Words by David C. Obenour
True Romantic is not the album you’d expect to come out of 2020. Filled with raw emotion and deep introspection, René Kladzyk has created a collection of songs that delve into the ideas and realities of love and romance. Her voice soars over top of synthesized melodies, that would sound throwback if not for such thoughtful melodies, varied inspirations and tight production. In a year of quarantines and social distancing, True Romantic draws you close and unflinchingly won’t let you go.
Off Shelf: It’s such an odd time, so before I get into it – how have you been keeping up given everything from quarantine to the much needed social unrest shaking everything around us?
René Kladzyk: Whew, yes it is definitely an odd time. 2020 has been rough for me, even aside from the pandemic and our never-ending political nightmare. My dad died on January 2nd. I read somewhere that the death of a parent is very “destabilizing,” which my immediate reaction was ‘DUH,’ but it stuck with me. I think a lot of what I’ve been doing is trying to seek stability in small ways, in a year that seems endlessly destabilizing, even apart from my grief. I live alone, and moved to El Paso right before the pandemic hit, so I’m pretty isolated, and to be perfectly honest, pretty lonely. It’s been weird to share an album of love songs while in this bizarro exile. Not my favorite year. But I did adopt a dog a couple months ago, and she is absolutely wonderful.
OS: There is a delay from when music is created to when it is released and I wanted to ask you about how that time has evolved for you. An album that allows itself to yearn, hope and love, do you hear True Romantic differently now as compared to when you had created it?
RK: Absolutely, and I’m sure it will keep changing for me. As a songwriter that’s one of the funnest and most fascinating parts of the process, witnessing how a song’s meaning and impact transforms for you over time. Really your songs become a capsule through which you can see how you yourself have changed. Probably understandably, releasing this album became a little bit tied up with my grief over my dad’s death, which, the album was fully completed before he died, so the initial way that I experienced the album had little to do with him. But since he never heard some of the songs on it, I now sometimes try to listen to it through his ears.
The other thing that’s unusual about this album is that I have barely performed the songs on it. Normally, when I tour an album I undergo a sort of transformation with songs as I play them night after night. I’ll find new pockets of the lyrics or melody to bring out, a way to keep it interesting, and in turn that teaches me a lot about the songs after the fact. But I haven’t done that with this album, and maybe in some way that has made these songs feel more foreign to me. They already feel like a relic, even though I only wrote them a year and a half ago; I was a different person, living a different life, in a radically different world.
OS: You talk about how the songs from True Romantic felt embarrassing, but recording and releasing them was liberating. Why do you think you felt embarrassed and how did putting these thoughts and feelings into song change it into something empowering instead?
RK: Oh they did not stop being embarrassing! I think the decision to not give a fuck, to be willing to be deeply uncool, that was what felt liberating. If a person is making creative output, there’s like, a spectrum of how much you make it for the world, versus how much you make it for yourself. On one extreme end would be artists who never share their work with the public in any way, like your Henry Dargers. And then I don’t know, maybe very explicitly political artists would be at the opposite end of the spectrum, like those who write protest songs, where the purpose of the work is 100% designed to fill a specific need for the outside world.
I would say that this album is the most selfish, self-indulgent thing I’ve ever made. I’m sure there are people out there who will appreciate it or who it maybe will help in some way, at least I hope there are — but ultimately I mostly made it for myself, because it felt good.
And that was a change for me, my last album ARDIS was very much motivated from a feeling that it was something the world needed. I wrote it largely in response to Trump being elected, and felt compelled to focus my political anxiety on aspirational, hopeful world-building. So I made a sci-fi album located on a parallel earth where all the necessary changes had been made. True Romantic is not that. If someone called this release masturbatory, that would be a fair critique. It was deeply pleasurable for me to write songs like this, on a gut level. And that’s why I made it.
OS: COVID has required a lot of creative thinking and without the possibility of performing a record release party you hosted The True Romantic Clubhouse, a variety show inspired by love. Can you talk a little about what that was and how it came together?
RK: Though I wish I were, I am not a huge fan of livestream concerts. I just normally don’t find them engaging enough, the sound is usually bad, and it depresses me because I wish I could be at the show IRL. The variety show idea felt fun to me, and seemed like a way to make it actually feel like a party.
And it did! I reached out to a bunch of friends and asked them to contribute whatever they wanted, as long as it related to the theme of love, seduction, heartache, and romance in some way. And so what we ended up with was a pretty wide-range of video segments: absurdist dance performance, poetry, dating advice, kissing technique demos, and of course love songs. I performed a couple songs from the album in my living room; Daniel Fuentes, an El Paso-based cinematographer, came over and filmed me. He’s the same person who filmed the Harbor Me video, and is so good and intuitive when it comes to capturing the energy of music in his camerawork. And then I edited it together, which honestly was a little bit of a behemoth, but my aging laptop survived and I’m really proud of how it turned out. I think it’s an excellent program.
