Eye on the Scene: Ren Geisick

Photo Credit: Carrillo + Decoux

For our periodic blog series Eye on the Scene, we take a closer look at some of the local artists helping make an impact on our jazz community. Our newest addition: Ren Geisick, a powerful vocal presence who is using her jazz chops to illuminate songs from a number of styles in fascinating ways.

As she mentions in her interview, emotion is at the core of her work. It shows in her mutable approach — whether it’s finessing through an understated ballad or belting out her take on Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” with full force — and her key influences: Nina Simone and Eva Cassidy, two unique artists whose respective catalogues defy simple categorization. A walk through her sets may find her handling speedy jazz standards with ease, breathing new life into the work of soul legend Otis Redding, or adding a new spin on contemporary works (she’s recently added songs by pop megastar Bruno Mars and electronic indie darlings Disclosure into her repertoire).

In the time we spent with Geisick, she explained that years of singing in church helped develop her confidence, noted that a set-back in college helped her attack her jazz aspirations with a new ferocity, and provided some background on her two upcoming San Jose Jazz sponsored performances — her May 15 tribute to Nina Simone and her Free Jazz Wednesdays performance May 28.

What are some of your first musical memories?

I have a few. When I was three, I watched the movie The Little Mermaid a hundred times that year, pretty much every day. I sang “Part of Your World’ all the time. I was obsessed with it.

We were always into oldies music in my house. When CD’s first became a thing, somebody bought the soundtrack to Forrest Gump.  It had all these really great old songs that my parents were super into. I remember my brother blasting it and us all as a family running around the house and dancing and being crazy, singing along to all the songs.

Had the thought of becoming a professional singer crossed your mind at that age?

I didn’t really think about it. I just knew it was the only thing that I really, really loved.

Church had a huge impact on me with singing, because I was in the children’s choir and I started singing for the contemporary service at my church when I was really young. I’m still doing it. I think I was eight years old when I first sang in front of my church. I sang “Silent Night” and it was this big moment. People still talk about it. [Laughs]

Do you remember your first entry point to jazz?

My mom really liked Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, [along with] some Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, so I listened to a lot of that growing up. I wasn’t particularly a “jazzer” until I auditioned for schools.

I was trying to figure out colleges and I auditioned for Cal State Long Beach. When I was researching the school, I saw they had a really good jazz program, so I learned some jazz songs for the audition. I also auditioned for the New School in New York and learned a couple songs. But I wasn’t a jazzer; I became a jazzer in college.

Because I listened to so much old school jazz as I was growing up, I knew what a swing feel felt like. People tell me I swing more like Nat King Cole – very quarter note swing. It’s kind of hard to describe. I think that my influences with jazz were really in the older styles.

Then I became obsessed with this singer Eva Cassidy. I became really invested in her in high school. She sang every style because she died before anybody knew who she was. They released everything she ever made: blues, jazz, folk, pop . . .  [They were] basically the best interpretations I had ever heard. She did Beatles songs and they were better than the Beatles to me.

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photo credit: Carrillo + Decoux 

What was it about her sound that really captivated you on first listen?

It was very connected emotionally and kind of haunting. There’s this one song she does, “Autumn Leaves,” which is one of the most standard standards of jazz, but instead of doing it as a swing – most people do it as a medium swing – she did it with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. She really slowed it down, and it’s this incredibly haunting rendition. I actually didn’t know that it was a really popular jazz song when I first heard her version. Then when I heard people doing it as a song, I thought, “This is the saddest song ever. Why would you ever do it as a swing?” [Laughs]

Touching upon college, you got accepted at Long Beach. You said you did two years of classical voice before jumping into jazz. When you first got accepted, was the plan all along to take the jazz route?

The plan was always to go into jazz. When I auditioned for the program at Long Beach, I learned my little classical song. Mind you, I had never sung classical by myself. I learned this German song and was ready to sing it. I’m sitting outside the door of the audition, and the name on the office in front of me is Christine Guter. She was the Director of Vocal Jazz. I had emailed her earlier and said “I’m really interested in your program.” When I saw her walk in, she totally remembered me, and said “Just come knock on my door when it’s time for your audition and I’ll sit in.”

