Songwriting is a tricky business – and nobody knows it better than Rene Russell. After performing in the Lowcountry for more than two decades, Russell released her third album, “Freeverse,” on Jan. 1. The work marks a critical turning point in Russell’s career and it’s worth giving a listen to.
Like so many songwriters, Rene’s career started out with the simple dream of playing music. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Rene realized she wanted to perform during her time at Columbia College. To make that dream a reality, she found herself living in Nashville for a summer after school.
“My roommate and I went to live with a friend. We crashed at his place,” Rene said. “Songwriting was his job, and he went to meetings every day to try and make it work.”
That type of exposure led the singer to pursue her passion, and after a brief stint in Austin, Texas, Russell had recorded a 10-track debut album in San Marcos. It was 1995.
And for 20 years, Russell did what she loved. She played all over Georgia and the Lowcountry, as well as North Carolina hotspots like Asheville.
As any artist knows, great work often comes at great cost. For Rene, that cost was the indulgence of a musical lifestyle.
“Everything I did revolved around a bar,” the singer said. “It was hard to actually move forward musically because I was stuck in the bar scene, drinking and just playing clubs to make ends meet.”
Two years ago, Rene quit drinking and returned to the creative process – a process that led her to her latest (and perhaps most honest) release.
The tone of the album is reminiscent of the soft-spoken (but intricate) guitar playing of James Taylor and Rene’s unique vocal character conjures images of Stevie Nicks.
“Stevie is one of my biggest influences” Rene admits, and many of the songs on “Freeverse” move with the same careful intensity as songs like Nicks’ beloved “Rhiannon.”
The album opens with “Who We Really Are” – a driving, introspective song that establishes the narrative of the 13-song record. With lines like “Sometimes it’s hard to see who we really are inside when our hearts can go so cold; we hold our breath in the wake of our emptiness,” Russell poetically tackles questions that are central to the human experience.
The title track, “Freeverse,” opens with a beautiful, almost haunting succession of notes from Rene’s acoustic guitar, accompanied with low strings and driving percussion. Here Russell’s writing ability really shines; she carries her narrative to a climax, opening the number with “I write my life in free verse form, each line a choice, each page a storm.” The namesake of the album is a sweeping, melodic folk/rock tune sure to please.
“I Know You Better, Still” features layered vocal harmony from Tim Styles (Styles sings and plays on several of the album’s 13 tracks), adding a sincere, compassionate element to the lamenting ballad.
Perhaps most notably, “Love is the Power” conveys Russell’s newfound message of hope with wise sincerity.
“I had this song in my back pocket for years,” the singer said. “It’s a synopsis of the message of this album. It boils down to us having the power to do anything we can imagine. With love we can do anything.”
Ultimately, each track on “Freeverse” paints an honest, melodic picture, rich in sound lyrical quality. For fans of folk/rock music, Rene Russell is a hidden gem. To be clear, her writing makes you stop and think – and some would argue that only the most powerful music has that capability. The record was co-produced by Styles, a rising player in the songwriting community. His new release, “Thistles and Thorns,” can be found at www.reverbnation.com/stylestim.
“Freeverse” is available through iTunes and Spotify. It can also be streamed at www.renerussell.com and downloaded for the price of $15. The singer-songwriter is no stranger to technology and understands the importance of streaming music in today’s market. Consumers are using streaming services such as Spotify more so than ever before. According to Pew Research Center, there were more than 24 million Spotify users in 2013; a trend that shows no signs of slowing.
Still Russell admits, “I miss vinyl records. It was great to have a collection; it was like reading a book.”
In truth, the idea of concept albums has gone by the wayside, given over to a new market driven by short singles. In some ways, it’s a throwback to the musical trends of 1960s pop music, where the average hit lasted a mere two minutes and 30 seconds. Regardless of the ever-changing pop music trends, “Freeverse” is a genuine piece of music, reflecting elements of soul-searching, humanity, hardship and love.
Rene Russell plans to tour in support of “Freeverse” throughout the coming year. She even hopes to leave the comfort of the Southeast and play northern areas around New York City.
Rene Russell will be performing Feb. 14 at Irvin House Vineyards/Firefly Distillery at 1 p.m. She will also be singing on Feb. 18 and 25 at Bushido Asian on Isle of Palms.
Additional performance dates, as well as merchandise and music, can be found at www.renerussell.com.