Born and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, Renée Reed grew up surrounded by Cajun music and folklore. Her parents, Lisa Trahan and Mitch Reed, owned a one-stop Cajun shop that hosted regular jam sessions; her grandfather, Harry Trahan, was a local accordion legend; her great-uncle, Revon J. Reed, was a folklorist and recording artist who helped document the region’s cultural history. Renée would later go on to honour that heritage through her own work: After her high school band, Shrugs, played several shows booked by the Austin indie label Keeled Scales, she enrolled at the University of Louisiana to study Traditional Music and French, took a job working in the Archives of the Center for Louisiana Studies, and started performing in a Cajun trio. The cover art for her debut single under her own name, ‘Out Loud’, sees her wearing the traditional costume of the rural celebration Courir de Mardi Gras.
But through her solo material, Reed is also carving out a space for her own artistic sensibilities, an amalgamation of 60s French pop, British folk music, and contemporary influences. She even cites artists like Tyler, the Creator and Megan Thee Stallion as inspirations for her debut self-titled LP, released last month via Keeled Scales, though those stylings are admittedly harder to trace in her music. Self-described as “dream-fi folk from the Cajun prairies,” her four-track recordings, consisting mostly of acoustic guitar with some slight production flourishes, echo the intimate, vulnerable songwriting of Elliott Smith or Sybille Baier, while the fairytale-like quality of ‘Où est la fée’ – one of two songs sung in French – is reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘Wolf at the Door’. But the album’s 12 songs also conjure a haunting, dreamlike world that feels unique to Renée Reed, one filled with strange tales and personal revelations.
We caught up with Renée Reed for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the process of making her debut album, and more.
When you reflect back on your upbringing, what are some of the strongest memories that come to mind?
When I was very little, my parents owned a shop called Louisiana Heritage and Gifts. They would sell local records from musicians over there, and they would host these jams every Saturday, and a bunch of Cajun, Creole musicians would come, young and old. And also, people from around the world would come because they were interested in the culture. So, as a kid, I was always around that crowd every Saturday, and almost every day because I would go to my parents’ gigs and I would be at festivals. So a lot of my memory during that time, it was just all over the place, it was always kind of in my face. I’m very inspired by the music of my family, and also just them as people. Not only the music inspires me to create, but the people themselves inspire me to create, too.
What about them as people inspires you?
So, my dad’s side of the family, they come from a long line of storytellers. And the stories that my great uncles would tell were recorded back in the 70s because they were just so crazy. And most of them were all in French, but it was a kind of storytelling where it wasn’t really passed down from centuries; it was mostly just making it up on the spot, like, these crazy fantastical stories. So that’s a big inspiration to me, and my dad’s a big storyteller as well. But on my mom’s side of the family – they’re just really stubborn, like, very old-school Cajun people. So yeah, they’re all characters.
Can you recall any of these fantastical stories in particular?
Yeah, so there’s crazy stuff, but there was this character that my great uncles – there were, like, six of them – and they used to tell this story about this person named Pascal, and he was a fictional person. He might have been real, but nobody knew him. But they would make up stories about him going to the moon and him getting swallowed by a whale or something, you know, just crazy fantasy kind of stuff.
In terms of music, was that something that you felt a connection to early on, or was it something that you realized later on you wanted to explore more?
Well, it’s funny, because when I was little and I was constantly surrounded by music – Cajun music, especially – I remember being really bored, because I just, you know, wanted to hang out with my friends and I was the only child and I was always backstage. But it wasn’t until I was around 9 or 10 years old, I got really into the Beatles and Kate Bush by my dad, because he would show me – he just listened to a bunch of stuff. And so he introduced me to the Beatles, which I became obsessed with, and I started learning guitar from that. And then just growing from that, I suddenly realized how unique and special just my culture was and the music of my culture. And so, as I got older, I became more appreciative of it.
You said you got into a lot of these artists through your dad, but what was it like discovering music outside of your own culture? Did it feel like a separate thing from what you were surrounded with?
So, my dad is also very into Irish music; he’s a fiddle player, he plays Cajun and Creole fiddle, but he plays Irish fiddle as well. And so, he would play a lot of Cajun and Irish music around the house, and it’s funny because they share a lot of connections with each other. As I got older, you know, I got into the Beatles, Kate Bush, and then in high school I really got into British folk music, and I was just really drawn to that and singer-songwriters like Nick Drake and John Martyn and Richard Thompson, and that really inspired my guitar playing. And also, at that time I was really obsessed with French pop, mainly from the 60s. And it was so different than the music I grew up around, but I think I got so into it because something felt familiar about it; because it had the French elements and also just the folk elements, like the Celtic connections from Cajun and Irish music. So yeah, it was different, but now that I see it and now that I’m writing my own music in French and in English, I feel like it’s all kind of together.
