Cecily Renns Interview

Cecily+Renn

Alma Thompson

Last summer, I tuned into the release stream of cool and new volume three, the final album by the bizarre and Homestuck-inspired collective Cool and New Music Team. I expected the normal CANMT fare: ironically low-quality chiptunes and instrumentals. Instead, I was treated to Back in Oak Ridge, an 8 minute long guitar-centric homage to Beach Life In Death. I immediately fell in love with the track, and searched up the musician, Cecily Renns (then releasing music under the persona JohnJRenns). At the time, Cecily was in the middle of a titanic project: to release an album every month of 2021. Remarkably, she succeeded, and produced 12 projects in 12 months, some of which are fantastic and all of which are at least pretty good. In May she began to release music under the new identity of Cecily, starting with the excellent single Love in the time of Discord. With this release, I began to fear they would ascend to superstardom before I ever got the chance to interview them! Sadly, Cecily’s genius remains unrecognized, which meant I was able to email her and spend 50 minutes on a Discord call picking her brain. We talked about collaboration, translation, fandom, Jeff Rosenstock, and many other things. A lot of what it said was really interesting, and you should read it now instead of listening to me. 

Alma Thompson (AT): What does your creative process generally look like? How do you go about making music?

Cecily Renns (CR): For music, there are two ways that I write a song. The first way is what I do every day: I try to come up with melodies, come up with musical ideas, and get my brain used to the act of doing that. But when I’m writing an album, then I’m writing an album. I don’t think of it as writing a bunch of songs, I’m creating an album. I’m creating a cohesive project. Usually when I get an idea for an album, it’s because I have a bunch of songs, like maybe 3 or 4 songs that have a common theme. I put those together, and I put together a tracklist where I come up with all the songs that I would need for this album. So I need like, 10 songs for this album. So I already have like 3 songs, I need to write 7 more songs, so I put those with all the songs that go in. For me this is really important, which songs go together and which songs are next to each other in an album. This is even more important than me than how a song sounds, it’s the most important thing. So that’s actually the first step for me, then I kind of pick songs apart from the list that I have. “Okay, so it’s time for me to actually write the first song, or the third song in the album”.

When I’m actually writing the song, it’s much more simple, I kind of copy all the songs that I know. I usually have two or three reference tracks that I have in my mind, I pull in elements from them. Usually I have a few albums playing in rotation as I do all the stuff other than writing the album, so those are influences as well. If I want to make a pop punk album, I have a few pop punk albums that I really like, so I just listen to those over and over again and those ideas, I put them together and kind of combine them into one song. That’s the trick to it. If you copy from one song, it’s way too easy to tell that you’re copying from one song. If you copy from a bunch of different songs, they can’t tell.

AT: It’s interpolation, it’s interpretation, it’s not copying at all.

CR: You hear that a lot in my own songs. I think every songwriter does this, it’s just that the better ones try to be more honest about it. The unique part about it comes from which places you put it and the way you combine these influences together. Because I tend to listen to a lot of different kinds of music, that naturally makes my own music sound a little weird because it’s pulling from a lot of weird, unconventional sources.

AT: That makes sense. Putting together songs that fit a certain theme, I understand that because that’s just how I make playlists.

CR: It’s the exact same thing if I’m making a playlist or assembling an album, except if I’m writing an album I have to make the songs myself.

AT: That’s hard!

CR: It’s not that hard for me, because I just steal other people’s songs, but yeah.

AT: You mentioned two or three albums playing on repeat when you make something

CR: Usually when I’m making an album, I have a general idea of how I want the album to sound overall. I have a genre in mind – this is a synth pop album, or this is a rock album. Once I come up with that, then inside my head I have an idea of which albums in that genre do I know and which ones do I want to copy from. Sometimes if I’m not really familiar with the genre, then I go out of my way and find new albums to listen to. Right now, I’m writing this emo pop album. I don’t listen to a lot of midwest emo music actually, so I’m trying to listen to records from that style. But if it’s a genre I’m really familiar with like pop punk or synth pop which I listen to a lot of, I already know what kind of music I’ll copy.

AT: I think the next thing I wanted to touch on is, you collaborate with other people a ton. And everyone does that, but the guitar and bass on Love In The Time Of Discord is-

CR: It was by Biddy Fox, my good friend. She’s so good, she’s an amazing bassist.

AT: It’s good bass! What guides your thinking when working with others?

