The Legend that is Renée Geyer. A conversation covering her new show at ACMI, her career and a new album – which, she says, might be her last.
She is one of Australia’s best voices. A career spanning forty-eight years, where she has never compromised or become part of the music machine. A woman that encompasses strength and vulnerability through her deep soul voice. She has recorded fifteen studio albums since her solo debut in 1973. Her catalogue remains overlooked, and deserves to be revisited and cherished. Geyer was prolific in the seventies, though her nineties work is exceptional. “Foggy Highway” is one her greatest performances – the song is akin to The Triffids “Wide Open Road” – where Geyer encapsulates the loneliness of being lost with your thoughts on the Australian road – delivered with such intensity and meaning.
Hearing her husky voice over the phone, it sounds so familiar. Having being told that I strictly have fifteen minutes with Renée, I get straight into the conversation.
As part of Melbourne Music Week 2018, Renée and her band will be performing at the show Bad Girls Disco x Roller Jam, where ACMI will be transformed into a glitter-soaked underground discotheque for one night (20 November). Renée is headlining, with a line-up including Kylie Auldist, Chelsea Wilson and DJ JNETT.
This new show, it sounds like fun. So, what’s the format of your show?
You know it’s 2018, where I am at the moment. And it’s a bit of old stuff, bit of new stuff, and a bit of borrowed stuff. A bit of everything, just like always.
There’s going to be a roller skating rink at this show?
I believe so, but my show just goes on. My show is the same as it always would be, and I am not adapting the show to the venue. We are just doing what we do, and apparently that is just want they want. It’s what we normally do, and again, I will play the best known hits of my past, because if I don’t do it people will get angry! And then I always do a few borrowed bits that I do, of songs of people that I really love, where I do my own versions of these songs. And then, I do some new things – I always decide on the night when I get to the venue. The band pretty much knows me pretty well, so I can give them a setlist closer to the gig and get a sense of what the audience is, what the gig is like when I get there, and then make a decision.
I normally associate you with your great albums, your R&B, funk, pop and rock – a whole variety of genres, but I don’t associate you with disco.
I have never been associated with disco. More R&B and soul music. I am just going to be doing a mixture of what I always do with the band at the moment, which are great Melbourne musicians – a quartet – bass, drums, guitar and keyboards, so they accompany me in what I want to do acoustically or things I want to do with the whole band. My band is very much involved. I am only as good as my band is. And I always decide on the songs at the last minute, and always the songs that remain constant are “Heading in the Right Direction”, “It’s A Man’s World” – you know the things that where playing on the radio a lot when I was younger.
I saw you at Bird’s Basement awhile back, and you were fantastic – I felt sorry for you because you had mascara running into your eyes – but you carried on like a real trouper!
When I get up there I wear my heart on my sleeve. I sweat a lot because of the hot lights – that’s normal. There would be something wrong with me if I wasn’t sweating! You know the thing is, the good thing about performing at this point in my life – you know I have been doing this, you can’t believe this, for nearly fifty years. It’s nearly fifty years since I actually began performing – I started when I was 15. So, I would say that I have been performing forty-eight years professionally on stage doing what I do. And I have never really stopped at any place in time. I do it because I love it and because I have the best job in the world. I can do something that I love, what most people do in their leisure time. And I do it for a living. I am just so lucky to still be here and have people that want me to play for them. So, these people asked us to play, we didn’t call them and ask can we play with you.
I have been going through your wonderful back catalogue over the last three months – I was really taken by your 1994 album Difficult Woman – it’s brilliant, and to me, it certainly deserves more kudos and exposure.
Good for you for remembering that one! That’s not one that people usually point out. Not many people realise that, that album was produced by Paul Kelly. And you know I have got about 22, 23 albums with the Best Of as well, and people don’t realise but each one has its own story. There is a story attached to each of those original albums, and that was one of the most colourful stories, it was recorded in LA, where I was visiting there for a while. And Paul was there at the same time. So, we actually got to be together in Los Angeles, and he was there at the same time as me. I put it to him, could we do this? We just had that gap in time, so we could do it.
On the album, I think you produced the best cover version of The Beach Boys “God Only Knows”. It’s sublime!
