return to front page

Interview: Renee Sebastian by Paul Wehage

Renee Sebastian

can be found at
IndieMusicPeople.com and ReneeSebastian.com

Clicking around IndieMusicPeople.com is always kind of an adventure; you never quite know what you’re going to come up with and more often than not, you come up with something so good that makes you wonder why some big name producer with a big label hasn’t snapped it up already.

Finding Renee Sebastian’s music was like that: you simply can’t believe that it’s not pouring out of radio speakers all over the World. The woman has the voice, the delivery and a natural feel for R and B and Jazz influences combined with original music and lyrics which show both craft and thought. She’s got it all musically....and she’s a beautiful woman on top of all of that. I decided that I wanted to know more and caught up with her during a pause in the recording sessions for her debut album “Reneessance”. Finding out about her life and musical roots was a fascinating experience:

PW: Hello Renee and thank you for taking time out your busy schedule to answer my questions. I’d like to know about who this person Renee Sebastian is. Let’s start with your childhood. You were born and raised in the Philippines. How did growing up in that very "performance" oriented country shape your future as a singer? Do you use your "roots" when you're going through the creative process?

RS: Growing up in Manila certainly helped shape my love for music. I mean, it certainly helps when you grow up in a culture that considers music as an integral part of everyday life. Radio pop love songs are the "thing" there and perhaps is the reason why I have a good understanding of pop song structure and melodies. Although, I constantly craved for something else unique which I found in jazz and R&B.


PW: ...So this was basically where you found your style?

RS: There are also an abundance of talented vocalists in Manila who can "perform" Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey songs, etc. This is where I quickly learned that the art of singing is a balance between vocal technique and individual style. I've accepted I'm not Whitney, not Mariah, and I am quite simply Renee Sebastian. This is why I love mentioning in my songs "I surrender" because this is exactly what I'm doing, I'm giving you all of me.


PW; I’ve seen from your photos and the short video clip on your site http://www.reneesebastian.com that you have an incredible stage prsence. How did you pick that up?

RS: Stage showmanship is something I learned in grammar and high school. I was a trained dancer and was used to putting together school productions and benefits for large crowds. Even then, I had basic dance techniques in my arsenal but I still listened to the music and created my own movement as a response. This is still very true with how I create my music today.


PW: So do you still draw on your “ethnic roots” when you’re writing music or performing?

RS: I always write music in the moment. A thought always comes in a whisper and I let it take its own course. I don't go out of my way to make it "ethnic" or slap an East-West fusion formula. That ain't me. I pay attention to trends, for sure, but only so that I can go against it. I hope to do my people proud by painting a picture of my heritage through my actions and the words of my music. Last year, I did go home to clear my mind and get back in touch with who I really am. From that experience, the song "Exotic" was born which contains references to the beautiful sights from my last visit to the Island of Boracay.


PW: You now live in the US and the material that I've heard from you comes from a sophisticated mix of jazz, Soul, and R and B. You seem to have completely made this style your own. How can you explain your ease in "slipping" into this musical culture? Were you a blues singer in a past life or something? (that's a joke, by the way!)

RS: Nothing I have done or currently taking on is "easy". I do find it effortless to create R&B jazz harmonies. Believe it or not, although I did take classical piano when I was young, I do not know enough about the "mathematics" of jazz chords. In fact, other musicians are afraid to teach me too much theory for fear that I might lose the sincerity of my music progressions. Producing my own music challenged me even further and brought out my love for fusing jazz, soul, and R&B. I rely heavily on my ear. I always hear these first and then I search for what I just heard.


PW: How did you pick this up, living in Manila?

RS: I am thankful that my parents exposed me to a wide variety of music from Paul Anka, The Eagles, James Taylor, Michael McDonald, Earl Klugh, Roberta Flack to name a few. And, thank God I heard Anita Baker's music on wax which I think sealed the deal when it comes to my affinity for R&B singing, big music, and real live instruments! Later on, going to college in Jersey City, exposed me to contemporary artists like Mary J Blige, Toni Braxton, Erykah Badu, and my absolute favorite Me'shell ndegeocello. I lean on these artists for inspiration but ultimately I step away and get back to what my soul is screaming to let out.


