Priscilla Renea‘s writing credits include hits for Pitbull and Kesha (“Timber”), Fifth Harmony (“Worth It”), Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood (“Somethin’ Bad”) and Rihanna (“California King Bed”). Now, 10 years after forging an indelible mark as a songwriter, Renea is stepping up to the mike as a singer, too.
Renea’s narrative as a singer begins on June 22 with the release of her debut studio album Coloured, via Thirty Tigers. The project — recorded in Miami, Nashville and Los Angeles — boasts an intriguing yet organic fusion of R&B and Nashville twang that Renea dubs country soul.
Prefacing Coloured’s bow are two keen examples of Renea’s country soul style and clever lyrical talent that’s becoming her hallmark: “Gentle Hands” and “Heavenly.” The former song was co-written with Kevin Kadish (Meghan Trainor, Miley Cyrus) and Emily Shackleton. The latter was penned with Brett James (Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney) and James Slater (Lady Antebellum, Chris Isaak).
In fact, Renea stayed in James’ barn while she recorded in Music City. “I woke up to [record] plaques all over the wall,” she recalls. “It was crazy inspiring.”
Born in Cape Canaveral, Florida and raised in Vero Beach, Renea estimates that she’s written more than 2000 songs in the last 10 years on her way to becoming a singer. “Rather than give up on that pursuit, I chose to write to have an alternative outlet — and eat,” she says with a laugh.
Then things began to click in 2010 with Rihanna’s recording of “California King Bed.” Notes Renea: “That was the first big cut that actually made people look at me like, ‘Oh!’”
Now Renea, a member of the first class of Spotify’s Secret Genius series, is ready to make people go “oh” again. In support of Coloured, she will perform at ASCAP’s 2018 She Rocks Showcase on May 8 before hitting the road throughout the rest of the month (see below). And she’s still just as busy writing for other artists, including Amara La Negra (whose new single is called “Insecure”), Rihanna and Usher.
“It’s like building a house,” Renea tells Billboard of her journey thus far. “You don’t stop building walls because one brick isn’t working. It takes hard work, but once you’re finished, you can enjoy the house you took your time to build.”
Check out the rest of our Q&A with Renea:
What was your earliest “I’ve got this” moment?
My whole life has been music. I didn’t know that everyone didn’t make music. My father played trumpet and my mom and grandmother sang. So from a young age, I knew I wanted to sing. I wrote my first song when I was eight years old; the first lyric: “walking down the highway looking at the skyway.” I sang it for my mom and she bought me a notebook. But I didn’t realize it was real until 15-16, when I was discovered on YouTube with “I Apologize.”
What lessons have you learned as an indie singer/songwriter?
Cardi B is proving that this industry is archaic. Discovered on Instagram, she took that and built her platform then she was able to get TV visibility for marketing and promotion. She developed herself as an artist behind the scenes. She is showing us right now how to do it. But the bigger thing to recognize from this is that you can be yourself as long as you put out great content. Good and bad are relative. But if it’s actually something of substance, you can be yourself and do this without the help of a label to get off the runway. Then you can partner with someone else who possesses the tools to take you to even loftier destinations. All of this is for the next generation of singer/songwriters. I don’t want to sermonize, but many people aren’t aware that they have right to build their own empire: Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid did. There are people who have done it over the years. Now there’s a wider door open to become the standard.
Where did your country soul style originate?
My first love is country music by artists like Billy Gilman, Shania Twain, Billy Ray Cyrus and Faith Hill.
I find it funny that people tend to forget that slavery was in the south. What did you listen to in the south with slaves? And did you give the slaves a choice of what music to listen to? So it became part of our culture too. But now we’re in 2018 and I’m beseeching everyone out there: can we please get with the times and come out of 1971. How can we build the future if we continue to be dictated by tradition of 40-plus years ago? Today, it’s not impossible for a black woman to sing country.
Watch the two-part video “Gentle Hands” and “Heavenly”:
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What was the inspiration behind the album’s title, Coloured?
it’s probably what you think. But the letter “U” makes it past tense. People will bring to it their own iterations on life. At the time, I was thinking about myself and when would it have been possible for a black woman to be doing this? Also, if you think about science, we’re all colored: white is the presence of all light and black is the absence of light. When I break it down that way to audiences, they all look askance, like, “What?” But it really gets people talking and makes them think.
You frequently quote authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Dr. Martin Luther King. How does reading impact your songwriting?
I read a lot. Right now, I’m reading ReCreating Your Self: Making the Changes That Set You Free by Neale Donald Walsch. One of the tips I give aspiring writers is to read a book. Literature teaches you how to describe a hot summer day without ever saying the sun was shining. Like, “The condensation from my Coke ran down my arm and gave me relief from the oven.” You don’t have to say the word kissing but can describe the moment. A true author gives someone the free will to be in that moment by setting the scene for you and allowing you to step into it. Then the author lets you choose your own ending.
Priscilla Renea’s upcoming tour:
May 8/ ASCAP EXPO/ She Rocks Showcase
May 11/ The Basement/ Nashville, TN
May 13/ Eddie’s Attic/ Decatur, GA
May 16/ The Basement/ Nashville, TN
May 18/ Cat’s Cradle/ Carrboro, NC
May 19/ Glass Wheel Studio/ Norfolk, VAT
May 20/ Songbyrd Music House/ Washington, DC
May 22/ Bourbon and Branch/ Philadelphia, PA
May 23/ Rockwood Music Hall/ New York, NY