Colleen Rennison shifts gears with her solo debut

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Colleen Rennison isn’t the kind of girl you’d think would identify herself as a loser. After all, the 26-year-old lead singer in rock and blues outfit No Sinner is sexy, smart, radiantly happy, and currently celebrating a double release—her band’s album Boo Hoo Hoo, and her own solo debut, See the Sky About to Rain, on Steve Dawson’s Black Hen roots-music label. Plus, her career is shifting gears. But by her own admission Rennison can’t hold on to objects, which explains her late arrival for the Georgia Straight interview in East Vancouver.

“I’m a perpetual loser of things, especially keys,” she confesses. “Since I got home recently from touring I’ve lost three sets of keys. So I lost this last pair and went and got new ones made, but when I got home last night they didn’t work. I had to sneak into my house, wake up my neighbour this morning, get her key, and try to get these keys fixed. Then I came home and they didn’t work again, so I had to return, and by the time I’d gone back and forth, then got all my stuff together to leave it was… “ Rennison runs out of breath. “Anyway, sorry.”

The propensity to lose one of the most potent identifiers of a settled existence is entirely in keeping with the seminomadic rock ’n’ roll lifestyle that the singer embraces. Back when others kept the keys, growing up in Kitsilano, she was always singing, unknowingly preparing for the future.

“I think it really started with singing along to Disney movies and my grandparents taking me to musicals. A lot of the first music I started engaging with—in the ’90s—came from movies and soundtracks. For me it was always the performance before the music.

“I was really attracted to soul—Motown, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, all those women-in-song compilations,” she continues. “And of course I started getting into Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey. Whitney Houston too. I was obsessed by the Spice Girls. I didn’t know anyone in high school who was making music—everyone was making hip-hop beats and selling drugs, pretending to be gangsters. There’s some really great rappers, but I never felt I had a place there, and I always had that foundation of ‘old music’.”

Rennison left in 2009 to study theatre in New York, and on her return a year later started performing at Guilt and Company in Gastown, “It was my first paying gig. Every Thursday night. I would jam and have a Russian roulette of musicians—different people each time, that I’d never met before….That was a really good way to cut my teeth and meet a lot of cool musicians—like Ian Browne, who filled in on drums one night.”

Rennison wanted to be in a regular band, and No Sinner emerged from the crucible of the Guilt and Co. jams. “Ian told [No Sinner bassist] Parker Bossley about me—a great bass player who played with Hot Hot Heat for a while but was trying to reinvent himself as a songwriter. We started writing together. Our guitarist Eric [Campbell] wound up coming down to Guilt, and I thought he was amazing.”

No Sinner put out a six-track EP called Boo Hoo Hoo in 2012, but had to wait another couple of years for the full Boo Hoo Hoo album onslaught of hard rock, electric soul, and blues to be released. Rennison also got to know local blues veteran Jim Byrnes and performed “Wild Mountain Berries” with him on his country-flavoured album I Hear the Wind in the Wires, which Dawson produced.

“This was a-round the time No Sinner was really starting to pick up momentum.” Rennison recalls. “In our rock shows I’m basically wearing denim butt floss, screaming at the crowd, and drinking whisky from a bottle. Hold on to your hats. But I do really appreciate those fans we’ve made who are not necessarily looking to get berated by an irate lead singer wearing platforms. I do find it a bit awkward when my parents or their friends come to see my shows and be supportive, because you want to please them but also not to compromise what your band is about—and No Sinner is about sex and rock ’n’ roll.”

See the Sky About to Rain is a selection from the great song bag of North American rock and soul music of the past four decades, and includes the title song by Neil Young, a pair from the Band—“All La Glory” and “Stage Fright”—a brilliant reanimation of Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, and a heart-stopping version of Tom Russell’s “Blue Wing”, the best song ever written that touches on the Downtown Eastside.

“When Steve asked if I wanted to do a solo recording, I saw it as a great opportunity to pick some amazing songs and do a really good job covering them. There are thousands and thousands of songs out there that are fucking incredible. Who am I to put another pebble in the bucket? I’ll write if I need to, but it’s not something that flows out of me, and I know there are people much better at it than I am. My idea was simply to get the best players, the best songs, and I’ll do my best to honour them—old-school.

“I first came to singing as a performer, and after theatre school I was able to look at these songs like they were texts, a Tennessee Williams play or something,” Rennison adds. “You’re not going to play Stanley [from A Streetcar Named Desire] exactly like Marlon Brando. You start with the words, the story, and the truth and how you find your own way into that is your journey.”

That’s one key—to her success as an artist—Rennison’s never going to lose.

Colleen Rennison performs with Steve Dawson next Thursday (July 31) at St. James Hall.

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