She has the requisite phrasing, repertoire, sense of swing and willingness to take chances — and yet vocalist and songwriter René Marie says she is an accidental jazz singer.
“I ended up taking the jazz approach because when I first wanted to sing the only people I knew who had a band were jazz musicians,” she says. “I believe if it had been a band that played other kind of music I would’ve started singing that. I love all music.”
It was a felicitous accident — and a long time coming.
Though she only began performing professionally in her early 40s, René Marie, 57, has released 10 albums and several singles. Her repertoire includes standards and Americana (writ large, from America the Beautiful and My Country ’Tis of Thee to The Temptations’ Just My Imagination and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit) as well as her own songs, which often address difficult issues such as abuse, homelessness and racism.
René Marie is appearing with her trio Friday through Sunday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.
“I’m so excited about these shows because usually, we come into a town and do one night,” she says by telephone from her home in Virginia. “This time we have four shows in three days so this allows the group to really expand on our set list. We have so many songs we’ve been doing all these years. … No two sets will be the same.”
Born René Marie Stevens in Warrenton, Va., she grew up listening to “all kinds of music: folk, blues, country music. I think the music that appealed most to me was Harry Belafonte. He always sang with a lot of joy. Odetta sang the blues and sang with a lot of emotion, too. But I didn’t try to copy anyone.”
Marie’s casually sophisticated and dramatic performance style suggests a painstakingly polished craft, yet she never had formal training.
“I’ve been singing since I was a little girl,” she says. “…I always knew I felt things very strongly musically speaking. My parents encouraged me to be that way.”
She married at 18, and by 23 she was the mother of two, a member of a strict religious group and focused on raising a family. In 1996, encouraged by her eldest son, Marie decided to pursue a singing career, which two years later led to a confrontation with her husband and the end of their marriage.
“I was preparing to record my very first CD, and the night before we were to go into the studio he came and told me to cancel all plans, tell the musicians that there are no more gigs and to stop singing. And he said, ‘If you don’t you have to move out.’ And I left. Not because I wanted to sing so badly, but because I didn’t want to live with somebody who thought they could issue an ultimatum like that.”
As she was packing to leave, “things got violent,” she says, and she never went back.
The same courage of her convictions informs Marie’s writing in songs like This is (not) a Protest Song, a pointed look at homelessness, and Three Nooses Hanging, her commentary on a Louisiana case in which six black teenagers were convicted of beating a white student, and her one-act play Slut Energy Theory, which traces a woman’s path from sexual abuse to self-esteem.
“Surely I’m not the only one with these things on my mind,” she says softly. “Take the song about homelessness. I had no problem walking past them and ignoring them. I’m not proud of that, but that’s how it was. But then my brother became homeless and I looked at the people on the street totally differently.
“… So in trying to come to terms with it I thought, ‘Surely I’m not the only person who looks at homeless people and thinks, “How do I respond to this?” Am I the only one who has a relative, a friend, a neighbor who was homeless? I don’t think so. That gave me the courage to sing about this. We can’t just sing about love or fun things. We need to sing about things that make us cry, or conflicted or angry and give voice to that, too.”