She sat in on my audition. I sang the classical piece, and my second piece was “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, but I didn’t have regular sheet music for it. I basically had a jazz lead sheet, and the classical pianist, who was the accompaniment for the audition, said “I can’t play this. This isn’t sheet music.” Christine thankfully was in the audition. She went “Oh, I can play it,” and she played it swing. I counted it off like a swing tune and I sang it like it was jazz, even though it was supposed to be a musical theatre piece.

I left that audition space, and Christine comes running after me. She was like “So . . . You’re accepted.” [Laughs] “You’ll have to do two years of classical voice, but you’ll have to do that with me. Then you’ll transition into jazz.”

That was the plan all along, though there was a little bit of a speed bump. After the two years of classical voice, I auditioned for the jazz program and initially did not get in. I had one really, really tough semester of working hard and trying to get better at some of that stuff. It was good for me, because it gave me an opportunity to try and work really hard to get the thing that I wanted. Then I got into the jazz program and spent the rest of the time in the program convincing people that I belonged there. I think I did by the time I left.

Was it clear at that point you understood why you didn’t get in initially, or was there a lot of soul-searching during that time?

It was really hard when that decision came down. Christine was devastated. She wanted to accept me. She called me [to tell me] – she was crying and I was crying; it was horrible.

The next semester, I came in and went to her office and just said “I don’t want to be a classical voice major. This is not what I want to do. Do you think I am good enough to be a jazz major?”

She said “Ren, I think you could be a classical major and you’ve got a great classical voice, and if you want to do jazz, you’re going to have to really, want it,” but she said that I was good at it. She said of the people that auditioned and other people that got in, the director of the jazz program liked my style the most. It was just those technical aspects that I had missed that I needed to improve on.

She let me come into her office hours every week. I worked on sight singing for her. I took jazz improv and went to the office hours every single time for that. It was really hard because I was in the jazz improv class with my friends, who were in my same grade. They had gotten in the jazz program, and I hadn’t.

I just really lacked confidence. but once I got in, my confidence was back. I was like “Alright. I belong here. I can do this.” I didn’t really talk about it after that. It happened. It was hard, and then I wanted everyone to forget I had not gotten it [initially].

Do you consider Professor Guter a mentor in your upbringing?

Yeah. She taught me so much about technique and about the voice, being emotional in delivery but not crying or anything.  I would sometimes get overly emotional, and she would say “You can’t do that, because what you’re doing is becoming a vessel for the music. You’re giving [the audience] the opportunity to feel the emotions. If you get emotional to the point that you can’t deliver that performance, then you’re taking away from them their ability to be in the moment and to feel whatever you’re trying to get them to feel.” She was just really an amazing teacher.

My other main mentor is Joanne, who was the music director at my church as I was growing up through high school and college. Every time I came home during college, I would sing with her. She had a huge impact on me.

What did she provide for you?

She just gave me a lot of confidence. She got me involved in the Gospel Music Association seminar Music in the Rockies. It was this Christian singing competition. She really encouraged me to go to that, and she really gave me a lot of opportunities to sing different types of music in front of my church.

Singing in front of a church is the best practice, because it’s a loving environment. Nobody’s judging you. Everybody’s rooting for you. For me, it’s where I learned that no matter where you are, the audience is always on your side.

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photo credit: Carrillo + Decoux

Having a background in gospel to pull from, how do you think that experience informs how you approach jazz?

I think it just influences me in my emotional connection to lyrics and songs, because when you’re singing for church, that feeling of being a vessel for the music is very clear.

I’ve been singing “O Holy Night” every Christmas for a million years at my church. When I sing it, I still feel like I am giving this song to the people: this is what they need to hear right now, and I’m going to give it to them and just really feel it in a way that allows them to feel these emotions. I think that can be translated into any kind of music, that really emotional connection to the lyric and to the song, and trying to connect that to the people and to their hearts.

What does it mean to you to be a jazz singer?

In jazz, with the songs and the melody, everything is so intricate. There’s a lot to do with style in there, and you really have to know the idiom to be able to convey the style and meaning of those songs. It has to be a combination of the technical aspects and the really emotional aspects, but for me it’s always been more about the emotion than anything else. Nina Simone, Eva Cassidy – these are my favorite singers. Their approach is really raw. It’s really about the emotion. To me, that’s the most important part.

I’m a jazz singer because I studied jazz, but I sing all kinds of music.

So do you feel like being called a jazz singer is almost too much of a label for you at times?

Sometimes. Jazz tends to be a more studied art form, so it almost gives you more credibility than just saying you’re a singer, because everybody says they’re a singer. Being a jazz singer feels a little bit more credible.

