"Vertigo," her second MAXJAZZ release, was named to numerous "best of 2001" lists last year, and Marie earned her second consecutive Association for Independent Music award for best jazz and cabaret vocals. The CD follows the success of her first MAXJAZZ release, "How Can I Keep From Singing?" The label debut rose to No. 1 on the Gavin jazz charts.
In just a short time, Marie has emerged as one of the brightest stars on the jazz scene. She recently spoke to JazzReview.com about the emotional reactions to her "Dixie/Strange Fruit" medley, what she learned listening to Ella and what’s coming up next.
JazzReview.com: Let’s begin by talking about your latest CD, "Vertigo." You recorded it in February 2001. Take us into the recording session. What happened?
Rene Marie: "One thing that sticks out in my mind is when we were going over the arrangement for ‘Dixie’ and ‘Strange Fruit.’ I said, ‘Let’s do Dixie.’ That’s what I was calling it, like shorthand. One of the musicians looked at me and said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘This is the arrangement I have on Dixie and Strange Fruit.’ He put his instrument down and said, ‘I’m not playing Dixie.’ I had forgotten that this was the first time they were doing it. I tried to explain how it went. He said, ‘Sing it.’ I did. He then picked up his instrument and said, ‘OK.’ It was interesting to see it through the eyes of the musicians who were dealing with it for the first time. He was probably voicing what everyone else was thinking. Once we recorded it, it was a beautiful thing."
JazzReview.com: Did you approach "Vertigo" differently than the first MAXJAZZ CD?
Rene Marie: "You know, I did. I gotta tell you. The first MAXJAZZ CD was so new to me. I had never been in a studio with name musicians. I never had a producer. I had never been on a label. Everything was new to me. I distinctly remember being so intimidated that at one point I was in the vocal booth in like a fetal position, hunched down in the corner of the booth. I was overwhelmed by everything."
JazzReview.com: What did you do differently this time?
Rene Marie: "This time, I spoke up more. Not that anybody was brow beating me on the first one, but I was a little timid. So, I spoke out more. I made myself say what I was thinking. It was fine. There’s more of my personality in it."
JazzReview.com: The "Dixie/Strange Fruit" medley is very powerful. Where did you get the idea to pair these unlikely songs?
Rene Marie: "I’m from Virginia. I have thought ever since I was a kid that the words to ‘Dixie’ were innocent. There’s no reference in the lyrics to slavery. It’s someone longing for the South. I’ve thought, ‘Why is it that white people sing it and black people don’t because it’s a beautiful song, especially when you slow it down?’ I remember singing it for my son even before I starting singing professionally. He was learning to drive. I was in the passenger seat. We were at a stoplight. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could sing Dixie like this?’ and I started singing it to him. He said, ‘But, Mom that’s Dixie.’
A couple of years later when I started singing, I wanted to do this version of ‘Strange Fruit.’ I was doing it alone. Then the idea of doing ‘Dixie’ came back to me, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. One day, I don’t know what made think of it, I thought, ‘What if I put Dixie and Strange Fruit together? Maybe Dixie wouldn’t be offensive, and Strange Fruit would have a whole new twist.’
I went to some friends of mine, all African-American, and asked them how they would feel if they heard ‘Dixie’ this way. I sang it. They said, ‘I don’t know, Rene.’ Every one of them said, ‘I don’t know.’ As much as I tried putting it behind me, it wouldn’t go away. I thought I’m just going to do it. We did it the first time in Mississippi, of all places. I had prepared myself for strong adverse reaction, but I didn’t get it. I received positive reaction."
JazzReview.com: Did you just launch into it?
Rene Marie: "I used it introduce it with this long explanation, almost apologizing ahead of time. It was like a caveat, ‘Look out now. I’m getting ready to do something. I hope you don’t get offended.’ Someone said, ‘You know, you shouldn’t do that. Don’t even introduce it. Just sing it. Let people go through the entire emotions that they are going to feel with Dixie and then bring them back with Strange Fruit.’ I think that does work better.
