BOTH born and raised in south-western Louisiana, singer-songwriter Renée Reed was, by blood, immersed in a culture which the Bayou State has uniquely; a French colony, briefly a Spanish one, its heritage, customs and folklore arise from the intertwining of those nationalities with Haitian, French Canadian, First Nation and African traditions.
English was actually imposed as a dominant linguistic culture in law in 1921, that position being reversed in 1974; the constitution still enshrines “the right of the people to preserve, foster, and promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural origins”.
Renée has always been unselfconsciously Cajun. She grew up on the accordion-bending knee of her grandfather, Harry Trahan, witnessing countless jam sessions at the Cajun shop owned by her parents and soaked in the storytelling of her great uncle, the folklorist Revon Reed.
She was surrounded by Cajun and Creole music legends, both backstage at the many festivals on her local turf, and on the porch of her family home. It’s fair to say she’s steeped in the music and lore of her land.
But Renée, while adoring the musics of her soil and her blood, also wished to hear, and learn, more. She listened to Sixties’ folk voraciously, was bitten by the bug; and attended Fairport Convention legend Richard Thompson’s masterclass camp in the Catskills outside of Woodstock, New York.
At about the same she began to pen songs herself, she also fell hard for the French music scene of the Sixties: Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, and the earlier pop movement known as yé-yé. It became another twining creeper in her music; encountering another facet of her Gallic heritage, transposed through a less traditional music.
She was a member of a high school band called Shrugs, who developed something of a reputation on the local live scene, playing New Orleans, Lafayette, other venues out on US 90 and Interstate 10; in doing which she first encountered the Austin label Keeled Scales, who booked the band for shows.
As the group fragmented, she took to solo performances, cautiously airing her compositions and performing traditional Cajun numbers with a trio. But it was only when her partner brought home a Tascam four-track that a spark really ignited for Renée’s conception of herself as a solo artist. Meant initially as an upgrade to recording her compositions on her phone, she soon came to appreciate its particular sonic qualities; the way it captured her simple set up of chiming guitar and gliding vocal just so. She quickly laid down 15 songs, 12 of which form her debut album. The time was right.
Renée’s debut album chronicle a three-year period and include sonic expositions on toxic relationships, seeing ghosts, ancestral baggage and blessings, and daydreaming about a lover.
She says of the record that it’s “a whole document of me coming to terms with myself and embracing who I am without reserve.”
She was ready to celebrate her roots straight away: the cover of her first single, “Out Loud” from last summer, is a photograph of her in traditional Mardi Gras costume; but she’s not dressed for the New Orleans celebrations, ready to be showing out, but for the lesser known courir de Mardi Gras, a rural celebration where there are no spectators and the participants’ costumes more closely resemble French medieval attire. The song also leads out her album; crisp, metronomic guitar rings with a clean, cutting edge lent, one assumes, by the production; it’s a great, ringing foil for Renée’s voice, which has a magical, spellbinding quality, gliding above with a woody timbre, graceful. “I could be, I could be, I could be daydreaming,” she sings, and that perfectly encapsulates the song; it sounds like the soundtrack to a near-doze, summoning things from just beyond the edges of your consciousness into the world.
“I Saw A Ghost” rings true with that four-track ambience, lending it a retro compression which entirely suits Renée’s voice, a soaring, swooping thing here, with a pastorally bluesy bend. She has that breathy resonance of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, but brings a more European effortless trilling to her vocals too. It’s a voice to be, quite literally, enchanted by, out there in the flatwoods; a voice of seductive tonality, presence. Maybe Claudine Longet getting a little pastoral psych circa ’68. The song has a stately folksiness, sounds like a processional dance with strict partnering rules or somesuch; bleeding into the otherworld in her voice, the gliding honey of which looks down from above on us all.
“Little Flower Dance” is another pastoral delight, intricate, cantering, full of country-folk honey, but écoutez, s’il vous plaît; she’s black and blue inside, with pain and dust and time. You wouldn’t wish to wrong such a siren-singer. “Will you take me home / When you find the time?” she asks, but there’s anger in the delicacy. It took me an age to put my finger on just who Renée’s bell-clear, dualled vocals reminded me of, and then it came to me: Meg Baird. Which is no attempt to tarnish the gossamer web of such a lovely tune, but merely a reflection of the company Renée’s immediately keeping.
