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Interview: Priscilla Renea – Singer and Songwriter

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Several years ago, Priscilla Renea made her grand debut on YouTube – posting home-made videos from the comfort of her home in Vero Beach, Florida. And through the use of several innovative marketing techniques, Renea amassed a sizable online following and landed a recording deal with Capitol Records. Her debut album, Jukebox, was released on December 1, 2009.

Like the album’s title suggests, Priscilla Renea is an eclectic artist. On Jukebox, she masterfully fuses elements of rock, pop, and R&B, with select tracks evoking the spirit of contemporary artists like Katy Perry (“Dollhouse”), Rihanna (“Lovesick”), and Keyshia Cole (“Pretty Girl”).

In the midst of a promotional tour for Jukebox, Priscilla Renea managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on her YouTube experience, the inspiration behind “Rockabye Baby,” and the video shoot for “Dollhouse.”

You are the product of a musical household. Your mother was a lead singer in a band, and your father was a singer and a trumpeter as well. During the early stage of your life, how did their love and passion for music influence your own?

Well, my mom was always listening to old school records. I was always having to listen to Frank Mendenhall — I don't even know if anybody even knows who that is! [laughing] And Johnnie Taylor! [laughing continues] But she never really encouraged me to be a singer. It's just something that I did.

My dad always wanted me to play an instrument, so he started me out on piano lessons. I wasn't complaining, but it was kind of hard, because we were Navy. We were moving around at least every six to eight months, and it was very hard to be consistent with the lessons. So I kind of fell off on that. I think my mom knew that I wanted to sing — and she didn't want to discourage me — but she definitely wasn’t pushing me to do it. I guess she saw the bad side of it and she didn't want me to get taken advantage of, or get my hopes up. She's definitely happy for me now.

As you were growing into the business, did your mother ever give you any advice that stemmed from her musical experiences? You mentioned that she was slightly apprehensive.

She's very quiet about her musical past. She still never even really told me what happened, actually. The only thing that she did tell me is that this guy wanted to sign a band, and the band went ahead and signed with him. She had no idea that they had signed, and he figured that since they signed with him, he had control over my mom. So he came in one day, and he was trying to tell them what to do, and she said, "I don't have to be in this band. I'm just doing this for fun, and this isn't fun any more, so I quit." And so, she quit, and that's all she's ever told me about it.

Although you grew up in a musical household, at what point did you realized that you wanted to pursue music professionally?

I always knew that I wanted to perform, and I never really thought of it as a job. I wanted to be on stage, do Broadway. I would see people on TV performing and just think: “Oh, I can do that.” I was very into musical theatre in middle school and high school, even through college and now, still.

At what point did you pick up the guitar? I noticed that you play that instrument as well.

Oh, yeah. I just started playing guitar fairly recently. My step-dad got me one for Christmas in 2007. He just bought me this old guitar and I was so excited when he gave it to me. Didn't have a clue that there were other kinds of guitars with other kinds of strings. But I just really wanted to play! [laughing]

You cover a lot of territory on your debut album. As a new artist, I was surprised by the level of confidence you had in tackling some heavy social issues, especially those that affect women. In "Rockabye Baby," for example, you address teen pregnancy.

I have to be honest. When I wrote half of these songs, I didn't go into it with the mindset that I have to empower women, or I have to talk about pressing issues, because even with that song, that song came out of a rush. Kenny Kold, [Power Entertainment/rewoP Music CEO], who I'm signed to, left the house and left me and his brother there. He said, "When I come back, I want to hear some songs you have.” So, we were like, "Whatever." We were up there, playing on the Wii and watching TV, eating. And then he calls and says, "Oh, I'm five minutes away," and we were saying, "Oh, crap. We haven't done anything." [laughing] So we went downstairs and in literally five minutes, wrote the entire song. That's just what it turned into, and I'm happy that I can talk about something so important. It is a pressing issue right now. Who wants their daughter to be pregnant at fifteen? I certainly don't.

With the success of “Dollhouse,” you have been thrust in the national spotlight, and many young ladies look up to you as a role model. Is there another issue that you're really sensitive about?

Although I address a great deal on my album, I do have mixed feelings about children and the Internet. The Internet makes you feel like you think you know somebody, and you end up doing things that you shouldn't be doing, especially for younger kids. You think you're in love, and you're sending pictures and you're texting. The Internet and technology has made things a lot more accessible, that children would not be doing if they had parents screening online content, what girl comes over your house or what guy comes over. They don't have to now, because we have the text messaging. You just put you message in, and all that. I think that's a really important issue that people are overlooking. I don't have any songs about it on the album, but if I get asked to be a spokesperson, I definitely will talk about that.

