Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Kat Slootsky
The new album by Renata Zeiguer — the first recorded under her own name — is entitled “Old Ghost.” It’s an emblematic example of what 21st-century indie music is when done right: Gone is questionable musicianship of the original ‘90s version of the genre; retained is the intimacy and soul-searching that has always distinguished the style from the cliched monotony of mainstream pop and rock.
Previous to this album, Zeiguer was best known for her group Cantina, which she created after playing as a side person in such bands as Landlady and Vensaire and Paper Pyramid — all of which are loosely connected by an indie sensibility. Zeiguer describes Cantina’s genesis to me: “I set out to make a band, and I didn’t want to use my own name, so I came up with this name Cantina. I initially wanted a super group of people that I could play with all the time.” She began Cantina, but she also ended it; however, I didn’t probe into why she terminated Cantina and began Renata Zeiguer; my sense was the reasons were personal, and thus the best answers would be divined through the clues left in Old Ghost, but this is something the readers will have to determine for themselves. She does, however, offer that “The band changed, and everything combusted, but I’m glad I came out the other end. It’s good.”
Before she began recording under her own name, before she dismantled Cantina, before being the side musician in bands, Zeiguer was a kid from The Bronx who took music classes at the Manhattan School of Music, which exposed her to the classical and jazz side of things musical. “It was piano and then violin the same year, because my brother played and I wanted to, too.” This classical influence still comes through clearly in her arrangements, which are complex without being overbearing — and the fact that she includes and plays strings on her recordings.
The album that is about to be released was a long time coming. “I Recorded it 2 years ago,” Zeiguer recalls. “I didn’t record the vocals until a year ago. It took me a year to finish the lyrics. The actual recording that we did in the studio was 5 days, and a day of strings on 2 songs.” The delay in recording the vocals is do largely to the artistic “brain shift” required to produce the lyrics. “Demos that I created in my little cabinet have dummy lyrics. I usually have a chorus that stays, but the lyrics require a different brain, a different way of thinking.”
In terms of the music on the album, her approach differs from Cantina not so much in the technical aspect of music making, as in the spirit of liberation with which it was made. “The transition from Cantina a 4-piece band to Renata Zieger as a 4-piece band, there wasn’t really a change. Except that I didn’t feel beholden to a group of 3 specific people. Once I started going under my name, I felt free to do whatever I want.”
The band changed, and everything combusted, but I’m glad I came out the other end. It’s good
Old ghost as in something that’s always going to be there, but I’m over it.
The album also features Zeiguer’s delightful keyboard, the aptly named Baldwin Fun Machine (for the obsessives out there it’s cabaret model 128 FE 1972). It’s a funky little electric organ that Zieguer claims you can do no wrong on. Offering me a turn at the helm, she assures me, “You can’t embarrass yourself. It’s impossible. It always sounds great.” (I nevertheless demurred.)
Opposite the Fun Machine, Zeiguer has set up a stop motion animation studio. I ask her about it and she tells me, “I’m focusing on the visual aspect of everything and enjoying that: artwork and making little videos. I always wanted to do stop motion, so I’m doing that more. I like taking pictures, and you’re taking a lot of pictures, so it’s intuitive. I have a collection of National Geographics from the 60s that I find on ebay, so I have a folio of whatever I want.” These stop motions can be seen in the video releases for the songs on the album.
More significant than finding out how she made the album was hearing what the album meant to her. Charmingly enough, she prefaces her explanation with a Good Will Hunting reference that has nothing to do with apples. Instead it’s the scene where Robin Williams comforts a crying Matt Damon that “it’s not your fault.” With this as her prologue, Zeiguer explains, “It’s a coming of age album for me. I was in a period that’s a difficult time in your 20s; a lot of changes happen. In my life a lot of growth happened. The reason I called it Old Ghost was because there’s a lyric in the song “Gravity”: ‘A cloud is hovering standing permanently still / old ghost that I can’t kill.’ That cloud is all of those things that were imposed on you as a kid in your upbringing and also all of your own self inflicted paranoias, delusions about who you are and how you come off, and caring what other people think — all from a negative aspect; having that cloud that taints everything through a lens that’s always the worst case scenario. And realizing that I’m never going to get rid of those things permanently. It’s always going to be a struggle where you practice; the way you’ve got to exercise. You don’t just exercise once and you’re done for your lifetime. It was a period of learning to accept and befriend these things and understand how they work and understand how I work and how they play into my perspective and familiarizing yourself with that. And that all leads to self love. Old ghost as in something that’s always going to be there, but I’m over it.”