By local musician and contributing columnist Ashleigh Chevalier.
Editor’s Update, February 13, 2017: Best Jazz Vocal Album went to Gregory Porter for “Take Me to the Alley.” We congratulate René Marie on this, her second nomination.
There are these days when life is heavier, it seems, than the ground on which we walk. The world seems colorless, cold, lonely. Then, there strikes a match, a burning flame of light, inspiration, truth, and strength.
René Marie, an internationally renowned jazz vocalist and songwriter from Warrenton, Virginia, carries a torch of light and truth in her music that will be recognized at one of the world’s most prestigious music awards ceremonies on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017.
“Sound of Red,” released in 2016, is nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album in the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. It’s René Marie’s second nomination. She received her first in the same category for “I Wanna Be Evil: With Love to Eartha Kitt,” released in 2013.
“It was a really big surprise,” René Marie said. “I am conflicted … ‘best of’ – how do you determine that? It can get in your head and affect your creativity. I wish there were a way to recognize the creativity of musicians without a contest, but it is an honor to be recognized by your peers.” She will attend this year’s awards with her husband and full band.
Her latest release of 11 recordings is all original music, composed by the vocalist herself — which, from a songwriter’s perspective, sweetens the taste of success for this “best of” album nomination.
Her vocals are dynamic, stretching octave to octave, bridging the soft timbre of Ella Fitzgerald and the croon of Etta James. The lyrical content combined with the arrangements of the melodies, accompaniments, and rhythms make the complexity of these songs uniquely accessible to popular music lovers, while staying true to the essence of classical jazz, and touching on the roots of classical art song.
What’s the inspiration? Everything from a cell phone ring tone to the rhythm of the dryer.
“I am a stickler for allowing what’s inside to come out — not edit or judge it,” René Marie said. “I let songs gather dust on the shelf, because I worried they came across as odd or too quirky.” This is one of the biggest lessons René Marie learned about song writing; to follow the freedom of expression and the music, allowing it to flow naturally.
When it comes to musical discipline, courage is key, she said. “Courage to write and sing about things you know are sensitive, and you aren’t the only one going through it,” she said. “If you aren’t vulnerable, how can you reach people?”
A poignant track off her album, “This is (Not) a Protest Song,” embodies this principle, making a sensitive yet bold social statement about homelessness. The song was inspired by her brother, who works seven days a week. He is an alcoholic, and homeless. “He’s not lazy,” René Marie said. “I asked his permission to write the song, and he said, ‘sure, go ahead.’”
“I learned to trust myself and my intuition,” René Marie said. “Nobody knows my songs better than me. Nobody knows how to deliver my songs better than me. There is a time to follow someone’s advice, and a time to speak up.”
This is exactly the advice she sends to you, the reader, the music lover. “Always trust your intuition. Don’t let anyone tell you what is better for you.”
Here are a few quick questions, with answers from René Marie:
We have lost many great musicians this past year. Who of these influenced you most?
“Sharon Jones. And Leonard Cohen. Such beautiful poetry silenced at his death.”
Coffee or Tea?
“I always choose coffee. I have tried to quit drinking tea, as I have tried to quit drinking coffee. I should travel with espresso beans.”
Any vocal health tips?
“Garlic. Peel it. Cut it into pill size, and swallow it whole. It acts like penicillin.”
What is next?
“Adding additional songs to our set lists. There are ew songs I haven’t shown to the band yet.”
You can learn more at René Marie.com, where there are links to social media and links to purchase all of her albums, including “Sound of Red.”
Editor’s Note: The 59th Annual Grammy Awards will be broadcast live on CBS, beginning at 8 p.m. eastern standard time (EST). The ceremony will recognize the best recordings, compositions, and artists of the eligibility year, which runs from October 1, 2015, to September 30, 2016.