Written by Derek Harrison
Colorado-based jazz singer René Marie credits music with giving her the confidence to leave an abusive marriage at the age of 40 and dive into a singing career. Now, 15 years later, she is an accomplished recording artist, performer and composer. Her latest album “Voice of my Beautiful Country” is a collection of reinterpretations built around the Voice of my Beautiful Country Suite, which includes the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” set to the music of the American national anthem. This arrangement brought her a lot of press and right wing criticism after a nationally publicized incident when she sang it in Denver at the Mayor’s State of the City address. Recently returned from a tour of Israel, René Marie will be playing at the Jazz Standard in New York for four nights in a row, July 7th through the 10th.
TimesSquare.com: “Voice of my Beautiful Country” is a definitive statement. Is it an album you have always wanted to make?
René Marie: No not always. I have had the idea for about five years, at least for the suite. It took me that long to figure out how to put it together. I knew what songs I wanted to use, I knew I wanted to use the melody of the national anthem with the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” but I didn’t know how it was gonna flow, how it was all gonna fit together. I found out I could superimpose the lyrics to the national anthem onto the original melody of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as well, but I wanted to eliminate all the talk about war. Then I just had to figure out what other songs could go with the suite. The title of the album comes from the songs in the suite; Voice is from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” Beautiful is from “America the Beautiful” and Country is from “My Country ’tis of Thee.”
TS: The album is focused on reinterpretations. Are you planning a new album of original songs?
RM: We’ve already recorded another album. All the songs are original except for three, one of which was written by my son. Some of the originals are songs I recorded for MaxJazz that we redid. The album is called “Black Lace Freudian Slip.” I had this file cabinet of half-done songs and I had to tell myself “no more other peoples’ projects.”
TS: When you performed “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing” at the Mayor’s State of the City address in Denver, had you begun working on “Voice of my Beautiful Country” yet?
RM: Yes, the suite itself was already finished, and I had actually sung that song two months earlier at a similar event in Denver. The governor was there and all kinds of city officials, and when I was done the governor gave me a big hug and took my information. Then two months later they called me to sing at the State of the City address. There were about a thousand officials there, it was a very different vibe, I had never been to one of those before. There were people from six different religions there, and they each got up and said a prayer. I almost punked out… but then I thought of my father, who died in 1996. He fought in the second world war. I decided “I ain’t gonna be no punk.” It was weird, but just because something is weird doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
TS: Do you think it’s important for an artist to stand for something?
RM: I think it’s important as a human. To shrink back from what you want to say because of what other people might think is doing yourself an injustice, and is doing everyone else an injustice too. I think it’s not easy at this time, in this country, because the reaction can be swift and vocal. But if not now, when?
TS: Given your late start to a music career, what would you say to an artist who is nervous about diving into the deep end?
RM: This is what I’d say to an artist. If there’s something that compels you to be afraid, that’s the proof that it’s the right thing to do. It you’re thinking “if I do this… (fill in the blank)” then that’s absolutely the direction you need to go. Go toward the fear. It’s when you’ve jumped and haven’t landed yet, that is the stuff of life.
TS: You just returned from a tour of Israel and you will be touring the rest of the summer. What made you decide to begin touring again after giving it up a couple years ago?
RM: I never intended it to be permanent, it was more of a hiatus. I married again in 2006 and I knew I didn’t want to keep up the same schedule I had before, that I wanted to take a year to two years off. I still played local gigs, and I worked on my one-woman show, which finally debuted in 2009. It wasn’t that I decided I was not gonna sing any more. But I married this fantastic man, and we just celebrated our fifth anniversary on Wednesday. It’s nice to be with someone so supportive of my music, especially after 23 years with someone who wasn’t. But I learned a lot of good lessons from my first husband… in that regard he is my favourite teacher.
TS: What is your relationship with the city of New York? Tell me about the first time you came.
RM: The first time I was in New York was when I signed with MaxJazz and we went to a recording studio in the city. I had just left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I had just left my husband, and the whole experience was just traumatic. At one point I ended up in the fetal position, totally overwhelmed. It was like being in a different country… New York culture shock. Being in Manhattan, with everything related to recording, it was not even a learning curve, it was like a vertical learning cliff. But that was my baptism, my trial by fire. Now I can go back and feel like “yeah I know this place…”
TS: So it hasn’t left you with bad memories of the city?
RM: No not at all. The only thing is that I will not ride the subway by myself, even for a short ways. You know, I’m a small town girl, and I’m just afraid I’ll get lost. Being in New York is like being eight years old wearing my mom’s high heels. I can do it for so long but then I have to go.
TS: Would you introduce your band for us?
RM: Quentin Baxter is our drummer, I’ve been working with him the longest, about 10 years I think. He’s from South Carolina. He introduced to our pianist, Kevin Bales, who has been playing with us for 6 years. And we have a brand new bass player, Kevin Hamilton, nicknamed Slam. We’ll be breaking him in this Saturday. I love working with these guys, I have this musical relationship with Quentin, it’s like he knows what I’m going to do right after I know it, he senses it, he’s right there. He’s a phenomenal drummer. If you listen to the “Voice of my Beautiful Country” suite, there’s this whole battle scene, it sounds like 2 or 3 drummers, it’s just fucking brilliant. I trust him implicitly.
René Marie at the Jazz Standard, New York, NY:
Thursday, July 7 – 7:30pm & 9:30pm
Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9 – 7:30pm, 9:30pm, 11:30pm
Sunday, July 10 – 7:30pm & 9:30pm