Interview with Renee ‘Raie’ Benson
“Thank you Renee, for teaching me how to turn my broken heart into a song.”
Ghislaine, Visual Artist, commenting on Introduction to Songwriting, January 2015
On 23 and 24 January 2016, New York soul singer (and much else besides) Renee ‘Raie’ Benson will be hosting a Write Now workshop, Beyond the Basics of Songwriting. The workshop will build on Introduction to Songwriting, which she ran in January 2015. This workshop will look more closely at the technical and emotional aspects of songwriting, focusing on the art of arranging music, using and understanding chord progressions, and developing strong musical intent.
Tim Martinz-Lywood spoke to Renee about what writers can learn from the process of writing a song, what she does in her spare time to help her musical creativity, and what advice she would give a young singer starting out on her career…
Hi Renee, thanks for taking the time out to talk to us! What have you been up to in the past year since Introduction to Songwriting?
It’s been quite a year, Tim! Since the last workshop with Write Now, I’ve performed in New Orleans (always a dream of mine), taught in the NorthWest Territories of Canada (teaching songwriting and singing with First Nations youth), flown an eight-seater passenger plane, taught and led an arts programme for young women in the South Bronx of NY, started writing my first solo album, and worked as the Musical Director for Caravan Stage Theater Co (in New York). I’ve also just finished a Gospel tour throughout Austria. So a busy year, all told.
How did you meet the musicians you’re working with currently?
The members of No Home for Johnny came together through horn player Julian Prueschl. He had an idea for a project combining jazz and hip hop with a singer who could sing intricate jazz lines and rap (and most importantly write her own music).
The group’s killer rhythm section, Raphael Prueschl and Michael Prozwanik, was Julian’s first choice (and not just because he grew up with Raphael!) The group was originally the brainchild of Julian and Vincent Pongracz, but Peter Rom of Jazzwerkstatt joined us after Vincent left. Peter brought sounds and melodies to our music we’d never even dreamt of.
Meaghan and I, of Cheating on New York, met here in Vienna, although we are both New Yorkers. We instantly found each other’s wild and quirky energies charming, and have worked together ever since.
Where can people see you performing in Vienna in the near future?
Well, my time here is coming to an end, as I will soon be off to work on my youth programmes in North America. But for Nina Simone fans, I am doing a tribute at the Albertina Passage in Vienna, at 10.00 pm on 21 January.
What do you like to do outside of music that contributes to your musicality?
Nothing. Music is everywhere in life. Every moment contributes to my music. I am a writer. Even flying a plane has its own melody.
What are some typical mistakes people make when trying to write a song, do you think?
Overwriting! So many songs have too many words, too many images and too many metaphors in them. There is no space for the listener to breathe, capture the moment, pack their bags and take a trip with you. I think many songwriters want their audience to understand their music, and strange as it may sound, this is not necessary. Interpretation is important. Your listener will always apply the music to their life in the way they need. It is vital for a writer to understand when their music is for the people, because at that moment it no longer belongs to you.
How does writing a song differ from writing a short story, or a poem?
It doesn’t. I write short stories and poems all the time. In fact, I am thinking of publishing my own poetry book in 2017 since I have so much material. All the rules apply. That’s why some short stories sound great with a soundtrack in the background.
What might a budding writer of other styles take from your creative process to make their own stories more readable?
Trust. I never appreciated how lucky I have been as an artist to be raised by a community that always allowed me to be myself. My mother never punished me for my grades, but would ask what I needed to do better with my studies. My dance teacher never told me to lose weight, so I happily twirled through numerous dance competitions through my youth winning awards with thick thighs and a big smile. Because I never had to conform, I never did. Working with me means I’m working with you. My style is mindful and always based on what my student needs and who they are. I mean, it’s their life, right? Why would I ask them to write MY story?
You’re sitting in a bar alone after a gig. A young woman sits down next to you, orders a drink and tells you she’s about to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. What should she do – and what should she be sure not to do?
I would laugh and say, “Do it! The world needs music! They need love and most importantly, the world needs you. Oh, and I’m teaching a workshop with Write Now you need to attend.”
On the second point: I never tell people not to do anything. Our journeys are important to travel alone. I provide resources, not advice. In fact, I tell people to trust their bad decisions because you can write about those as well.
What should people expect to take away with them from Beyond the Basics of Songwriting?
I want my writers to leave after two days feeling like they have begun a song they have been trying to write all of their lives. This time, they will think about what the band plays, where they want the song to be heard (venue, radio, recording), and whether they want to perform it themselves or have another singer do so. Most importantly, I want my writers to let their music live on its own (without judgements or emotional ties).
Inspiration should be the big take away. The inspiration to do what you have to to have your music heard or just complete the song (because we all have different goals and intentions when we write).
Renee Benson, aka Raie, is a singer, songwriter, emcee, writer, educator and arts education advocate. Her voice has taken her to Eurovision, PopFest, FM4 and to headline at events throughout Europe. She is the lead singer of No Home for Johnny, an experimental jazz and hip hop collective and a member of Freudian cabaret duo Cheating on New York. She has taught for GirlsRock, What’sYourStory, InMyWords and of course Write Now, and run workshops for a wide range of universities, charities and other organisations.
To find out more about joining Renee’s workshop, Beyond the Basics of Songwriting, just go to www.writenow.at now!