Want to meet one of rock music’s most dynamic and gifted vocalists? Say hello to Colleen Rennison, whose leather lunged and spine-tinglingly soulful singing is the calling card of Vancouver-based outfit No Sinner. Since her emergence on the band’s debut Boo Hoo Hoo in 2013, Rennison’s voice has been compared to that of Etta James and, inevitably, Janis Joplin, though Robert Plant is no less a role model for the 28-year-old Canadian. In 2014, her solo project See The Sky About To Rain, a collection of covers by Robbie Robertson, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt and others, showed off the singer’s homespun, rootsy side. Whether it’s blistering blues rock or a soulful ballad, Rennison’s background as an actress – she trained at New York’s famed Circle in the Square and has appeared in Hollywood features alongside Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer – allows her to inhabit a song like few singers on today’s scene.
But life as a frontwoman has had its share of fits, starts and frustrations. Work on the follow-up LP to Boo Hoo Hoo had already commenced (with guitarist Eric Campbell and drummer Ian Browne making key contributions) when that first record got picked up for international release three years ago. Now, with some tweaking and fine-tuning, and following the dissolution of the original line-up, No Sinner’s second album has finally been released as Old Habits Die Hard. Its twelve bracing tracks are sure to move Colleen Rennison and her revamped five-piece several rungs up in the blues rock hierarchy.
In our interview, Rennison discusses making the album, the upheaval within the band and why she considers Robert Plant to be the sexiest man alive.
While No Sinner was touring in support of Boo Hoo Hoo, you quietly put out your solo project See The Sky About To Rain. Could you tell us about it and how it differs from your work with No Sinner?
No Sinner is music for a Saturday night. The solo album is what you might want to hear on a Sunday morning. If you’re awake on Sunday morning – that can be subjective! I’m really proud of both records, my solo album and the new No Sinner album. They’re definitely two different sides of the coin, but equally integral to who I am as an artist.
Lately I’ve been writing original songs that are more in the vein of my solo album. All of the songs on See The Sky are covers of songs by Canadian and American artists. I’ve been writing stuff along those lines and I’m looking forward to releasing it as a side project. But No Sinner will always be rock’n’roll. Whether it’s a little more soul or a little more anything – it will always be rock’n’roll.
Does your acting background help you get inside the emotion of a song? Or is making music and singing onstage the very opposite of acting?
For me, they are both ways of telling a story. So many of the songs on See The Sky aren’t love songs. They are story songs. I approach them the same way I would approach a monologue or a piece of text. I went to theatre school in New York for a while; to Circle in the Square, which is a very well-respected acting school. Every time I get onstage, I use things I learned there. Like really visualizing those memories that you have that can lead you into a piece of music or a piece of text. It comes from a very similar place. I don’t see music and acting as two different places.
When you sing, it doesn’t sound like you’re acting. Does that make any sense at all?
I call that a song and dance. When somebody’s putting on a song and dance, they’re not really showing you their soul. Personally, I can’t even do it. I have moments where I’ll be up on stage and I start crying.
Much of the work on the new album Old Habits Die Hard had already been completed in 2013. Now, it’s finally seeing the light of day. Was it frustrating having to wait all this time to release it?
Well, most of it was done, but a few newer songs were still in the works. So it’s a longer record. And some of the songs we had done didn’t actually make it onto the final version of the album. But essentially, the recordings we’d done in 2013 do form the foundation of the record. Later, we went back in and added things, adjusted some things. It was kind of nice that we had the luxury of tweaking things for that length of time. We took advantage of that, certainly.
But it was hard. During promotion for Boo Hoo Hoo, we were doing interviews about an album that had already been completed for so long, and weren’t able to talk about what we were doing currently. That’s something I didn’t really consider. I just went along with what the label wanted to do. One of the criteria was being able to release a full-length version of Boo Hoo Hoo, which originally came out as an EP. Eric Campbell, my guitarist at the time, wasn’t that involved in writing the songs on Boo Hoo Hoo, so it was hard for him to tour an album and promote an album he had very little to do with while we were making all the great new music you hear on Old Habits Die Hard.
I think that’s largely why we ended up falling apart as a band unit. Eric went on to do his own thing, because he wasn’t being creatively fulfilled in No Sinner, the way things were going. Which was totally understandable. Now he’s the lead singer of his own band, Eric Campbell & The Dirt, which is really awesome.
So Eric is no longer in the band?
No, he is not. But you know … everything happens for a reason. I think Eric wanted to be the front man. Not of No Sinner! He wanted to write and sing his own songs. That’s what he’s doing now, and I think it worked out better for everybody. It’s important that everyone is fulfilled and everyone is happy.
Now, I’ve got a great group of guys who are really awesome. It’s good to have these great songs that we wrote during a time when we were creatively on fire. The songs are still there, and I’m still here! It’s a blessing and a gift to have such great material to put out into the world. And it’s great to now have these really young, talented guys who are very excited about playing the music.
The vibe within No Sinner became so heavy and serious after a while. It became more about living up to expectations, more so than being creative and creating music. Now, the attitude has shifted. It’s a lot lighter. I’m looking forward to getting on the road and playing these great songs with these super-talented guys. It feels good.
Is anyone left from the old line-up, or is it a completely new cast of characters?
It’s a completely new line-up, which feels good. Just a total fresh start.
You wanna mention names?
Daniel Svienson is on lead guitar, and he’s great. We’ve got Cole George on the drums. Nathan Schubert on keys. We’ve never toured with a keyboarder, so that’s fun. My friend Joseph Lubinsky-Mast is on bass. They’re all Vancouver guys.
It should come as no surprise when I say that your music has a lot of sex appeal. My final question: What do you find sexy? What musicians, past or present, male or female, embody that for you?
For me, it’s Robert Plant, in terms of the sexiness and confidence and just radiating rock’n’roll, without resorting to a song and dance and making himself a spectacle. Prince and David Bowie have obviously been in the public eye recently, and each of them in his own way embodied sexuality for so many people.
I think rock’n’roll is an interesting place for androgyny. So many rock’n’roll heroes have been androgynous. In so many other areas, androgyny is not appreciated or accepted or even allowed. But for some reason, in the arts, and certainly in music, it is celebrated. You find people who in any other line of work would be considered freaks. I love freakishness! I love people that are freakish and I love that there’s a place for us all to congregate.
Interview by Vincent Abbate