, conveyed to me the feeling that D-vvine was able in “Hit It Big” to separate her song from her life. It was a feeling that continued as I heard the song again when she was gracious enough to sing it for me in the studio.
Yet, soon after she was done, she told me otherwise. “I have to admit that, despite my original intention, ‘Hit It Big’ is based on my life and my life experiences,” she revealed. “The reason I wrote ‘I need loving’ in the first line was after a man I really cared for suddenly ended our relationship. I felt very down and thought of all the past disappointments in life as well. So it came naturally from my heart to sing that I really needed some loving and some luck.”
The rest of the song starting with the second line, she confessed, was also based on her life. “When you are living a life where bombs are going off and people who you know have been severely injured or killed, you dream of getting out of that life and hitting it big somewhere, somehow,” D-vvine said.
“For me,” she continued, “the dream of hitting it big was becoming a rock star. For many of my friends in school. It meant hitting it big as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or any other job or profession that requires hard work, desire and ambition. … For all of us who survived the war, though, the words—’who look to the stars to hit it big like a rock star’—possessed the same meaning. Escaping the war to be free to truly see the beauty of the stars in the sky at night and to be free to pursue your greatest dreams, right here on God’s earth.”
Robert Golomb is a nationally and internationally published columnist. Mail him at MrBob347@aol.com and follow him on Twitter@RobertGolomb