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René Marie: Voice of a Renegade

Interview with singer about her life and her creative approach to making music

Rene Marie

I am constantly interested in how my favorite artists became who they are today. What experiences shaped their destiny to create an artist who inspires us?

René Marie
is a self-taught singer with a passion for life and music. I loved interviewing René and I feel there is much to learn from this special artist. Motéma Music released two René Marie Albums this past year: Voice of My Beautiful Country and Black Lace Freudian Slip. You need both of these albums!

Roseanna Vitro: When did you know you were going to be a singer?

René Marie: For me, there was never any “going to be a singer”. From the time I was a very small girl and singing on my parents’ command for visitors at our home, I’ve always thought of myself as a singer. There was no accompaniment of pride or ego in it, just a knowing – in the same way I knew I was a girl or black, I knew that I was a singer, too. But there was a seminal moment when I realized that singing was another form of expression for me and the impact that expression had on others.

When I was ten, my mother divorced my father and we moved to a new city. Though I knew the divorce was necessary, I was missing my Dad and brothers something fierce. I was the new kid on the block, so my mother insisted I go to a Halloween party right down the street where an off-the-cuff talent show was taking place. The kids at the party were invited to climb the steps up to the neighbor’s deck that overlooked the backyard and recite a poem, sing a song; anything to give proof that we were not just taking up valuable space on this earth. I watched one kid after another climb those steps and do their little schtick, singing ditties and stuff like that. Down below, folks weren’t really listening that closely, kids were running around and playing and adults were talking. I didn’t know anyone and nobody knew me, which made it that much easier to get up there and sing out into the darkness, “A House is Not a Home”, hoping it would somehow reach my Dad. I poured my heart into that song, singing it from beginning to end, seeing his face the whole time. As I was finishing up, I realized how quiet it had gotten. I heard people whispering to each other, “who was that?” Before anyone could say anything to me, I flew down the steps and the whole two blocks to my house. As I sat on the stoop to our duplex trying to catch my breath, a realization came over me that I had held the attention of strangers through music! I knew, as surely as I knew I was a girl, that I wanted to have that effect on people again and again. Singing that song was a gift I gave myself and them. It was cathartic; healing some sad and damaged part of me and benefiting the listener in some way that my ten year old mind was too young to fully absorb. The idea of “study” or “career” or even “technique” has always been completely absent from my awareness. Rather than confirm that I was going to “be” a singer, that experience determined the way I sang from that point on – instinctively, with complete vulnerability and tapping into music’s feral aspects. I cling to this while composing, rehearsing or singing with other musicians onstage and with the audience.

What music inspired you as a young girl?

Everything! When I was a child, I noticed that music seemed to have a deeper effect on me than other kids my age. If a song came on the radio, I would stop what I was doing and be immediately transported by the words and music, seeing myself in the role of whatever the song was about. I felt compelled to learn the words and sing along all the while visualizing the story. I never told anyone this, I just did it.

Every kind of music was played in our home – except jazz. My Dad especially loved every genre of music; blues, folk, bluegrass, country and western, classical, easy listening. On any given day we were as likely to hear one kind of music as another. Today all of these styles of music move me tremendously. When there was no music playing at all, my six siblings and I often played a game that we called “choir”, in which one of us would sing a sustained note and then, one by one, each of us would join in by singing a different note to harmonize with the preceding one and so on. The trick was to find a note that fit harmonically while simultaneously avoiding a note someone else was already singing! Once we all had our “chord” established (though I wasn’t aware at that time that it was called a chord), one of the older siblings would say “take it higher!” We’d automatically raise it a half-step; then higher and higher until we all collapsed into raucous laughter. I learned a lot about music with this game; how harmony and listening and breathing and fun and laughter all have a place within the musical context.

