One of the most special things about Nicole “Denalda” Renae, 29, was her curiosity, says Michelle Campbell.
“It was a never-ending curiosity to make unique sounds from the synth,” Campbell says. “She was like a mad scientist in a lab.”
Campbell managed Introflirt, the band that Denalda -- that’s the name she went by -- and music partner Ben Runnels created together. Their singular sound blended her synthesizer with his 1940s crooner voice, tipping a hat to the past while creating a fresh sound they called “croon-wave.” Both Denalda, who was born Nicole Renae Siegrist in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Runnels died in the Oakland warehouse fire.
“The keyboard was like an extension of herself,” says Daniel Wayne Lugo, a performance and visual artist who goes by “El Maldito.” He got to know Denalda over the last few years as they attended each other’s performances and showings. “She got locked on the rhythm and held it,” El Maldito says. “You kept your eyes on her, like, what’s she going to do? It was a super-intriguing kind of performance.”
In an RIP message to Introflirt on Facebook, El Maldito describes the band as, “an intense duo who were embarking on a great musical journey. Humbled to have shared artistic spaces with them and witness their craft shine like the solid people they were. Blessings.”
The name of the band, Introflirt, was a combination of Denalda and Runnels’ personalities.
Runnels, who was introspective, leant his character to the first part of the band’s name. Denalda characterized the second: “Denalda was the outgoing, flirtatious individual, very playful,” Campbell says. She had a theatrical presence onstage, fueled partly by the mystery of what she and her friends had styled that night for her outfit. The first time Campbell saw her, Denalda was a blond with a neckline down to her waist, and the last show Campbell saw her in, she was straight out of the cast of Dallas, in a red top with puffy shoulder pads. Denalda had a vast assortment of wigs, and her appearance changed so often that friends sometimes didn’t recognize her.
“Denalda was fiercely creative, fiercely individual and fierce in her opinions, free-spirited, super-loving and very excited to be doing what she was doing," Campbell says. “She was constantly honing her skills, she was taking piano classes at Laney College up until this past week.” Denalda had also worked at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, which paid tribute to her in auditorium signage and on the marquee.
Probably the most telling detail about the success of Denalda’s music is that people gave it their full attention, friends say. El Maldito says the last time he saw Introflirt was six or seven months ago at the Legionnaire Saloon in Oakland. Most of the crowd had come to hear the out-of-town headliners that night. But Introflirt’s performance was so dynamic, he says, that a lot of people left when the duo finished.
“Introflirt took the whole place down,” El Maldito says. “They were very magnetic. They had that presence to pull you in so much you forgot who else was going to play. People were dancing the whole time.”
El Maldito says Denalda was as humble and supportive of other artists as she was a powerful artist herself. She could say with a look that she cared what other artists were doing. “She had big eyes that would look at you and give you strong affirmation, like, ‘I see you. I’m glad to be here with you,’” El Maldito says.
The best way to honor Denalda's memory, says Campbell, is to engage with Introflirt's music. “Dance to their music,” Campbell says. “Listen to it, tell your friends about it. Because this is what they did.”
Campbell says Denalda’s parents have asked for no media contact, and have authorized friends to speak on their behalf.