UP WITH ROBIN RENEE
by Mike Doktorski
her late 80s days fronting the legendary New Brunswick worldbeat
group Spy Gods, to her 90s stint as lead singer for pop-rock band
The Loved Ones, to her current incarnation as a acoustic solo
act, singer/songwriter Robin Renee has entertained generations
of local music fans with her poignant melodies and distinctive
voice. Renee put out her debut solo CD In Progress in 2000
and followed it up in '02 with her most recent effort All
Six Senses. She is currently in the nascent stages of plotting
her next recording project, and recently took the time to answer
some questions from NBU on music and life.
What's the first record you ever bought?
Robin Renee: You know, I'm not exactly sure, but the first record
I distinctly remember buying was David Bowie's Scary Monsters.
I remember standing outside at the mall with the record smoking
a cigarette and hanging out with my friend Kim. When I saw my
mom's car turn the corner to pick us up, I dropped the record
in my attempt to quickly put out the cigarette. It was a pretty
funny teenage moment, actually.
How would you describe your evolution as an musician and songwriter
over the years?
RR: I've definitely grown in confidence over time. It's a little
hard to describe, but I can look back and remember times on stage
with Spy Gods and know that I had a lot less of a clue then in
some fundamental way
I held myself differently than I do
now. I had great fun in that band, especially. I think my songwriting
has gotten simpler in some ways. When I listen to tunes on In
Progress versus most of what's on All Six Senses, my
lyrics have gotten less wordy, definitely. I am hoping to be able
to access the poetic aspects that come out with a blur of words,
but to stay conscious of writing more from the heart and less
from a purely intellectual experience. That seems to be the most
fundamental change that I've been through. And it's pretty much
always been true that I enjoy solo acoustic performance, but I
quickly tire of it if that's all I'm doing and I start craving
to hear a full sound on stage with me again. The band I had last
year was ok, but it didn't pan out to be the right combination
of people. Then I was in quite an emotional and writing slump
for a while, and I'm just emerging from that. It feels good to
be back. I am on the lookout for musicians who are a close match
to my sonic and spiritual interests now.
Do you ever find that you defy audiences' expectations of what
they'll expect from a Robin Renee show?
RR: I only seem to really defy audience expectations if they don't
know me at all. I remember one time being hired for a college
gig where they assumed I was an R&B singer, so they were a
bit puzzled when I showed up and sang. The only other time I can
think of is a period about 2 years ago when I began to introduce
some Indian mantra to my work. Some people who knew me were surprised,
but for the most part in a pleasant way, I believe. Not quite
fitting an easy category used to be a frustration, but lately
I find it liberating. There just won't be a standard music business
category for black female AAA, folk, and indie influenced rock
with a Sanskrit twist, so I may as well just do it on my own terms!
What song are you proudest to have written?
RR: "The Beginning." It's hard to say why, exactly.
It just seems to continue to resonate with a kind of immediacy
for me. I think, perhaps, it's because it asks a lot of big, universal,
soul-searching questions that feel like they go beyond my small,
singular experience. I find the melody to be moving every time
I sing or hear it, so it does endure. It was one of those tunes
that seems to have emerged from the cosmos more that being written
from personal logic or effort.
What's the last book you read?
RR: Ha! I have no idea. I've been pretty scattered lately, so
I tend to read about 4 books and magazines at a time, whenever
I happen to pick up any of them randomly. Not a very effective
method. Lately it's been Weird US, by the guys that put
out Weird NJ. And I'm often re-reading and learning from
The Bhagavad Gita.
Looking through your website bio, I noticed you sung on the best
(okay my opinion) ever concept album about the HUB City, 1991's
Slaves of New Brunswick. What was that session like?
RR: Oh, that was fun. I did a vocal part for a song called "Losing
Your Hair." I remember that I didn't have a car at the time
and Glen Burtnik actually came over and gave me a ride to the
session. My track was recorded relatively quickly and I just really
enjoyed talking to Glen. I loved the fact that he is an accomplished
songwriter, was playing in Styx at the time, and seemed to have
a very mellow home life at the same time. I thought that was a
really cool balance. I have a lot of respect for him and I'm always
glad when I run into him in town.
That seemed like a great time to be around the New Brunswick music
scene. I know you're not based [in New Brunswick] anymore, but
any particularly poignant memories of that era?
RR: I loved being surrounded by so many great songwriters. There
was a wonderful women's folk scene that opened up particularly
around that time, and just about anytime you could go to a cafe
and people would just be sharing great songs. Catherine Moon,
Kate Evans and her band isoe, Hazel Moats, Lisa McHenry
are really so many. And slightly before that, the rock scene that
I was part of mostly with Spy Gods really did feel like an extended
family. Again, there are way too many great performers to mention
from that time, but I have to say that I will never forget Mark
Bradley performing with his band at The Court Tavern on the night
we graduated from Rutgers. What a great show, mixed with all the
emotions (and alcohol!). It is hard to believe Mark has been gone
for so long now.
So what's next for Robin Renee?
RR: I'm working on a couple of things. I have been doing a great
deal of kirtan chanting in the Hindu tradition -- a beautiful,
unifying practice that has had a great impact on my life. I plan
to record a CD of kirtan and other devotional songs this year,
and there is new material for a rock-oriented CD too, tentatively
called "Tour of Spirits." So, I'll be putting together
some East-meets-West musicians to work on these projects.
Renee performs regularly in and around the greater metropolitan
area. To see when she'll be appearing in your neck of the woods,
check out RobinRenee.com.