CR: So, with collaborations, I learned a lot about collaborating with people last year while making certain albums in the Album A Month thing I did. Before that, I didn’t collaborate with anyone, because I was solely into my image as this auteur one man band who does everything by myself. And that was fun for a while, but the thing about making an album every month is that it gets really tiring. And you have to have something to spice it up, you have to have an element of surprise. I had to invigorate myself again. So I started reaching out to a lot of people. For the April album of Album A Month, I made an album called The Odyssey of Cyrillia Alison. And I got 10 musicians that I knew to play various instruments. Mostly rhythm guitar but I got someone to play violin, I got someone to play a saxophone solo, I got someone to play bass on a few songs. And that was fun, I knew when I was coming up with the songs, I knew that album needed some element of realism, some element of acoustic instrumentation, because it was going to be a punk rock album. So, as I was writing the songs, I started thinking of, well, who could I get to play guitar on this song? So for each song, I had a few guitarists in mind and I just reached out to those people, because I know a lot of musicians, over the years I’ve spent making music and showing it to people. So I was like, I know a lot of musicians, I have a lot of friends who are really good at music and honestly way better than me when it comes to actually playing instruments. I should ask them, because there’s no point for me to just do everything by myself if I have really good friends. And as it turns out, they were all okay with it. They were willing to work with me.

For me, the important thing is, and this is not always true, I just sometimes tell them this, telling my collaborator that I really need them, I like their unique sounds, and this project really needs their input on it. When someone is told they’re special and unique, they want to do a better job. So even if it’s not necessarily true, I just tell people that because it makes them do a great job. And for most of the time, it was true! I know a lot of guitarists who have their own tone, so when I was writing songs that were inspired by a specific type of sound, I was thinking of certain musicians I know, that this person can have this kind of sound really well because they’ve made these songs in the past. Really, it’s because I know a lot of musicians and I really like music. I like listening to music by other people, and I remember their songs. If I listen to a song by someone and really like it, I don’t forget about it and I want to be friends with them. Surprisingly, even though I hadn’t really collaborated with other people before, it went really well. And that’s a great album by the way, Cyrillia Alison.

Another album that I collaborated on was the month after that. I made an album called “I Can’t Afford Therapy So I Write Pop Songs Instead“, and for that album I got a bunch of vocalists, because I wanted it to be a pure pop album and I’m not good at singing. I know other people who are good at singing, so I got other people to sing some songs on that. Another album that I collaborated on, this time with a single collaborator throughout it, was an album called Lily of the Valley, where I collaborated with my friend Ucklin, and she sang all ten songs on it. For that specific album, as soon as I started writing any songs for that album, I knew that this was the only person who could sing any of it. So as soon as I got her to be on board with it, which was on the second song, I was like, “okay, I am writing every song around her voice, because that is the only way I can do this”. So if she was going to tell me at any point of the process that she’s too busy to keep working on it, I was just going to stop making the album, because she’s the only person who can sing any of it. Thankfully, she stuck with it, and we made all the songs and it’s the best album I’ve ever made! She’s great on that album. The important thing, really, is that I usually write the songs around the collaborators, and I have an idea of what kind of collaborator I want for this song or for this album, and I know a lot of people who make music.

AT: Another thing I wanted to touch on was the Album-A-Month. First, uh, sorry. That sounded really hard to do. 

Second: what were some things you learned from that, what were some aspects of that beyond just “writing an album a month is really tough, but maybe rewarding”?

CR: Well, the first lesson I learned is that I shouldn’t do it again, because it’s gonna destroy my mental health. But a few good things I learned from it – I tried to write about this, but I didn’t get too far in it. I think one thing I learned is that, and this is something I already knew, it’s why I did it, but if you put out a lot of stuff the improvement is very fast. If you put out a lot of things in a short span of time, even if you don’t necessarily put a lot of effort or time into it, the improvement that you see is really apparent. This is a really good way to get good at something really fast, which is to finish a lot of projects in a short span of time.

I know you were going to later ask me, what’s the advice you would give to people. This ties into that, it’s one of the things that I learned. What I would tell people is not to make an album every month, because that’s basically impossible and I only did it because I’m really good at what I do.

AT: You are!

CR: What I would recommend people to do, is that they should try finishing projects with a tight deadline, and make a lot of stuff in a short amount of time. And have less standards! It’s not about making a lot of quality projects in a certain amount of time, it’s just making any amount of projects in a certain amount of time. If you make a lot of things and finish things a lot, you are going to learn from each project and you will get to learn from your failures. And that’s really how you improve at things. When you hear Album-A-Month, if you go in chronological order, which not a lot of people have done, everyone has told me that I get really good at it throughout the year. The quality between each album, you can really hear it. So one lesson is that it did help me a lot in terms of making me better at music. The other thing is about collaborations. Collaborations are fun and I should probably do more of it.