“Fast One” is a many-faceted thing for something as apparently simple as a one-woman-with-guitar folk tune; it has, by turns, a sleepy blurriness, a pillowside intimacy, the sort of mantric guitar approach you might find elsewhere in a Tim Buckley or a Ryley Walker. It’s homespun and simple, but still has the feeling of an odyssey. You sense it’ll be rapturous live (sssh, gigs will happen again). It was also a leading single, so for bonus kicks you get to try it on for size. It fits you really well, trust me.
“Neboj” is darkly verdant, like brushing aside dusk ferns; lusciously pretty, fashioned from a cycling arpeggio which pretty soon envelops you. Here Renée is breathy, the melody winding and baroque, almost like an escapee from Pearls Before Swine or The Left Banke; effortlessly beautiful.
“Où est la fée” is the first of two French-language contributions to this debut set. It’s dreamlike number, Renée’s voice clear in unspooling a tale of backwoods magick over a crisp organ riff with a minor key shadowiness, shot through with the darker mysteries of the land that brought us Dr. John.
“J’avais envie de la voir / C’était cachée dans le bois … Quand je l’ai trouvé sur la terre / Ça disait viens-ois ma chère, et écoutez,” she sings, entranced in a land which maybe belongs to older beings than ourselves; or, to translate, “I wanted to see her / It was hidden in the wood … When I found him on earth / It said come on my dear, and listen.”
Renée says: “‘Où est la fée’ is a dream sequence, a narrative in which I am walking in the woods and find a letter on the ground: ‘Where is the fairy? It’s in your head.’
“As dream logic does, the narrative focus of the letter and the song bends and blends seamlessly from the personal outward to other people in my life.” It reveals a darker side to Renée’s oeuvre, all black mirroring water and mossy whisper.
We’re led towards the light in the sweet, nearly straight country of “Until Tomorrow”, in which the power of her voice is really evidenced, flying up high; it must be amazing to have that level of expressive power. I say ‘nearly’ straight, because the mellifluous intonation really does have a European feel … an intelligent rapture that’s there but which shyly retreats when you try to net it.
“Your Seventh Moon” has a similar folk-blues grace, and a bewitching melodic turn that’s on display throughout the album. It could be on Elektra or Nonesuch and be housed in a sleeve worn grainy through shelf abrading, the full moon of the vinyl showing through the art, and you wouldn’t blink an eyelid. Except maybe for the Discogs price for a decent copy. Ditto, “The Ash”, a delicious essay of chime and string squeak and Renée singing to you from deep within some warmed burrow of sound. Just you, woven into a harmony spell. She slurs down through the notes with a knowingly innocent ease, tugs your heart without any defences available to you.
For “Fool To The Fire” she pulls you even closer, a slow, whispered waltz, porchside, darkly angelic, there’s strength in beauty too, this fool put to the fire in “fits of crying”, just a first step; “open your shame to the night,” she sings. “If Only We Could” plays so close to you that you can hear the plectrum scrape across the strings. It seems a sadder tune than that preceding, tears this time of genuine heart-sorrow, maybe, rather than feckless loss; Renée is singing to you from some other place, a creature of vocal seduction, the tune Cat Power simple, barenaked musical bones.
“Drunken Widow’s Waltz” rounds up an excellent, intense record and kicks back with a fiddle on a sweet, knowing and very Cajun nugget, played with fun and insouciance.
Renée Reed’s debut is spun from very clever finery; a flow of tracks, folky and so American and yet so European, psychedelic in the way Devendra is, spectral in the way Marissa Nadler so is, but in colour rather than her perfumed sepia tone; Espers but less mushroomy, but still blindingly ethereal.
Renée: she’s such a talent, this absolute mastery of guitars, harmonic intricacy, a voice clear and honest and true the like of which you may not have encountered in intelligent songwriting outside Karen Carpenter, definitely Margo Guryan. Kinda wow actually. Wow. I’m not sure if I want to wake from this particular spell.
Renée Reed’s self-titled debut album will be released by Keeled Scales on digital, cassette, CD and LP on March 26th; it’s already available for pre-order here.