There are certain reactions that I get. You start singing ‘Dixie,’ and sometimes you hear a chuckle like, ‘Is she serious? This has got to be a joke.’ Then as I go on, they realize, ‘Oh my God, she’s really going to sing this song.’ The black people in the audience, almost every time, sit back in their chairs and fold their arms and get a look on their face like, ‘I cannot believe she is singing Dixie.’ It is so quiet in the room. Then when I go into ‘Strange Fruit,’ the posture changes. They lean forward and go, ‘Ohhh.’ I’ve had strong responses after the song during the break or after the show. One man said, ‘That’s the first time that I heard ‘Dixie’ where I didn’t feel like shooting somebody.’ Another told me about the first time his grandfather took him to a lynching. He’s a white man in his mid-50s. He said he was a little boy when that happened. He told me how that song brought back memories, and he’s crying."
JazzReview.com: Audience members, both black and white, are sharing their experiences with racism.
Rene Marie: "Yes. I never expected that. There is one funny story. We were in Panama City, Fla. It’s still the deep South. It’s the northern most part of Florida. This was at a church. I had my eyes closed, and I was singing a cappella. ‘Ohhhh, I wish I was ’ Then this deep bass voice comes in, ‘In the land of cotton.’ My eyes popped open. It was a white man. It was an all white audience. He sang a couple of more lines. I think someone must have jabbed him the side because he stopped. But, I loved it. He was in the spirit of it. It was fine. It dredged up all kinds of emotions."
JazzReview.com: What statement were you making with those songs?
Rene Marie: "You know, as a person of color living in the South, there are certain phrases, certain images and certain sounds that can evoke strong negative reactions from African-Americans. There’s the Confederate flag. That’s an image that’s quick to bring anger to the majority of black people. There’s the word ‘nigger’ and the song ‘Dixie.’ Of the three, I think the one that the most inexplicable is ‘Dixie’ because the song itself, the lyrics, is not objectionable. I thought, ‘What if you sang it in such a way that it made a person think twice?’"
JazzReview.com: You also wrote three original songs, including the title track. Tell us about "Vertigo."
Rene Marie: "’Vertigo’ is the first tune that I’ve written where I felt there was more testosterone coming out of me than anything else because it’s very aggressive. The rhythm is aggressive, and the instrumentation is aggressive. I like all of that. I don’t think you can consider it a feminine tune. At the time that I wrote it, I was falling in love so hard, and the lyrics reflect that. I saw the movie ‘Vertigo’ during the time that I was writing the lyrics. I thought this would be a good thing to name it because that’s how I was feeling emotionally off balance.
You know, the recording of this is the first and only take we did. It was killer. The guys were just on. When we finished it, there was this silence. Everybody had this one thought. All the doors to the recording booth open, and we went into the engineering room so we could hear them play it. Everybody wanted to hear it."
JazzReview.com: Then there’s the song, "I’d Rather Talk About You."
Rene Marie: "I wanted to write blues for the new millennium and include lyrics that were contemporary with references to the stock market and writing a letter to the editor. I actually called Rich McDonnell, the president of MAXJAZZ, and asked him to help me with the line about the stock market. I’ll never forget calling him on his cell phone in the airport. He always carries the ‘Wall Street Journal.’ I asked him to look in it and give me some phrases that pertain to the stock market, so he did. He gave me the thing about IPOs and interest rates. Whenever he’s in the audience, I tell that story."
JazzReview.com: What about "Don’t Look at Me Like That?" That’s your third composition on the CD.
Rene Marie: "The lyrics were almost verbatim of a conversation I had with a man that I was falling in love with at the time. The one thing that I did was make it so the lines would rhyme. But, it was what was said."
JazzReview.com: "Vertigo" is your second release on the label. "How Can I Keep From Singing?" was your first. What was the biggest challenge making that first CD?
