Life can be full of little surprises. Sure, not all of them are positive and can sometimes derail a situation, but those that are more welcome can leave a warm, fuzzy feeling within. When entering the world of New York-based artist Renata Zeiguer, make sure you have plenty of capacity for the pleasant moments of wonder, because she has them in spades.
First stumbling upon her music in 2018 was something of a surprise in itself; her debut album Old Ghost was one I entered into with no prior knowledge or expectations of, and emerged enraptured by its subtle charms. A true hidden gem of a record, the album was brimming with moments of bliss that permeated through the otherwise simply crafted songs, and possesses the ability to catch the listener off guard even after countless listens. It would be fair to call the discovery of this record a personal revelation, and one that has stuck with me ever since.
Skipping forward to the present, Renata’s follow-up album, Picnic in the Dark picks a similar approach, with deft touches and a crushing intimacy to every song, all the while retaining the dreamy psychedelic flourishes that characterised her debut. Never filling a single track with superfluous elements, each instrument and vocal melody is only utilised as much as is required, allowing each component ample space to shine and take centre stage. While the arrangements have become more sparse, one aspect that has crept further into view is the influence of Latin American music on her work, and how she has incorporated elements of her Argentine heritage into her work more so than before. It’s moments like these that continue in the vein of surprising the listener, yet in such an understated and precise manner.
Upon starting our conversation, Renata expressed some anxieties about not being able to articulate the message behind what is an incredibly personal record, but despite this initial shyness, the discussion opened up to become a candid and introspective discussion around the themes of therapy and creating a dialogue with others to reach inner peace. In many ways, the discussion of these themes in conjunction with Picnic in the Dark does feel like a therapy session in itself; inviting the listener to join in on a journey of self-reflection and opening up to new perspectives, in order for both the audience and performer to emerge more enlightened.
I’m very excited for the new record, Picnic in the Dark, to come out – I just wanted to get your general feelings towards the finished article, and how you feel having it finished and almost ready to go?
It feels similar to Old Ghost, like a pretty organic process. In retrospect, it becomes clearer that it was a capturing of a chapter. It’s a natural overview of a certain period of my life and has a theme to it that I don’t always consciously think about as I’m putting everything together. In that way, it feels like a symptom of something that occurred within me, and it’s another very personal record in that way. I think the next record I make will be less personal, because I feel like I dealt with a lot of very personal themes. That’s for the future. But for this record, I’m feeling excited. I know it’s been four years, it would have been less had the pandemic not occurred.
Was it not too long after Old Ghost came out that you began working on this one or was there a little bit of a pause and then writing over a prolonged period? What was going on for you while you were creating the record?
I took some time to sit with Old Ghost and experiment with live performance, rather than getting back right into writing another record. I think it was intentional to take some time away from writing, and just a shift away from that sort of output. When I finally did start writing this record, it had been quite a dry spell for me, and but I remember when I first started writing songs for this album, it was like lighting a match. It kind of felt like, I got something new started and I was ready to start building that – more like an unravelling. The whole thing feels like an unravelling of things through music. That was probably two years ago, but the writing was not perfectly arranged. I didn’t write it and flesh it out for a band, I had demos, and I had visions in my mind about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to work with a full band, I wanted less cooks in the kitchen, and I wanted ideally to do as much of it as I could on my own. I ended up co-producing with my friend Sam [Evian]. These songs weren’t shared as much, that’s why it feels like a more intimate record because it was kept more personal.
I’ve always had part time jobs that aren’t music-related, and I stopped doing that after the release happened, so I could focus on touring. Then I was doing part time music lessons and dabbling in some stop motion animation for friends – kind of trying other outlets. I started seeing a therapist and I was moving around. I was in the same apartment for five years, but I felt like I was starting to unpack a lot of psychological hang-ups and patterns. I use this album to process that, and so that’s why the themes are very personal and feel centred around change. I was really thinking about things I want to change and figuring out how to change them.
You said in the past about Old Ghost feeling like an exorcism, and obviously that also had a lot of personal themes. Would you compare Picnic in the Dark to that, or would you say you processed those feelings in a more therapeutic way this time?
