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Hit Songwriter Priscilla Renea on New Album ‘Coloured,’ Race in America

Composer behind hits for Rihanna, Miranda Lambert and Kesha merges country, R&B and hip-hop on new LP

Priscilla Renea

Hit songwriter Priscilla Renea discusses working on her new album 'Coloured' in Nashville.

Kyle Goldberg/Courtesy of Shore Fire

When Priscilla Renea was a teenager, she was confronted with the hard reality of having to fend for herself. She’d grown up a sheltered kid in Vero Beach, Florida, but her determination to become a musician, along with youthful rebellion, led her parents to kick her out of the house.

“When I started to say no, and resist a little bit and rebel, my mom was like, ‘Oh, you think you’re an adult? Cool. Go deal with it,'” recalls Renea, calling from her home base in Los Angeles. “It wasn’t just one thing, it was like a series of a couple things over the course of a couple months.”

Renea covers this life-altering episode in “Family Tree,” the opening track from her new album Coloured, out today. Pensive strums of acoustic guitar set up a narrative where she tries to serve as a source of comfort for siblings enduring stern parental control. She’s kicked out for dreaming too big, feeling like she’s carrying the world, but soon she discovers she has the strength to put down her own roots and survive.

In reality, Renea has more than survived the experience – she’s grown into a top-shelf songwriter with hits including Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” Rihanna’s “California King Bed” and Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood’s blockbuster collaboration “Somethin’ Bad.” It was a path forged partially out of desire, but also out of necessity.

“You won’t appreciate success until you know what it’s like to have been at rock bottom and at nothing, and you won’t work as hard for success if you don’t have anything you don’t want to go back to,” says Renea. “I worked really, really hard and, I’m not gonna lie, one of my motivations is I have to prove my parents wrong. I will not go back to that dirt road town.”

Renea outlines those origins on Coloured, mixing country storytelling with splashes of R&B and hip-hop. A graduate of the same high school as Jake Owen, Renea (neé Priscilla Renea Hamilton) left for Atlanta and then Los Angeles after leaving her hometown. She quickly signed with a major label, releasing the 2009 album Jukebox, which positioned Renea more as a Corinne Bailey Rae-style performer but failed to make an impact. Renea instead found success working as a songwriter, scoring cuts with stars like Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey.

Even though Jukebox was an unmistakably pop album, there was a definite country slant to tracks like “Pretty Girl” and “Stonegarden” that showed up again in Renea’s songwriting, in songs like “California King Bed” and “Timber” (Renea even performs the latter more like a torchy blues number). When Renea got ready to record a new album a few years later, she decided to come to Nashville and embrace her innate gift for storytelling.

“You know where to go to get the real songs,” says Renea. “Whether it’s for a country record or a pop record or a rock & roll record, if you want real songs, you go to Nashville – everybody knows that. But it’s really hard to infiltrate those circles in Nashville, because everybody’s friends and they’re also really cognizant of pop writers in L.A. wanting to come to Nashville and cash in on the country hits.”

Fortuately, Renea had friends in Brett James and Chris DeStefano, with whom she’d written “Somethin’ Bad” and who understood she wasn’t looking to make a quick buck. She kept a low profile while she working in town – partially to avoid hungry writers looking for pop cuts – focusing on the intimate batch of songs that would ultimately form Coloured.

Renea’s personal life looms large – in “Jonjo,” she spins a yarn about sibling rivalry that hinges on a tongue-twisting nursery rhyme hook, merging bass hits and bluesy rhythm guitar. “Heavenly” heads more toward R&B with a tinkling piano figure and Renea’s whisper-to-a-scream vocals, embellishing the melody as the track moves along. “Let’s Build a House” vibrates with stormy, us-against-the-world drama. And with “Gentle Hands,” she offers a prayer for an ideal man, setting her country-blues progression to a trunk-rattling trap beat.

“I’m happy to trail blaze and I think I always have been that person that wasn’t afraid to explore new things, to mix sugar with salt, so to speak,” she says. “I made this record for myself on purpose because I didn’t want people to think there was no depth to my artistry. I wanted to make a very meaningful, introspective diary-style record.”

As its provocative title suggests, Coloured also addresses race in a way few records in the country space ever have. Closing track “Land of the Free” offers an unflinching, no-bullshit look at the terror experienced by people of color, ruminating on unarmed children who have been killed by police as well as the omnipresent threats of prison or violence. “Slavery’s abolished but it’s still alive and well,” sings Renea. “That’s just life for me, living while black in the land of the free.” It concludes with a solemn electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“It is [alive and well], but it just has a different name,” says Renea. “It’s called free prison labor. It’s called, [someone can] walk up to any random black person and take away their freedom because [they] feel like it.”

Renea also releases her country project at a time when the genre’s biggest stars, from Luke Bryan to Maren Morris, are freely incorporating stylistic touches from traditionally African-American forms of music into their sound. She’s not bothered as much by those gestures as she is by the lack of space available for people of color to perform their own art and not be pushed to the margins.

“There’s a heightened awareness about the bias that exists in all areas of entertainment. I think it’s gonna take more people who are not afraid to talk about it, because I’m not mad,” she says. “It’s amazing that I can walk into a studio and sing something one way, then when another artist sings it, it’s a completely different thing. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with not being afforded the same opportunities.”

Technology has shifted some of that power, Renea notes, allowing artists to engage directly with fans as well as shine a light on systemic abuses of power and police brutality. But it’s also important that the conversation be furthered by stars who aren’t afraid to lose power by speaking up – only then will things begin to change for the better.

“It has to start somewhere – when the people who control or move the needle start speaking up and saying, ‘You know what, that’s not cool, bro,'” she says. “Instead of trying to sell products or just make money, speak up and say something.”

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