Second Set: Renick's 'Up in the Air' moment remains inspirational
It’s become the stuff of local legend. Kevin Renick, a struggling songwriter who’d been recently released from a proof-reading job, passes a simply recorded, old-school cassette tape to director Jason Reitman. Months after the impromptu introduction to the filmmaker, Renick hears back from Reitman, the two coming into conversation over a song Renick wrote, “Up in the Air,” which matched mood and title to a film Reitman was completing, also “Up in the Air.”
Within a week of them actually talking, the song would be selected to punctuate the work, the unlikely closing-credits track to a film that received widespread critical acclaim.
As national media began to pick up on the musical side-story, Renick’s personal history began to change in real time. Even while struggling through a recession-era layoff, Renick’s music career was born -- all done through what’s (understated as) as an unlikely series of circumstances.
“Jim Axelrod of CBS News was the first to come to my house, one of two media members who came over,” he remembers. “He was the first to grasp that there were so many ironies about the whole thing. My getting laid off as the movie was being filmed. I had been so influenced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and my first national release is on an album with them; they’re on the soundtrack, too. The song had been titled ‘Up in the Air’ well before I knew of the movie, but the song even paralleled what they were saying thematically. The deeper you wanted to dig, the more interesting it got.”
Meeting at the comfortable Kaldi’s Coffee in his longtime home of Kirkwood, Renick’s quick to note that his life hasn’t changed in some respects, as “I’m not rolling in money.” But there have been perks in the past couple years, instances that remind him of his persistence-meets-good-fortune moment of February 2009.
There was his signing with local entertainment lawyer Robynn Ragland, a notable, mid-’90s, St. Louis songwriter herself; she’s now his manager, as well as attorney. There was a March 2010 trip to Japan in which “I was treated like a star in a way that was ridiculous. I flew first-class, for the first time in my life. I stayed at a posh hotel, with a spending stipend for every day. I had a translator, a driver. It was absolute bliss.”
During that stay, he enjoyed another unexpected perk. “I met with the cream of the crop of Japanese journalists, every day,” he says. Which, of course, is interesting in its own way.
The 'Noisy' years
Before last week, Kevin Renick and I crossed paths twice before. In 1996, he signed on at the "Riverfront Times," primarily working with the advertising department. A few years later, with a sizable number of the company’s workforce departing under the post-Ray Hartmann ownership, he and I met again, invited to a meeting by Carris Lindsey, a print designer and RFT alum, herself. The three of us sat down at her house in Webster Groves a few times, with Renick easily and enthusiastically sliding into an editing role with the new publication that was being born, a black-and-white zine called "NoisyPaper."
The publication had existed once before, as a mimeographed-and-stapled affair in the 1980s. Reborn at the start of the 2000s, the new zine was a larger format than the original, and came with a small ad base, Lindsey’s solid art direction and a heavy emphasis on local music and art. The publication was run on a shoestring, and hours were spent poring over mock-ups, stressing on all the finer points of getting a publication out the door in the last golden days of the classic, indie, print zine.
“'NoisyPaper,' God how often do I think about it,” says Renick, the publication’s managing editor. “I’m really proud of the fact that anybody who looks up Carrie Lindsey or NoisyPaper first comes to the most prominent piece of writing about them, by myself on playbackstl.com.
"I tried to tell the story, respectfully and honestly, of everything she went through, the meltdowns in the face of naysayers in the blogosphere, who were telling her what to do. I told a story of her vision and her ambition. Carrie had style and a visual imagination. I don’t think she particularly wanted to write, but to design and be a catalyst for the communal arts scene here. She invited a lot of bands to her house, to talk about ideas.
"'NoisyPaper' was not a real, professional paper, but it had great ideas. I view it as a groundbreaking thing, for others to see that ‘we can start a paper, we can invite people from the community to take part.’”
My role, beyond being the second-tier factchecker for the publication was to write an every-issue column and to generally be out advocating for the publication. After a few issues, it was obvious that Renick, who was also writing large amounts of each issue’s content, was in possession of the editorial vision of the zine.
Attempting to find paying work and burning out first, I split from the operations and was replaced in the triangular editorial meetings by Bryan A. Hollerbach. But I kept reading it, hoping it would establish a foothold, with a run at the RFT the ultimate goal. As it turned out, a second wave of contributors led by Laura Hamlett and James Dunn would form "Playback St. Louis," a colorful print zine about local music. It eventually morphed into an online entity, but the line between its current cyber-version and the original "NoisyPaper" birth is clear and clean.
