Her newest release, "Serene Renegade," may be her most uncompromising, yet. Marie takes listeners on a journey of her life with nine original songs about herself and her family. She also includes the Beatles’ "Hard Day’s Night" and the standard "Lover Man Oh Where Can You Be" on the album.
Some of the songs are joyful, others heartbreaking. Marie simply calls her music "the truth."
The CD is her fourth for MAXJAZZ. Marie launched her career after leaving her husband, who gave her an ultimatum to either quit singing or to leave the house. Her earlier releases have earned glowing reviews for Marie’s strong vocals and innovative material.
She attracted much notice for her powerful rendition of "Strange Fruit," which was paired with the unlikely "Dixie." This combination was featured on her 2001 release "Vertigo." On her 2003 album, "Live at Jazz Standard," she delivered a soaring a cappella version of Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero" to open Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne."
On her newest effort, Marie again stirs emotions. The original "Wishes" begins with Marie singing softly about sitting in a café, thinking about dreams that haven’t come true. The singer’s loneliness builds until she growls the line, "If wishes were lovers, I’d have 10,000 at my side."
On "Many Years Ago," Marie lovingly sings about her hometown, vividly recreating the people and experiences of Warrenton, VA. Her breezy, unhurried vocals perfectly match the conversational tone of the song.
JazzReview.com recently asked Marie about these songs and the making of "Serene Renegade."
JazzReview.com: Where does the title of your new CD come from?
Rene Marie: "I think it’s a description of myself. I’ve often been told that I seem so very calm and serene on the outside. On the inside, I really do like to play devil’s advocate and sometimes a rabble-rouser. I bring up things that I’m passionate about. I’m a renegade. I take after my Dad in that way. My siblings and me do. That’s the way we are."
JazzReview.com: It’s a striking title.
Rene Marie: "You know, there’s also the fact that the majority of the songs are original tunes. They can’t really honestly be classified as jazz. The majority of them cannot. I’m not trying to pass them off as jazz. It’s music, and it’s my truth."
JazzReview.com: This is your fourth MAXJAZZ release. How have you changed as an artist from the first CD?
Rene Marie: "Night and day. The first CD, I had just left my marriage. I had been married 24 years. I left my religion. I was intimidated by everybody and everything. When I listen to that first CD, it shows that I felt intimidated. "
JazzReview.com: How have you changed when it comes to singing?
Rene Marie: "I’m not afraid to be wrong or to come out and look someone in the audience dead in the eye and sing about something that is uncomfortable or unpleasant. I’m not trying to look pretty or sound pretty anymore. I’m trying to touch people emotionally. To do that, I have to reveal my own."
JazzReview.com:You wrote nine out of the 11 songs on the new CD. In the past, you would include three or four originals. How have you evolved as a songwriter?
Rene Marie: "I’ve just stopped trying to hold stuff in. I’ve stopped trying to censor myself first of all and said, ‘Hell, I’m going to write about it. I can’t be the only one feeling this way or thinking like this.’ I want to appeal to people who have those thoughts or feelings. Before, I would worry that there was too much that or not enough this. Now, I just write it. And, we play it live, and if the audience likes it, I think maybe we should record it."
JazzReview.com: Is it a growing confidence that made you decide to make the majority of songs on this album originals?
Rene Marie: "Yeah. I had enough to do all originals, but the record label didn’t want me to put all originals on there. They wanted me to put on there ‘Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Lover Man.’"
JazzReview.com: Songwriter Nanci Griffith has said that she is primarily a fiction writer, but her songs seem to have grown more autobiographical over time. How much of your songs are fiction and how much is autobiographical?
Rene Marie: "None of it is fiction. Whatever you write about, it’s somebody’s truth. It may not all be mine, but none of it is fiction. It’s all true. When people ask me what kind of music do you sing, I tell them, ‘It’s not all jazz.’ They ask, ‘Well, what is it? What is it?’ My answer is, ‘It’s the truth.’"
JazzReview.com: One of the songs on the CD is even called "Autobiography."
Rene Marie: "‘Autobiography’ is written for all the people who have ever felt like they don’t fit in and who try to fit and who realize they are never going to fit in. It was born from that, and it’s also about this epiphany I had about singing, about trying to stop appealing to critics and people who write about me. Instead, just sing my songs based on the experiences I’ve had in my life I’m not going to try to scat like this person or have a vibrato like that. Listening to birds taught me that. We never criticize them and say, ‘This one is singing flat’ or ‘This one is not in key.’ You know what I mean? We listen to birds and appreciate them."
JazzReview.com: There’s a line in the song that says, "I’ll sing in curves and spirals." What did you mean by that?
Rene Marie: "A bird with a broken wing can’t fly straight. They only live their life flying in circles or figure eights. Their song is going to reflect the life that they live. You know, how singers go to a vocal coach or a voice teacher, and the teacher tells them, ‘No, don’t do this. Don’t do that." That takes out the uniqueness of that singer’s voice. They all come out of the voice factory, sounding the same. The whole idea is whatever happens to you, incorporate that in your signing. A bird with a broken wing who lives in spirals is going to sing based on how they fly."
JazzReview.com: How about the song "The South is Mine?"
Rene Marie: "‘The South is Mine’ came from the fact that when my Dad died we were going through some of his papers. We discovered this poem that he wrote called, ‘The South is Mine.’ He was born in Virginia, and he lived there his whole life instead of going north like his brothers and sisters did to try to escape Jim Crow and segregation. My Dad decided to stay in the South and fight for civil rights in his home. When we came across the poem, which was an expression of him saying, ‘This is my home. The South is my home. I’m not going to let some redneck chase me out of it,’ I put it to music, but it is bitter. I thought I’ve got my own experiences of growing up in the South and living here all my life. I’m going to write a song about how I feel, but I decided to title it the same thing, just as a nod to my father."