Yes, this time felt less exorcism and more like I had a conversation to be had. Because therapy allowed me to have a space and another human that I could create dialogue with about these things, I didn’t feel like I was alone. I think my imagination would still be running more wild if I didn’t have that. Exorcism sounds like a real dramatic explanation, but it is kind of like that; you’re removing something that you’re not conscious of. Some parts of you feel like subconsciously you’re re-enacting these things that you’re not always fully aware of until after the fact. It feels more amicable. I’d say I’m done exorcising and that there’s nothing else to do, but I guess that’s not always how things work.
How much would you say that your solitary working nature or working with fewer people helped you with the ability to process all of the emotion that was going into it?
I felt more ownership and more like protectiveness over my ideas and my feelings about my music. I didn’t feel like I wanted to know what other people thought could be done here or there.
It’s just time to listen to yourself isn’t it? To really get to know what’s going on inside.
It’s time to speak up for myself, I would say. I don’t think I felt like I didn’t know what was going on, but I didn’t always know how to articulate or execute things as I wanted to sometimes. I wouldn’t speak up.
You have a whole range of musical experience from a very young age, learning both classical and jazz styles, and then playing in bands. It wasn’t until a lot later that you actually started writing your own stuff. What developments were there between the two albums that you feel you’re most proud of in terms of your actual songwriting ability and understanding how to put things together in a meaningful way?
I was less arrangement oriented, and I really wanted to strip things down and focus more on melody and vocals and lyrics, more than arrangements, and production. The songs are more centred around the vocal, that’s my interpretation of it. Maybe because I worked with less people, they sound more cohesive to my liking, or to my personality, There’s not as much thrashing guitar and drum styles are simpler. I like that – I wanted that for this – and I cared a lot about the lyrics. I really nitpicked the lyrics and the themes for this record more than the last one.
Would you say that the previous one was a lot more influenced by your past experience of being in bands and kind of adopting those styles, and not necessarily focusing on what you were wanting to present?
Yeah, I was sort of thinking, “oh, I want it to be a rock band” and I didn’t prioritise what I wanted as much. I think I wanted to just manifest what I was hearing. Again, it’s just like less cooks in the kitchen, whereas maybe before I would have somebody else in mind for the sound or the style. I just didn’t ask as many people in my mind. Just listen to what your intuition and your instincts want.
How do you go between balancing all of the influences that you’ve had in the past with what you are currently taking influence from? You speak a lot about loving bossa nova from the time you spent in South America as a child visiting family, and then you’ve got further influence from more modern, psychedelic pop stuff. How do you go about marrying those in a cohesive way?
Pretty organically and without thinking too much about it. I think I have a more intuitive style of writing music but I can definitely veer away – I know when I don’t like something. It’s not something I think consciously about unless it’s obvious. I guess the influence just happens to come out.
Why try too hard to force something to come out, I guess?
It’s mostly like, “oh, I’m hearing that beat, I’m going to use that beat”. If it happens to be a bossa nova beat – a lot of the songs I use a drum machine on, so that also dictates a vibe. I’m on board with its limitations.
I noticed on a couple of tracks there’s definitely more of an explicit influence such as ‘Mark the Date’ and ‘Primavera’, which is the first time you’ve sung an original song of yours in Spanish. How was it to sing in the language and what does that mean to you to have done that?
‘Primavera’ I think represents the voice of my inner child. That really felt like a resolution through everything I was going through with therapy and through the record. It’s a song about feeling peace after the storm, and I think it’s extra meaningful that it’s in a language that is so familiar to me and that I associate with my parents and my background. It also feels nice to not sing in English, because you don’t think about the words you’re saying. I’m not a fully native speaker, as in, I don’t think in Spanish. My dad talked to me enough, but not enough so that when I go to Argentina, I feel like it takes a couple days to be fully entrenched. But because I’m not perfect with Spanish writing-wise or grammatically, I did consult a friend to help me with it – she’s from Ecuador. That was nice to have a real native speaker help me translate some ideas I had. It was really challenging to put it to song because I had the melody written before the words are written.
Would you say it felt liberating or freeing to experiment with something that was very different to your usual songwriting approach?