There was another defining moment in my life that seemed to be the foundation for all of my subsequent musical experiences. My father loved listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”. It was his favorite song; I do believe the man played that song every single day, usually in the evening. One day when I was about three years old, I was lying on the couch in the living room and Dad was playing “Bolero”. Without saying one word, he began acting out the role of an African hunter preparing for a hunt; his only prop being a broom handle. During the quiet beginning strains of the song, he pretended to be sharpening his “spear.” As the song became more intense, he acted out the stealthy movements of a hunter, holding his spear aloft, searching for his prey. At the climax of the song he pretended to thrust his spear at the trapped animal! Throughout the entire fifteen minutes of the song he was silently moving his body in tempo with the music, his muscles flexed, face focused in concentration. I was enthralled by that and never forgot his simple but powerful lesson regarding the power of communicating through music.

Were you a disciplined student in junior high and high school? Was there a music program, choir or band that you participated in?

Disciplined? Well, I’m not sure I understand what that means. Throughout elementary and junior high school I was a good girl and got good grades. I sang in the choir which afforded me exposure to a delightful variety of music. I honestly enjoyed every song we sang no matter the composer or arrangement. We sang everything from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to songs by the Carpenters and everything in between. However when it came to discipline in high school, I believe I required it more than I exhibited it! Those were the early 70’s; the days of protests and sit-ins and demonstrations! I was still in the choir though and loved every minute of it.

During my high school years, I also sang in a band called The Majestics. We did lots of R&B, no jazz. In fact, I met my future husband in that band. He was a brilliant keyboardist whose first cousin was Don Pullen. Though I met Don once or twice, I was completely unaware that he was Mingus’ pianist or how significantly he contributed to jazz.

Which singers and instrumentalists inspired you? Was there a teacher or performer who changed your life or simply made a difference in your musical journey?

I had an elementary school teacher, Mr. Ebbett, who took an interest in my playing the piano. I’d had a year of piano lessons before my parents’ divorce, but when my Mom and I moved, we didn’t take the piano with us. At my newly integrated school, there was a piano in the multi-purpose room and rather than going outside to play during recess, I got permission from my teacher to play the piano instead. Mr. Ebbett’s daughter was about my age and taking lessons from a former concert pianist from Hungary named Kiss Eskelund. He suggested to my mother that I take lessons from her and she followed through. Once Kiss Eskelund and I got to know each other better, I begged her to give me music that she thought was too complicated for me to play. When she did, I took it as a challenge and practiced that much harder. I loved that hour at her house on Saturdays; more than the lesson. I think it was simply having another musician to talk to and be around. That is so important; being around other creative people who inspire us.

Musicians who take risks, musically or emotionally, are the ones that inspire me. The ones who hear something different, whose creativity or execution flies in the face of conventional wisdom. I love the stories of iconic jazz vocalists who started off with no formal musical training and who, if they had had the training, you just know they would not have sounded the way they did. Their instructors would have trained it right out of them! I mean, if Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong, just to name two, had had vocal coaches, can you imagine what would have been said to them about their voices or how they would have sounded if they’d followed the popular notions of vocalization in their day? I shudder to think!

Ornette Coleman’s story leaves me shaking my head in disbelief when I consider the kind of opposition that was leveled against him by his peers and his unshakeable belief in what he was hearing. We need more heroes like that. Below are some of mine…

Aaron Copland (really captures the American spirit in his music compositions)

Henry Threadgill (damn, Henry! you playin’ it like that, huh??)

Nina Simone (no fear. no one like her – not no how, not nowhere)

Ornette Coleman (whose real life story reminds me of Horton in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who because he didn’t let anyone dissuade him from what he was hearing – thank you, Ornette!)

Harry Belafonte (he personalized every lyric he sang and oh! what effusive joy and humor!)

Peter, Paul & Mary and Simon & Garfunkel (I learned how to harmonize from them and sing what I believe in)

Ella Fitzgerald (demonstrated time and again how important it is to find the tenderness and joy in the songs we sing)

Sarah Vaughan (knew all the possible ways to sing a lyric)

Carmen McRae (understood that irony and bitterness have a place in music)

Oscar Brown, Jr. (no fear. ever.)

Did you study vocal technique? Do you play an instrument?

