The NYC composer paves her own way with her meld of rock, classical, and jazz.
This article is sponsored by our friends at Reeperbahn Festival, who are hosting a New York showcase at the Rockwood Music Hall on June 19.
Renata Zeiguer is ready to call the shots. A New York native who has been studying classical music since she was a kid, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has played in a number of jazz and classical ensembles over the years, as well as a slew of indie bands, including Ava Luna and Mr Twin Sister. (This fall, she’ll even be hitting the road as a live member of Palehound.) But it wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to step out on her own, releasing an EP, Horizons, under the name Cantina. In 2018, she left Cantina behind for her own name, enlisting friend Adam Schatz of Landlady to record her uncommonly polished debut album, Old Ghost.
Old Ghost is a coming-of-age album, with Zeiguer singing about angst and alienation over deceptively light-hearted and painstakingly crafted percussion and guitar. After working with an assortment of collaborators on that record, Zeiguer says she wanted to explore “recording with less cooks in the kitchen, and more with my own decisions remaining intact.” Her April 2019 EP, Faraway Business, found her recording songs with the help of either Schatz or multi-instrumentalist and engineer Zubin Hensler, another friend, if not completely on her own—a process she hopes to continue on her forthcoming album. Over the phone from a Williamsburg balcony, where she is intermittently interrupted by a neighbor blowing “non-existent leaves on the sidewalk,” she explains: “I hate noise. I’m very sensitive to other input from the whole world—especially in the studio!”
Ahead of her set at the Reeperbahn Festival showcase on June 19 at Rockwood Music Hall, she spoke to us about how taking control on her more minimal EP, Faraway Business, gave her renewed confidence to begin work on her sophomore full-length, which she is recording this summer. Zeiguer also talked about her early experiences with music, her sonic influences, and what comes after a coming-of-age album.
Catch Renata Zeiguer at the free Reeperbahn Festival showcase at Rockwood Music Hall on June 19, joined by Yes We Mystic, ORI, Leoniden, Mira Lu Kovacs, Gurr, Surfbort, and DJ Clint Choi. Faraway Business is out now on Northern Spy Records.
AdHoc: Your Faraway Business EP from earlier this year has a João Gilberto cover on it, and I read that recording that was a way of “reconnecting with your musical roots.” So I was wondering about the international roots of your music.
Renata Zeiguer: Yeah. My father is from Argentina originally; he grew up there, and I have a lot of family there. We would go there every year, twice a year; it was like a second home for me. I was always exposed to Argentine tango and Brazilian bossa nova, [which are] very popular there and a huge part of their culture. For me, it was something I got to hear like it was the normal thing to hear, whereas I feel like in America, the American tradition is like, country music. I didn’t get that; I got beautiful bossa nova music instead.
I guess for this next album, and as a bridge to it, I wanted to do something that I felt was an original influence, so I picked that song. And I wanted to do something more stripped-down and more on my own, not involving going to a studio and having someone engineer [it].
I could also hear that simplicity on “Gravity” and “Wayside,” two songs from your first album that you re-recorded for that EP and that sound a lot more stripped down to me. Why did you want to revisit those songs?
I had always wanted to hear those two songs and some others from the album in that way, kind of as a return to the original demos that I make, but with a bit more high-fidelity audio. Also as an experiment to hear what it could sound like for newer material and to refresh the way the recordings on the album sound, because part of me wasn’t totally satisfied with that. I’ve always been torn about wanting it to sound a bit more organic and low-fi, even though I think the record sounds great. And also I wanted to explore recording it again with less cooks in the kitchen, and more with my own decisions remaining intact—not that it doesn’t sound awesome to play with other people, but for my own sense of what I can do and what I want to do on my own.
How did it feel to re-record them?
It felt a little bit exciting half the time, and half the time also a little frustrating, because it’s such an old song and I’m excited to go forward. But it wasn’t a long process. Do you hear this leaf blower in the background? There’s a man with a leaf blower. I stayed at my brother’s old apartment last night, and he has one of several weird neighbors, and this is one of them, disturbing the peace. Blowing all the non-existent leaves on the sidewalk. Sorry. He’s done. I think he’s done. No! Oh my God.
I hate noise. I’m very sensitive to other input from the whole world—especially in the studio! That’s why, again, for one of the songs I recorded everything, and the other song was mixed by my friend.
Recording songs that are so old was a mixed bag, but mostly exciting. The closer I got to finishing each track, I was like, “This is really cool, and sounds more like how I would have wanted it to sound. And I can do it again.”
