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In “Drunken Widow’s Waltz,” Renée Reed memorializes her grandparents in Cajun French. Crunchy and evoking a toy box accordion, the song also investigates her own desire: to live a simple life like theirs.
“I was very close to my grandparents, and when they passed away it was a big realization to me about how special they were — as musicians and as native French speakers, and just who they were as people,” Reed, who grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, said. “Their spirit kind of lives on within some of the songs.”
Imbued with her Cajun roots and inspired by not only the Creole musicians she grew up around, but also British folk — “The Beatles and Kate Bush are my gods that I worship,” she said — Renée Reed’s self-titled debut is hazy and ponderous; it serves both as a tribute to her ancestry and an exploration of her own identity.
Reed wrote the songs over a period of three years, the first when she was just finishing high school. After briefly performing in a band (which is how she met her now-label, Keeled Scales), Reed had a few songs on hand; she decided, just before the onset of COVID, to record them on a TasCam 4-track recorder “to see what they would sound like.”
The resulting 12 tracks are gauzy and warm, alluring and mysterious: crystallized orange. Some focus on insecurities and relationships, while others pine for an idyllic future. Perhaps the album is best summarized by “Où est la fée,” — which translates to “Where is the fairy?” — a slow, dreamy narrative where Reed confronts past, present and the fantastic all at once.
“I find that there’s a pattern in my writing to talk about a lot of psychological stuff concerning family and culture, especially growing up here, and a lot of escapism themes … [as well as] some sort of emotional release with feelings of revenge,” Reed said. (We spent a fair bit of the interview talking about how we’re both Scorpios who love revenge, as astrology references appear throughout the album.)
But even as Reed wrestles with anger and jealousy, there’s always a throughline of hope and possibility. “Fast One” rails against bad friends with the caveat that “I leave things open to change and growth, and that maybe one day we’ll all smoke together and things will be cool.” “I Saw A Ghost” emphasizes learning about herself as a result of pain and disappointment.
Regardless, she’s still hard on herself: “Little Flower Dance” mulls on passivity in the face of her dreams, and “Until Tomorrow” finds her holding herself back from success. In fact, much of the album entails Reed exploring her own bad habits, from possessiveness to fear and doubt, harnessing her utterly unique blend of genre influences in the process.
“In releasing this record, I had to figure out what to say about what these songs are about. It’s very new for me to talk about those things because I write very intuitively and it’s almost subconscious,” Reed said. “But after we recorded every song, I could really listen to it and see: Oh, this is about this thing that happened in my life.”
Two songs on the album are performed in French: one, standard French, which she currently studies in college, and the other, her grandparents’ Cajun French. “Writing in French is a little less intuitive than writing in English, but I feel like the more I do it, the more intuitive it becomes,” Reed said. “If I’m focused on writing in a Cajun dialect of French, it becomes way more intuitive for some reason.”
In the meandering daydream “If Only We Could,” Reed sings: “For our bones, they belong to the country / and marigolds, we will hold in our hands / and we won't know what they don't understand.”
Not all factors of our ancestry — familial or global — are explicit. But in her ceaseless exploration, Reed honors what she can’t yet know.
Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.