PREVIEW / INTERVIEW: Rene Marie (Pizza Express 19th Aug., during GMF London Jazz Workshop & Music Festival)

Rene Marie. Photo credit: John Abbott

Grammy-nominated vocalist RENE MARIE has a new all-originals album, "Sound of Red," and is in London this month performing and teaching at the Global Music Foundation Course and Festival. New York-based vocalist Tessa Souter - who quite concidentally is a Motema label-mate - got the low-down on Marie's artistic process, on the importance of taking chances, the topics she covers in workshops (there are eighteen in total), and bringing your kitchen to the stage:

Rene Marie is nothing if not brave. She sang The Star Spangled Banner at Denver's 2008 State of the City address, substituting the original words with those of James Weldon Johnson’s so-called black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It created a political firestorm. “I cannot apologize for offending others with my music. It goes with the risky territory of being an artist,” says Marie, who acknowledges the “huge, huge” influence of Nina Simone. “She wrote about things that were going on in the world at the time. Social issues. Oh my God. The courage she had to write and sing these things in front of audiences that were not all black! I thought, ‘That is a brave woman, I want to be like her.’”

And, on that front at least, she is. Marie conducts vocal therapy workshops under the title SLAM! – an acronym for Sing Like A Motherf*cker. At 42, she made the bold decision to leave a safe bank job and become a professional singer – pushed by her eldest brother, Claude, who emailed her daily with one sentence, “jump and the net will appear,” until she finally took his advice, even though she had only “a few gigs a month” at that point. (Three days later she got a 10-week theater gig.) Her extraordinary live performances are an unafraid, roller coaster ride of equal parts joy, vulnerability, sheer musicality and sass. And her genre-defying music, which incorporates elements of world, folk, R&B, country and classical music, is that bravest thing of all – personal.

Marie is in London to take part in the Global Music Foundation London Jazz Workshop and Music Festival – billed as “a dazzling series of concerts, workshops and after-hours sessions, featuring some of the world's leading jazz artists and showcasing the next generation of stars.” The festival includes five hours of daily tuition – including supervised rehearsals, group workshops and ensemble sessions, choir, ear training, and free admission to all concerts given by members of the faculty and guest artists. Marie, who will be teaching and performing, is looking forward to it. “Being surrounded by musicians is a huge shot in the arm!” she says.

She is also promoting her latest album, Sound of Red (Motema, 2016). Released in May, it is her first outing of all-original songs, and the 11th in a string of critically-acclaimed recordings – including Grammy-nominated I Wanna Be Evil: With Love To Eartha Kitt (Motema, 2013) – that have cemented her reputation as not only a singer, but a respected composer and arranger. “I’m a big believer in singing the songs we write,” says Marie, who makes a point of discussing song-writing in her vocal workshops. “I know it’s not easy to put your own song on the set list. It was a big struggle for me. I would put it on the set list, and then I’d go right past it,” she says, laughing.

Go Home, is a case in point. “I wrote that song 15 years ago, but I was afraid to sing it the way I wrote it in front of a jazz audience, because I didn’t think they’d appreciate that style. I tried to jazz it up. I tried to turn it into a jazz tune. I tried bossa. I tried to swing it. I tried changing the melody. Changing the chords. Nothing worked except the original way I wrote it. In the end I said, ‘I don’t want to do another CD without putting this on it, so I’m just going to take a chance.’” It made the cut. Which isn’t to say that songs can’t be re-worked if that’s what’s called for. “It’s about trusting in your own creativity,” she says. “Which is what we are born to do.”

It’s a theme that comes up a lot in her workshops. “I can’t tell you the number of times singers will say, ‘My song is boring. I need new songs.’ They blame it on the song. And it’s not the fault of the song, it’s the fault of what they’re doing with the song. If it’s too slow or too fast, well that’s up to you to change that. There are so many options. You can’t just blame that poor little song,” she says. What most excites her about teaching is “the light that comes on in the singer’s face, when they understand how applying what I’ve just told them opens up a song for them!”

Marie covers 18 or so topics in her workshops, including, “Why should I pay my money to listen to you?”, “Are you comfortable with silence in a song?” and “Bringing your kitchen to the stage” – which is a technique she came up with to combat stage fright early in her career. After an embarrassing performance (“The set was awful. I hyperventilated, my voice shook, my throat was dry.”) she asked herself, “What story was I telling myself about singing in the square footage of that club as opposed to the square footage of my kitchen? That’s when I knew I had to figure out a way to bring my ‘kitchen’ on the stage with me – basically, learning to sing as relaxed onstage as I do at home. Instead of a carrot in my hand, it was now a microphone on a stage. Instead of singing to the empty chairs at the table, there were now real people in an audience – people who had paid their hard-earned dollars to come hear me sing! I didn’t have to sound like anyone else. I could just keep doing what I’d been doing all along – singing for the pure joy of it.”

In that she is like her musical heroes, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba and Peter, Paul and Mary, who were early inspirations. “All those people, they sang with such honesty and joy … uncovered joy. They didn’t try to hold back or sound cool or hip. It was just unbridled happiness from singing. And this made me realize, Oh you do that, you bring out your joy and happiness. You let it overtake you and cover you and cover all the notes with whatever you are feeling.”

It’s exhilarating to witness that kind of joy live. Like Dame Cleo Laine’s, Marie’s chops are always in the service of the music, as opposed to merely showing off. Whether anyone can be taught to sing like a motherf*cker remains to be seen. But for a visceral demonstration, I highly recommend you run, don’t walk, to see Rene Marie at Pizza Express Dean Street. (pp)

LINKS: Programme for the GMF Festival 
Bookings for Rene Marie's 19th August London gig
Rene Marie's website 

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