Delving Into the Marrow of a Song With Singular Jazz Singer and Songwriter René Marie
René Marie, like Gregory Porter, writes songs and creates records that have the soul and story-telling impulse to reach beyond jazz audiences.
As an artist you need to tell your truth but also find stories that are going to reach inside your audience and touch their experiences, too.
Have you had the experience where an audience was alienated or upset or disappointed?
Years ago, around 2002, I had a gig at a jazz club for six nights, and we were working on original material. After the first set, I was signing CDs, and the owner came up and said “Your music is turning my stomach. I can’t stand these original songs. Who do you think you are, singing your own songs? Look at all these pictures on the wall,” and he pointed to photos of people who had played there -- Diana Krall, Diane Reeves, Sarah and Ella -- “How do you think those woman got to where they are? By doing their own music? No.” And he said, “And you move around too much! You’re an embarrassment to jazz. You need to stand still and sing the standards that are supposed to be sung.” He said this out loud in front of the audience.
I was glad he said that. He was saying, "Are you going to write your own songs or not?” By putting up that opposition to it, he dared me to realize that was exactly what I was going to do. So for the rest of the week, that was what we continued to do: my original songs, plus some standards. But I ended up writing a song about this incident. And I was invited back to this club and we did that song and recorded that song.
There was honesty on both sides. Lots of club owners would have just talked about me behind my back and then never hired me again. So I was really grateful. Not immediately, but ...
You have experience in theater as well as singing. It’s interesting that your last project paid tribute to Eartha Kitt, that most theatrical of jazz singers, if she was jazz at all. In what way is theater essential to your musical art?
I remember that before I did this play you are referring to, people would come up and use that very word, “theatrical”, For me, it’s that the song just takes over me. I’m not trying to be theatrical, but I become whoever the song is about. I feel it so strongly internally, it’s not a put-on. I become that inside.
I’ve never been able to describe this well. But in doing my one-woman show it’s never felt like I was “acting”, either. I was just conveying the thoughts and emotions of someone I know, even though I don’t know anyone like the character I play. So it felt authentic.
At the end of the play, we would do “talk back” -- because the play is about incest, a very serious and intense subject. I found it impossible to do the “talk back” as René -- I had to do it in character, because all this happened to the character, not me.
All of it is just real life to me, not just my own but what I see others going through.
How did you come to be an artist who only started in middle age? That seems rare these days. I know you were a musician as a teenager, but then you didn’t become serious about your art for another 20 years. How did that come about? It can’t be easy to bottle up that impulse to be a storyteller for a couple of decades!
I didn’t bottle up my storytelling impulse. I just redirected the impulse, I changed the course of it. I got married at 18, and a year later my first son was born. He was my first audience. I just loved singing for that boy, and he loved it. It was that son who, 20 years later, told me that I had to start singing again.
It just came naturally: I’m writing songs, singing songs, my son was on my lap at he piano. It was all good. I never felt like I was missing anything. I wrote love songs to my husband and songs about my kids. The song “Many Years Ago” on the new recording was written many years ago before I started singing as an adult again. I never felt deprived. The only thing that felt different when I started singing professionally again was that I was singing jazz, and I had never done that before.
I was singing R&B when I was a teenager, not jazz. I was trying to sing like Aretha! I played the piano, so I could play some Roberta Flack stuff, and I didn’t think of Nina as a jazz singer. As I grew older I started buying some jazz cassette tapes. I had some Sarah Vaughan, some Ella Fitzgerald and Cleo Lane. Those were the three that I mainly listened to. I was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t go overboard buying music.
It was just coincidental that I started singing jazz. My son heard this woman singing and called and said “This woman is singing all the songs you sing at home, Mom, and she’s terrible!” I gave it a listen and thought, well, she’s getting paid for this. My son said, “Do it, Mom, you can do it, you can get paid for that!” We had a friend who had a quintet, and I called and asked if I could sing with them, and he said sure. If it had been country and western, maybe it would have been that.
You hear all the time that jazz is such a subtle and refined art form that picking it up without being deeply steeped in it shouldn't be that easy. Talk about that. You sound about as comfortable as a jazz singer can sound right now.
Nobody ever told me that jazz was supposed to be hard. When you think about how jazz originated, I don’t think that was the line of thought back then. It wasn’t supposed to be just for a few people.
But let’s not sell short what you’re doing. Even on “The Colorado River Song”, where you're whistling, you're whistling around chord changes. You have lots of modulations in your songs were you shift into another key, and there are scat sections where you become one with the band. It’s not just simple stuff. You’re not just singing blues, you're singing instinctual stuff.
That’s right. But I had lots of other music than just jazz. There’s that risk you have to take. You have to experiment. Sometimes it’s, oh boy, I don’t do that again. Other times it’s, hey that wasn’t so bad. I wonder what would happen if I tried it again but changed it a bit.