Rene Marie: "My life was in such turmoil. I cannot begin I think the biggest challenge was all the personal things that I was going through. My son was going through a difficult time. I was just getting over the ramifications of a divorce. I had changed my name. I had left my religion that I had belonged to for 20 years There was so much."
JazzReview.com: The album then went to No. 1 on the Gavin jazz charts.
Rene Marie: "It did. I didn’t even know what a Gavin jazz chart was."
JazzReview.com: We have to ask about the title track, "How Can I Keep From Singing?" That song just explodes out of the speakers. What does that song mean to you?
Rene Marie: "I only have so much time, right? I heard that song by Enya. I heard it on public radio one night and thought, ‘Oh, my God. This song means so much to me. I have to sing it."
JazzReview.com: It’s not just about singing the right notes. You really capture the spirit of that song. Did you work endlessly on the arrangement or was it spontaneous?
Rene Marie: "Well, I didn’t want to do it like Enya. Although, it’s beautiful the way she does it. It’s perfect for her voice. For me, it was more like an anthem. There was so much joy I felt. The lyrics are almost autobiographical for me. I have to sing it, and it’s accompanied by all that percussion and the guitar. It just makes me want to dance."
JazzReview.com: You made the recording when you were 44. Could you have made the same album when you were 24?
Rene Marie: "No. No. At 24, my kids were preschoolers."
JazzReview.com: You put your career on hold to raise your kids, right?
Rene Marie: "I actually stopped. It wasn’t that it was on hold and I was intending to go back. I stopped. I wasn’t planning on going back. My son talked me into it."
JazzReview.com: The story goes that you would put your children to sleep and then put on an Ella Fitzgerald or a Sarah Vaughan album and sang to it at night. That was your way of practicing.
Rene Marie: "Sometimes it was like that it. Sometimes it was while they were at school. It was when I was home alone."
JazzReview.com: What did you learn by doing that?
Rene Marie: "That I would never sound like them. That’s what I learned the other was how to breathe. I thought, ‘How can Ella scat like that? Is she breathing?’ But, I would listen closely. Oh, she’s taking a breath there, right there."
JazzReview.com: How did you go from singing along to the records to developing your own style?
Rene Marie: "I stopped listening to the records. I had to. As long as I listened to other vocalists, I tended to hear their voice instead of my own. What’s the point of doing that? Might as well as listen to the person I’m trying to sound like. Why should I sound like them and their life and their voice? I realized I had a life, my own experiences and something to say."
JazzReview.com: When did you discover jazz?
Rene Marie: "I went to see ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ I had never heard of Billie Holiday. The only reason I went was because Diana Ross was playing that role. Everybody loved Diana Ross and the Supremes. I went to see this movie, and I was just entranced by the story and the music. I went out after the movie to a music store and bought the Billie Holiday songbook and learned how to play several of the tunes. I later learned about Ella."
JazzReview.com:You’ve mentioned Ella a few times. What can you say about Ella?
Rene Marie: "To this day when I hear her, I just break out into the biggest grin. Have you ever heard her try to sing the blues? She cannot do it. There’s just too much joy in her voice. She has a lot of joy."
JazzReview.com: What albums would you like to have with you on a deserted island?
Rene Marie: "I think I would take Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew.’ Anything by Weather Report, maybe a Harry Belafonte."
JazzReview.com: You have quite a few dates coming up so you’ll be on the road this summer.
Rene Marie: "Yes, and I just got back from Russia last week. It went really well. Russia is a fantastic country. The people are so different, but their love for jazz is outstanding."
JazzReview.com: When you’re on the road and have a free day, where would JazzReview find you?
Rene Marie: "I love to just get out into the city, hanging out downtown, going to the zoo. I know that sounds corny. You go to the zoo? But, I like going to botanical gardens and seeing nature."
JazzReview.com: What’s next for you? Plans for a new CD?
Rene Marie: "I’m writing so much and trying to decide how much of my original tunes to use. I don’t think I have the nerve to put all original tunes on it. I’m trying to decide which ones are the best."