Robin Renée is Mantra-Pop! – accessible, lyric-driven alt-folk rock with a spiritual twist. Conscious and melodic with an edge, think of blending the voices of Chrissie Hynde and Joan Armatrading with the wordsmith intelligence of Elvis Costello and the mystical passion of kirtan chanting. Join me after the jump, for the Biff Bam Pop! interview with Robin Renee.
Biff Bam Pop! is pleased to be part of the Robin Renee Blog Tour, and now presents the official BBP interview with musician, artist, and writer Robin Renee.
Glenn Walker: Let’s start right at the top. What is Mantra-Pop?
Robin Renee: The simple answer is that Mantra-Pop is the combining of singer/songwriter/pop music elements with kirtan or other kinds of chanting. So “I’m Coming Down,” “Holy River” or “Shivo Ham” would be good examples. It has come to mean something more broadly defined for me, however. I feel as though the essence of my music and attitude is Mantra-Pop – In my universe, there is always an edginess, and a rock ‘n’ roll, alt-culture sensibility, as well as an awareness of Oneness and sacredness. No matter what I’m singing, writing, or presenting at the time, that sensibility is always there. So really, Mantra-Pop is the way I describe my work overall.
Glenn Walker: What inspired you to go into music?
Robin Renee: Maybe I should be embarrassed to say so, but I think it was the Bay City Rollers who first made me think, “Yeah, I wanna do that.” I don’t care. I have a goofy, nostalgic love for them to this day.
Glenn Walker: Who are your musical and creative heroes?
Robin Renee: Oh wow, there are many, really. Devo, Kraftwerk, James Taylor, Joan Armatrading, Gary Wilson, Richie Havens, Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Warren Zevon. Salvador Dalí. Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Carl Stalling. T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Tatyana Brown, Michael Monroe (the poet, not the glam rock guy). Josephine Baker. Rev. Ivan Stang.
Robin Renee: It’s funny now. So much has changed in the music business that I hesitate to have a concrete picture of exactly what success is supposed to look like. It doesn’t have a lot to do with being enormously famous and living in the sea of excess that I would have imagined rock stardom to be when I was a kid. Most of what that would look like seems pretty unappealing to me now. I can say that I’d like to be well known enough to be stable in the career – without financial or logistical worries and able to create in a fully expressed way. I’d like to have a bit more of a multimedia stage show someday soon than can fit in my Honda Accord. So I guess that means I still dream of a tour bus, or at least a good van. I think it would be fun to be very well known in some places of the world, but able to escape to other places with relative anonymity. Sometimes I imagine that the kind of career Aimee Mann has would be pretty awesome. Of course that’s my fantasy of what her life is like, but it looks pretty cool from here.
Glenn Walker: What has changed?
Robin Renee: I’ve changed. I look a lot more at the whole picture of my life: What do I want to learn and teach? How do I create actual fulfillment in career and other parts of life, too? The entire business has also changed. I used to dream of making records, now it’s digital downloads and streaming. I love the new technology. There is so much possibility. I’ve gotten messages from people in Sri Lanka and all kinds of places around the world who have heard my music online. But sometimes it feels extremely hard to convince even people who like me to download a 99 cent song.
People just think differently about music now, I guess. I realize I go out of my way to support artist who matter to me, and it occurred to me one day that that’s my activist impulse talking. Other people don’t necessarily function that way. So, I think anyone in the music business has to think on their feet about how to make a living – live performance, licensing, the dreaded day job is not always a terrible thing, for a time – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with all the possibilities, and it’s important to stay open to what hasn’t been thought of yet.
Glenn Walker: What was Spy Gods?
Robin Renee: Spy Gods was the best band ever! Hyperbole, perhaps, but I truly loved being part of that band, and my memories of working with and being onstage with those guys are among my fondest ever. The band members morphed a bit, but the most stable line-up, I’d say, was Marcello X on guitar, Sharief Hobley on bass, Bob Ramos on drums, and myself on vocals and keys. We were active in the late 80’s to early 90’s, mostly in the Central Jersey and New York areas and played a kind of World Beat set that took its influences from a lot of places. Kind of a funk-punk-Beefheart-Prince-Afro Caribbean-rock ‘n’ roll soup. Looking back, it feels like we were part of a really magical time for live music in that region. The Court Tavern – our hometown original rock club, CBGB’s – we played a lot of great places.
Glenn Walker: What can you tell us about your musical journey over the years? What have you learned?
Robin Renee: Yikes, could this question be any more open? Let me see… I’ve learned that I have to keep knocking on doors to be heard and remembered. I’ve learned that I am often frightened of the depths of emotion my creative drive wants me to confront and I have to be on guard about hiding too much. I’ve learned that I need to find the right booking agent. I’ve learned to keep on moving and to keep reaching for new and better; nothing really good comes out of settling in regard to creative and career goals (or in regard to anything, probably). I’ve learned that sometimes it all feels incredibly futile. I’ve learned that that attitude changes again for the better. I’ve learned that music and artistic expression are like my blood – just an integral part of who I am and an essential ingredient to life & happiness.
Robin Renee: I think I’ve not been perceived nearly enough by the mainstream music community! I wouldn’t mind being heard in the mainstream to a greater extent, and I do think I have some pop-rock type songs that lend themselves to that. I’d also be happy to write for other artists who are more decidedly mainstream. One thing that has happened is I used to feel caught in the not black enough-not white enough dilemma, like people assuming I should be an R&B singer, and when I’m not, they don’t know what to do with me. Or, they like the sound, but I don’t have the look they’re expecting, so wouldn’t know how to market what I do. I probably write some lyrics that are a bit off-topic for the mainstream, too.
