Renata Zeiguer grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York, where she began playing piano and violin when she was six years old. The daughter of Argentinean and Philippine immigrants, she would listen to her grandmother play ragtime and tango music during family visits to Buenos Aires, and was as inspired by classical music and American jazz standards as she was by Brazilian tropicália and the Beatles. Although she started composing her own music early on, she first explored lyrical songwriting as a student at New York University, where she met Adam Schatz of Landlady, who produced her 2013 EP Horizons and co-produced her debut full-length, Old Ghost. Since immersing herself in the New York music scene, she has performed and recorded for a range of artists including Cassandra Jenkins, Mr. Twin Sister, Relatives, Ava Luna, Widowspeak, and more.
Although Zeiguer wrote the songs on her sophomore album, Picnic in the Dark, before deciding to move away from the city, the realizations that led to her search for a new environment resonate throughout. The record picks up the thread that informed Old Ghosts, revolving around themes of home, isolation, and trauma, but approaches it from a place of greater maturity and optimism. She juxtaposes playful, surrealist imagery with moments of stark vulnerability, reckoning with dysfunctional familial patterns while finding imaginative ways of working through them. Made in collaboration with co-producer Sam Owens (of Sam Evian), Picnic in the Dark builds a sonic world that weaves together vintage drum machines, bossa nova rhythms, and cinematic arrangements, evoking an intimate, unburdened space that becomes a source of inner strength.
We caught up with Renata Zeiguer for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical influences, the process of making Picnic in the Dark, the themes of the album, and more
Something that caught my attention is this image of reaching out a hand that comes up on songs like ‘Whack-a-mole’ and ‘Avalanche’. It made me think about whether you feel like that’s a fitting metaphor for sharing music as well. Is that how you want it to feel?
Oh, that’s beautiful. I like that, yes. I think that is a great way to explain it because it’s not like I’m throwing something at people, it’s not like I’m serving them. I’m reaching out a hand and it’s up to them to be able to reach back, and they can reach back as far as they would like, for as long as they would like. Reaching out a hand, that’s a way to respect someone’s boundary and pacing and timing with being willing to be there and listen back. It’s a gentle, graceful approach. That’s sort of also a way to encapsulate some of the themes, because it’s recognising there’s only so much you can ask somebody else. You can just do your best and be as present as you can, reach out that hand.
You co-produced the album with Sam Owens, who I talked to last year around the release of his latest album as Sam Evian, Time to Melt. We kind of started by talking about his move from New York City to the Catskills, and I wonder if that’s something you related on as a shared experience.
Well, yes and no, in the sense that the decision to try living outside a major city makes sense. But we had different experiences of the city. He didn’t grow up in the city. I was born and raised the city. Being around that kind of energy, that’s all I’ve ever known. He’s from North Carolina, he grew up in a smaller, slower-paced world. It’s not like I had a choice, I didn’t choose to go and live in the city for college. I mean, I did go to college in the city, but even that wasn’t – my parents encouraged me not to leave. They wanted me to stay close. But we’ve definitely related to finding a higher quality of life and the environment of the countryside, a smaller town upstate.
Having grown up in the city, do you find it strange, the way that other people and especially musicians will talk about it?
Yeah, I don’t relate to it the way they do because I have always been around this chaos and wonderful land of diversity and opportunity. To imagine somebody else seeing that for the first time, it feels much more like a spectacle. It’s like they’re touristing around this place in some way. But from my angle, I’ve been hanging out here since I was a kid in high school. I’m very well aware that we have different experiences of it. And because I didn’t have a clear frame of reference for what it is, I’m missing something too, I’m sure. That’s why it’s been nice to be in other places so I can really learn to have a point of reference for how different the city is from other places. I’ve travelled enough to know that I’m in a subway with people from all over the globe, versus I never see a single person of colour in a city elsewhere. I think because a lot of the city, there’s just so much overstimulation that that’s exciting to people, but at this point for me, it’s like: more is not more, actually. It’s just not. Maybe if it’s more of the right thing and you know what you want to do – I’m not jaded, but I think I know what works for me to thrive. It’s just not where I want to be right now. But I miss my friends and it’s going to be tough to figure out a way forward.
What made you take the first steps in realizing what felt like the right thing for you?
Thinking that I could have more space and be in a quieter place where I could sort of start over and be farther away from my mom, also. Just physically, that distance from my childhood home actually meant something to me and made me feel like I was in a new place. I think a lot of my experience in the city was always mixed with my memories of being there as a kid and in college, and feeling a little bit muddied by that. I really wanted that feeling that a lot of people get when they’re like, I’m going to college here and it’s in a different state and they fly away from their home or they come back home. I never had that feeling. It was always like, I’m just home. And now I’m also in school. So I just had this impulse to try something new. And I didn’t like my apartment – I was there for five years and I finally hit a final straw with one of my neighbours. The pandemic had already started, and it was really exciting when I decided I was going to leave and felt almost rebellious for my mom to be like, “I’m going 90 miles away. [laughs] I’m a whole hour and a half farther from you now.”
