“Oh my god, [s]he was fly. [S]he was witty and sweet. Relaxed and comfortable,” Jill Scott sings—well, more like reflects—on “Some Other Time,” a favorite from her super-fly fourth, The Light of the Sun, a gift from her three Junes ago. It’s a lyric that comes to mind after my phone chat with Lydia Rene, the big-laughing, sweet-speaking songstress ingenue that Philly can claim on a handful of levels. By the way, this girl’s about to blow.
Rene’s dabbled in the background of things for years, providing writing support for dank duo Tejumold and Johari Newton, the once-embattled musical masters behind The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but she’s stepping into the spotlight herself, with a full-on debut album in the works and a couple Philadelphia-area gigs this week. Unfortunately, the songs the three made together never got traction. “They were trying to shop all these songs around [to various artists], and then they’d get shelved,” Rene tells PW, having flown home from her current Los Angeles stomping ground the day before. “That kept happening with every artist,” she says. So now, she’s ready to go it alone.
Her Mt. Holly, N.J. childhood, with parents who were churchgoers but also musicians, gave the impressionable Rene a firm foundation on which to blossom. “Their band was really good,” she says, describing times that were “never really strict. It was nice, loving—and we listened to everything.” James Taylor—whose July appearance at Susquehanna Bank yielded rave reviews from Rene’s mom and dad—Carole King, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire were a few family favorites in her youth. She started on piano at six years old with her dad until she got good enough to take lessons from his piano teacher, an 84-year-old woman Rene says “was killer on that piano. And she could bust out a jazz solo.”
Rene didn’t really start sharing her songs until late into her college years at Philadelphia University, where she studied fashion design. (The latter’s apparent in her photos; it’s obvious this gorgeous girl’s got her own unique style.) Brutally honest Project Runway champion Jay McCarroll was her portfolio teacher for a term, a man who, unsurprisingly, never held back. “He likes to read people,” she admits with another laugh. “He got super real on them. I don’t think a lot of people can handle it. I thought it was hilarious.” On a break from rehearsals for her current string of shows, Rene says she didn’t make music a priority until after she got her B.A. “I was writing songs the whole time,” she reassures. “Was I telling people? Maybe not. I wasn’t ready to showcase myself yet.”
Right now, her band’s perfecting a version of “Wonderwall”—yep, the jam Oasis built. I was more eager to talk about her rendering of “Prototype,” the subtle diamond from Outkast’s 2003 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, to which she does beautifully jazz-flecked justice live in concert. She put out a live album called My Love IS My Life, but took it down from iTunes after a while. “It doesn’t reflect how I sound now,” Rene confesses. “I think the songs are great—they’re well-written and well thought out—but the execution wasn’t there.”
Although Rene’s only dabbled in guitar, someone in her band is knocking fire from it on “Only in Time,” a buoyant, folksy R&B track that’ll definitely be on the forthcoming LP she’s calling Vintage Heart. It’s already on Spotify, as are “Last Night” and “True Love,” also slated for Vintage, which was recorded mostly in Coatesville, PA and a little in the Poconos. These tracks are right on par with some of the artists Rene says she’d been listening to lately: Alice Smith, Lianne La Havas, Laura Mvula, even Snarky Puppy, which may sound a little goofy, but trust, makes total sense. It feels like her heartbeat is comprised of equal parts jazz and soul, R&B, folk and funk.
Throughout the interview, it’s hard not to be struck by Rene’s booming, full-spirited laugh—like when it’s suggested that hardcore Outkast fans prefer Speakerboxxx and Big Boi to Andre 3000’s The Love Below—her calming tone and generous nature. She seems like the kind of girl with whom I’d like to have conversation and verbal elation, some stimulation—maybe share our situations, temptations, education and relaxations. Maybe we could take a cruise and listen to The Roots and eat some passion fruit. Or maybe we could just be silent.
“I first heard ‘A Long Walk’ on the radio in our gymnasium when I was 14,” she recalls, “and ever since then, I’ve been a hardcore Jill Scott fan.” Without saying too much, Rene’s last name is also Scott—which made it just a little bit weirder, but twice as awesome, when she’d get, as feedback, “Oh, you’re so Jill.” She welcomes the opinion with open arms. “That,” she says, “is an awesome, awesome compliment.”
Sat., Aug. 9, 8pm. $10. With Lloyd Alexander + Justin Graham. Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. 215.928.0978. tinangel.com
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014