March 2005
by Mike Doktorski

From 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.

NBU: 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.

NBU: 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.

NBU: 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!

NBU: 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.

NBU: 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.

NBU: 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.

NBU: 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…there 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.

NBU: 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.

Robin 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

This interview originally appeared in the March '05 issue of Night & Day Magazine.

For more info on Robin Renee, click on over to her official website.

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