OS: Knowing you can’t mention everyone, what were some of the favorite things your guests provided for the Clubhouse? Did anything surprise, challenge or go in a different direction than you had imagined?
RK: I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of what the guests came up with: Katie Alice Greer’s cover of Passionate Kisses made me so happy and I wouldn’t have anticipated that that is a song she’d choose to cover, my sister wrote a poem for it called “Heart Shaped Rock” that makes me cry it’s so beautiful, and Tallie Medel’s date with her yoga ball is pretty far out. I also was really psyched about contributions from people who I don’t know as well, but am a fan of, like Awad Bilal from Too Free and Clear Channel, who did a dating Q&A that is hilarious and amazing; and Ami Dang’s unbelievably gorgeous cover of Song of the Siren.
OS: Do you think not having the ability to perform live has changed how you hope to approach it when that’s an option again?
RK: I think for those of us who love the experience of seeing music performed live, we will all be deeply impacted by this long period where we haven’t been able to feel that. I’m sure that when I’m able to play shows again I’ll treasure them in a different way. Aside from not taking it for granted, the other things that I hope will change, not just for me but for the music industry culture broadly, are heightened standards for maintaining safe spaces and greater booking diversity. I think the music industry has already been moving in this direction, and call outs that have happened during quarantine have pushed this as well, but I do hope that this time away from live concerts will be a real and meaningful reset. I’d like it to be an opportunity for people in positions of power to interrogate how they use that power, and to challenge themselves to have high ethical standards for their engagement in the music industry.
OS: On a similar note, shows are such a direct way to connect with an audience over your art, I wonder how it’s been to offer such a personal album without that channel. Has the connection of social media been able to replace any of that dialogue?
RK: I wish it were, but I do not think social media is a great surrogate for that direct connection. It’s been hard and weird to live an extremely isolated life while promoting this record. I’m incredibly grateful for all the kind encouragement and feedback I’ve gotten, but also I just really wish I could dance around with a bunch of people in a sweaty basement while singing these songs, and there’s no way to replicate that feeling in isolation.
OS: What do you hope that people feel when they listen to True Romantic?
RK: Even though I was saying how this is a very selfish record, I also do not believe I am all that unique in the sorts of feelings I’m expressing on this album. I think there’s a lot in it that’s fairly universal: most of us experience heartache at some point in our lives, or feel at the mercy of our emotions in response to romantic rejection or loss or anxiety. I think music really helps in those moments. I hope that this album can be helpful for somebody who’s going through it, either that it’ll make them feel better, or maybe even that it’ll make them feel worse but in a satisfying way. Does that make sense? Sometimes if you’re in pain you don’t want to listen to music that’ll make you feel better, you want to feel that pain as fully as possible, and music can help take you there. If somebody really needs to cry, I hope this album will help them have a good cry.
OS: There were two reviews of True Romantic that stood out to me in their writing and your response that I hoped to question you further about. The first referenced philosopher, Walter Benjamin which really resonated with you. I wondered if you could talk a little about his influence on you as a person and artist.
RK: I still can’t believe that reviewer busted out Walter Benjamin. I am the kind of dork who audited a Walter Benjamin seminar in school– I did not need the credits, just wanted to really dive deep in his writings.
Benjamin is a marvelously interesting thinker, a beautiful writer who is straight up painterly with words, and someone who was ahead of his time in so many ways. People cite him as presaging postmodernism in how he approached understanding reality, describing culture. I think there is a thick underlayer of postmodernism and rejection of empiricism embedded within a lot of my musical output.
Like, I have band t-shirts that say Feelings are Real. That is basically postmodern philosophy in a nutshell. My last album ARDIS dealt with modernism/empiricism/materialism and how we, humans broadly, approach defining truth and reality a lot more explicitly, but this album still is placing dream, fantasy, archetype, myth, feelingtones on the same value level for shaping “reality” as it would place “objective” material phenomena.
OS: The second almost felt like a directly opposing view, where you took exception to the expressed idea that making a contemporary spin on romance would require ‘sarcastic observations’. What did you take from that sentiment and what is your reaction to it?
RK: [laughs] Ok, so it’s fun to talk about these reviews side by side because this latter review seemed to me to presume that everybody in 2020 has decided that love is a myth, and in this case is conflating myth and illusion with “unreal.” I think there’s a part in that review that describes love as an illusion. Like, if you don’t believe in the potency of love as a supreme, mystical, enigmatic overarching force in our world, this album is probably not going to resonate that strongly for you. And that’s fine, it doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it’s kind of a bummer when that’s the perspective of a reviewer at a really big media outlet. The part about sarcasm just seemed emblematic of the overall tone of the review, which to me was very cynical and depressing.