Conversation with Renee Simone – The Blackbirds

“I was spreading myself too thin. I was in two bands, I was a youth worker in two different organizations, as well as building a house as a single mum…something had to give” 

We caught up with Renee Simone of The Blackbirds weeks and weeks ago at Fresh Café where the band plays every second Friday night. Whilst our coffee, tea and soy dandelion latte were delicious, the café was a tad noisy for recording an interview and consequently we turned some facts into fiction. Sorry Renee. We think we’ve got the transcript fairly well sorted now. By the way, The Blackbirds gig scheduled for October at The Great Northern has been postponed till December 9. So pop that date into your diaries now – their shows are a ‘must see’. We will also post a reminder of the new date closer to the time of the gig. And if you want to sample a taste of what you might get, check out their vids on YouTube

Now onto this amazing single mother’s inspiring drive and commitment to raising her child, building her own house and managing and playing in a band. Whoa – isn’t one of the above exhausting enough? Read on to be inspired and invigorated…

So Renee, you are of Jamaican descent with an English accent. Where are you really from?
That’s a tough one. I was born in England to Jamaican parents but I actually grew up in Germany because my stepfather was posted there when he was in the British Army.

But you have clearly spent time in the UK?
Yeah, at the end of high school I went back to England to do Uni and after that worked in London. 

What brought you to the Byron Shire?
I left the UK for a ‘working’ holiday in New Zealand and ended up in Australia. I had been living in NZ with an Australian guy who was a DJ. First up we travelled around NZ as a DJ and singer combo and then in 2003 we decided to come to Australia. We travelled from Sydney to Byron… and then we broke up. I carried on singing and joined a band called Radio Jupiter. Then I started working as a youth worker at Byron Youth Services, supporting disengaged young people… teaching them life skills etc.

Renee Simone, mother of all things

What was that like?
Well, put it this way, I ended up staying there for seven years. It was the closest thing I could find to Child Therapy, which is what I was trained in. I continued to play in the band and had a baby during that time too. My boss, Paul Spooner, was really supportive of my new motherhood role and allowed me to bring my baby into work so I could continue breast feeding. His philosophy was if we can’t support our staff how can we support a community? My time at the youth service was one of the best experiences for me. The young people I worked with were brilliant… I learned so much from them… it was an amazing way to reach the heart of a community. A friend took over my position and she’s really awesome so I knew the crew were in really good hands.

What’s your baby’s name?
Chilli and he’s not really a baby anymore he’s 5!

Why then did you leave BYS?
Um… to give up my day jobs really. I was spreading myself too thin. I was in two bands, I was a youth worker in two different organizations, as well as building a house as a single mum…something had to give.

Were you concerned about giving up the income and structure of your day job?
Part of me was, but after being there so long, it felt right…it felt like it was the natural end of that cycle. I tried rejigging the office and rearranging the furniture but that didn’t seem to work (laughs). After seven years I needed something fresh. Also, the house building was getting really full on at that time and I was constantly on the phone to builders and council about my house…I’d have the builder calling me asking urgent questions that needed on the spot decisions and I couldn’t make them because I was at work – I really needed to be focussed to pull off that miracle!

How did you start your career musically?
When I went to NZ I decided I wanted to develop my singing. I thought I wanted to study Jazz, but the teacher I ended up with… this gorgeous little old lady that taught from home had all this amazing old classical music in German and no one else had ever been able to sing it for her. She was really excited that I spoke German so she gave me the lessons at a really cheap price and she would play this amazing music so beautifully on her grand piano and I learnt to sing classically in German. It was sublime. She was really strict with me saying… ‘No, No, No… stop … that’s awful!’ But she really encouraged me to use my voice fully and I just loved it. Before that I had just been a bit of karaoke singer in the pubs in England. Then my DJ boyfriend encouraged me to sing over some of the tracks he was playing. I slowly learnt to sing my classical stuff over beats… it was pretty avant garde! Then other people joined in, rappers and the like – in NZ heaps of everyday people have these mad skills when you offer up the stage. The show became popular and we ended up running a radio show and became known around the place. We toured around NZ. It really helped build my confidence and I improved heaps. Then we decided to come to Aus but in Sydney they didn’t like our name ‘The Ghetto’. So we used the name ‘Skyrider’, which was awful. We kinda lost our identity there. So we left and got as far as Byron and you know the rest…

Renee’s lounge room…  complete with super cool retro sideboard and not just one, but two turntables

When did you start to play the ukulele?
I would pick it up after I had put Chilli to bed. I found it so therapeutic to just strum away, it’s such a gentle instrument… holding it against my body and gently strumming it until I hit a cord that somehow felt good and I would just stay strumming that cord. Then I would try and find the cord that went with it. Sometimes I would just cry. I would just sing or wail about whatever was going on at the time. It was like my own music therapy.

