Boulder’s sweetheart gets ‘Sweeter’

Homegrown chanteuse Dafna trades the halls of Fairview for the art deco walls of Boulder Theater

0
Jivan West

Has anyone here ever been in love?” Dafna Margalit asks a crowd. 

It’s 2018, and Margalit, then a senior at Fairview High School, is about to perform an original song at a school talent show. 

Someone calls back emphatically in the negative. 

“Well, I haven’t either,” Margalit says, pacing a bit. Her voice is warm, her ensemble unassuming. “And it hasn’t been because I haven’t wanted to. I’ve been busy: with school, getting a life.” She pauses as the crowd laughs. 

“I also realize, I just haven’t had much of a selection to choose from.”

The crowd whoops at Margalit’s jab. She’s only able to deadpan for a second before pulling the mic away to laugh at herself. Moments later she’s pouring her charm into a jazzy lament about disappointment called “I only love you (when I’m alone).”

Three years later, Margalit has traded the halls of Fairview for the sandstone walls of CU Boulder, swapped auditoriums for nightclubs, but kept the gentle humor and self-effacing demeanor. Performing mononymously under her first name, the classically trained pianist (and self-taught guitarist, drummer and bassist) has crafted and self-released two albums of shimmering bedroom pop built around vulnerable lyrics, addictive hooks and endearingly coquettish vocals. She’s racked up more than a million streams on Spotify and amassed a following of more than 67,000 on TikTok, where her videos (also typically produced in her bedroom) sometimes garner tens of thousands of likes. 

On May 22, she’ll celebrate the release of her new EP, Sweeter, with an intimate show at Boulder Theater. 

But she still hasn’t been in love — not exactly.  

“I haven’t truly had my heart broken yet,” was how she put it to 303 Magazine in late April. 

Her lyrics, however, prove Margalit is familiar with pain, knows how to dissect it, as in her most recent single, “Bitter”: 

“You tried a little to give it a taste / Didn’t suit you so you / Tried to replace it / With something sweeter / Didn’t think I’d leave ya / But trust me this is better for the both of us.”  

On the damp patio of Trident one morning about a week before the Boulder Theater show, again stylish but unassuming in wide legged jeans adorned with stars, Margalit says her work is a blend of lived and watched experiences. 

“I can make [my experiences] more dramatic, but mostly I’ve not had any traumatic events happen to me,” she says. “Trying to find inspiration is usually then looking at other people, either my family or my friends when they tell me stories.”

When Margalit was in middle school, before she even began writing songs, she would read One Direction fan fiction on the Wattpad app. 

“And some of them are like, really good stories,” she says. “I would like the sort of theme — it was like, maybe I’ll write a song about that.”

Margalit also found inspiration in higher-brow literature. “Bitter,” the second single from the new EP, features dialog between a man and a woman speaking to each other in desperate tones about faith and humanity.

“I pulled it from the 1930s (film) version of Crime and Punishment,” she says. “I read it in high school, and I really liked how it played with the idea of guilt after murdering someone, so I ended up crafting the EP around that, where it just gets darker as you go on. By ‘Sour,’ the final chapter, the guilt has consumed me.” 

Of course Margalit hasn’t killed anyone, but like any thoughtful human — a Gen Z who inherently understands the world is complex, demanding and inequitable — she carries anxiety. 

“I wrote ‘Sweeter’ while I was still in high school,” she says, “and at that point I was seeing a close friend of mine going through something really hard and I wanted to help as much as I could, but there was only so much I could do. I couldn’t take on everything that she was going through. [The song] was me [processing] the idea that I feel guilty that if my life is going well, I can’t take a little bit from someone else’s pain and make their life easier. Like, I wish it was a Communist sort of thing where it’s all equal.” 

“If I keep on moving / I won’t have time to fall apart,” Margalit sings on the R&B-tinged track. “But I can’t control / What I didn’t start / I see distant hands reaching / They’re grasping at straws / They struggle for air / I sit still and stare.

While the outside world may color Margalit’s music, it’s her inner world that draws the picture. 

“When you write a song about your high school crush but release it three years later so he won’t think it’s about him,” she captions over a TikTok video of her make-up-free face while “Sweeter” plays in the background. 

“I keep thinking about how there are other people who perceive me and it makes me uncomfortable like please look away,” she captions in another. In yet another, “Stream my songs so I can afford the therapy I so clearly need.”

Her two previous albums, I LOVE YOU and submerge, both released in 2020, feel deeply personal, even diaristic. But unlike the most diaristic of all sirens, Taylor Swift, whose work is notoriously watermarked by her personal experiences, Margalit makes broader brush strokes, understanding that the emotion is more important than the details. 

Across Margalit’s body of work she weaves themes of yearning, guilt, indifference, confusion and acceptance — the ingredients for a hearty stew of emotions — without ever taking herself too seriously. Songs often show Margalit confidently declaring her stance in the early verses (“I work better by myself”) before walking back at the end (“I guess I’m fine by myself”).

Jivan West

“I can’t really stick to one thing I say,” she says with a laugh. “So I’m like, at this point in time, that’s what was right for me. I have to leave it open so it can be OK if I change my mind later.”

Wise words from a 20 year old. But wisdom aside, she keeps her tongue planted firmly in her cheek with songs like the 2021 single “Light of My Life:”

“I can’t replace you / Even after all I did was break you / If I could face you / I would never let you out of my sight”

“Imagine releasing a song and everyone thinks it’s about your ex but it’s about your favorite pair of sunglasses that you broke two years ago,” she captions over her face on TikTok. 

The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” is about pot, the “Electric Slide” is about a vibrator, and “Closing Time” by Semisonic is about the birth of a child; Dafna just joins the greats in her command of the double entendre. 

And though she’s playing runs and fills that evoke the whimsy of Fiona Apple, writing lyrics as reversible and accessible as a David Byrne work, and self-producing tracks that would make FINNEAS and Billie nod in approval, Margalit is still a college student working through a degree in electrical engineering, trying to fit all the pieces together as best she can. There’s sometimes more work to be done — for school, for her music — then there is time. At Trident she mentions relief over having learned she passed a class she feared she’d need to retake. 

College was her mom’s idea — her mom’s insistence, actually — when Margalit mentioned wanting to take a gap year to search for herself a bit. 

“I guess I never really read into all of the stuff I was doing and why I was doing it,” Margalit says of her choice to study engineering. “And I kinda [did] stuff because I thought that was what I liked. I would use my older siblings as an example. Both of my older siblings also did engineering, so I don’t know how much of it is me, what I like to do, or just because I’m doing what I saw them do. I’m honestly still at that point where I don’t really know… I mean, I know that I love music, and engineering is interesting, but I’m always thinking, would I have done that if my siblings hadn’t done that? Probably not.”

Where music is concerned, however, she knows where she stands. 

“This next year I’ll be focused on working on my next album,’ she says. “That’s the goal is to have that done by like March next year. Then graduate. Then tour.”  

‘When Things Turn Sour”: An Evening With Dafna. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 22, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets are $30-$32, bouldertheater.com