Actually, when the overtly spiritual aspect of my music arrived, it eased that whole experience for me. Then, I just became “other” as opposed to seeming to be like one thing or another, but not quite enough. It felt like a real relief and a way into just creating what shows up. Humorously, as an unapologetic rocker chick I have managed to be “not spiritual enough” for some yoga purists too, it seems, but I can’t worry about that. I need to be authentic, and that doesn’t look like anyone else’s set of prescribed or proscribed experiences. The audience for all I do, by definition, is composed of people open to differences and blended experience and identity.
Glenn Walker: One song that I have always dug, and seems to bridge the boundary, straddling both pop/rock singer/songwriter sensibilities and the kirtan call and response style, is “You’re in Demand” from the spirit.rocks.sexy CD. What can you tell us about that one?
Robin Renee: Interesting! I hadn’t thought of “You’re In Demand” as being particularly kirtan-influenced, but as I said, I suppose I am Mantra-Pop wherever I go. It is one of the two new songs that appeared on the spirit.rocks.sexy compilation, which did attempt to bring the singer/songwriter genre and the chanting songs together on the same album. “You’re In Demand” is a tongue-in-cheek basic blues tune about being a rather obsessive fangirl. The character in the song is a bit more creepy about it than I am (I hope).
Glenn Walker: With Mantra-Pop, you have created your own label for your own music. Did you do this to control how people see you as an artist, and keep them from labeling you? How do you feel about labels in music?
Robin Renee: No, I didn’t really do it to avoid other people’s labels. It was more like I needed to figure out what is essential about what I’m doing, and to say something succinct about it. I am always interested in what other people have to say about what they hear in the music. I generally don’t mind labels. I think of them as shorthand – words that enable us to talk to each other, or at least to begin conversations.
One thing I don’t like about labels in music is that, at least historically, they were used to divide people. Like, at one point, anything labeled “metal” would be marketed in a way to make those fans hate anything labeled “dance music,” and the dance music fans would be separated from anything called something else. That divide-and-conquer tactic probably sold a lot of records, but it also kept people from being able to hear music they might otherwise have liked. I am hopeful that there is so much genre-blending now that labels have become more descriptive than divisive.
Glenn Walker: Do you have any superstitions about performing? Lucky instruments, garments, rituals, anything like that?
Robin Renee: I have a lucky James Taylor concert shirt that I wear when I fly. That’s the main superstition I can think of that I’ve made up for myself. I can’t think of any directly related to performing.
Glenn Walker: You’re a writer, musician, songwriter, poet, journalist, among many other wonderful affections – what do you enjoy doing most, and why?
Robin Renee: This is not easy to answer… Really, it feels amazing when a piece of writing just comes together and I know it has captured something that just couldn’t be said in any other way. Poetry can do that, songs can do that- so can essay sometimes. It just depends. But it’s that moment when it’s first fallen into place, whatever the format. That’s so rewarding. Being onstage performing when everything is in the zone – that’s an amazing feeling.
Robin Renee: This. is my second recording of kirtan chant and sacred song. It was a long time in the making – there were a lot of stops and starts in the recording of it. People were busy, and then I felt like I’d lost the thread of it for a while. I am really pleased with how it came out – it was worth the wait. “Keshava” had been floating around in my head, then at live kirtans, for quite a while. The Kali song was around for some time, too. As the other songs appeared, we finally got started on the recording. Because it took so long, I was worried it wouldn’t have the kind of immediacy and spiritual resonance that Live Devotion does, but at least for me, it came together.
My main goal with the spirit.rocks.sexy compilation was to bring together the songwriting with the kirtan, to catch up fans of each part of what I do with the other piece and to sonically say “it’s all one.” In retrospect, I’m not sure how successful that project was in that regard. Now that This. is out, I am feeling the pull toward writing and story-telling again, so I proposed .. and Everything Else as a project unto itself, yet, at least title-wise, continuing from the chant recording before it. I think it is a way of saying “it’s all one” while at the same time allowing for the full development of each project as its own statement. I am hoping .. and Everything Else will be out next year. I put it out there, but I am open to changes in the schedule.
Glenn Walker: For a song by song analysis of This., you can check out an earlier stop on the Robin Renee Blog Tour here.
Glenn Walker: What can you tell us about your new single “All I Am,” which is currently in heavy rotation on my iPod, and the You Will Rise Project that it benefits?
Robin Renee: “All I Am” started with a general video concept my good friend and photographer/graphic artist Jenn Phillips had. She saw the video footage in her mind, but there but the song the video would go with didn’t exist yet. She described the basic concept to me and I wrote the song. Of course, I drew a lot from my own experience of figuring out how to embrace all of the things that make up who I am, even if other people find those things contradictory. Basically, the song references biracial identity, polyamory, and artistic expression because those are specific to me, but the intent is for anyone to tap into its essence. It’s about being all of oneself and celebrating it. Ironically, now the song exists, but not the video. We have the storyboard, and I am hoping a video falls together before too long.
I reconnected with an old college friend online and she mentioned that she is working with the You Will Rise Project, a program that encourages artistic expression by those who have dealt with being bullied. It has a strong anti-bullying mission and when my friend asked if I wanted to contribute some artwork, I thought of “All I Am.” 20% of CD Baby sales go to the project.
Glenn Walker: You can purchase “All I Am” at CD Baby here.
Glenn Walker: Thank you for taking the time to hang out with us this evening, Robin. The Blog Tour concludes tomorrow at Welcome to Hell.