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Deep Connection

Jazz singer RenAc Marie does it her way.

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Singer RenAc Marie is a combination of two contradictory characteristics: an emotional transparency that enables her to deeply connect to an audience, and an indomitable will that's taken her art in idiosyncratic directions.

Her career is an ongoing revelation, starting with a return to singing in Roanoke after two decades muffled by a troubled marriage and the strictures of being a Jehovah's Witness.

Moving to Richmond, her uncanny ability to transform the most timeworn material into immediate, conversational confessions took her from restaurants to clubs to large halls. Dissatisfied with being seen as a mere masterful interpreter, she shifted her focus to her own sometimes joyous, sometimes dark songs. Standards frequently collided — Leonard Cohen's “Suzanne” merging with Ravel's “Bolero,” for example, or the Southern sucker punch of following “Dixie” with the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit.” It should have come as no surprise when, invited to sing the national anthem at a civic event in Denver in 2008, she substituted the lyrics of a song known as the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

A controversy inevitably ensued. For another singer the exposure might have suggested commercial calculation; nationwide notoriety might be worth enduring death threats from so-called patriots, presumably unaware that the melody of the National Anthem was cribbed from a British drinking song. But if Marie were out for the buck, she would have stayed with reanimating the great American songbook rather than, for example, writing and producing a one-woman play titled “Slut Energy Theory.”

“It was like starting over,” Marie says, reached by telephone at her home in Colorado.  “People were asking, ‘Who is this woman? Why should we pay to bring her in?' I had to prove myself all over again.” The play is the first of a planned quartet of works harrowingly and humorously exploring, among other things, race, abuse and sexual politics. It opened to critical praise in October, and garnered the Denver Post Reader's Choice for Best Solo Performance of 2009.

Her plans are for a series of vocal workshops called “Sing Like a Murderer.” The concept is to get participants to find new ways of interpreting songs by approaching them from sympathetic, sometime shocking perspectives. “How would you sing ‘My Funny Valentine' if you were a 14-year-old in love for the first time?” Marie asks. “Or if you were an old maid, or a prostitute? Or if you were a mother who had just murdered her children?” Connecting with the audience requires first connecting with the song. “It's the tapping into emotions that is missing with most vocalists,” Marie says. “They are technically amazing, but there is no substance to it.”

Marie's stubborn pursuit of emotional honesty over commercial compromise has led her in unpredictable directions. On tour, she found herself singing her “Star Spangled Banner/Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the Polish version of the “Today Show.” “It was a really weird feeling,” Marie says. “You never know where the music will take you.” S

RenAc Marie will perform May 11, from 7 - 11 p.m. at the Capital Ale House. Tickets: $25-$30. The soundtrack to “Slut Energy Theory” and a free download of the complete “Voice of My Beautiful Country” (featuring the “Star Spangled Banner/Lift Every Voice and Sing” medley) is available at renemarie.com/music.htm.

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