I have had no formal training in vocal technique. When I first started singing, other musicians would tell me to listen to and mimic other singers (which I attempted, but failed miserably). It didn’t take much time for me to realize I already had my own style, my own voice. I just needed to cultivate that and listen to it. Nowadays, it’s rare for me to listen to other singers, perhaps one singer every two or three months. But of those I do listen to, none of them are jazz vocalists. I listen to singers such as Aretha Franklin, Phoebe Snow, Tuck and Patti, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Griffin, Sting, Mary Gauthier and Bobby McFerrin. There is a difference between “being a singer” and simply singing. To my way of thinking, all of the aforementioned seem to sing who they are. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s a sense of honesty or vulnerability in their singing that I find compelling. Not that they are the only ones who sing that way, but these are the singers I listen to over and over when I want to be inspired. On the other hand, listening to horn players is an education in itself. They play the melody line, yes, but their phrasing and improvisations, unencumbered by lyrics and the necessary emphasis on syllables, demonstrate another method of approaching a song vocally.

Also experimenting with the emotional qualities of the voice has probably been the biggest factor in developing my “technique” (if you wanna call it that). The voice is an amazing thing; it can whisper, shout, stutter, cry out in agony, moan with pleasure, scream, hum, wail, ululate, yodel, sing in half-tones, monotones and undertones or simply speak the word. We can express every single emotion with the voice and with our lips, tongue, teeth and breath, add percussion to it all! We can extend a note, break it off halfway through, or just b-a-r-e-l-y light upon it…before taking flight in a completely different direction. As singers we have the ultimate instrument when you combine all of the foregoing with the myriad of facial expressions and physical gestures available to us to communicate subtle and nuanced emotions! When we recognize the power we have as singers, it is incumbent upon us to make use of the full spectrum of our instrument. Not that we need to use every aspect in every song every time, but we can at least be aware of the potential within each song to tap into the vocal expression of some aspect of the human condition. Listening to a singer who is oblivious to that is one of the most frustrating and irritating things i can think of. LOL!

I had about two years of piano lessons when I was a kid, so I play the piano and use it to compose. On rare occasions I accompany myself on a ballad, but that’s it. I can’t play anything fast on the piano and sing at the same time, nor can I play jazz. Most of the songs I’ve composed, I cannot play to save my soul.

When were you turned on to Jazz music and at what point did you start to improvise?

I was seventeen years old before I even became aware of jazz. A big fan of Diana Ross and Billy D. Williams at the time, I learned they were going to star in a movie: Lady Sings the Blues. I had never heard of Billie Holiday, but that movie was a turning point in my musical interest. I was spellbound by, not only Diana’s acting chops, but the story as well. And the music – heavens to murgatroid! I left that theatre and headed straight for the music store to buy, not the soundtrack, but the sheet music. I found a book there containing all the songs from the movie; I went straight home and began learning to play and sing the songs. I was hooked; couldn’t get enough. I still don’t think I knew then what I was listening to was jazz. Remember when I said I used to sing in an R&B band? Well, I tried to incorporate some of the things I was hearing into the songs I sang with the band, but you can ’bout imagine what that sounded like. For a while, they allowed me to do some solo jazz ballads with just me and the pianist (my future husband), but that didn’t last long because we were a group, y’know? That was probably the beginning of my efforts to improvise.

After we married, my then-husband and I left the band and stopped playing in public altogether because we had become Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was 18, he was 19. Between the two of us, we owned several instruments and we continued composing and playing at home. We were married for 24 years, during which time I gave piano lessons and sang at various functions for Jehovah’s Witnesses only. I also discovered Ella, Sarah and Cleo Laine. I had one album of each of them and listened to them constantly throughout those 24 years. My sons were raised on those songs, as well as Aaron Copland, Harry Belafonte, Peter Paul and Mary, and Maurice Ravel.

How long have you been composing and what is your process? Do you write your story first, then add melody and chords?

I remember making up this song called “Rebop-Seebop” and teaching it to my brother Sam who is two years younger than me. We must’ve been around seven and five years old at the time. It went like this:

Rebop-Seebop! de-dooty dooty dooty dooty

Rebop-Seebop! de- dooty dooty doop!

I was walking down the street one day and I saw

Rebop-Seebop and Mr. Millionoopus!