JazzReview.com: Were you surprised when you found the poem?
Rene Marie: "I was very surprised. We found a bunch of poems."
JazzReview.com: Did you know he wrote?
Rene Marie: "I didn’t know he wrote like that. He was a very intelligent man, very articulate. He filled the house with music, poetry. We were responsible for memorizing poetry when we were kids."
JazzReview.com: Perhaps, the most powerful song on the CD is "Wishes."
Rene Marie: "I kept hearing that music - the opening line, the melody. I was hearing that in my head. I kept playing it and playing it. Every time I would play it, I would start crying. No words, yet. Just playing that melody. Then I thought what does this song make me think of. It made me think of a lonely woman sitting in a café or in a restaurant, somebody in their 40's, 50's or 60's, who has really been through it. She has spent her life wishing for someone else to come into her life and make a change because she’s too damn scared to stand up and say, ‘I’m sick of it. I’m moving’ or "I’m leaving this guy’ or ‘I’m quitting this job.’ We’re so scared so we drink and we get into relationships that we don’t like. Things are not good for us, and we wish for something better. The song is about giving up. My mom, when I was a little girl and would wish for anything like wishing that it wasn’t raining or wising I didn’t have to go to school, would say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’ As a kid, I didn’t know what the hell that meant. As I got older, I realized that’s what a beggar would wish for a horse because they have to walk everywhere. That’s a powerful metaphor. Most of us wish and we never do. I spent my whole adult life up until five years ago doing just that. I thought no more. No more."
JazzReview.com: What did you wish for?
Rene Marie: "Wishing that I could go here. Wishing that I didn’t have to do that. Wishing I lived with someone else. Wishing I lived alone. Damn near anything because I was so wrapped up in a cloistered way of life. Then I realized even people who weren’t living like me, they’re wishing, too. It’s really about empowerment. I’m not going to wish. I’m going to do."
JazzReview.com: That song is so dramatic.
Rene Marie: "There’s a line in it where she says, ‘I wish you would touch me. I wish you would leave me alone.’ We often have opposite wishes I wanted to express the dichotomy that exists in all of us. All of those contradictions."
JazzReview.com: Let’s talk about one more song. How about "Many Years Ago?"
Rene Marie: "I wrote that when I was 30 and played it for my family all the time, reminiscing about growing up in my hometown. I really didn’t play it in public until my pianist, Takana Miyamoto, heard it and said, ‘Rene, you should record this.’ We were working on it during a sound check for a gig, and the whole sound crew stopped and was listening to the song. I turned around and the guys were standing there with wires in their hands like statutes. That’s when I decided maybe I should record it."
JazzReview.com: What’s Warrenton, Va., like?
Rene Marie: "Back then, it was just like it says in the song, it was very small. We walked everywhere. We only drove our car on Sunday. We walked to the grocery store and carried the bags back home. It’s a little town outside of Washington, D.C. It’s known for its horses. There are a lot of wealthy people living in that area. At the time, it was segregated, segregated schools, segregated theaters. The black community is very tight knit."
JazzReview.com: In the liner notes, you call your mother, the strongest woman you know. Tell us about her.
Rene Marie: "By the time that she was 30, she had five kids. My mom would take my younger brothers and me to a schoolhouse. She taught kindergarten up to eighth grade. When it was time to nurse my baby brother, she would go behind a partition. When she was through, she would come back out and start teaching again. She was an abused wife. When she left my Dad, she didn’t know how to drive. She had never lived on her own. She had never had a checking account. Yet, we moved away, she got two or three jobs. She bought a home and took driving lessons.. She’s an amazing woman. She’s very strong and very humble. I had to ask her permission to put the song ("Ode to a Flower") on the CD."
JazzReview.com: What was her reaction to the song?
Rene Marie: "Oh, man. We debuted it at the Kennedy Center. I surprised her with it. I’m telling the audience about it after I finished singing it. My mother surprised me. She stood up and she waved to the crowd. They stood up and gave her a standing ovation."
JazzReview.com: Where do you think "Serene Renegade" fits into your collection of CD?
Rene Marie: "I don’t think it’s like the others. ‘Serene Renegade’ is a statement of autonomy for me. I went through a lot when we working on some of those original tunes. I was also (performing). We would rehearse a tune during the day and debut it at night. I got negative feedback from the club owner. He told me, "Nobody came to hear your original tunes." On and on, he went. The internal strength it took to stand up to this man and to stand up for my songs, which I realize in retrospect I was really standing up for myself. After that week was over and it was sellout crowds, it meant so much to me. I proved to myself that I was doing the right thing. Putting it on the CD is like my kids were born. You know what I mean? I conceived them while I was writing them then I went into labor when I started to perform them in public, but they weren’t actually born until the CD came out It’s like showing your baby to the world. Here’s my baby."
JazzReview.com: Will you be taking the babies out on the road?
Rene Marie: "Yeah, I’m showing my babies. All nine of them."
JazzReview.com: We hear you will be doing a walk at the Grand Canyon. Tell us about that.
Rene Marie: "It’s an outgrowth of the writing. Basically, I decided to disencumber myself from being attached to relationships that want to constrain me. My walk to the Grand Canyon is my walk of claiming my independence, and it’s also to try attention to the plight of women around the world who are constrained by men or politics or powers that be."
JazzReview.com: What’s next for Rene Marie?
Rene Marie: "I don’t know. I’m going to wait and see how the babies turn out. I’m going to just wait and see I’m excited."
Pay a visit Marie's website at reneemarie.com, or the MAXJAZZ website to learn more about this outstanding artist.