Interview: Renata Zeiguer
From the time she was young, Renata Zeiguer has been writing music; however, she never tended to see her music lyrically. Inspired by early American Jazz, Brazilian tropicalia, and the Beatles, Zeiguer has spent most of her life crafting musical compositions evolved from the hours-long improvisations she would work through while glued behind the keys of her home piano. Eventually expanding into lyrical writing while studying at NYU, Zeiguer has spent the past few years cultivating a space for herself in the Brooklyn scene, playing for successful acts such as Ava Luna, Twin Sister, and others while also carefully developing her own unique sound.
In 2013, Zeiguer self-released an EP entitled Horizons and has since spent these past few years playing under the moniker of her full band, Cantina. However, coming into the new year, and her debut Old Ghost, Zeiguer decided to step into her own name once again. With each track melodically teetering in and out of balance, Old Ghost ultimately plays on anticipated missteps. Fluid, yet, incredibly calculated, Zeiguer is continuously challenged to reign in her arrangements within their seemingly delusive bounds. To James Rettig at Stereogum, there appears to a “spectral weariness that threads itself through Zeiguer's songs.” Whether it’s the Kafkaesque first single “Bug” or the driving “They Are Growing,” each track showcases Zeiguer’s talent in creating music that challenges with its complexity but excites in its pure pop dynamics. It is clear from the very first listen that Old Ghost promises to be one of the most charming yet exploratious records of 2018.
In preparation for her show at Radio Bean early this March, we spoke to Zeiguer about her writing of Old Ghost as well as its themes of dependence and the insight she’s gained from the process.
hope: For most of your life, you mainly spent time writing compositions, and it has only been since college that you’ve really dug into lyrical writing. What was that lyrical process like on Old Ghost?
Renata: The lyrical process was quite mixed – some songs were very naturally fluid for me and fun to write. Some songs (“Below” or “After All”), on the other hand, were more challenging and took much more time. While initially writing the songs for the first time in my head, I would [only] have the chorus and the rest would be dummy lyrics. In the end, I spent more time finishing those lyrics and recording vocals far after we’d recorded the instruments.
hope: Many of your songs are written with a narrator showing some sort of dependence, whether that be emotional, physical, social attachment to someone else. (Such as in Follow Me Down, Below. or Wayside, “You’ve got a grip on salvation…the way that you talk, tender leader.” Was this theme of dependence, or maybe independence (?), purposeful on your record?
Renata: Yes, I think the theme of balancing dependence and independence was something I was personally struggling with at the time. I had a hard time trusting and believing in myself, and a very bad habit of idealizing others. Yet all the while, I’d always had a strong inner voice, strong intuitions, and instincts. So, I really wanted to challenge that dynamic and the hypocrisy in myself – feeling so conflicted about my confidence in life, how I was both hearing myself, but not voicing myself. And [it was] also realizing I wasn’t actually giving myself time and space and respect to even really listen. This was in all contexts – romantic, platonic, professional, even familial – all across the board in my life I was struggling to “voice myself.”
That struggle plays out in different ways in all these contexts, and those three songs, for instance, are each different perspectives on that general theme. I was also feeling angry and fed up with the Patriarchy (the “tender leader”) and all the hypocrisy it breeds. And feeling like “enough is enough” – “I know it’s not true” – and being angry but also feeling defeated. Finding power in being aware of and recognizing the circumstance, but also feeling disheartened by it and having a bit of a cynical view of it.
hope: You use the image of clouds or cloudiness at a few points on the record. How did this seeming theme of unknowingness or ambiguity play into the writing of the record, or in your life general?
Renata: The cloudiness wasn’t exactly meant to be a theme of unknowingness or ambiguity. There are two songs I can think of that really make cloud references and both in different contexts. One is in the title track “Gravity (Old Ghost),” and the cloud is an actual cloud that’s meant to represent the regrets, mistakes, and depression I was struggling to come to terms with at the time. It was “hovering, standing permanently still” and “only dissipating over time.”
There was this deep feeling I had that I thought I was “never going to lose” or be able to get rid of; a dark cloud that was never going to go away (or so I thought at the time). In my head, this cloud also wasn’t a big archetypal ominous cloud, rather it was a sweet little fluffy one like you’d see in a cartoon, and I think that benign image within this dark context really stayed with me. Like an innocent dainty tragedy.
