In conversation with jazz vocalist and songwriter, René Marie:
UChicago Presents: I was surprised to read that you didn’t decide to devote your life to music until you were in your early 40s! But did you always know it was what you wanted to do?
Rene Marie: Not really. I always liked to sing, but singing on a stage was not something I had set as a goal, especially after I got married. Maybe as a teenager, I just had fun doing it, but my viewpoint in high school was that I wanted to be a lawyer. But then I got married at 18, and I never did become a lawyer… I just sang at home and when friends would come over, and that was good enough for me.
My son kind of talked me into it when I was in my 40s. He convinced me that I could actually make some money doing it, so I thought, “Hey, I’m singing at home, anyway, so might as well!” So it started that way, and I think that’s when it really took hold. It just became so important to me, like I’d forgotten this language I could speak, this air that I could breathe.
UCP: So does that mean that when you were younger, you listened to a lot of jazz a lot around the house?
RM: Actually, we listened to everything except jazz—blues, country, bluegrass, classical, folk, calypso, you name it! I didn’t really know what jazz was until I was 17, when I went to see Lady Sings the Blues—and the only reason I went was because Diana Ross was in it! I’d never heard of Billie Holiday; I had no idea what kind of music I was about to hear. That’s when my ears were opened. I think the Pointer Sisters released an album back then, also, with a bunch of music from the ’40s, and I was really into the Pointer Sisters. That opened my ears a little bit more.
UCP: Eventually, you decided to quit your day job and pursue music full time—I can only imagine that was a huge decision.
RM: Again, it wasn’t my idea. I was kind of stuck: I’d already recorded my very first CD, and the CDs were on my bookshelf in my living room. My brother was telling me to jump and the net would appear. But I didn’t have enough gigs lined up to pay for my living expenses. So it was like trying to swing from one branch to the next: you let go of one branch to grab onto the other, but what about when you’re in midair? What about that part?
So I did: I quit my day job, after two weeks of [my brother] emailing me. Three days after I quit, I got a phone call from a theater in Richmond, Virginia, asking if I could come in that day and start rehearsing for Songs of the Soul, a ten-week traveling musical, because their designated vocalist had to have emergency throat surgery. Of course, they didn’t know I had quit my job, and no one else could do it, because no one else had ten weeks of nothing stretched before them except for me! And that’s how it happened: that was the net.
That gig was during the day: we would travel to schools and other venues. My evenings were open, so those ten weeks of traveling and performing during the day allowed me to find musicians, work on my music in the evening, go out and hang—because you have to “hang” in jazz, to get to know other musicians. So, for those two-and-a-half months, I was able to line up some gigs, and by the time the musical play was finished with its run, I had these venues lined up. It was just what I needed.
Of course, quitting my day job meant that I didn’t always have a regular paycheck lined up, like I would get at work; the income would be sketchy sometimes. So the same brother who told me to jump extended that net by letting me move in with him. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about being at home and paying bills on time: I could just focus on my singing. I moved in with his wife and daughter, and my other brother does carpentry work, so he fixed up the basement for me.
[Oftentimes] the performer gets a lot of credit and a lot of praise. But there’s no way I could have done this without the help of my family and friends, in so many large and small ways.
UCP: It sounds to me like you’ve given back through your music in lots of ways: you’ve raised awareness for social issues like homelessness and domestic violence. Where do you think that social justice streak comes from?
RM: Definitely my parents. They were among the generation that spent their entire childhood and part of their adulthood under Jim Crow laws in the South, and they protested those laws by integrating lunch counters. Both of them were teachers, so there was this sense of responsibility that they passed on to us—of speaking up when you see an injustice, and not just to talk about it, but to be about it.
One of the things that attracted me to jazz in the first place—at least jazz in the ’60s—was that it spoke about social issues. Nina Simone, Oscar Brown Jr., and others included it in their repertoire as singers. When I became interested in jazz, though, I was dismayed by the dearth of singers interested in those topics. You go to the store to buy cassettes and CDs, and look at the song list, and you don’t see anything related to social issues. That bothers me.
Before I signed with a label and sang professionally, I often did volunteer to do things in the community. But once you’re on the road, you’re so busy that you just can’t count on a regular schedule. So, I decided to approach it through my music. Even if I can’t actually do something, I can draw attention to it by singing about it and writing about it.
UCP: During your two decades of recording and performing, you vowed that you would never release a tribute album—that is, until you released 2014’s I Wanna Be Evil, an homage to Eartha Kitt. How has Eartha inspired you as an artist?
RM: It’s funny, I didn’t know how much Eartha inspired me until after I decided to do the tribute album. Basically, me and the folks at the label were sitting around brainstorming—what could we do that was unique? what hadn’t been done?—and I had thrown an idea for a CD called Four Women, where I would do songs by the four women who had influenced me the most. So I started naming them, and Earth Kitt was one of them. As I was naming the songs, I said, “I probably have enough of songs from Eartha Kitt alone to do an entire CD!” And as I said that, everybody in the room did this collective gasp, and said, “That’s it!”
I thought, Oh no, what have I done? Because, as you know, Eartha had this kittenish way about her, and I am not kittenish! I thought there was no way I could do that. But the more I dug into her life and the way she approached the songs, I saw that we had a lot in common: she didn’t tone down her sensuality, and as a matter of fact, she was very comfortable with it, as am I. I’m not afraid to go there and sing about certain topics. After that, I grabbed everything about Eartha I could get my hands on—listening to her songs, watching her, reading her biography—and by then, I was ready to go.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t sing them the way she did. It was really fun to figure out another way to do it, and to work with [trumpet player] Etienne Charles, because he’s such a great arranger. We just had a lot of fun figuring out what the horns would do, sometimes right there on the spot! The energy was great; everybody was excited about it.
We did ask for a blessing from Eartha’s daughter, Kitt Shapiro, and she was so sweet about it—very kind and approving. So it was good!
UCP: It’s sort of a corny question, but even though you were singing new arrangements of Eartha’s songs, did you still feel like the project brought you closer to her in some way?
RM: The thing is not trying to get close to Eartha, and how she sang or approached it. The thing is, what did Eartha tap into? Does that thing exist in me? And if so, how can I tap into that? That was the question. I trusted in that. Obviously, Eartha was tapping into something very internal, and had no qualms about bringing it out. So the question was what I had in me: What have you got, René, that you’ve been a little shy about showing? And it was in there; it came out. There was one song where my husband was there when we were recording, and I had to pull him aside and say, “Look, what I’m doing in the recording booth is probably making you scratch your head. But it’s all good; I’m thinking about you!” [Laughs]
So it’s never been about trying to imitate Eartha—only the way she freely became herself.
UCP: Your most recent album is called Sound of Red (released May 13). Tell me a little bit about that album, and what’s in a name.
RM: Everybody knows what the blues is, and no one’s really focused on the color when they’re talking about the blues, right? It’s a specific sound. The same thing is true when it comes to the Sound of Red: it focuses on not a color, but the emotional content of the song—songs specifically written to get past the outer shell that we all wear as protection and into the heart. That’s why there’s a song about homelessness, and another song about being involved with a married man and trying to pull out of it. It’s the reason why there’s a song on there about being in a foreign city and wanting to completely lose yourself.
That’s the whole purpose of this CD: to go past the safety zone, cross the boundary, and get people to respond emotionally. So far it’s been working! [Laughs]