You formed your first band, Shrugs, when you were in high school. Did you feel early on that you were more drawn to a more solitary form of songwriting or do you feel like there’s parts of that collaborative process that you still enjoy?
Yeah, that formed when I was in high school with a couple of friends. We wrote songs together, and it was kind of my first experience playing gigs outside of my family, the realm of my family. So yeah, I really enjoyed the experience, because being in a collaborative situation – you learn stuff from each other, but at the same time, I love just doing my thing, my way, and that’s it. Especially because the songs I write come from a very personal and vulnerable place, it was very nerve-wracking to share that with other people and be in my creative process with other people. Whereas when I’m alone, it feels much more natural and comfortable. But I don’t regret it; it was a great experience.
What were your first attempts at songwriting like?
I remember, since I was a little kid, I loved to dance in my mirror and I would make up these songs, like pretend I was in a movie or something, but just make up songs from my head. And when I picked up the guitar, it was finally a chance for me to put those kind of imaginary songs to music. I don’t know, it kind of came natural to me – well, I have some recordings around that time of original stuff and I’m like, “Oh, God.” But yeah [laughs].
I’d love to talk more about your debut album specifically. First off, I love that it’s a self-titled record, because it does revolve around, you know, questions of identity and figuring out who you are. I don’t know if that was part of the intention of it being a self-titled album, but on the first song, ‘Out Loud’, there’s the line, “Who am I/ You’re about to find out.” And, obviously, in the context of the song, which you’ve said is about a toxic friendship, the meaning is quite different, like maybe playing into a kind of revenge fantasy scenario. But it does also serve as a kind of introduction to that theme of identity. Was that part of the reason for having it be the opening track?
So, those songs were recorded just to have as demos, and that song specifically was one of the first songs that was recorded. I did not have any intention of making a record – I just wanted to get these songs recorded, and I recorded about seven songs altogether. I sent them to the record label Keeled Scales, because I was friends with [Tony Presley], who owns the label. And he was just like, “Why don’t we put this out digitally on the label?” And I was just like, “What?” But it was exciting. And then we talked more about it over time, and I decided to record even more songs that I had, and then eventually the conversation became more, “Why don’t we put this out as a record?” But those songs go back three years ago, and they’re about experiences I’ve gone through over the past three years and what I’ve learned about myself. So it wasn’t until all the songs were recorded that we were just like, “‘Out Loud’ has to be the first song,” because it says that, you know, and it’s like the introduction.
Did that line mean something different to you at first?
Yeah, because when I was writing the song, it was about – yeah, like a friendship that I had that was toxic. And I was just kind of angry, and when I say, “Who am I, you’re about to find out,” it’s like I’m leaving this toxic cycle, and I need to be myself, I need to be free.
Another moment I wanted to point out is ‘I Saw a Ghost’, which starts out as being literally about seeing ghosts. I’m wondering if that’s based on a real experience.
Yes [laughs]. So, it’s funny, a lot of my lyrics in my songs come from a very subconscious place where I’m not really thinking about what I’m saying; I am, but I’m more, like, feeling what I’m saying. It’s kind of hard for me to describe. So, my dad loves to tell ghost stories. He’s had plenty of paranormal experiences himself. And so I grew up hearing his ghost stories since I was very little, and also living in kind of spooky old houses all my life. So my imagination has been, like, ripe with that kind of stuff. And I’m very open to that stuff – I’ve had a few experiences myself – but in that song, saying “I saw a ghost” comes from that place of actually seeing a ghost, but then it goes into more of a kind of like, “I see a ghost, but I’m also seeing myself.” And it’s kind of dealing with parts of myself that I don’t like, that I wish I didn’t see. And making that a metaphor into seeing a ghost, because I don’t want to see a ghost, it’s scary, like I don’t – you know what I mean?
No, yeah, and that comes through in the song as well. The actual experience is more like a starting point for that kind of self-reflection. But a line that stuck out to me from that song was “Fame doesn’t feed my loneliness.” Do you remember what was going through your mind when you wrote that?
Yeah, I guess it means it doesn’t matter, like, the recognition or attention I’m getting, if I’m not feeling the love within myself. Like, I’m still… lonely. And I feel like an outsider. Because I’m not, like – I don’t know, it’s very vulnerable to try and describe.