So onto the band… who are the other members and how long have you been together?
Benhur (the other singer) and Adi (on guitar and percussion)… we’ve been together five years. They had both been playing on the streets for years… so we started busking together and found the sound we were making felt right. There was a simplicity that really worked…  you could hear the harmonies and really focus on the vocals.

Originally we played together in a larger band called the Blue Hulas which was a Hawaiian themed band with ukulele, slide guitar and Ben and I singing. The band was really nurturing for me after just having had a baby. It was easier with a baby for everyone to come to my place to rehearse and it was like a really good bunch of friends would come around and we would just jam. Chilli loved it too. I could feed him while I was singing harmonies it was perfect. Then I’d pop him in a crib beside me and he would sleep right through the island lullabies. They were great days.

We played at markets and things and over time we evolved into the Blackbirds and became a trio. We dropped the whole Hawaiian theme and started busking in the streets for extra cash. People would come up and ask us to play at weddings and various events and we really started getting a name for ourselves. Then we made it onto Australia’s Got Talent and got a nation wide fan base.

What was that experience like?
Very positive… the people there liked us, which really helped because they can destroy you if they don’t. They were also very encouraging. I think though, if there was a next time, I wouldn’t let them dress us and do our stage set. We got a bit drowned out by all the TV glitz. Blackbirds is more simplistic.

But it gave us great exposure and it triggered the production of our first album. We had all these fans asking us for an album but we didn’t have any money to make one, so I got onto Facebook and posted “ If everyone who is requesting an album was to purchase it in advance we’d have enough money to make one… who’s in?” Within an hour we had 70 people deposit funds into our account… within 48 days we had made $10k.

OMG that is incredible, what a ‘truth tingle’ moment…
Yeah, it was amazing and it was all through social media…and not just from Australia either. We have fans in America, Japan, Canada, Israel, Sweden, the UK, France… all by people forwarding the YouTube clip to their friends or posting it on their Facebook pages. It was really powerful. I am a huge fan of social media because it is what made our band. We don’t sell out stadiums but we are internationally known and our music isn’t even on itunes. We have set up a shop on the website because we’re getting so many international emails with album requests that we need to make sales more accessible.

How many CD’s did you have pressed?
We had a limited edition of 500 done first…they were for all our fans who pre-paid…and we listed all their names on the inside of the cover thanking them for their support. Then we had another 2000 done and we’re nearly out of them.

Clearly, musical effects abound in Renee’s home

So, Australia’s Got Talent really launched you?
Well yes, but…if we hadn’t had a website or Facebook page then who knows what would have happened because as soon as we finished performing on the show we had people Googling our website. You could see the times the emails were sent and heaps of people jumped on literally as soon as we had finished singing. That’s what started our fan base. There were other musicians performing on the show who I really liked, but they didn’t have a website or Facebook page so I couldn’t track them down. That was really disappointing. But we had people asking us to perform at all sorts of gigs. I get emails saying “I was surfing YouTube and discovered your band and I’d love it if you could play at….”  We now get the plush treatment…  nice hotels with meals/wine included etc…  it’s a step up from my lounge room, that’s for sure. For one gig we were flown to WA for 3 days to play for half an hour at a corporate event.

And what about Chilli? Did he go with you?
No. He’s with his Dad when I’m working.

The wall between Chilli’s bedroom and Renee’s office has been removed so they can be together while Renee writes. Clearly, great works of art are produced from this arrangement!

Have you been back to England?
I’ve been back a couple of times but I don’t really enjoy it… a lot of people seem to have this weight on their shoulders…a weight that’s not visible here. It’s like they’re all on this city treadmill of wake up early, go to work in the dark, come home late in the dark, make dinner and eat it in front of the telly and do it all again the next day. There just doesn’t seem to be quality of life. I just want to rescue them.

