At 58, René Marie has lived two separate lifetimes. One is her life as a world-renowned jazz vocalist, a saucy, brilliant, no-holds-barred singer who composes and acts. It's a life she started in her 40s, going from a complete unknown to an international award-winning, festival-headlining star in a matter of years.
This life is completely at odds with the one that came before. At age 18, Marie married her high school sweetheart, and they both became Jehovah's Witnesses. She was a mother of two five years later. And singing? That, along with her natural-born brazenness, was something she left behind when she married. "That was the end of the boldness for me," she says. "That lasted almost 25 years. Then I started singing again in the last few years of my marriage. It was the singing that got me in touch with who I was again."
And who she was, it turned out, was emphatically not a Jehovah's Witness. When her husband told her that she either had to quit singing or move out, she chose the latter, and left both him and her religion for good. Then she started singing as much as she could. Within a year, she'd left her day job.
But it took longer than that for her to shake off 23 years of living as a Witness. "For the first 20 years of my adult life I was very submissive," she says. "It took me about five years to come out of that mindset of being submissive to men — to really be able to stand up and own who I was, to change that behavior. After that, I was good to go."
That is an understatement. It's hard to describe just how free, confident, and joyfully herself Marie is. First, there's her look. Tall and fiercely feminine, Marie carries herself like a queen and wears her hair like a rebel, with a shaved head save for one small lock of hair in front. Her voice is a smooth, sleek, perfectly controlled powerhouse that can handle great leaps in pitch and has a huge emotional range. When she speaks, it's with a perfect ease that comes from being truly comfortable in one's own skin. Honesty is paramount, she says, both to her life and to her art. "When I left the Witnesses, one of the things I asked myself and still ask myself is am I being true to myself? I would rather say on my deathbed, 'I'm glad I did' rather than 'I wish I had.' That's like a touchstone for me ... as human beings, we are capable of huge about-faces. The biggest impediment is worrying about disappointing others."
It's in that spirit of honesty and self-love that Marie recorded her latest album, I Wanna Be Evil — With Love to Eartha Kitt, a tribute to the inimitable jazz singer who unrelentingly forged her way to stardom at a time when being a black, female entertainer meant entering through the back door. The album features many of the songs Kitt is best known for, like "C'est Si Bon," "Santa Baby," and the cheeky, bad-girl anthem "I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch."
Marie is a huge fan of Kitt, but she hadn't intended to do a tribute album. At first, she didn't think it was a good idea at all. "On my other albums that I've done, it's just natural instinct for me to put myself out there," she says. "But my worry with doing this album was that I wouldn't be able to put myself out there because it was labeled a tribute. When you say tribute and there's another person's name there, people have certain expectations. And that was uncomfortable to me."
True to form, however, Marie took each song and made it wholly her own, just as Kitt did before her. The result is a sexy, swinging album that's equal parts sensuality and verve (plus one excellent, risky tune that doesn't quite fit with the others, Marie's original "Weekend." It's the story of a home invasion turned complex sexual encounter). The chipper "Let's Do It" is given a smoky, bluesy turn, while "Santa Baby" is stripped of its playfulness and remade into a slow, whispery, almost melancholy track.
Marie loves performing these Kitt favorites live, as she will at her Spoleto concert. Not only are they plenty of fun, she says, they're also "extremely empowering. If you look at the song titles [on I Wanna Be Evil] and listen to the first few words of the lyrics, they're really from the perspective of a woman who knows her sensuality and sexuality, and owns it. You know, 'I'd rather be burned as a witch/ than never burn at all' — I refuse to be what you guys consider the good girl. I'm going to do what I want to do, just like the other half of the human race. And if it means I'm burned as a witch, well — oh well. That's a very powerful statement to me."
Marie's had her own "burned as a witch" moments, most notably when she was invited to sing the National Anthem at Denver's State of the City address in 2008. While she kept the tune, instead of the lyrics to the "Star-Spangled Banner" she sang "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a song that's often referred to as the black national anthem. Needless to say, there were some outraged conservatives afterward. She even got death threats. And she often uses her music to confront challenging or taboo topics, like what constitutes abuse in "Weekend," and America's bloody racial history in her well-known medley of the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit" and the Southern pride song "Dixie."
René Marie is, in other words, no one and nothing but herself. That life of pleasing other people and living by others' rules is far behind her now, thanks to the song she rediscovered in herself two decades ago. "Once you're in your 40s there are a lot of things you can look straight in the eye and say, 'No. I'm not going to do that anymore,'" she says. "You realize you have more to lose if you try to shape yourself into what they like, rather than being your own shape."
And what a lovely shape it is.