Interview: Priscilla Renea Turns From ‘Undeniable Smashes’ to Authenticity on ‘Coloured’
Priscilla Renea has proven, time and time again, that she can write what she refers to as an "undeniable smash." The singer and songwriter has credits that span across genres, having worked with superstars such as Miranda Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Pitbull, Train and countless other artists. However, when she got to work on her own second studio album, Coloured, Renea says that topping charts wasn't her primary goal.
"I just wanted to be honest and tell my real story," Renea tells The Boot. "All the stories on this album, everything is true. It wasn't like my process when I go in to write for other people, which is like, 'We're coming in to write an undeniable smash.' I mean, hopefully that's the goal, because of course we want the songs on the record to be smashes, but I didn't go in there with that mindset."
Renea released the first taste of Coloured -- the double video for two of the album's songs, "Gentle Hands" and "Heavenly" -- in April of 2017. While the songs are connected in the video, Renea says that putting them together was more about showcasing her range than it was about them encapsulating a single story.
"There was a period of time, on MTV and on BET especially, when an artist would segue into another song at the end of a music video, and at that time, it was a way for you to understand the breadth and depth of an artist," she explains. "It was really important for me to do that because the music is so eclectic, and I'm pulling from so many different genres, styles and arrangements. I wanted to show people that I'm playful and have all these different dimensions."
Coloured's songs are eclectic, swinging easily between styles and genres, reflecting Renea's life experiences and the ways in which she both is and is not at home in a variety of musical canons. As a songwriter, Renea knew her own album would be under scrutiny from those who know her primarily as a hitmaker.
"What I wanted to make a swift departure from is the thinking that, 'Oh, of course she has hit songs on her record. She's a songwriter, that's what she does,'" Renea says. "I didn't want people to relegate me to being another one of those writers that's just trying to put a record out to gain notoriety. Like, this is what I do! I've been doing it since I was eight years old."
Renea is used to ignoring people who question her for not fitting into any one particular genre and pressure her to fit into one box or another within the music industry. "Everyone is a little cautious when they're afraid or in uncharted territory," she says. "That's a natural pull, especially because it's very polarizing to go from writing for all these A-list artists to being an independent musician and doing exactly what you feel. Of course, in Nashville, people would look at me funny when I said I wanted to make a country record."
Part of that discomfort comes from the fact that Renea is a black woman writing from a place of authenticity. Her music inherently chafes at the borders of what is safe and comfortable in country radio.
It wasn't like we set out to make a political album that was racially charged; the stories on the album were just true.
"It wasn't like we set out to make a political album that was racially charged; [the stories on the album] were just true," she says.
Coloured is automatically a country music outlier in some senses, simply because it tells her story and doesn't always fit into the mold of a country music "undeniable smash."
"This is my experience. I've experienced being discriminated against," Renea explains. "It wouldn't be authentic for me to talk about sitting on the back of my truck looking at the stars. I don't do that! I lay on a blanket and look at the stars, sure, but I can't lay on the back of my truck in a public place without risk of somebody coming up to ask me, 'What are you doing here?' or 'Is that your vehicle?' My experience is the way I wrote it."
Although the songs she has written for other artists span a wide range of genres, Renea traces her origins as a performer and a songwriter back to country music, and sees those roots in every song she writes to date. "Every song I have ever written, no matter whether it turns into a rap song, an R&B song, a rock song or a pop song -- everything I've ever written is a country song," she says.
""Timber" by Kesha and Pitbull? That's a hoedown! "California King" by Rihanna? That song enabled her to perform with Jennifer Nettles on a country music awards show," Renea notes. "I wrote "Somethin' Bad" for [Lambert] and Carrie Underwood with two of the best country songwriters in the world, Brett James and Chris DeStefano. So people can say that they don't like what I'm doing because of the way I look, but I've already proven that I can offer you something that you will enjoy."
Renea's omnivorous love of art and words doesn't stop with music, either. She begins her "Gentle Hands / Heavenly" video with a Sigmund Freud quote, which reads, "One day, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful." Freud may be an unconventional choice for the opening of a music video, but Renea says that sharing her love of art -- all art -- is an important part of contributing music to the world.
"You only get back what you put out," she says. "If I'm exposing people to literature, great minds and great ideas, then I will continue to be exposed to great ideas, great philosophies, that kind of thing. I hate to sound so deep and philosophical with everything! [But] I feel like it's all connected. Everything's connected."