Yeah, it felt like something I wanted to do more of. It felt liberating, but became its own puzzle. Songwriting exists with its problems in all languages with trying to fit the right phrase in a small space or how to convey something effectively, kind of writing a haiku or something. But yeah, so ‘Primavera’ means ‘Spring’, so in the cycle of seasons, it would be the Spring after things die and things come back. For this song, it would be as though I was coming back to the spring like a return to life in that way.
I had this book of poetry by William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and I really liked the line in Spanish because I had the English and Spanish translation side by side, so that’s how the first line was born – “el sol se leva [the sun does arise, from ‘The Echoing Green’]”. I think initially that song wasn’t an intentional plan, it was “I want to write a song in Spanish and I want to use this poem as inspiration”.
Were there any other particular tracks on the album that you felt had a special feeling coming together?
Yeah, I think in a similar vein would be the song ‘Child’ that also features a direct line from one of my sessions in therapy, where I was like, “I feel like I’m finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel”, and she was like, “that light is you”. It really blew my mind at the time, because that idea that I’m in a struggling place, and this peace is outside me, sort of got thrown away and it was more like that peace is actually within you. I felt like I was realising things in a major way that made me very happy. I felt like I was discovering something good, and I wasn’t actually looking outside for it.
That was one of my favourites on the record too.
That one’s a very like sweet one. It also feels like a train song, an American country-like song, and I liked that. ‘Mark the Date’ was actually something I made randomly for fun for a ‘song a day’ group, so that wasn’t actually for this record. I think I felt like pretty good about all of them, to be honest. So in terms of them coming together, I feel like they came together how I wanted them to.
I’ve recently been thinking about something that was said in another interview with Aldous Harding about songwriting where she said about how she doesn’t like to make things too complicated but likes to surprise people. I feel like you’re another artist that does this really well and I wondered if that resonated with you much in your approach?
Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of the energy I try to embody naturally, is to just have that element of discovery and adventure, without being too heady and logistical and analytical about it. I’m lucky that I was exposed to complex, wonderfully arranged compositions since I was little, so it’s possible that I have that sort of ingrained in how I think musically already, That way I don’t have to make an effort for it to come through sometimes. I think jazz music really lends that sometimes; things feel like surprises in jazz and it just feels more like storytelling when you when you let things feel like a surprise. Generally creating a narrative or a plot where there’s some tension, and then something else happens feels more fun. And But yeah, I think that that resonates. I don’t like things to be complicated either, and I really wanted to make sure that didn’t happen on this record.
Especially as you made the point about it being a very intimate record and how you wanted to reduce the amount that is going on. All of the parts of it are easier to focus on, to take each bit apart and really appreciate it.
I think with the last record, I noticed there were songs where I would love three things that were simultaneously going on. I think it could be all the more effective if I sacrificed one or two, for the sake of one actually being heard. At the end of the day, you want to create an impact with a song and stuffing it with too much is not going to be as impactful as letting it be more simple. Oftentimes, you don’t need that many elements – it gets busy and just washes over you. We can only process so many elements at once, especially musically.
Finally, what are you hoping people’s takeaways from the record will be and how would you like people to experience it?
I hope people feel like they’re opening some kind of storybook of fairytales, and that there’s some kind of imaginative, magical realism approach to more adult themes. Something that feels like you can explore it without it being so head on. I hope that element of fun and adventure comes through, and I hope people can interpret what Picnic in the Dark means for them personally – that’s the big metaphor. I guess that was the theme behind this. I hope people feel like they’re making their own little space for their own picnic in their own dark, and that it becomes space to explore safely with grace.
You speak about it in quite a fantastical way.
Yeah, I feel that relates to the inner child perspective because when you’re a kid, you see things through different eyes. You don’t know what’s real yet and how the world works as much as you do when you’re older, so you’re able to make sense of things in a way that’s more playful. I think a lot of psychological things can feel like that too – we can be so imaginative in our minds about something that is not at all what you think it is. Whether or not it’s a great thing or a bad thing, the idea of fantasising about something and idealising it is something I have experienced in many ways. I like that approach, it feels like a way of ricocheting some wisdom back to yourself without it being through your own voice. Like your own little theatre.
Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Josh Goleman
‘Picnic in the Dark’ is out April 8th via Northern Spy. Stream and purchase the album upon release via Bandcamp.