The other song with a cloud in it is ‘After All,’ and the cloud is referring to the actual Web, the Internet, the “cloud” — that we all hover in and out of in this day and age. I was feeling alienated by the virtual world through which my friends and my community communicate. Struggling with social anxiety and paranoia, and often getting caught up and living in my head. The idea that we are all connected and communicating together from our computers and phones, but still literally “alone” and not interacting in “real life” in person. My social paranoia being “all in my head after all.”
hope: Moving onto the sonic qualities of the EP, did you have a feeling of how you wanted this record to sound and come across to listeners going into the recording process? — Was it different then going into recording your past material as Cantina?
Renata: I had an idea of how I wanted the record to sound, but I’d never done any studio recording or tracked live with a band ever, so it was all a big unknown in actuality—a learning experience. I also recognized more and more how different the concept of the composition and the recorded music is compared to the sound of the live band. I had actually been playing these songs with a set group of musicians as Cantina, and we tracked the basics of the album in the studio live in two days. Then I took a pause and sat on that for almost 7 months while recording vocals alone in my room at home. I wanted the recordings to sound intimate, gritty and live, and I think we were able to bring out those qualities in the end.
hope: What did you learn from Old Ghost, about friends, life, yourself—maybe nothing?
Renata: I grew from this album and transformed so much personally over the course of writing and recordings these songs. Each of these songs touches on different psychological hang-ups and complexes I’d been dealing with my whole life, and it was very therapeutic to write these songs and sing about them and ultimately voice and air them out, and also challenge them. The songs were an opportunity for me to challenge my problems, and also to wish them well, to reassure myself and encourage myself to work through them. I tended to have a positive voice that eventually emerges from all of the muck, and that was reinforcing for me. I was pretty lost. In the end though, I think I actually found myself.
hope: Which song on Old Ghost are you most proud of? Why?
Renata: I think I am most proud of “Wayside.” It was one of the first songs I wrote and came from a very inward place and inner voice. The lyrics were natural and quickly written. I think it epitomized the life chapter that I was to be embarking on over the next two years that followed. Like a door opening. The song is about being at odds with yourself, both individually and also on a larger social or societal scale. Challenging a notion that you know isn’t true.
For me, it was challenging myself to overcome the defeatism, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and masochism I was struggling with, which I later recognized as Depression. I had gotten to a point where I was very self-aware of my unhealthy psychological complex, but was still learning to act on it and do something about it, to challenge myself to change and overcome it. As I grew, it also expanded to a challenge to the world almost, and I felt like for the first time I was really letting myself feel angry and mad. I’d always been more sad than mad. In the end, the last phrase of the last verse was literally sounding ‘mad’ — sort of absurd and sarcastic. I really like my egg lyric. "The egg’s gonna break, call a doctor, it can’t go to waste I know it…. *chorus* oh, I know I know I know it’s not true, no it’s not true…”
hope: What do you want listeners to know before listening to this new record? And what do you want them to gain, feel, or learn coming out of it?
Renata: I want them to know the songs sound adventurous and light and to embrace that, but also recognize the lyrical content informs the meaning of the songs, and that the songs are actually about personal and sensitive psychological challenge and exploration. I hope people feel like smiling, like someone reached out a hand, like something charmed and amused them, and like they’ve been warmed somehow. I hope they can relate to the things I sing about and I hope it makes them feel better in some way. I hope they also know that they’re hearing someone shy and small who is coming out of their shell.
hope: If a movie was being made about your life and you could cast the person playing yourself, who is playing Renata and why?
Renata: I would [say] Diane Keaton from Annie Hall era because she inspires me.
hope: Lastly, whose work is exciting you right now? Could be any musician, visual artist, writer, whoever. And why?
Renata: I’ve been getting into stop-motion animation lately and was really inspired by Czech filmmaker and artist Jan Svankmajer. To me his animations are a magical combination of enchantment, charm and melancholy. I also like Don Hertzfeldt, an American animator. His style is very different, more crass and hysterical and also hysterically funny.
hope: Vermont’s obsession with maple syrup is not a stereotype or exaggeration. Since you’re coming up to play in such a maple obsessed state, what are you putting your syrup on? (blueberry pancakes? french toast? Something else?)
Renata: Waffles. Frozen waffles (I don’t yet have a waffle maker).
"Old Ghost" is out on Friday, February 23rd via Northern Spy + Double Denim Records. You can pre-order the album here.
Renata Zeiguer plays Burlington, VT, on Thursday, March 1st with Francesca Blanchard & Wren Kitz at Radio Bean. Entry to the event is $7 // RSVP to the event here.
- hope all is well
This article was graciously contributed by:
Amy Garlesky is a philosophy/political science student and freelance writer based in Cleveland, OH and Burlington, VT. Follow her ramblings on twitter: @ayygarl.