What kind of themes are you going to be exploring on the new album? I read an interview you did where it sounded like the first album was sorting through some of the anxiety that had followed you for a long time. You described it as a “coming-of-age album.” That makes me wonder what’s next.
What’s next would be more of a reckoning and a peaceful album that’s naturally the next stage of confronting things, which would be accepting them. It’s a different stage to confront and recognize and have these awakenings, and another stage to be living peacefully with them and accepting them. It’s a more at-ease sound, I would say, though it’s still a bit conflicted. I think the next album will be a more earthy and organic sound.
What’s the thing that you’re trying to accept?
Well, let’s say, like, a relationship that didn’t work out well, or a friendship, or any conflict in relationships with people or your parents—and moving forward from that and trying to maintain peace with that and not hold grudges. Just to harness positivity and love for people beyond all of their flaws and mistakes and all of the bad things they might have done and why they did them, etc. Everyone has their own story. That’s part of the theme.
That’s hard work to do.
It’s a lot of work to do, exactly. But ultimately, if you do that, you free yourself from the situation. Because if you hold on to those grudges, you will suffer more because you’re holding on to that negative energy.
Right. Did you say you’re producing it yourself this time?
I might be producing it with [Figure 8 Recording engineer] Sam Owens [of Sam Evian], because I’m going to be recording it with him. But we still have some discussions to do.
I read that the other side of your family comes from the Philippines. I can see that Argentine connection with the bossa nova, but I was wondering if Filipino music has had any impact on your work.
Not in the same way, because their traditional music is much more ethnic music-sounding and is in Tagalog, and I don’t have as much exposure to it. Their modern music now is just generally what pop music would be, but from the Philippines, so it’s a little different, because they’re not as a culture as attached to that traditional music. But I do have recollections of seeing concerts with those traditional instruments and people dancing, more of an indigenous vibe.
What did you grow up listening to? What was playing in the house when you were a kid?
A lot of that bossa and the Beatles and classical music, because I started when I was six—and then jazz, and then I also loved musicals and Disney. Definitely my earliest influences were movies. I also watched The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz—so that’s the combo.
That’s a lot of different stuff going on!
Yeah. It’s not because my parents are musicians, although my mom does have a lot of records. But they weren’t pushing music on us other than bringing us to lessons, and we just happened to get lucky with teachers who were very inspiring.
Was there anything you were listening to while you were writing the songs for your next album that was a big inspiration?
Yeah! I’m also still writing it. It’s going to be a much different process, whereas before I spent more time preparing. This is going to be a bit more spontaneous. I am still writing, but the influences are old and new. Old would be Radiohead and Broadcast, and new would be Cass McCombs and Michael Nau, and my friends’ music, generally. It’s a bit of a scope—not really [a] direct influence yet.
What are you taking away from those influences?
I love their vocal delivery. The blend of the vocal with the music, and also [the] straightforwardness [of] some of it.
Like the lyrics?
Yeah. Maybe more frankness, or more of a narrative.
When do you think that’s gonna be released?
Probably not until next Summer. That’s how long it takes: six months for the pressing from the date of the masters, and I’m gonna be gone this fall for two and half months, touring. I’m going to be playing with this band Palehound, but in the band. They’re opening for Big Thief, and I love that band. And then after that I’m going to be opening for two bands. So that’s why I have to really do as much as I can in August, because it’s going to be really limited time.
Before, even though I recorded the album in four days, I took a long time to do vocals. I did that at my leisure, and the whole process took six months. This is really going to be much more concise. I have no idea how it will go! Maybe it’ll get postponed, maybe it won’t have any of [these influences]—I have a feeling it will [have them], because I’m going to be working more on my own terms. I’m going to bring my band in for part of it, and the other part of it I’m going to record and play with Sam, more one-on-one.
How do you feel about playing in other people’s bands, as opposed to playing on your own?
I haven’t played as a side person in a long time. Usually, I love playing with other people, but I’ve never committed to something like this before. I’m really excited; it’ll be all the fun of playing and performing and being part of a group of people that I really love and have a dynamic with, without the pressure of having to give all that stage banter and be singing all the time.
That’ll be really fun, because I’m used to being an instrumental player in an ensemble. Growing up with classical music, or even playing jazz—you’re not the soloist, whereas with my own project I definitely feel like the solo leader that has to be representing a lot.