A native of Cleveland Heights, singer-songwriter Renee Stahl has released a handful of albums as Renee & Jeremy, a duo that features her singing and songwriting partner Jeremy Toback. Now, she’s just released Simpatico, a new album that features her songs sung by a range of guests, including singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb, actresses Maya Rudolph and Molly Shannon, and singer-songwriter Glen Phillips. Men at Work’s Colin Hay contributes as well — he reads a poem. The well-crafted mid-tempo songs (think Aimee Mann and/or Michael Penn) benefit from the collaborations. We recently phoned Stahl at her Santa Barbara home to talk about the album, which comes out on Friday.
You grew up in Cleveland Heights. What was that experience like and how did it inform your music?
When I was 7, I was in the Singing Angels. I went to Heights Youth Theatre camp for maybe three of four years. I did musical theater and that’s where I met [actress] Molly Shannon. We did plays together. I went to Heights High School and was in the Heights Singers. I kept singing and acting and moved to New York to work on my acting career. Singing kept coming up. I was still singing but focusing on acting. I started writing songs in New York and when I moved to L.A., that’s where my singer-songwriter career took off. That was in 1992. I was always singing and always writing songs. Little did I know it would amount to something. My singing wouldn’t leave me alone. I just kept coming back to it. I’m happy that that’s what I’m doing.
Talk about the concept for Simpatico.
Jeremy and I have put out four records. I wanted to do another record and Jeremy is focused on some other writing. I wanted to invite our friends and do collaborations, which I love doing. Our producer Rich Jacques, who was born in Euclid, is a dear friend and great producer. I wanted to do another record and figure out who could be on it. It happened very easily. It was very simpatico. The title came just because it’s how everything felt. I had done a cover record with Jeremy and we did a Christmas album. This was the next thing I wanted to pursue. Except for the covers, I wrote the songs with each person. It was really, really fun. Every different person brought a different flavor. We wrote quickly. We would write in one day and then record on a different day.
What was it like teaming up with Molly Shannon for “Happiness”?
Molly brings fun to everything she does. I laugh so hard, I cry and have to hold my stomach. She’s just naturally fun. We did theater when we were younger but we took the show You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown to nursing homes around Cleveland. We just wanted to make old people feel good. I still have my old Lucy dress. She was Snoopy and I was Lucy. The song we sing is from that show and representative of our past.
What inspired the decision to have Colin Hay, who’s Scottish, read a poem?
We wrote that. It’s an original piece. We wrote the song first. We wrote the lyrics first. I love his voice and that we’re representing him with his voice on the album. Everything thinks he’s Australian because of the Men Work reference to a vegemite sandwich. Rich had the idea for him to just read them. We ended up recording the song as spoken word and he recorded the song and put the song on his latest record.
You and Jeremy team up for “Wherever You Go.” Talk about the origins of that song.
That was a starter we had many years ago. It’s so easy writing with Jeremy. We could write a million songs in an hour. We had that little ditty. We brought it back out of the ethers. We started writing it again. Rich was great. He was there to guide and direct the essence of what we were going for on the record. Ninety eight of the participants are parents. A lot of the direction has to do with what you would say to a child. Everything is written for a child to listen to as well. It’s universal, not just parental love. We want everyone to relate to the songs.
I didn’t even think of it as a kid’s album.
That’s the intention. It’s music for everyone. You don’t want to tell everyone that. Years ago, I wrote a song with my friend Kevin that was about my cat. He said we shouldn’t tell anyone that. We wanted them to come up with their own idea of what the song means to them.
You’re celebrating the album’s release with some shows in Southern California. Any plans to perform in Northeast Ohio?
I would love to. I would love to come back and play. We come back to Cleveland every year and go to Parade the Circle. One of my daughters wants to be in it next year. Cleveland is a great place to grow up. It's wonderful.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]