After "NoisyPaper" cycled out of print, Lindsey, her energetic daughter Emily and husband Mike Shelton were killed, in a car accident on Aug. 22, 2004. The family was heading back from a musically themed mini-holiday in Chicago, when a vehicle crossed lanes and changed many lives in a moment.
“I still feel very bad about what happened to Carrie,” Renick says. “And you know the irony of my being behind them, caught in the hours-long traffic jam that day. I wrote a longer short-story about it, in diary form, called ‘Eight Days This Week.’ There were friendships affected by it. A wake held at a little club, the service. It was really intense and hard to fathom something like that happening to someone you know. You try to carry on and do things that the person would’ve been proud of. I’m appreciative of the things that’ve happened to me since, for those reasons.”
Through two work experiences and hours spent in editing sessions together, I wouldn’t have guessed at Renick’s hidden passion for music creation and performance. For appreciation of music, yes, he was always an avid fan. But I can’t remember him mentioning songwriting, the guitar, writing lyrics ... none of it, not once.
The perspective of perspective
These days, Renick has a handful of steady, musical collaborators, starting with Ted Moniak, a friend who moved from Seattle to St. Louis in 2010, to help arrange, write and play Renick’s music live. Ned Watson was added to some live events, while classically trained multi-instrumentalist Gretchen Hewitt’s been a live-playing ally, too.
When: 6:30 July 7
Where: Sky Music Lounge in Ballwin, opening for Plastic
When: 7 p.m. July 13
Where: Grove Deli in Webster Groves
Grammy-nominated producer Adam Long is working with Renick now, on two separate CD projects, while Jacob Detering’s slated for yet another project next year. Canadian electronic musician John Sobocan’s also on-board for work in 2013. And, with the Renick’s noted streak of coincidence intact, he’s even written lyrics with Christa Juergens, his first crush, of all people; they became reacquainted after Renick’s story began to break.
“We corresponded on Facebook, and I thought she had a lyrical way with her language,” Renick says, aware of the irony of their relationship, then and now. “I asked if we could put some words and phrases down, see what works. It’s nice not to have all the responsibility there.”
Of course, there is responsibility where Renick’s at now. The rare person who experiences and enjoys a soul-renewing lightning strike, he’s busy keeping the good will flowing. Even as his lyrics often reflect a somber, or sobering, perspective on the human experience.
“Part of the poignancy of this was that the impact wasn’t experienced by my parents,” Renick says. “My mom died by the time it actually happened. My dad was in a nursing home, limited in what he could say, or do, but he did tell me he was proud.
"Generally, I’ve gotten nothing but good support and positive energy from anyone who’s known me. It’s interesting how people from different points in my life came forward. The first guy I tried to play guitar with, when I was 10, was Rich Haegg. I lost track of him for over 10 years. He was living in Springfield, Mo., teaching guitar for 20 years. "One day, not so long ago, I called him to see about a gig. And at the school where he teaches, at that time, they were learning ‘Up in the Air.’ I gave a presentation to his class and spoke about my experiences. So I’m most grateful for the people who were gone, were unreachable, and who’ve found me through Facebook or my website.”
Renick’s refreshing in his honesty. About being discovered in middle age, for example.
“I’ve been fortunate to have the privilege of setting an example,” he says. “Of taking the road less traveled. It’s surprising, as an older person, to get email from a lot of people, saying your story is inspiring to them, that they’re following a dream that may never come true. You stand as an example of the ordinary person, the down-to-Earth guy who takes a risk. I still get emails from people who feel like it’s a soundtrack to their life, like one from a guy in Iran who says his friends love the song and I’m some sort of star there. I couldn’t have ever imagined stuff like that, to inspire people who are lost, or wandering, or trying to figure stuff out. The openness I express about my life is part of the story.”
He’s also aware, hyper-aware, that hundreds, if not thousands of “Kevin Renick’s” are out there. Trapped with an idea or concept, in a town where connections are seldom made.
“I feel very strongly about that,” he says. “I have met people with very good ideas for films, TV shows. But they wonder how they can make it happen. I’ve become a spokesman for the outrageous, lucky-break syndrome. It’s very tough to be a nobody and to get something to a person of importance. For me, it took an extraordinary piece of luck.
"The story’s become cliche, it’s been told so many times, but Jason Reitman said, with some panache when we talked, that 'the more unusual way I get themusic the better.’ That told me he was open to new ways. There are young artists, who appreciate someone coming up to them. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Unless you single-mindedly go after somebody, or unless you get lucky, the odds are tremendously against you.
“But you should still be nervy,” he figures. “Look what happened to me.”