Renee Geyer www.reneegeyer.com.au
“I’m a little bit scared about this,” Renée Geyer claims as she cues up her new album, but you know what she really means. There’s a fine line between fear and excitement. And there’s more than a tiny thrill in her voice as she hits play.
A frisson of electronic atmosphere, a gauntlet of churning drums and guitars, a slightly threatening whisper, and the first single, “Takes A Woman To Know”, stalks through the speakers like it owns the building.
Dead centre is a voice of inexpressible soul and absolute authority, bristling with untold experience in the midst of a strikingly powerful arrangement. Scared? Bold, inspired, restless, reborn – they all fit better.
TONIGHT is Renee Geyer’s 21st album. The coming-of-age implications are not lost on her. She sang a fond farewell to the classic soul standards of her youth on ‘03’s tenderland, her most successful album in years. Now that she has our attention again, TONIGHT is the first record of the rest of her life.
“This is me exposed,” says Australia’s greatest soul singer. “I knew I could make a record like tenderland anytime I liked. I knew I could make it work and it worked. I don’t mind revisiting the past but I’m not interested in living in it. I was ready to bust out.”
Renée Geyer’s past is Australian music history. A precocious jazz, blues and soul singer in her late teens; Countdown royalty in her 20s; a string of pop, soul and reggae hits spaning the ‘70s and ‘80s; her LA years with Stevie Wonder, Sting and Joe Cocker; her ‘90s renaissance with Paul Kelly…
You can read all about it in books, you know – not least her own, “Confessions of a Difficult Woman”, published in 2000. So much for the past, then.
The seeds for TONIGHT were sown eight years ago, when Renée first heard Regurgitator’s groundbreaking Unit album, produced by an upcoming digital sound genius from Brisbane named Magoo.
“I felt a real kinship with that record and the way I thought it was made,” she says. “The whimsicalness of it, the humour, the imagination, the colour in the music. I can’t quite explain it, but I knew I could fit myself into that creative environment.”
In June ‘04, Renée arranged a meeting with Magoo, by now an ARIA-winning producer of many other brilliant leaps of faith by the likes of Midnight Oil, the Cruel Sea and Powderfinger.
They recorded two songs of Renée’s choosing, including the brooding Terry Britten song, “Takes a Woman to Know”. To say the least, the chemistry between them was everything she’d hoped for.
“I wear my peers out in the studio,” she confesses. “It can get a little frustrating ‘cause I like to try different things, crazy things. It can be hard to get people fired up by some of my ideas. Magoo is someone who embraces all that stuff. Any idea I’ve got in my head, he’ll give it a go, then he’ll push it further.”
TONIGHT is an instant Renée Geyer classic, and simultaneously the most radical record of her 33-year recording career. It claims new ground for a voice that’s as familiar as home but capable of going anywhere it pleases.
The opening track, “I’m Evil Tonight” bridges the chasm between her past and future, a dark soul groove that mixes classic r’n’b motifs – horns, strings, bluesy back-up vocals – with an insidious touch of electronic intrigue.
Ten songs later, on Clare Moore’s “Lost In Space”, the ratio of familiar and strange has completely reversed via off-kilter pizzicato, ethereal orchestration, bizarre harmonies, mariachi horns and a wandering theremin finale.
In between the two extremes are two songs co-written by Renée, two by her great admirer Paul Kelly, one from his recently ARIA-nominated nephew, Dan Kelly, a rare gem from country balladeer Charlie Rich and one from an unknown Australian songwriter, Frank Jones.
“’He Loves Me Not’ arrived in the mail,” Renée says. “I put my feelers out for material a year ago and I listened to everything. The great thing about this record is it’s turned out to be a real celebrationof Australian writers. I sometimes struggle to find great songs but I was determined this time.”
Foundations agreed upon, Renée and Magoo spent a frantic month recording TONIGHT in Brisbane in late ’04. The band included her right hand guitarist from the ‘70s, Mark Punch; keyboard king Bruce Haymes; and rhythm duo John Watson and Yuri Pavlanov – with former Daddy Cool wildcard Ross Hannaford and jazz pianist Jex Saarelaht adding to the anything-goes atmosphere.
The results are a true and ingenious collaboration between a stunning vocal stylist and a visionary sound sculptor – or what Renée describes as my “old school passions” and Magoo’s “healthy irreverence”.
Think Dusty Springfield and the Pet Shop Boys. Think Tammy Wynette and the KLF. think Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads. Then think again, because this is Renée Geyer, and you know who’s in charge from her first breath.
“I made this record cause I’m attracted to this music and this style of working,” she says. “It’s fun to sing, it’s what I like, so I have to embrace it. It’s not like it’s that bizarre, but it’s new ground for me. If I can’t do it at this age, I never will.”