Renée Geyer: "When you love what you do, you hope that you can do it for as long as possible, and that's where I'm at!"
Renée Geyer famously describes herself as a "white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama." And indeed she does. Renée has worked with (are you ready?) Buddy Guy, Sting , Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan (in the studio and on tour), Neil Diamond, Julio Iglesias, Toni Childs (remember her song Don't Walk Away? Renée is improvising at the end of the track), Bonnie Raitt (who she remains strong friends with today), and a long list of musicians including the American legend Ray Park Jr, and a stack of session musicians who played for Stevie Wonder.
Renée is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. In 2007, she told the ABC how she came to be called Renée. "My mother talks about arriving at Auschwitz and she remembers seeing Mengele. My mother was separated from my grandmother, and my grandmother screamed, 'Give me back my daughter, give me back my child,' and apparently... Mengele... not meaning to, picked my mother up and threw her into the line [of people] that lived just because he didn't want to see mother and child together. It was more out of that than saving my mother's life, you know. And there was a woman that lived in the village, in Bratislava with my mother's family, and her name was Renée. And the last thing my grandmother said as their line went was, 'Stay with Renée, just stay with Renée.' And that's how I got my name."
Renée was born in Melbourne and grew up always having the husky voice that has led to her success as a soul singer.
“I do rhythm and blues,“ Renée once said. “This genre of music picked me. I didn't pick it. From a very early age I was listening to it on my transistor radio under my pillow." Listening and learning from Aretha Franklin, and Sam and Dave under her pillow, Renée developed an affection for all things soul. From the very beginning in the 1970s, Renée conquered the standards she holds so close to her heart. One of her most famous covers is It's a Man's Man's World by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown.
But Australia has not always been welcoming of the RnB genre Renée so dearly loves, and a few times in her career, the singer has lived in the US to pursue her soul-filled dreams. One time when Renée was signed with American label Polydor Records, the marketing team did not want to put her photo on an album cover as they feared sales would be limited by her white face. In an interview with the ABC in 2007, Renee said of that time, "In '76 we were in America and I made an album. Heading In The Right Direction was the actual single off that record. The whole of the east coast of America, Black Radio, picked that song up and was thrashing it. This was in the days where Black Radio didn't play white music. So the record company suggested to me that we don't put my face on the cover. This is MY cross that I bear. I insisted - idiot, id-i-ot! Because as soon as they saw the big pink head on the cover they just yanked the song."
Having a forthright nature is something Renée admitted in the title of her autobiography Confessions of a Difficult Woman. In fact Difficult Woman is the name of a song written for her by Australian legend Paul Kelly, and which became the title track of Renée's 1994 studio album. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Kelly said, "She's a difficult woman but I love her. She's feisty, she's insecure. I think that's the main thing. Insecure people are hard to be around. They need reassurance. That's what sort of drives her. I think the difficult side of her comes from that." And in response Renee said, “I don't think there's an artist on the planet who isn't insecure. It takes a big ego to get on stage and you want to know that what you're doing on stage is OK."
Australia's take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards RnB music has meant Renée has had a difficult career path but 47 years on, she is still recording and performing, and has had records in the Australian charts every decade since the 1970s.
Standards are her staple. In 2003, Renée told the Age, "That's all Sinatra ever did. Singers like to sing great songs, and as long as your rendition has your own stamp on it, then let it just be judged as you singing a great song."
Renée kindly took the time to talk with Music Love all about her long-standing career here and abroad with some sound words of advice for budding artists.
What does music mean to you?
Music represents joy and happiness and has always come easily to me.
What was your most memorable performance?
There are too many to mention, but when I do a performance [in front of] large audiences I'm always in awe.
Where, when, and how did you discover your voice?
As a little girl I used to sing in the shower and would hum and sing along to songs. When I was young, I knew I was good at it but I never thought I would be performing in front of audiences. It was only later on then I realised I could actually put on a concert and people would come, and that's when it turned into a business and a career.
You have nearly thirty albums. That is a lot of studio time, have you developed any studio rituals when recording?
No, not really. I treat recording in the studio as if I am live on stage so I apply the same approach in the studio as I do to live shows in terms of how I construct a musical sentence.
It's a Man's Man's World was recorded when you were twenty years old, what advice would you give twenty year old aspiring musicians today?
If you love it, do it, but you have to love it, and if you do love it, it will be easy.
Who are your favourite women in music?
I have many favourite people, and gender never comes into it. I admire so many people in this industry, I just couldn't pick out one.
What was the music scene like in the 70s, and how has it changed?
I am asked that question many times, and my response is always the same. I was a part of that whole scene, like I took part in it, so it's hard for me to make an opinion. In retrospect I can look back and say, wow how we've grown.
What are your memories of America?
When I think of America, I always think back in awe, because I got to sing with many great people, I sang duets with incredible singers. People who I love, and [whose music I loved] and I never dreamed that I would be singing alongside of them.
What is the first memory that comes to mind from that time in America in the 80s and 90s?
Singing with Buddy Guy!
What is your favourite song of all time?
There are just too you need to pick from
What do you think of digital streaming and music distribution today?
The more the merrier. The more ways to listen and to enjoy music the better.
More of the same. When you love what you do, you hope that you can do it for as long as possible, and that's where I'm at!
What does Australia mean to you?
It's my home
What is your favourite place in Australia?
What is your favourite bar, café or restaurant in Australia?
Mostly places where people relax and enjoy themselves. Places where I work. there are so many. Too many to mention.
Who is your favourite Australian?
Any Australian who stands up for what they believe.