Let me ask you a bit about where you see yourself fitting into the jazz singing firmament these days. There are still lots of singers who sound like Sarah or Ella. They’re great ,but they're recreating art that was pioneered in the '40s and '50s. There are more “contemporary” jazz singers who sound more in the mold of, say, Joni Mitchell. You kind of glide across that divide. Can you talk about that?
It isn’t easy not to be put in a bucket. But it comes easily for me to skate across these categories, but it isn’t easy with managers, record companies and all that. They want you in a bucket because it’s easy for them. But because I started when I was in my 40s and already had a life, I never felt that I would just die if I didn’t sing professionally. Because I can sing anywhere.
I don’t get any more joy singing on stage than in somebody’s living room. It’s all joyful for me. So, I don’t cave in when I get pressure to “do it this way”, “put these songs on the record". The answer is NO, I’m sorry. And if you try to force to do it, I’m just going to do something else. I don’t have to do this -- I can do other stuff.
You are not based in New York. You live now in Virginia and you lived and worked in Denver earlier during your professional music career, yet your profile is quite high as a serious jazz musician. That's unusual for someone who has recorded with very serious, top-flight bands. How hard is it not to come to New York if you want to be a full time jazz musician? Are there advantages?
I have to tell you, when I first started recording, I didn’t know who any of those top jazz musicians were. The record label asked me who I wanted to play on my CD. I said, I don’t know! Just gradually ... I have been singing 20 years now, and over time I’ve gotten to know different musicians.
I don’t think I could compose the way I do if I lived in New York or a big city. I know I’m a small town girl. I lived in Atlanta for a few years but it was too big for me. I couldn't feel at home there. Denver was just right for me for six years. I moved back to Virginia just to be close to my mom, and its a good thing we’re here because she just had a stroke.
I love New York. but I can’t take the hustle and bustle. I do love it when get that feeling of community in New York. I feel I’m missing out by not living here. I come back to Fredericksburg where there's no jazz at all, no scene ... you can’t have it all.
“Making it” as a creative artist has never been easy, and it’s not getting any easier. You seem to have a sense of owning your own creativity in various ways, and you have diversified as a creative entrepreneur -- doing theater, working as a teacher, a touring musician, a recording artist. Talk about making ends meet in an era when selling records has stopped having economic meaning.
This is going to sound stupid, but I don’t think about the money except in the following terms. I’m singing in a certain “tier” as defined by the music business, and I ask myself how I get to next tier. For me that means getting a good booking agent and manager. To do that, I have to have great recordings.
How do I do that? I have to do what really resonates with me and stay with my musical truth. I can’t be someone else, sound like someone else, try to dress like someone else. I can’t do that. When I do that, I’m unhappy and music doesn’t flow. I have to follow this inner guide that I have. When I get too far away from it, it never works.
So that’s how I get to the next tier: I just keep doing my shit and stay away from other people’s shit. Like that line from Field of Dreams, “If you sing it, they will come."
If I try to approach it from a business standpoint, all my joy is gone. If the joy is missing, it all goes wrong. I don’t think about dollar signs, I think about my joy and my truth. They have to be connected.
Does that sound stupid?
Actually, it sounds wise. But it also sounds like you could potentially get burned.
[Laughter] It sounds potentially disastrous!
Well, something's going right for you. You had a recent Grammy nomination. You’re getting gigs. The karma is good.
Well, I trust in it, in this path that I’m on. I trust that if the time comes for me to go on another path, I’ll see that as clearly as when I decided to start singing. When I quit my day job, it was so obvious that singing was the path for me -- no one could have convinced me otherwise. Three days after I quit I got this call from a theater offering me a ten-week gig.
Today my son is 40 and he’s a singer himself. He’s amazing. He writes his own songs. I get chills listening to him. Where did he get it? He writes from the heart. He’s been in prison, he’s been in love, and all of it is in his music. He’s working on his first CD now. He wrote “Deep in the Mountains”, which I have recorded.
This seems like your most personal record. I hope this will be your Cassandra Wilson moment, where a previously obscure “jazz” singer finds a wider audience. You have some songs here -- “This is (Not) a Protest Song”, “Go Home” -- which almost play like folk songs, gospel, or singer-songwriter pop, that seems like they could appeal to a wider audience, to younger people, to people beyond the “jazz” audience. This record, for me, brings to mind the recordings of Gregory Porter: moving, catching original songs, an amazing voice, and a jazz rhythm section behind it all without necessarily playing “jazz” in the classic, “walking bass line” sense.
I am so glad that resonates. One thing the record label was worried about with this record was that the songs all sounded so different. What’s the connection, where’s the tread? I mean, it’s all about ... life and shit!