Talk about a band being the sum of their parts, sure. Makes sense. Talk about a solo musician being a sum of their parts and, maybe. But show your working. Unless, that is, you’re on the subject of Renée Reed. The songwriter and guitarist, who hails from southwest Louisiana, wouldn’t be making the records she is today without her bones being steeped in Cajun and Creole music and folklore, passed down through her family from accordion-wielding grandfather to jam-leading parents. “Music has been a huge constant in my life,” she says.
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Reed’s debut LP exists in a hallucinatory weird-folk state, where her dense guitar lines coil around vocal phrasings that are always a little more off-kilter and surprising than they initially appear. Here, she talks us through her background, her fingerpicking style and the dreamlike well of inspiration that she draws from.
Could you describe how music was intertwined with your life as a kid?
“Growing up, there was always an eclectic mix of music on the stereo at home or in the car, and I’d spend hours watching music videos, dancing along and pretending I was in them. Both of my parents were – and still are – active Cajun musicians, my two grandfathers were as well, and I was constantly at gigs, festivals, and jams as a child, so playing music came very naturally to me. I started playing with my family and also writing my own songs when I was 10.”
How does an appreciation for folklore affect your writing?
“As I’ve lived in and studied traditional music and culture, I’ve grown up hearing so many stories, and so many different kinds of them, from people within my family and outside of it. I’ve experienced first hand how things don’t have to be grammatically correct, someone doesn’t have to ‘talk right’ for what they are saying to be powerful and evocative. It has loosened up language for me. The deep emotion and imagery that good storytelling can conjure, I feel connected to that practice when I am writing music. My dad, too, comes from a long line of renowned storytellers, and he would tell me these wonderful, spontaneous stories all the time that definitely enriched my imagination.”
Your songs are presented in a relatively straightforward fashion but they have this otherworldliness, even eeriness, to them.
“It all comes from this subconscious place that I can’t totally explain. I’m often daydreaming, or thinking about the dreams I had during the night, and in either case the feelings and impressions from my dreams often shape the sound and even the narratives of my songs.”
What did recording to tape at home teach you about the songs?
“The recording process definitely made me look at the songs in a different light. Pretty much everything was done in one take all the way through, so more than just getting the technical part right, I had to really lock into the feeling of things. I learned that the feeling was often more important than a ‘perfect’ performance.”
What is your current setup?
“My parlour guitar is a Washburn R320SWRK. I also play my old Yamaha acoustic from the 70s, a FG-335 II. If I can I’ll have two or even three guitars with me in different tunings to keep the breaks between songs to a minimum.”
Do you remember the first time you picked up a guitar?
“There were always guitars, instruments of all kinds, around me when I was growing up, so I’d picked up and ‘played’ a guitar many times before, but there was a specific moment when I was 10 years old and just decided to grab a guitar off the wall at my dad’s house and actually start playing. I sat for hours with that guitar teaching myself how to play Yellow Submarine.”
What is your approach to fingerpicking?
“I don’t have a set approach. As long as I’ve been playing guitar I’ve loved learning new patterns and chords. At one point, when I was 15, I attended Richard Thompson’s week-long masterclass camp. I’m always adding to my palette. As the feeling of a song comes into focus, I try to pull in the style of picking that best suits it, though that often comes together subconsciously. My approach is more intuitive than intentional. “
Do you have any background in banjo or fiddle, there’s a hint of that in your playing style…
“My dad is a fiddle player and music teacher. I learn so much from him, in the tunes he plays but also the way he approaches playing in general. I’ve also spent time learning from other players from varying backgrounds as part of my degree over the last few years. I haven’t played too much fiddle lately, but I love to, whether it’s a Cajun or Creole or Irish tune. Though not nearly as regularly as other instruments banjo has definitely crept into my playing at different times.”
Renée Reed’s self-titled LP is out now on Keeled Scales.