Have you been to Jamaica?
Yeah, I went there with my family but couldn’t believe it when the locals all had a problem with a 19 year old girl wearing dreadlocks. Can you believe that? In the land of dread locks! I was already having an identity crisis because a year earlier I had spent time in Africa working on a community looking after disabled children. There they called me ‘Jamaica Lady’ because of my long hair. African women can’t grow their hair long. I thought for sure Jamaica would feel like home, so I was mortified when they treated me like that.

So where do you belong now?
Well then I went to NZ, and they go ‘hey sister… nice dreads’ and I’m kinda going ‘huh?’ But the Maories really identify with Jamaican culture and there’s a strong rootsy feeling there that I haven’t felt anywhere else… so I guess it’s the place I feel most connected to. I love lots of things about NZ…I love how the Maori culture is so integrated into society. I love the art, I love the geography… the beaches, the mountains, the snowboarding, easy roads to navigate, super hospitable people, amazing music… and I love how it is all packed into such a small country. I have travelled through about 25 countries and NZ is the one I love the most.

Renee feels a sense of belonging in New Zealand, despite looking like part of the decor in her Australian kitchen

How do you feel about Australia?
I love Australia too. I love the climate and I love how lifestyle is number one here…it is the complete flip side to the UK. Shops are closed on Saturdays because people are busy living… it’s hilarious! I love how people can get married on the beach here and how free and relaxed it is…people rock up in flip flops and without ties…in the UK everything is so structured.

Are you enjoying motherhood?  Did it come as a surprise?
It was completely planned. It has been the most empowering thing that has ever happened to me. Things you wouldn’t do for yourself you would do for your child. I feel like I have finally grown up… grown wiser. Before I had a child I was making all sorts of errors of judgement, but after, there was no way I would compromise our situation. I love being a mother.

Hmmm, whose room belongs to whom?

So it’s made you more aware?
More aware, more conscious, more spiritual, present, grounded and determined. I’m clearer on my boundaries… when it’s time for business and when it’s time for being a mother.

How has Byron been good for you?
People complain about the tourists but I love the fresh new energy, the way people are excited to be here on holiday. This is completely opposite to where I come from in UK where most people appear ‘over it’. I am the director of a Byron Bay entertainment agency There are so many fabulous entertainers in the region its such an honour to be able to connect them with visitors to Byron Bay. If we are able to give a visitor a good time through music and then they go home and tell their friends what a great place Byron Bay is… then that’s great. We (The Blackbirds) love giving people a Byron Bay experience… I mean the music and dancing in the streets is different from where most people live. It’s fantastic in town here on a Friday night. We play every Friday night at Fresh. People go away and then they email or Facebook us and say how when they think of Byron they think of us. So for me I feel really privileged to be part of all that love and connecting… and I get to do it through music… awesome.

Does Byron Bay challenge you?
I’m challenged by the lack of affordable housing here, that’s why I live in Goonellabah. It means I have to do a bit of travelling, but having said that, where I now live is a street where everyone bought land and built at the same time so we have this little community that looks out for each other. There’s lots of sharing… like if someone hires a bobcat for the day someone else can use it, or if someone is getting a load of mulch someone else can get some and pitch in to save on delivery costs etc. I have a communal veggie garden with my neighbour…so it’s kinda like an old England with an open door feeling. We look after each other… its very community and I realise I’m very lucky. So being forced to move out of Byron has actually worked for me in a way that I didn’t expect.

Sharing the love (and veggie patch) with the neighbours.


What’s your favourite Café in Byron?
I have two… for breakfast, Bayleaf… because you get the morning sun… and at night, Fresh… because they have live music.

Is there any one person in Byron Shire that has inspired or influenced you?
Paul Spooner. (Formerly Byron Youth Centre, who now manages Byron Community Centre)

What would we find you doing on a typical Saturday morning?
Scouring garage sales. I’ve always been busking on a Friday night so I have this bag of coins for me and my boy. I am looking for old vinyl (records) and he’s after toys. So when he finds something he loves and it’s only 50 cents he just thinks I am the best Mum ever (laughs).

What is your favourite shop in Byron?
Happy Flamingo… the retro shop next to the Bead Shop in Fletcher St

What’s your local’s tip for a visitor?
Leave your car home… walk.

And your tip for living?
I set my alarm everyday for 8am and when it goes off I give thanks for a wonderful life. I truly believe in the power of giving thanks.


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