On the title track, you reference your family and your mom directly. It’s kind of a striking moment considering that a lot of the lyrics are more surrealist and not necessarily specific in that way. Were you nervous at all about being direct in that song?
Yeah, I was very nervous. But then I asked some friends and they were like, it doesn’t have to be biographical. It could be metaphorical. And then I also continue learning to separate myself from the songs and see them as just songs. They don’t need to be autobiographical. They don’t need to be definitive statements about myself and my life. I can lean into the idea of a persona – I think it’s a lot easier when you have a band and a band name to do that, but because this is my name, it’s sometimes hard to separate that. And also, I think it’s good to be vulnerable. It’s almost archetypal, what I’m saying – the idea of abandonment, absent parents, this is not a special story. But it’s also not me blaming them. It just felt good to be direct in that song.
The song itself centers more around this metaphor of the picnic in the dark. Can you talk about the significance that has in your mind?
I think I see that as the general overarching metaphor. It seems like a source of strength for me now, because it’s a way to learn to trust myself and it’s almost like instead of looking outwards, you look inwards. And that is a hard reroute a lot of the time, to seek validation and affirmation from the outside versus seeking it from yourself. Which I think, when you have absent parents, you learn to think that way, that you aren’t enough. Learning to change your core belief system – there’s a lot of points of uncertainty in having to trust and believe, and decide to trust and decide to believe, in yourself, and have confidence to go forward without things that you would have relied on before. I still see it as empowering because it’s playful, and I feel like it brings out my inner child. And that is something I’m learning to be more protective of instead of ashamed.
How did the idea come to you?
I think when I was playing with my band, preparing for some other shows a long time ago, before the pandemic. I just sort of improvised this idea of going to Prospect Park at night and everyone’s gone, and I was like, “This is the cheesy ballad for that.” And it was like a joke, it was very spontaneous, improvised on the spot. And my bassist was like, “That’s a solid song.” And so then I was like, “Maybe I’ll make it a song.” It felt nice to have something like that, because I haven’t really had a ballad before that can take up that kind of emotional space. And then, when I couldn’t figure out the title, that seemed to stick out, and that lent itself to the videos and the album art that I started to make. So it wasn’t like I conjured this idea while I was studying, it was just spontaneous and kind of a joke.
I think that’s how the best ideas start. You mentioned childhood, and something that both of your albums draw from is the music that you grew up listening to, from classical music to jazz, and especially on this album, bossa nova. Do you mind sharing some early memories that you have of enjoying music?
My grandmother played a baby grand piano in her home in Argentina when we would go visit, so that was the first person I was really around who played actual music in front of me for fun, that wasn’t like a teacher in a lesson. She would play ragtime music, and it’s very theatrical and playful music. And she would also play tango music, which is also theatrical and romantic and imaginative and nonverbal. So that was some early memories. And then I loved Disney songs, that was a big influence. And there are a lot of jazz songs that come from that lineage of [sings ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’], these beautiful, very melody-driven and sweeping arrangements. And then I liked the Beatles, and I also liked soft Brazilian guitar and vocal. My parents were fighting a lot, so I would crave places to be peaceful. And that kind of music really made me feel good. And I heard that in Argentina, too, because my cousins would have it on when we would see them, as background music almost. So I almost associate it with being around different kinds of families, too. It’s like, this is the different way to be a family. This is, like, the normal way, and what I have at my house is not that.
In terms of the lyric writing process for Picnic in the Dark, how did it compare to Old Ghost? Did you notice any significant differences?
Not really. Some of the time it was easy, some of the time it was stuck. I think it’s just putting less pressure in general, and that seems to always make things easier. In the future, I will put less pressure on everything. But it’s a creative process, it’s supposed to be messy and you can’t judge something until it’s done. You can’t do both at the same time. There were just a few songs that were difficult, which is similar to the last album. There tend to be one or two songs that, like, I’m at a loss. Maybe it’s just my way of making life hard for myself and not wanting to finish it, maybe it’s self-sabotage. Maybe it’s some subconscious method to be like, “We can’t just finish it right now. There has to be a struggle.”
What were the challenging ones for this album?
At first, I think ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was difficult because it’s so long, there’s so many words. And then ‘Evergreen’ was hard because I didn’t have a melody. And then there were just a few phrases in various songs, like ‘Avalanche’, that was a hard one to finish because there was a line are two that I didn’t know what to say. Sometimes I would think there’s a better phrase. ‘Child’ had a few lines that I was wondering about.
There are a few character studies on the album, from ‘Eloise’ to ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Carmen’, and I think it goes back to this idea of empathy. What pushed you towards that mode of writing for these songs?