Thank you. Thank you very much! That song is one of my all-time favourites that Brian Wilson song. To me, he is my hero. A lot of people only think I like black music and that’s about it. But I have got so many heroes, The Beatles, The Stones, to Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, as well as all my favourites Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, Billy Preston. You know, when people get to finally see me – the ones who haven’t see me but do come – you know it’s important to get the message out there that I am playing. Is that people that haven’t seen me – for instance, back at stage one night, I was in the toilet and I heard these people talking in the bathroom and they were going “Oh my God! I can’t believe that we have waited all this time to see Renée! I didn’t know she was so good”! I was like, Jesus, it took you so long – like 40, 45 years to come and see me! What can you do? You can’t beg people to come and see you! You do what you do. The thing with me, is that I didn’t really have a lot of radio, and really didn’t do a lot of press stuff. And I probably attribute my longevity in this business to the fact that I didn’t do a lot of press. I didn’t sell myself out and do a lot of stuff, so people wouldn’t get sick of me. There is still room for them to come and see me, to see something that hasn’t been overdone. I was criticised a lot in the early days, for not being as pliable to the press and things like that. Now it’s kind of paying off. I don’t do much press anymore even for new gigs. So, it’s a good thing, and I am only here today, because I didn’t overdo it.
Are you recording a new album?
I will be. I am playing it by ear, but sometime in the next year, I would like to do something – another new album. I have collaborated with people on different things and other projects, but I would like to do something of my own again. And I think in the next twelve months it will happen. And it probably might be my last one. I will probably do something, like a tribute to a blues situation, because I have been so influenced by the blues through my life, and I have never really spoken to that. So, I might do something that has to do with that. Some version of a blues record.
When I saw that this show was a disco show, I thought if there was one song that could apply to a disco theme, it would be “All My Love”.
Oh yeah! I wouldn’t know how to do that song! It was a one-off song. Blondie Chaplin wrote that song.
I just saw the videoclip, it just resurfaced on YouTube, you looked great in it, and the clip was really fun!
I didn’t even remember what I did with that one! I always used to rebel against in doing videos. Probably because I wasn’t good – I am only really good when I have a microphone in my hand and I am really singing for real. I have never been good at miming and acting out my situation. So, if it was enjoyable, I am glad, but I don’t remember. I am trying to block it out!
In your career is there one album you are most satisfied with?
You know I couldn’t say that – because there are too many different situations that come into play with each record. You know there are too many good things and bad things that have happened on each record. Where one thing might be great in one area, and one thing not great in another area – all I can say is that because I try and stay true to myself I don’t regret any album. And I might have made some rushed decisions, but overall, I can sleep at night!
Is Charlie Owen going to be part of the band for the new show?
Yes, Charlie is going to be playing with me. He has been a recent addition to the band, and him and I did some work a few years back, and we did some tours together, and we haven’t worked together for a little while. And for the last few months he has been playing with us again, and he is fantastic.
There was some great musical energy between you and Charlie at the last concert I saw you.
He has the rock n’ roll, bit of the caveman thing going. I have a bass and drums, and a smoother keyboard which is sweeter – I have all these contrasts come together and they make the sound.
Will be you be doing any other side shows?
I probably am. But checkout the website, that’s where they are listed. I am always doing something, like I have said before, I have never stopped – I have never taken more than 2 or 3 months off in my life. I am always doing something. If people invite me to do something, I will be there!
When I saw that you were playing at a gig next to my house, I thought it was a real treat!
Good for you! You make me feel so good!
When you did “Foggy Highway” at the end of the gig, you made me cry! Thanks Renée!
We will be doing “Foggy Highway” at this show for sure! That was a Paul Kelly song, the first one I did of his. We did that song in the States. That was my first Paul Kelly, and I stuck with him right through after that. Difficult Woman to me is really special. And I so glad you brought that up.
As we end the conversation, I think to myself if I was living in the USA I would have made sure that I would have seen Aretha Franklin play whenever I could – comparatively, in Australia we have a living legend that is in good voice and still enjoys performing. Not to see her would be musical sacrilege! Go and see this woman and her band perform!
Renée will be playing at of Bad Girls Disco x Roller Jam at The Hub – ACMI on November 20.
Tickets available here: https://mmw.melbourne.vic.gov.au/events/bad-girls-disco