Well, the Internet definitely has its fair share of blessings, as well as its fair share of curses. And the current generation is the first to be raised with the Internet at their fingertips. I’m still amazed at how the music industry has evolved this past decade, with the death of Napster, the rise of iTunes and the global interaction on sites like YouTube. How difficult was it for your to transfer your career, as an amateur singer on YouTube, into a professional singer, on a major record label?

Since I started my career on YouTube, I had to be very careful, because it is easy to be coined as a "YouTube artist." It's very hard to come off the computer and actually translate it into an actual person. Just like with American Idol, sometimes, it's hard to get rid of that association. There’s a couple of artists who have made successful transitions, like Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia and Chris Daughtry. They were able to escape the American Idol stereotype.

Same thing with the Internet. It's very hard to not get stuck in that hole. “She's from YouTube. Oh, he's from…” Luckily for me, I got signed by a major label, [Capitol Records], so I think it will be a lot easier for me to get rid of that stigma. A lot of people had no clue about my YouTube days, when I was going through the signing process. But when they went back and did research, they found out that I already had a following, so that made the transition so much easier, because they already knew my demographic and what people were watching me. It wasn't like they had to start from scratch and build from the ground up. They didn't have to do any experiments.

So it was important for me to separate myself, and have people take me seriously, because the minute they hear YouTube, they're automatically thinking karaoke! [laughing] I also write all of my songs, as well. So that helped me stand out as well.

As I was listening to Jukebox, I noticed that the YouTube tracks on your Hello My Apple EP were left off. Was that part of your attempt to shake the YouTube stigma?

I didn't want to shake YouTube at all, because that's where I came from. I wanted people to know that I was taking another step further and showcase my versatility. The songs that are on YouTube were just for YouTube. When I made them, I worked with the tools that I was afforded. I didn’t have any big-name producers or top-notch production. And no one was going to make me a beat for free, just so I can go put it up on YouTube! [laughing] The three songs that are on my EP were done with just my guitar, or production that I could find for free online. So the EP was definitely something I wanted to do for the fans, so they could see that I was moving up. It was part of the transition process. I'm glad that we did the EP, so I could wet their palette until the real thing came out.

After listening to Jukebox, I think my favorite track is "Lovesick." [laughing] I think everyone can relate to a certain degree.

That was one of the more fun songs to do on the album, because it seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was saying a bunch of stuff that made no sense. But that’s the point, because the girl is going crazy.

Well, love will make you go crazy, sometimes! [laughing]

Exactly! [laughing] When people are lovesick, they talk about a whole bunch of crazy stuff that doesn't make any sense. And in this particular song, she's obsessed.

Now the lead single for this album was "Dollhouse." Was there a particular rationale for introducing yourself to the public with that particular song?

Well, you can't just force your differences on somebody. As you heard, that's the only song on the album that sounds like that. It's very real for me, and it's a good thing, because it's what people are hearing right now — very familiar, but at the same time, it's so different because it's not talking about the typical, I love you, I hate you. It's kind of like an empowerment song for women, don't treat me like a doll. I wanted to give people a taste of my different musical interests. They might get the wrong impression, but that's okay, because there's going to be more than one single, and when they hear the rest of them, they will get it.

The “Dollhouse” video was directed by Rich Lee. Concept-wise, it's very engaging, very entertaining. Since this was your very first professional video shoot, what lessons did you learn from Rich on the set?

It was a new experience for me because, even with the YouTube videos, I had to set the camera up myself. Don’t get me wrong. I'm not comparing my directing skills to Rich's on any level, because he's amazing. But it was very hard for me, because I like to be very involved. People were asking me, "Can I get you anything? Can I do this? Can I do that?" I'm not used to that. I'm used to doing everything myself. I definitely learned that it's a lot harder than it looks. The lights were literally a foot away from me, and by the end of the day, I was drenched in sweat, because of the shooting techniques that were used in the video.

Everything appears far off in the distance, as he focused the camera. But in order to keep everything in focus, you have to light it very brightly, so that the camera wouldn't fuzz it up. You know when you zoom in on something in the distance, something in the foreground is very fuzzy? So in order to keep it all the same, he had to keep the light the same all the way across the board. And I was s-w-e-a-t-i-n-g! [laughing]

Well, the final product is awesome. But viewers, like myself, rarely get to see the hard work that goes into the process.

Yeah. It was a great experience. And I learned a lot! I’m just happy that the video has been received positively. I can’t wait to shoot the next one!

For more information on Priscilla Renea, visit her official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Priscilla Rene

    oh my gosh….. i didnt even know that Priscilla Renea ever existed until my friend told me.. thats pretty cool that we have the same name, but Renea spelt different. & I always wanted to be a singer, but i’m still young, so i post videos on youtube. Check me out:)