I think I was intentionally wanting to use other characters because that felt more freeing, to be able to express and talk sometimes about things I would say about myself, but by having the character, you feel less inhibited. And also, talking to different versions of myself or my mother or other people creates a dialogue. I mean, it’s all coming from one person so it is always going to kind of reflect me, but I think I wanted to have characters and other people to be those other voices.
Did you learn something from those voices that you maybe didn’t expect to?
Yeah, I think when you create another person, it helps you talk to yourself with more capability to understand and be able to diffuse something. Because you have more space, you have more people to echo through. You have a way to have a dialogue and to explore other perspectives and to be on both sides of that empathy, to hold both ends of the stick. When you have a conversation that’s actually being had, then you can learn to hear yourself in a different way and be less judgmental. So that breeds compassion, because you learn to recognize people aren’t always intentional with their misgivings. By having this conversation, you learn that your version of the story is just one version of the story and someone else is experiencing a totally different one. So then you have empathy for them and for yourself.
There’s a sense of forward momentum to the album, a lot of which comes down to the percussion and the drum machines that you use throughout. Was this intentional in how you wanted to construct the flow of the album as a whole?
It was, in the sense that I wanted to record things more in my style. And because I use drum machines in all of my writing and demo-making, because I don’t have a drum kit that I keep around for making demos, I wanted to preserve that more intimate way of making the song. And maybe I thought it sounded more like me. But at the end of the day, now I realize I could just try other things too. I don’t need to be beholden to the drum machine. That’s also why I wanted to have my friend come in and play drums, and we do a combination of both. And even now, I still think I would do things differently in the future, because the drum machine kind of locks you in a way and can keep things a little too static. And I realized I want to do something that feels more alive and organic and dynamic in the future.
But you also lean into the cinematic element of the arrangements more on this album.
Yeah, I think because I wasn’t working strictly with a four-piece band. I could have fun with that and do whatever I wanted to for songs. Certain songs, I was like, we’re going to have this arrangement, I’m gonna play violin. I wanted that ability too.
I really love ‘Primavera’ as the closing track. Why did you want to end things with that kind of simple, warm sentiment?
I think it was sort of like coming full circle. To me, the album feels like going through a big cycle, going through different ways of seeing something. And ‘Primavera’, it’s like a way of returning again in this seasonal cycle, having reached some resolution and peace and ability to rebirth and celebrate spring. Which is how I wanted to encapsulate the sentiment of the record, of optimism.
Given what we’ve talked about and the role that it plays in the album, can you talk about what home has come to mean for you?
Yeah. I feel like I have successfully maneuvered from childhood into young adulthood because of the idea of taking responsibility for my actions, my thoughts, myself, and no longer connecting them to things in my past or my upbringing. And by doing that, I feel like I’m my own entity. And home is within my belief system and my rituals and my practices, not so much in where I am. But also, I’m in a state of migration right now. I don’t know where I really want to be. Because I like Catskills, but I’m thinking maybe it was just a stepping stone to an even bigger move. So the idea of home is much more about the relationship to myself and the people in my life and how I live my life, and not so much where I am, but that’s just because of my current state, which is sort of transitional. Home is no longer, like, past-leaning. It’s more present-leaning and future-leaning.
I think a major part I was hoping would be understood through the album or through a song like ‘Child’ is also this idea that my relationships with people are built around my founding ones, with my parents. So any relationship to a lover is actually, in my experience, stemming from whatever relationship I’ve had with my parents, because that’s where my idea of love is based off of. So that’s really what this album is about. It’s about looking to those founding relationships that have created a framework for how I relate to people and learning to make my own choices and not be beholden to what I was given. I think by looking at it that way, it really can be healing.
What do you think love looks like or can look like now, independent of those foundational experiences?
I think it’s about acceptance of who you are, who the other person is, and awareness of how you are in relating to yourself and to them. And having clear communication and patience, but also not compromising your own well-being. You can only compromise so much for somebody else. And remembering that, if you don’t take care of yourself first, then you can’t even give love to somebody else. Allowing both of you to be independent – that Buddhist-like thinking, you’re both two independences that come together as one. But you remain two independences. A relationship is something that you create together and nurture together, but it’s not like you become the other half to a whole.
Do you feel that there’s sometimes a disconnect between understanding those ideas and putting them into practice?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s not comfortable. A lot of the time it’s easier to just rely on somebody being there to fill some kind of loneliness or anxiety or whatever it is. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing, to lean on somebody and to give. It’s just maybe the long term has to be like: Is this a positive relationship, for my desires, for my life, where I want to be and how I want to live? Is this going in a direction that is helping me thrive and grow to where I want to and how I want to grow? I’m not saying not to be loving, because I’m a very loving, sensitive person, but learning that I need to be giving myself my own validation first and foremost. That I can’t use somebody to reflect to me how I want to see myself. I have to see myself that way first.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.