You don’t have to – I mean, only to the extent that you’re comfortable.
Yeah, it’s just like, feeling sadness and feeling insecure and not feeling the love within myself to be happy, like, still feeling lonely even when people are giving me attention or recognizing me in some sort of way.
I understand that. I thought it was interesting that you chose the word “fame” in particular, and I wasn’t sure whether it was part of a story or if it came from a more vulnerable place. Which, you said before that the writing comes from a very subconscious place, and that makes complete sense to me, because the album is very much like a dream world. Is it a challenge for you to access that kind of headspace?
Yeah, somewhat. Because I try to make myself a routine, like, “I’m going to write, I’m going to get myself to try and come up with ideas an hour each day.” And I do try my best to do that, but it doesn’t always come out great. But the times where these ideas hit me are times when I’m gonna take a nap or I’m taking a shower or I’m doing homework. And it’s just, those moments hit me and I have to be there.
Can you tell me a bit about the recording process for the album? I read in the credits that they were all produced by someone named Ryan?
Yeah, Ryan is my boyfriend. We were just at home, and he decided to buy a Tascam four-track recorder, because we’re just like, “Let’s just experiment and have fun and record the songs.” So, you know, the first six or seven songs we recorded, it was just very comfortable and easy, because I was at home, and I didn’t think it would be, like, a record. So, halfway through, when Tony offered it to be a record on the label, I was very excited, but it kind of made my nerves go up a little bit because I knew that I wanted it to sound good. But even that, it wasn’t bad at all. It was mostly fun and easy, because I’ve had experiences with recording beforehand in studios where I wasn’t very comfortable, and recording is always a nerve-wracking thing for me, just because I want everything to sound exactly like what’s in my head. But just being at home was so relaxing.
It’s a very intimate record, so in a way, I was almost surprised it wasn’t entirely self-recorded. Were there times where it was difficult for you to tap into that vulnerability with someone else in the room?
I didn’t feel nervous, because I just made sure I practiced the songs a lot before recording them. But also, I just feel really comfortable around Ryan. I feel comfortable being my whole self and being vulnerable. It would be different if I had recorded it in a studio where it was somebody that I didn’t really know, you know. But I was at home and I think that has a lot to do with the sound of the record.
To go back to what we were talking about in terms of the album being almost like a document of your journey over the past few years, I’m wondering if you could share some of the biggest things that you learned while making the album.
Yeah, I’ve definitely learned a lot. I’ve learned how to be more patient with myself, because I had been wanting to make a record for years, and the making of this record – it just came without me even thinking of making a record. Once I knew I was making a record, I suddenly started to put pressure on myself, but the experience of getting through all those feelings was something that – I don’t know, I just feel proud of myself for that, because it’s not always the easiest for me, knowing that this is gonna go out to people and just feeling good about the recordings. And I feel like it made me more organized, too, as a person, and just not letting my emotions overwhelm me in doing what I want to do. That’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind when I make the next record.
Have you had any reactions from your family about the music specifically?
So, my dad has just been really supportive, and he’s just like, “Oh my god, so proud of you.” But then my mom, she’s very supportive too, but it’s funny, because they both play music too, but we all kind of see it in different ways from each other. And my mom has a little bit of a hard time just understanding my music. She’s kind of always like, “What is this song about?” Like, “I want to know what this song is about, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
I remember reading the track-by-track, and you described a couple of the songs as Scorpio songs. Maybe you can sum it up like that.
Yeah, that’s true [laughs].
Actually, what does that mean? Like, what’s the vibe of a Scorpio song?
Like, the songs that involved revenge, I feel like that’s very Scorpio. And also, because I’m a Scorpio, I feel like all my songs are Scorpio songs. Because it has a lot to do with just deep emotion and insecurities and jealousies and negative emotions and also just like, “Oh, nobody understands what I’m feeling, I’m so alone.” But also like, “I love myself.” I don’t know [laughs].
Do you feel that any of the support you’ve been getting has changed – not necessarily made the insecurities go away, but has it changed your perception of your music as less of a private and more of a shared thing?
Yeah. I think before making this record – I’m naturally a kind of a very shy person, and so sharing these songs was a hard thing to do. But after making this record and just seeing how it’s being received, I feel like there’s no reason to be scared in being vulnerable and true to myself. Because everyone deserves to feel the same way, and there’s no reason to be so afraid in doing that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Renée Reed’s self-titled album is out now via Keeled Scales.