In some ways, the country-soul sound of Priscilla Renea’s game-changing new album, Coloured, finds the singer and chart-topping songwriter coming full circle. A child of the Navy who bounced around the South growing up, Renea was living in Jacksonville, Florida, when she wrote her first song at eight years old. “I was vacuuming the hallway and started singing this melody and lyrics,” she recalls. “It was something like ‘Walking down the highway, looking at the skyway,’ and it was a country song. Pretty much every song I’ve ever written is a country song in some way,” Renea says, going on to cite her co-writes on such hits as Rihanna’s “California King Bed,” Pitbull’s No. 1 smash “Timber,” and “Somethin’ Bad,” her Country No. 1 for Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood, as examples. “So it’s funny that I’m now being myself and writing songs about my childhood and they naturally have this dark, swampy, country-western feel. I didn’t do that on purpose. That’s just in me from growing up in the South.”
Coloured marks Renea’s return to focusing on herself as an artist while spending nearly a decade as a songwriter-for hire. Her credits read like a who’s who of superstar artists and include hits for Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Mary J Blige, Madonna, Demi Lovato, Pitbull, Miranda Lambert, Chris Brown, Fifth Harmony, Mariah Carey, Charlie Puth, Nick Jonas, Train, Diplo, Curren$y, and Kelly Clarkson, among others. It’s a list that demonstrates not only her chameleon-like stylistic range, but also an emotional intelligence that enables her to connect with artists with varying personalities and help them sound authentic.
“I never stopped wanting to make my own music,” she says. “Writing songs for other people was a bit bittersweet, because I really feel like I’m this tree with all this sweet fruit on it. And in this industry, I had to feed and water myself, and starve through some horrible conditions, and people came and took my fruit without asking. Now I want to be able to share my gift with people in a way that doesn’t damage me. I started writing the songs on Coloured as a way to not give up on music. I’m not trying to prove myself to anybody. I’m just trying to express my highest form of creativity. It makes me happy when I make something that I know is going to touch people. I’m just trying to chase that feeling.”
Coloured, which Renea describes as “a big gumbo of everything that’s happening in my life,” showcases her powerhouse voice and engaging story-telling on such classic urban-soul ballads as “Heavenly,” “If I Ever Loved You,” and “Let’s Build A House” (the latter two Renea co-wrote with Nashville A-lister Ashley Gorley), as well as rule-breaking country-inspired tunes like the autobiographical “Family Tree,” “Jonjo,” and “Gentle Hands.” “I just wanted to make something that had all the elements that I like, Renea says of the album’s eclectic sound. “My focus is on the live show. I know once people see me sing, it will stick with them for a minute. So I’m thinking about that when I’m in the studio. ‘Is it easy to sing? Is it catchy? Does it make me laugh?’ Whatever it makes me feel, that’s how I want people to feel when they’re listening. Plus, when I grew up music was such a melting pot that I don’t see how anybody could keep trying to box us in as a generation musically. Kids like everything. I listen to classical music. I listen to screamo music. I listen to jazz. There’s no limit anymore. That’s an old way of thinking.”
Coloured was created in Nashville where Renea spent a few months in 2016, staying in a barn that her “Somethin’ Bad” co-writer Brett James had converted into a studio. “He gave us a place where we could be comfortable and create these amazing tunes,” she says of James, who co-wrote the track “Heavenly” with her. “I knew if I had tried to write this album in L.A., it would have gotten picked apart, so I went to Nashville, didn’t tell anybody, and wrote about 40 songs.” Renea returned to Los Angeles and sat on them for a few months. Then hip-hop producer Honorable C.N.O.T.E (Migos, Gucci Mane) sent her some beats and she started singing one of the songs over them. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy, this is really different,’” she says. “And I thought, ‘Screw it, I’m just going to try it.’” Renea went back to Nashville and put a studio band together and told them what she wanted. “It was a very experimental process, but honestly, we just took a chance,” she says. “We had no idea how it was going to turn out or if it was going to work, but here we are.”
When it came time to title the album, Renea knew her choice could be seen as provocative, but if you look at the way it’s spelled, with a “u,” the word “our” appears in the middle — a statement of inclusivity. “It’s significant because at what other time in history would it have been possible to even have an album called ‘Coloured’ and for someone like me to even put out a record independently and own it?” she asks. “We’ve made so much progress, and I feel like we have to keep pushing, because if we don’t, ignorant people are going to keep teaching their kids to hate, and those people are going to keep growing up and being in positions of power and keep oppressing. So we have to keep growing and expanding against that. I’m focused on the freedom of being able to be who I am and be proud of it and be happy. So the next generation, they won’t see the word ‘coloured’ as negative. They’ll see it as a beautiful thing because somebody like me was bold enough to use it.”
“When I went to the Grand Ole Opry, there were photos of two black people hanging up on that wall backstage,” she continues. “One of them was Chuck Berry and the other was Darius Rucker. And I thought, ‘Well, you know what? I want my picture up there. I want it right here,’ and I touched a space on the wall that was empty. And I was like, ‘I can’t wait to come back here and sing and have my jacket hanging up in the window one day.’ Why shouldn’t I have that dream? I want everybody to feel like there is a chance for them in whatever it is that they want to pursue. And if I’m going to be preaching that, then I’ve got to be personifying it as well. I’m not afraid of the challenge.”