Lydia René is a classically-trained pianist and multifaceted musician who stands out in any room.
The Mount Holly, New Jersey native has been in love with music for nearly her entire life – first introduced to James Taylor and Carole King by her parents – she then discovered Jill Scott a few years later. It’s this combination that prepared her for her first professional exposure to the music world.
During an interview with BET.com. Lydie René explains how meeting Tejumold and Johari Newton validated her musical prowess, details her recent solo-singing appearances in TV and film, and provides a few hints about her forthcoming projects.
BET: Take me back to growing up in Mount Holly. What was that like and how did it help shape who you are, and as a result, your artistry?
Lydia René: I did a lot of bands and stuff in high school. Even though I didn't do much singing, I did do a lot of music-related things and extracurricular to the school – marching band, jazz band, symphonic band, and I was in the indoor drumline. I did all kinds of weird, crazy stuff. But as far as Mount Holly goes, I'm grateful that we were so close to Philadelphia and the music scene there. That's really kind of what shaped everything for me. A lot of my influences like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild – all those people that I was in love with when I was in middle school and early high school were from Philly. I was really grateful to have that and be so close to that.
I started doing open mics and small gigs around the Philadelphia area and I had a goal of playing at every single venue that would let me play when I first started playing. So that's how I got started doing all of my live shows – in Philly, [Washington] D.C., New York, the tri-state area. That's how I got started with performing and being able to put a show together, put a band together, put a setlist together and be comfortable on stage.
BET: Professionally you got your break after meeting Tejumold and Johari Newton, who were engineers and producers for Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and have worked with Jazmine Sullivan, CeCe Winans, Nelly, and Aretha Franklin, among others. How special was that?
LR: [Tejumold’s] wife, we went to high school together and I'm not sure how it came up in conversation, but they were like, "Oh yeah, they're looking for somebody to write a song for XYZ artist and I told him that you write." And she was really telling him, "You gotta give Lydia a chance, let Lydia do it." And so he let me write on one of the tracks and they loved it a lot for that person. That was really cool because you're always like, yeah, this sounds great, that sounds cool in my house with me listening to it. So to get other people's ears on it and other professionals' ears on it – people that you look up to, people that you want to be like, it's always nice and it's always like great validation. So that was a really, really fun time because it let me know that it's not just me, who thinks that's good. Other people outside of my parents and me and people that I know, actually think it sounds decent enough for people to sing.
BET: Yeah, anyone who is in any sort of proximity to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time telling you that you’re a great writer is certified validation…
BET: You mentioned Jill Scott. It makes a lot of sense that she’s a huge influence on you, not only because of the type of music you make but also because she’s just inspiring in general. What is it about her and others – you also cited Musiq Soulchild – that made you want to be a professional musician?
LR: The reason I mention her so much is that when her album, [Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1], was released, I hadn't quite heard anything like that. I was 14 years old and people my age weren't really listening to stuff like that. More like Nelly and Usher and Britney Spears – all those people that were like the ‘99/2000s popular artists. When I heard “A Long Walk”, I think it came on like the radio in our school gym or something, I was like, "What is this? I want to know more about this." It was very inspiring and different to me at the time because it wasn't jazz, it wasn't quite R&B. And you know, they called it neo-soul after that, but it was very intriguing and new and different for me, especially as a 14-year-old that wanted to know more about it. I wanted to know, where can I get more of this and how can I hear more.
My other influences like James Taylor, Carole King – my dad had me listening to those people since I was a little girl. Since I played piano I liked to write songs and those people were always like the GOATs for me because they write, they sing, and they don't necessarily blow the roof off with their voices, but it doesn't matter because of the material. Their songs and their storytelling really are what sold me on them. I always wanted to be a great storyteller and create moments for people.
BET: You wear a lot of hats: singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger. Almost like an Issa Rae or Quinta Brunson of sorts in music. What are both the challenges and rewards of being multifaceted and having your hands in everything?
LR: Honestly, I think being indie anything is a lot more work. But yes, you're right. I think the pro is you're in control. If you don't want to do it, you don't really have anybody else to answer to other than yourself. I want to sing this, these are who I want in my band. I want these people singing and playing on my album. I want to perform here, I want to do this. I want to change up my sound a little bit. I just have to answer to me, which is all great stuff, but along with that comes stress. Stress, stress, stress, stress, especially in planning things. You are the point person so and everything fails, it fails because of you…
BET: No one to blame but yourself…
LR: Exactly. Maybe you’re the one crowdfunding, you're the one bankrolling everything. You're paying for everything, and you're scheduling everything. So it can be very stressful, but naturally when things work out and things do well, the reward probably feels greater because you're like, it was me [laughs].
