As kids, we all have lists of things we want to be when we grow up: a doctor, a teacher, a singer. But as we age and interests change, few children end up following through on these childhood dreams. Yet since Geena Renee picked up a violin at the age of seven, she knew that she would pursue music throughout her life, and that hasn’t changed.
Flash-forward 14 years and you’ll find Geena at Highline Ballroom and Mercury Lounge, performing original music with influences from Regina Spektor, Panic! at the Disco, and a score of other musical icons. Now, the 21-year-old artist tells AQ about her start, her upcoming sophomore album, Cipher, and where she’s headed next.
Where are you from?
How long have you been an active musician and how did you get started?
I got my start as a musician when I was 7 years old, playing violin in my elementary school district in Fairfield, which was Stevenson School. I kind of started playing violin on a whim. No one in my family is musical, so the passion for music didn’t come from genetics. I quickly fell in love with the violin and would wake up early in the morning to practice before school because I wanted to impress my teachers.
By the time I was 10, I wanted to learn more instruments, so I taught myself how to play the piano and guitar around the same time, and began singing and writing songs. Throughout high school I would perform these songs at The Fine Grind in Little Falls or Open Mic nights at West Essex High School, and teachers would come up to me and tell me that I should consider going into songwriting in the future. Fast forward a few years, and I’m a senior at Purchase College studying Studio Composition and Arts Management in their music conservatory.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you before?
We always say that we sound like Evanescence without the metal guitar tone. Amy Lee has
been a huge inspiration of mine since I was a little girl. I even dressed up as her for Halloween in the third grade. I love telling that story because people often come up to me at my shows and say that my music reminds them of Evanescence and it’s the greatest compliment ever. There are also influences from early Panic! at the Disco records where they embraced those dark, cabaret influences. My music is dark, creepy, quirky alternative rock with really thought-provoking concepts and vulnerable lyrics.
What was your latest release of music and can you talk about that a bit?
My single, “Meet Me on the Balcony,” is going to be released on Sept. 22. It’s really just a fun song to jam out to in your car, reminiscent of all the pop-punk music I listened to when I was younger. That song is about not really knowing where you stand in someone’s life, and not being able to trust that they won’t leave you high and dry. I want everyone who has ever felt socially awkward to revel in it.
The full album, Cipher, is going to be released on Oct. 20. It’s definitely not an ordinary rock record. There are a lot of layers present that touch on topics more than just love and heartbreak. There are questions and doubts of self-worth, self-discovery, vulnerability, intimacy, body image…there’s even one song that I wrote inspired by the TV show, Breaking Bad. Somehow it all is cohesive and feeds into this idea of a cipher–an algorithm for performing encryption or decryption–this idea that you have to take very specific steps to unravel the hidden messages underneath, and that the details of a key are purposely hidden from attackers. There’s a battle between vulnerability and guardedness, where the lyrics are blunt but at the same time not so readily understood. Cipher sounds exactly like who I am as a songwriter. My stamp is on it, and that helps me sleep at night.
What is your writing and recording process like?
I’m a control freak and a perfectionist. Every person who worked on the album, and there were a lot of people, learned an exercise in patience. I would stand on chairs in the studio and wave my arms around, yelling things through the talk-back so that I could give cues to the person on the other side of the glass and get the emotion I wanted out of them. I would sometimes use abstract descriptions of scenes I visualized in my mind to communicate what I wanted to be performed musically. I had a very particular vision of what I wanted everything to sound like when it was completed. We had the drums and bass done for the entire album and about half of the guitar done and I made everyone start over (whoops!). But I don’t regret it at all because now it sounds fantastic.
I can usually feel when it’s the right take, so sometimes I get a little crazy in making musicians do things over and over again, but by the time we get to the end of the session they appreciate it and am glad I was tough on them. I do the same thing to myself during my takes too. It’s all out of love and art. I’m very close with my band and my engineers and we’re all still friends after this
experience. Pulling all-nighters to create art is a beautiful bonding experience. I’m really grateful for each and every person on my team.
When writing, the music and lyrics kind of just pour out. I try to let things happen organically. I tend to write the music and lyrics at the same time, but there’s always some type of melody in my head. Random phrases will come into my mind and that will direct where the concept of the song goes. When I finish writing a song, I either feel really confident, not confident at all, or completely unsure as to whether it’s fantastic or horrendous. Usually, the ones where I don’t know are the ones that end up being the best songs because they push boundaries.
What are current projects you are working on?
Right now we’re preparing for the album release, so we’re really excited to go full speed ahead with performing and doing a few mini-tours. I’d love to be able to play at other colleges and see what their music scene is like, and how that differs from the music scene know and love at Purchase. I am also hoping to do a music video at some point. That’s definitely the next step.
What is your favorite memory as a musician?
I got to see Regina Spektor live for the first time this past March at Radio City Music Hall. That was definitely a special moment for me. She has this capability to just sit at the piano and sing and completely blow everyone away. Her voice is incredible and sounds even better live than on her albums. She graduated from the Studio Composition program at Purchase, the exact program I’m in now. Knowing that she was once in my shoes, playing the same pianos in the same practice rooms, and was on stage at Radio City Music Hall was enough to bring tears to my eyes. We have some of the same professors, and a lot of them know I am a fan of hers, so when they find little notes and photos and articles of hers laying around, they always give them to me.
What are your goals for the future as a musician?
To constantly recreate myself as an artist. This record is really different stylistically than anything I’ve done before. In a year or so I have become a completely different musician and songwriter and I love it. I can’t wait to hear what my next record will sound like. I want to just keep pushing boundaries with my lyrics and talk about things people are sometimes uncomfortable talking about. I want to be able to tour and see different parts of the country, and hopefully one day the world, and experience music from all different cultures and walks of life. I hope to collaborate with other artists more and just follow wherever this crazy musical journey takes me.
What are your plans for the rest of 2017? 2018?
I definitely want to play more shows, go on tour, and be able to share this album that so many people put their blood, sweat, and tears into. All that hard work deserves recognition and deserves to be heard. In 2018, I’ll be performing my Senior Recital and graduating college, which is really upsetting and exciting and scary and relieving all at the same time.
Geena’s music is available on iTunes, Spotify, and Apple Music, as well as geenarenee.bandcamp.com and soundcloud.com/geenareneemusic. For more information, including tour dates, visit geenarenee.com.