Do you think jazz study has given you an ability to approach songs from many different genres in a more nuanced way?

Yeah, because you have the technical skills and the ear to pick up on the subtleties of different music styles that help you deliver in a way that’s going to be the most connected version of that song.

Speaking of Nina Simone, you do have a tribute show for Nina Simone happening this Thursday at Blackbird Tavern as part of their Tribute Residency showcase this month. She’s admittedly a favorite of yours. What made you decide to work on an entire night that pays tribute to her catalog, and why is she such an important influence to you – why Nina and why now?

I’ve been thinking about doing a tribute to her for a long time. Her music really touches me. She’s just an incredible artist and so connected emotionally to her work. She’s an amazing piano player. I love her story too: [she was a] civil rights activist. She’s this fierce woman who’s taking over. I love her.

I love Nina Simone for some of the same reaons that I love Eva Cassidy. She considered herself more of a folk singer, actually. I’m reading her autobiography right now and she says “If you have to call me anything, call me a folk singer.” She does folk music and pop music and jazz and gospel and blues. She’s not confined in any one genre. That’s my goal in the long term – to feel my voice and my presence are enough to connect all the different genres and the styles that have influenced me and that I would want to sing.

I love that she didn’t take crap from anybody and just had this incredible style and incredible emotion. She really just gave everything, and I aspire to be like her in that way.

I’m also very excited for the line-up for this Nine Simone gig. I’ve got Jason Lewis on drums, John Shifflett on bass, and Brian Ho on piano. They are some of the best in the South Bay, and I feel so lucky that they said yes to performing with me. I think I might have some special guests too. I might have some rhythm guitar on a couple songs and some horn – trumpet or maybe saxophone.

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photo credit: Carrillo + Decoux

You have a quick turn around in terms of San Jose Jazz sponsored shows. After your Nina Simone show, you return to the Fairmont for Free Jazz Wednesdays May 29. What do you have in store for that show, and who will be supporting you?

I’m trying to put together some original music in the pop / soul category, although it is jazzy. Everything I do is jazz influenced. I’m trying to do some originals and some re-harms and arrangements I’ve come up with for different folk songs, and some more modern, popular music that I’ve recently gotten into. I’ve got Kevin McCullough on piano. This amazing drummer, John Anning, is on drums. He’s an older cat and really good – a very sensitive drummer. Then Danny Gerz, one of my good friends, is on bass, and Shawn Williams is going to be playing trumpet. It’s a nice little quintet.

Before you moved back to San Jose, you actually spent six months singing on a cruise ship. Tell me a bit about that experience. I’m sure it’s its own little world.

[Laughs] It’s definitely its own little world. It was really fun. One of the benefits of being on a cruise ship is that the audience changes every four or five days, so if you mess up on one cruise then you get another cruise to try it out again. It did definitely improve my confidence. I realized that I could sing anything. I had sung jazz and I had sung in choir and I had sung in church and had sung in theatre, but I had never tried to sing anything like Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle.” I didn’t know I could sing like that. I didn’t know I could do any of that crazy stuff, but I just pushed myself to learn it and to really own it. I gained a lot of confidence going outside of my comfort zone and realizing that I could sing anything I wanted to sing.

It wasn’t something that I wanted to do for a long time, because I feel you can get stuck on ships. You can’t really build a career on a ship, but I feel like it was a great experience for me and a real opportunity to grow and gain some much-needed confidence.

So far, your musical journey seems to have led you from The Little Mermaid to Nina Simone. What’s next?

I’m trying to get a really good live recording of the Nina Simone thing that I can hopefully put out into the world. In the coming months, I’m going to start trying to record a project, get out some of those re-harms and the work that I’ve been doing on arranging and writing.

I just want to travel and get out there as much as I can – define the product. I think that’s probably going be pretty important as I go along here. But the thing is, all my favorite artists are totally undefinable. [Laughs] I don’t know if I can get away with that quite yet. I might just have to pick a direction and go in that direction for a while until I can open up and do whatever I darn well please.

Ren Geisick performs a tribute to Nina Simone May 15 at Blackbird Tavern as part of their Tribute Residency series. She will also be performing as part of Free Jazz Wednesdays May 28 inside the Fairmont’s Lobby Lounge. For more info on Ren Geisick, you can like her page on Facebook or visit rensings.com.