BET: You released your debut album Vintage Heart in 2015. But I understand you’ve got a new project coming soon. Speak on that a bit if you can because I’d love to know more…
LR: My debut, wow. It was a miracle. I had my guitar player, who was also a producer, offered to do two songs for me for free. The first one was the single, “Only In Time”, because he liked me so much and he just wanted to work with me. He's like, “Don't worry about the money.” So “Only In Time", and we also did a song called “That's Life.” He actually ended up doing my whole album, which I’m grateful for because his name was Harry Wilson and we worked so well together. And you know, Harry used to play for people like John Legend and other people in Philly. So I was really grateful to meet him and work with him because some people you just work together well and we had a great working relationship.
That album was really special to me because prior to that I had just done a lot of live stuff, a lot of live at this venue, live at that venue, just to get things out there and make sure I was putting things out for people. So it was an interesting process because most artists, record the songs first and then they go play them live. I've always done it backward because I'm always writing new stuff that I haven't recorded yet. Then usually I'm like, “Okay, this went well, this didn't go well. People liked this song. Now let's record this stuff.” So I think that's the process that I'm going through.
With the next project that I want to do, It'll probably be two things – like an EP and then something larger or longer with more songs on it. I'm definitely diving deep back into my James Taylor and Carole King bag, more singer-songwriter songs, some ballads, still soul but very heavy on some folk elements added in there. A lot of things like that.
BET: What is it about Jersey and Philly that makes them so special musically in your opinion?
LR: I think it’s because it’s small and mighty. The tri-state area in and of itself really is not that big, especially for me living in L.A. right now. California is massive. I don't even think I could comprehend how massive it is because I can drive from one side of New Jersey to the other in a very short time. I'm used to that. But in that small area of New Jersey, Philly, D.C., New York, that whole area – there's a lot of diversity. I think because people come from different countries and different areas, and we're all exposed to different things – D.C. has go-go, and we have [The Sound of Philadelphia], and Baltimore has club music. All these different things, Jersey club. I think that's because of how diverse it is, but also, how close we are. You can't help but have the diversity rub off.
I remember when I moved to LA, back in 2014, I did a competition. That's also how I got my album done. I won a free studio. So I did this competition, and the manager of the other artists in the competition was like, Well, you know, Lydia, you're from the East Coast. So you have that East Coast hustle. Now, I don't necessarily know what that is. It's a different vibe and a different energy, the energy in LA is kind of really like, chill. Maybe I'll drive inside the lines, maybe I won't. There's no rush, whereas, on the East Coast, it's like, I gotta get there. How can I get this money? How are we going to do this? Yeah, let's do it. Now. Let's do it ASAP. You know, and it's, it's not really that viable here. And so I think the culture of the East Coast plays a little bit of a part in that too.
BET: You recently worked with Bobby Brown and Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire for the Coming 2 America soundtrack. What was that experience like and how special was that?
LR: That was really awesome because that movie, the first Coming to America, is history for us. It is a classic, we know all the lines, we know the characters and we make jokes about it. It's a part of our language. It's very ingrained into the culture. So when I saw that I had an opportunity to sing, not only in the ensemble but also a solo [opportunity], that was kind of like, okay. I’ve been kind of jaded since I never moved here… So when the time came to do it it was really awesome.
I have no other way to describe it other than just feeling really proud and grateful that I got to be a part of the history that I grew up watching and loving so much. Because of COVID, we had to do a lot of it at home because I think that was like literally 2020. It was a learning curve for everyone, even veterans that have been doing this kind of work for years. It was really fun. All in all, it was a really great experience.
A lot of those opportunities kind of tend to come because of word of mouth or because people remember me or they liked me. Or they're like, “Oh, yeah, let's get Lydia,” which I'm very grateful for because there's really no rhyme or reason to it other than they remembered me or they knew me and they thought I was perfect for the job. So singing behind Philip Bailey, I kind of have the exact same feeling that I have for Coming 2 America because, again, I grew up listening to Earth, Wind & Fire. That was the first concert my mom ever went to, that music used to play in my house and in the cars, everywhere, all the time. So it's like, that's the soundtrack of my life. So meeting him and getting to sing with him on stage was just super awesome. Just a great feeling.
