It is impossible to not be inspired by rené marie. Her singing is the very embodiment of joy, freedom, and fearlessness. Her original songs accomplish that rare feat of being intensely personal, even autobiographical, but also universally relatable. Hell, her very biography is a study in saying “Yes!” to life: rené began singing professionally at age 42, when her then-husband declared that she must stop singing or move out of the house. Since then, she’s recorded close to a dozen albums, including last year’s Grammy-nominated love letter to Eartha Kitt, “I Wanna Be Evil.”
Every time I hear rené marie sing, I come away feeling as though I have learned valuable lessons about life, love, and generosity of spirit. As I write this post, I’ve been listening to rené on Song Travels with Michael Feinstein, and tears keep springing to my eyes. There is something utterly life-affirming about her very presence, and clearly Feinstein feels it, too. “You are a gift,” he says at the end of the interview, and I couldn’t agree more.
I was kind of nervous when I asked rené to answer a few questions about her artistry and life in music for my little blog. Who did I think I was, anyway? To my delight, rené answered immediately, with thoughtful, open-hearted responses to the interview questions, and she was incredibly gracious. Thank you, rené marie, for sharing your kindness and humanity with us through your music. The world is infinitely richer for it.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
For me, “pursue” isn’t quite the word. It’s more like who/what inspired me to allow music to be my primary means of communication—and that would be my dad. He had a shameless and unbridled joy whenever any kind of music was playing. It wasn’t unusual for him to spontaneously break out into song with an aria or an ol’ bluegrass piece of something at the top of his lungs. He loved opera and classical music and knew how to take the most mundane melody and bring it to life, oftentimes by changing the lyrics into something having to do with our chores, eating our dinner, doing our homework, etc. None of the music was considered outdated or old-fashioned. He made all that music—whatever he listened to—alive and accessible and applicable to the lives we were leading.
My favorite memory is of my dad listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” and constructing an entirely pantomimed drama of an African hunter waking in the morning, preparing his meal, getting ready for the hunt, being on the hunt and finally, at the music’s climax, killing his prey. All of this while moving his body rhythmically with the song, his movements and facial expressions telling a story with the music without using one word. Fascinating.
In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
Composing songs comes so naturally to me—I have done this since I was a child, I just didn’t realize I was “composing”, so to speak. Making up songs in my head has always come naturally to me and, as a child, I was never self-conscious about it because I never knew there was a school of thought about how it should be done. Music is always playing inside my head—any and all kinds and melodies, lyrics, etc. This could be due to the fact that I rarely listen to other peoples’ music. Not that I don’t like it. It’s just that their music tends to crowd out the music playing in my own head and I’d rather listen to whatever is “playing” at the time. See what’s shakin’ around up there! I like giving free rein to whatever musical ideas I have—the less obviously connected, the better.
The most challenging thing I deal with is all the negative self-talk I give myself, especially when I am in the midst of doing the very thing that makes me happy: singing in front of an audience. I am so ridiculously hard on myself, I don’t know how I manage to get through the gig sometimes! And I don’t know which is worse: the negative self-talk before the gig (“Who do you think you ARE?!?”), during the gig (“Oh, that sounded awful. Is there food between my teeth? Can they see through my dress? You’re doing that stupid thing with your arm again! STOP IT!”) or after the gig (“You counted off that tune too fast. Your voice croaked in the middle of the song. You’re getting old, nobody really likes what you did—they’re just being polite.”). Geez-a-roni!! I drive myself crazy…
How do you choose your repertoire? What makes you decide to sing a particular song?
I choose a cover tune based on two things: 1) does it move me? 2) do I have any kind of unique perspective/rendition of it to bring the table? If I can’t , then I think it’s best left alone. For instance, as much as I love “Lush Life” or “Guess Who I Saw Today,” I’ve never sung either of those songs in public because there’s nothing I can do to add to them, y’know? They’ve been done so well by so many other singers that I just have nothing to add!
Much time and thought is given to the set list. It’s like preparing a meal for guests. You decide what you’re going to have based on who’s coming to dinner. This is why I like to go out into the audience or the lobby sometimes and meet people, talk to them prior to the gig. I can get a better feel for who they are and why they’re there—it’s so interesting!! Then, when it’s time to sing, I feel like I’m singing to people I at least know a little something about. I can look in their faces and surmise certain things about them based on their expressions alone.
There’ve been times when I’ve completely deviated from my set list because I sensed I had misread the audience and wasn’t getting through. There’s always that chasm that exists between musicians and the audience: the stage is high and often far away from the first row, to say nothing of the rows behind them! So the song, the lyrics, my physical movements and facial expressions must rope the listener and pull them in as close to me as possible. Each song we play MUST do that—otherwise, what’s the point of singing it?
You know, when I first started composing “for real,” I could never bring myself to sing one of my own compositions, even when they were on the CDs people were buying. It just didn’t look right to see the set list with my songs stuck in between all those wonderful jazz standards. I felt presumptuous putting them there. But then people started actually requesting my originals from the audience or sending me an email to say how much they enjoyed my original tunes. That was a real shot in the arm and I began to understand that every single one of those wonderful standards were at one time brand new songs that no one had ever heard. That, plus realizing that if I don’t sing the songs I write, then who will?
If you were to choose another profession, what would it be?
I’d be a landscaping or fine woodworker. I love working with my hands. I can get completely lost in it and forget what time it is, what day it is…
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
Three of them:
Eleanor Roosevelt: “We simply must do the thing we think we cannot do.”
My brother, Claude, told me when I was still working my day job, “Jump and the net will appear.” He sent this one sentence to me in an email every day for a week.
An anonymous person in the audience: “Shut up and sing.”
When I’m looking for a way to shake up my thinking or change my perspective on something, I sleep with my head at the foot of my bed and my feet at the headboard for a couple of nights. This also works if I want to go on vacation but don’t have the time or money to do so. Going to sleep then waking up with just that one different perspective can be so refreshing and change my thinking around.
rené marie will be performing at the Jazz Standard this week, September 10-13. Don’t miss out on your chance to hear her; tickets are available here. You can bet I will be there!