We never got any further than that because after singing the name of Mr. Millionoopus we would collapse into paroxysms of laughter. Oh, and we only sang this song when we were hanging upside down by our knees from the limbs of the dogwood tree in our yard.

Besides that, the first song I ever composed and sang in front of people was while I was in that R&B band. I was fifteen and I’d written a sad song about how my boyfriend (the pianist) had broken my heart. It was sweet revenge to be able to sing it publicly, knowing he had to play it and listen to me sing it! After we married, I wrote songs for our two boys; lullabies and other little ditties to help them remember some Bible lesson or character or principle. Also, during the time I was a “Witness,” I was mostly a stay-at-home mom. My husband worked two and sometimes three jobs to provide for our family. Because of that, he was gone a lot and I missed him terribly, so I wrote a song for him called “Hurry Sundown.” The whole time we were married, I was too shy to ever play or sing this for him. It was only after our divorce that it was finally recorded on my first CD with Maxjazz, How Can I Keep From Singing. I sent him a copy of the CD with a note of explanation, but I have no idea whether he ever listened to it or not.

During this time, I also wrote a song for my siblings called “Many Years Ago” (about growing up in our hometown of Warrenton, Virginia) and a song about my Mom entitled “Ode to a Flower.” Both of those are on my last project with Maxjazz Serene Renegade.

As for my process, it comes in all kinds of ways. Sometimes a melody is incessantly in my head. Wait a minute, what am I saying? There’s always music playing in my head, constantly. It’s never ending! But when a certain melody line or groove or bass line becomes insistent, I know to pay extra attention to it and record it or write it down before I forget it. Other times, it’s like a bolt out of the blue that hits me all at once – lyrics, rhythm, bass line, melody, and I struggle to get everything down at one time. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written a song with a story in mind. They just come to me and I accept them all. There are little phrases, partially finished stuff-lyrical and musical ones-that I’ve written down over the years and hung on to them faithfully until I found a use for them. A bunch of them are crammed into my close-to-bursting file cabinet, still waiting for a home. Trusting in the truths of my songs, I don’t rush the process. When I’m trying to force a song, feeling all anxious and stuff, the creativity goes back into its hidey-hole and doesn’t come back out until it’s good and ready! It’s like trying to induce birth prematurely.

What advice would you give to young singers interested in having a career in jazz singing today?

Advice! oooh, girl….! Although I am passionate about my own approach to music and feel comfortable recommending my process to others, I’m leery about giving advice because there are just too many variations on the theme. I’ve gotten to be pretty good at finding my own way, but I am no good at following others’ advice.

Here is my offering, nevertheless: learn to become your own advocate, teacher, coach, promoter, manager. If you already have people in your life filling these roles, that’s great! But do yourself a favor and learn to at least think, speak and carry yourself as though you were filling all those roles yourself.

I didn’t start singing professionally until my mid-40’s and I’m so glad it worked out that way because if I’d started any younger, I would have been too easily influenced by testosterone, too willing to acquiesce, please and accommodate. I didn’t develop a strong sense of boundaries until I was well into my forties. Patriarchy is alive and well in the musical community in general and jazz in particular. Someone with no sense of self can get bulldozed into doing a lot of things they’d rather not do. Since the majority of jazz vocalists are female and there is a dearth of good programs in conservatories and universities for singers (and even in the better-known music schools, programs for singers are taught by instrumentalists, not singers), it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots.

In view of the foregoing, I learned to become my own advocate and teacher, my cheering squad, vocal coach and proponent. See, something happens to us when we turn forty; we stop caring about what people think of us. It doesn’t matter to us as much whether we are likable or not. I have to agree with what Bill Cosby said when he was asked what the secret of success was. His answer? “I don’t know what the secret to success is. But I do know the secret to failure: trying to please everybody.” Very wise words.