BET: You also sang in the first episode of season 2 of Little America. What was that like?
LR: Yes. Again, I was just hired to sing in the choir and they kept changing things and, in music licensing, they have to license certain lyrics, certain songs, and it's like, “Legally, we can't sing this part of the song”, all this kind of legal stuff. So they kept changing things as we were in the session. So we needed to sound like this obscure gospel artist that no one ever really heard of, and we need a soloist and it's probably going to be a woman so everybody decides what you're going to do. I thought they were gonna audition us to see who sounded best. I'm not really sure what happened.
I got pulled to the side and they said, “How about we try you singing the solo?” And I said if it doesn't work, just move on to someone else. I'm not going to be offended. This is in the middle of us recording the choir parts and they tell me that you have to sing the solo. So of course, I didn't know the song and we kind of had to Frankenstein the two songs together to get the song that we sang on the TV show because that's not how the song goes. So in the moment, I kind of had to, with the vocal contractor who hired us, to come up with what we were going to do and sing it.
The director, Sian Heder, was there and she did CODA, which I love, and she won so many awards for that. So when I saw her in there, I was like, “Oh boy, the director's here. I hope I get this right.” But it went well obviously. You saw me on the TV show [laughs].
The guy running this studio session was really awesome too and we got along really well. He said that I reminded him of Chaka Khan, which was a compliment and very fun too, so the session went well. Also, they told me when we got to set that day to record it because we recorded it in the studio first. They said, “Lydia, you will be singing it again live on camera.” So what you heard on the actual TV show was me singing it live and we had a recorded version for confidence. Just in case something chaotic happened.
BET: One of the things I love about you is you’re very open and transparent on social media, particularly Instagram. You kind of peel back the curtain to show what it’s like to be a full musical artist. Is that something you attempt to do or are you just having fun?
LR: That’s a good question. It’s probably more of what you just said. I like to be transparent because I know a lot of people are not, especially on social media – look how great everything is, look how awesome I am, look how great I look. I know 100 percent It is not that way so I try to be as regular and as much of myself as I possibly can. I strive to, as far as my social media presence goes, be someone that people like, someone that people can learn from, someone that people can relate to – whether it's my daughter, or the interior design, or me singing. Any aspect of that that people like. I can teach you something that you get value from looking at me in some sort of way and I'm not just here for nothing.
BET: You’ve got a show at the Troubadour in L.A. at the end of the month. What are you expecting from that and how do live shows kind of touch your soul, especially when you see people taking it all in live?
LR: I love performing live and I took a break after I had my daughter. My last couple of shows, or when I was very pregnant, was very difficult. That was actually my busiest year because it was 2019. So I was grateful for that year, I worked like a dog, but I loved it and I was pregnant the entire time. But I haven't done shows really since then. I did a Sofar but this is probably the biggest show that I've done I'm going say ever because the venue is legendary. The capacity is much more than I've done in the past. So there's a lot riding on this, but it's still a good thing. A lot of my favorite artists have performed at The Troubadour and it's been around so long and has had so many legendary people there. The show means a lot to me because I chose my own lineup, The Sound Collective Experience, which we booked, and I chose them personally.
Everybody's awesome. Everybody's extremely talented, so it's not like, oh, there's one good person and we just have to suffer through these other people. Everybody is extremely talented. Everybody has a crazy resumé. They've all worked with the same caliber of people that I've worked with and more. So it should be a really awesome night.
BET: What’s coming up next for you outside of the Troubadour show, the EP and album?
LR: I want to do more singing or more soundtracks, more movies, TV trailers, which I continue to do. I just signed onto something else. Obviously, whenever I sing something, I can't really talk about it until it comes out. I'm currently singing on more things. I'm grateful that I get to do a lot of things from home because I have the equipment to do that. I want to do bigger films, I want to sing solo more. I also am a vocal coach and I get very excited about helping people develop their own stage presence and command the stage because a lot of people can sing really well and they're really talented, but they can get nervous. To demonstrate how to put together a show, how to hold the mic, and a lot of basic things. I do performance coaching and I'm trying to do a little bit more of that in the coming years.
You can catch Lydia René at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on January 31.