PW: Kind of a aside here: Do you ever feel strange about working in R and B and not being exactly from that culture? Do people ever react strangely when they realize who you are?

RS: I do worry about acceptance into the R&B culture. I've had both situations when people meet me first and I tell them I sing R&B and they automatically assume I can't "sing" like a sista or when people hear me first and are surprise to find that I am not black. For now I focus on listening to my own instincts when it comes to writing and producing music. Just keeping it true to my character. When the album drops, I leave it up to the listeners to judge what my music is and whether it can be categorized as R&B. And, so long as they love it, I have no problems whichever category they place it under.


PW: In your lyrics, I hear a lot of references to feminism, but in a very sensual, sexy way. How do you find an equilibrium between "respect" and the sexy, sensual image that you give in your performances and stage image? Do you think that these two concepts are in contradiction or can they somehow work together?

RS: I am a very affectionate person. I am also not shy about sensuality. I am a woman after all. And I can get nasty if I want to but I choose to do that in my private time. Some people think showing a lot of skin is sexy. Other's think raunchy lyrics titillate. I think both of those are hot. But I like keeping my men on their toes. I think stretching the imagination is far more difficult to achieve and that's why most people opt out of this approach. To leave someone longing is an art but in all honesty, I'm just being myself. It's not an image that I work hard on or try to manufacture. At the end of the day, I am a strong woman and I've experienced a lot of pain but don't forget I'm still a woman with needs and I'm not afraid to say it. I can't really help it if I'm playful. I'm sure there are a lot of women who feel exactly the way I do!


PW: But how do you keep this balance when the Record industry is so much based on looks and especially on sex appeal?

RS: It is difficult especially in the music industry to find a balance between respect and sensuality. I experienced this on my first single release "Deliciously Dangerous" which teetered between the two. I felt I wasn't getting the respect from some who immediately assumed that my talents ended with my looks. I just fired back with "Simple Woman" which was my first effort to produce and write on my own. The success of "Simple Woman" in independent artist sites like IAC and the fact that it is well received is vindication enough for me.


PW: Listening to Ana Lovelis’s song “I’m A Girl” is sort of another look at that kind of thinking, by pointing out that the woman is really in power because she knows that guys will do anything she wants. I see something else in your music, which is sexy, yet defines the limits really clearly....but in a sensual way...

RS: Respecting a sensual woman isn't impossible. It boils down to how one demands it. It's how far you are willing to go with sensuality and at what cost. I want you to want me but I don't want you to forget that I don't take crap from nobody. That's the balance.


PW: Let’s talk about the songwriter. I have a favorite quote by Martha Graham that I often read when I need to refocus. I'd like you to read it and react to it, as it relates to your creative process:

"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.

RS: I sometimes fall victim to this. I do judge what I am capable of and I tell myself I can't do it. I probably do this because of my fear of the unknown. Am I really this good? How can I do this when I do not know how to? Will they like it? These were the very questions that ran through my head when I was thinking of producing my own song for the very first time. Sometimes having faith in yourself is key because it prevents your head from judging what you are capable of. If I had blocked this expression, I would've never discovered my potential and you wouldn't have discovered another dimension of me.


PW: Continuing the Martha Graham Quote: "It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."

RS: A good friend of mine once reminded me that it isn't my job to figure out what my sound is. My job is to keep on creating music and never stop. The rest will fall into place. This is much in line with your quote. I believe this but being the business person that I am, it is sometimes difficult not to measure my creations. How can you not compare in a business that is pure competition? So, when I'm creating I absolutely listen to my instincts and in tune with what inspires me artistically. And because I am an independent artist, when I toggle as label executive, I remind myself that I believe in my work but it's rough out there and only the smart ones survive.


PW: Well, it looks like you’ve got the “smart” part covered well enough! Other than your page here, what’s the best way to follow your career?

RS: There’s my website http://www.reneesebastian.com which has information about my album as well as all of my performance dates and venues. You can also sign up for my mailing list by sending an email to info@reneesebastian.com.


PW: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

RS: Thank you.