To avoid trying to please everybody, I had to learn to trust my vocal instincts, to trust in my empirical experience: 1) as a singer, 2) in my own voice and 3) what my voice could do in the context of my own life story and how those stories could be told in my own voice and inform songs I choose to sing. My experience was just as valid, if not more so, as what anyone else could tell me about my voice. They didn’t know my story, I did. I can’t sing someone else’s story; I have to sing my own. I am the only one who knows that story inside and out. How can a complete stranger know better than me how to vocalize that? The solution was to be unafraid to dig deep and bring up everything and see it all as beautiful, relevant and indispensable: truth, lies, fear, anger, longing, pride, hatred, envy, love, cowardice, etc. I trust that my voice will tell me what and how to sing. I just need to set it free and play with it, experiment with it, listen to it. It’s cool to get some helpful hints here and there, every now and then. But I find that I always come back to trusting in the inherent knowledge my voice has always possessed.

If you were designing a college program for singers, what would it look like?

Ok, let me just say right off the bat that the phrase “college program for singers” strikes me as an oxymoron. Singing is so organic for me; I approach it the same way i do lovemaking. I wouldn’t take a college course for either one of those activities because, in both cases, it’s a process that begins internally and wends its way through me until it has an external release. LOL! I mean, we’re all grown folks here, right?

Now, having said that

I actually designed what I termed a vocal therapy workshop entitled “Sing Like a Murderer.” Over a period of three days, we touched on some of the psychological roadblocks that prevent us from singing in our full, authentic voice. We discussed body image and dealt with self-criticism and the criticism of others. We figured out how to identify the story behind a song and make even the most insipid tunes sound new every time. Next, we mulled over the competitive angle that’s often promoted among singers and talked about the value of silence within a song. Then, we analyzed whether someone should pay to come hear us sing (and why), plus figured out how to bring the “kitchen” to the stage. We discussed how to turn our “flaws” into musical bliss and considered how to be a band leader and avoid the interpersonal pitfalls typically associated with singers.

These topics were developed based on the most frequently asked questions I’d get during workshops or master classes. As singers, we occupy a unique place on stage resulting in commonly shared experiences. We need to support one another as singers by discussing those challenges and solutions with each other.

For those who want to sing professionally, I’d try to come up with a program that addressed all of those topics above, and then some. The program would be designed in such a way that, in order to complete the course, singers would be required to rack up a specified number of hours singing before a paying audience and supporting other musicians at their gigs. They would be required to sing at jam sessions, learn how to audition a musician, compose and rehearse a song with a band of real live musicians. That, in my humble opinion, is the only way to learn. You can pay someone else to stand in front of you and talk about singing all day long. But the question is: does that individual have personal experience of actually singing in public before a paying audience or is that person speaking and teaching theoretically? There is a world of difference.

Singing in front of your fellow classmates and teachers is one thing. But unless you have negotiated a contract with the manager or promoter, stood in front of a paying audience, turned to musicians you’ve rehearsed with, counted off those tunes and sung every one of them from beginning to end without stopping, you have only been introduced to the idea of singing. No amount of courses will change that fact until you actually get up on the stage and sing. Fostering cooperation between the college, the professors in the music department, the radio station and local venues to have nights especially for jam sessions and/or new singers could beef up the program considerably.

Do you have any favorite books you would like to recommend? Please feel free to add any thoughts that I did not cover.

I find autobiographies by any creative person to be invaluable. Reading about the challenges they’ve encountered and how they worked through them is especially enlightening. I’ve often thought there should be a CPA (Creative People Anonymous) group with its own 12-step program! Choosing autobiographies of those who are in the same creative genre I am works best for me, although autobiographies by painters and writers appeal to me as well. Of books in general to recommend, the first one that springs to mind is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a simply written parable about finding our own way and the obstacles typically encountered along that path. I supremely enjoyed Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson, a book that spoke to the deepest parts of my creative psyche. My most dog-eared, highlighted, notated and dearly beloved book is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. Though first published in 1938 ostensibly about writing, I find the principles and viewpoints Ms. Ueland espouses about creativity to be invaluable (take care not to purchase the version edited in 2010 – it’s been dumbed down). She fearlessly champions the cause of individualism and marching to one’s own beat. As I read it, whenever she used the word “write,” I replaced it with “sing” and everything became crystal clear. Brenda Ueland is a renegade; my copy of this book has sections highlighted and underlined, along with my added notations on nearly every page. If i could only take one book with me for the rest of my life, it would be this one.

Originally Published