All photos by Cory Weaver
Priscilla Renea: Breaking the Country Music Mold
by Jennifer Rolf
DES MOINES -- I sauntered down a shadowy street, away from the 80-35 Festival grounds and the bustle of crowds and music, far from the wafting smells of shawarma bowls and food truck exhaust, toward a nondescript, white SUV parked near the corner. Waiting for me inside the vehicle was singer-songwriter Priscilla Renea, staying warm under a blanket and ready to talk. The air-conditioned confines were a nice respite from the intense Midwestern sun beating down on the festival.
I soon discovered that although she was raised in Vero Beach, Fla., and currently calls Los Angeles home, Renea has a fondness for the heartland and the different kind of vibe she experiences here. “I think people are just more excited in this area,” she said. “In L.A., Nashville, New York, people are used to it. Everybody’s a singer, everybody [has] a guitar on the street corner, so they’re a little bit jaded. I think people in the smaller towns and the rural areas—they appreciate it more.”
Renea is on tour in support of her sophomore effort, Coloured, a provocatively titled album that showcases a leap of maturity in the nine years since her first album, the poppy Jukebox, debuted.
“The first record, I was just doing what I was told,” Renea said. “I had a major record deal. I didn’t want to mess it up. Even though I was writing all the songs—so yes they were me—I had no say in what songs made the record. I just was going with the flow.”
Much has changed in a little under a decade. She grew up, got married and came to the realization that, musically, she didn’t owe anyone a thing. “You don’t owe anyone your gifts,” she said. “For a long time, I thought, ‘Well I have to do this, because if I don’t, nobody will work with me.’ People make you feel like that in the business sometimes.”
"It’s a higher thing now,” she added. “It’s not like in the beginning when I just wanted to prove to people that I could do it.”
She also exerted far more control on this album than on her debut. “This album…I was very involved from start to finish,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to talk about…I wanted to keep it true.”
The Florida native’s sound encompasses elements of country, R&B and soul, a result of a range of influences growing up. “Music was always in my house,” Renea said. Her dad played trumpet and sang. Her mom sang, listened to “a lot” of country and played juke joint music that she picked up at record stores—the stuff no one was playing on the radio.
Her mom’s musical tastes resonated several years later when it came time to write the songs for Coloured. “On this record, Bobbie Gentry was a huge influence,” she said. “One of my mom’s favorite songs when I was a kid was ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ She used to listen to that all the time, so she was definitely an influence for this record.”
Appreciating her parents' taste in music coalesced into a broad mix for Renea. “My musical taste is so eclectic,” she said. “I was consuming everything. I loved R&B music” and “was really into TRL... Shania, Robin, Rammstein."
Citing TRL is no surprise because she made her mark on the world on MTV’s Say What? Karaoke. And that was after she became a viral sensation on YouTube, where she first showcased her talents by posting songs she sang in her bedroom.
Her cowboy uncle, who lived on a farm, rode bulls and taught Renea how to lasso and shoot, also played a part in her musical influences: “He would force us to listen to CMT,” she said. “We hated it when we were kids, but now I’m grateful.”
Renea has always considered herself a country singer. But with Coloured, she’s leaving an indelible mark and breaking the mold in today’s country music scene, where you rarely see much diversity.
She acknowledges that there are talented people of color also making country music—giving the nod to artists such as Coffey Anderson, Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton—but the type of music she’s making is a little different than what they’re doing, in her view.
“I’m specifically talking about my experience as a black person and not necessarily what I think people want to hear.” But, she acknowledges that she too has songs that include subjects found in many country songs, such as trucks (check out the super fun “Gentle Hands”).
On occasion, she doesn’t always get a warm welcome when she performs. “When I go and perform in certain places and say I’m a country singer…people definitely [have made] faces, like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said. She’s also heard, “You’re not a country singer” before even singing a note. “I think the genre of country has been attributed to a skin tone,” she said, “and not necessarily the music that you’re hearing.”
She is steadily gaining new country fans along the way, though. That seemed to be the case during her performance at 80-35, which had multiple stage areas that fans could wander into.
The New Face of Country Music
While it was evident that some Jukebox fans were in attendance, bopping and singing along to Renea classics such as “Dollhouse,” she seemed to attract a new breed that day, with songs like her soulful “Heavenly.”
“I’ve had a lot of people say they normally don’t like country music, but if my music is what country sounds like, then they really like it,” she said. “Country these days is more like pop, ‘bro country.’ Country in the ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s was more what I would call my style, but it was also more bluesy and soulful.”
'I’m a storyteller'
Not only can she sing, but Renea can write, penning her first song at age 8. She’s lent her songwriting talent to many big-name singers, including Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, Pitbull, Kesha, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.
Whether they realized it or not, she injected some country into their songs: “I think every song I’ve ever written is partially a country song in some way, even the songs I wrote for other people,” she said. “I’m a storyteller.”
She filled the nine-year gap between Jukebox and Coloured with songwriting and has written so prolifically that she’s pretty sure she has the formula down. “I know how to write a hit song now,” she said. “I know what will work and what won’t. I think that just comes from experience; it doesn’t have anything to do with age or maturity. I’ve done it so much.”
“I’m just gonna keep doing it, because there’s somebody out there who’ll be inspired,” she said.
“Now I’m just like, whatever. This is what I do.”
And while her writing process has not changed, she says she’s definitely more musical. “I’ll pick up the guitar now and I don’t have to wait on anybody to write a song,” she said.
So does she favor songwriting over singing? The answer is no. “I like both,” she said. When it comes down to it, she likes being where she’s appreciated, but whether people like the way she’s going about making music is no matter to her.
I’m just gonna keep doing it, because there’s somebody out there who’ll be inspired,” she said. “Now I’m just like, whatever. This is what I do.”