AT: Thank you, that’s good advice!

You have most of your music in English, and a few in Korean. What guides that; how is it a different experience writing in your native language versus writing in Korean?

CR: This is really interesting to me, because I think about it a lot but I can’t really put it into words very well. The reason I write in English mostly is because I find English to be a really nice language to say stuff in. I think the syllables and the sounds that you make in English are really pleasant. Singing stuff in English is really fun, because English is a really rhythm based language. English has a lot of intonations in it. Emphasizing certain syllables in the word can really change the meaning of it. Just the word “intonation”, it’s in-ton-ation. So when you write a song, if you want the song to sound good and for the lyrics to be catchy and sound natural you have to keep these rhythmic elements in mind, and for me that kind of brings an element of challenge. And that also means that if something is really catchy in English, where the rhythms and intonations all feel really perfectly attuned to the melody, it’s REALLY catchy, way catchier than anything you can write in other languages. So that element of challenge and rhythm is why I’m really drawn to English when I come to writing lyrics and writing music. I just find it really fun and I like singing music in English.

The interesting thing is that when I do creative writing, like writing a book, I usually write it in Korean, because for me Korean is a more interesting and beautiful language when it comes to the vocabulary and the grammar and the structure of the sentences. The rules are very rigid, while English is extremely chaotic. The grammar is all over the place with English. When I’m writing phrases and sentences, I like doing it in Korean.

When it comes to writing lyrics in English or Korean, I’m thinking of which words sound good on this melody. I’m always writing the melody first, I write the melody first and then I put words into them. The difference is that in English I’m thinking a lot more about what words rhyme, what words fit the intonation, the accent of this melody. Like, melodies go up and down and words in English usually have those accents of going up and down. So I’m thinking about which words have this progression of accents. When I’m writing in Korean, I can focus much more on the meaning of the sentences. I’m not really thinking about rhymes or intonation because in Korean, usually the intonation is very flat for individual words. For the overall phrases, of course there are accents and intonation, but it’s not as rigid and it’s not as important when it comes to sounding natural. So, when I’m writing lyrics in Korean, I can basically write as if I’m writing a book. I think about the words, I think about the phrases and the metaphors. You can say that I’m a singer-songwriter, I’m thinking more about the stories I’m telling.

There was one album in Album-A-Month that I made that had lyrics in Korean, it was called Childhood Erasure Logs, and all of those songs are in Korean. For that album, because I knew I wanted the songs to be in Korean, I wanted to be really autobiographical. I don’t really do that in music, I don’t really talk about my life in music. I tried doing that a few years ago, when I was 16 or 17 I tried writing songs about me and my life. And I didn’t really feel comfortable with it, and I thought my life was very boring and I didn’t want to do that. Now that I was a bit older and had more stuff to say about what’s going on in my life, I wanted this album to be dedicated to this period in my life, because last year I was 19 and it was my last year of being a teenager. I wanted to write an album about that, a more autobiographical album. And if I wrote the songs in Korean I would be able to focus more on the emotions and the words and the images and the meanings of the lyrics. So that’s what I was thinking going into the album, I wanted to focus more on these feelings and thoughts I had in my mind. On that album, when you listen to my Korean lyrics, there’s not a lot of rhymes or anything like that. If you read the translations, they’re very direct. I was inspired by a Korean musician called Parannoul.

AT: I’ve listened to them, it is very good music.

CR: His album is so fucking good. And if you read his lyrics, a lot of Korean music listeners don’t really like Parannoul, because they understand the lyrics and they know how direct and almost pathetic sounding it is. It’s a very confessional album. When it’s translated to English, it sounds a lot cooler, it sounds a lot deeper. But when you listen in the original Korean text, it’s really cringy, it’s really embarrassing. And I think that’s the point. So, with my album, I wanted the same effect of being really confessional and really pathetic sounding. This is hard to listen to. But when you read the translation, it sounds a bit more graceful. I think that’s an unintended but inevitable fact of translation, is it always sounds kind of cooler.

AT: I wonder if it’s possible to translate it in different ways and have that affect the music.

CR: Of course, of course.

AT: That seems like a whole world, of setting up different translations of things.

CR: Oh, I love translation. Translation is one of the other things I care about besides music, philosophies behind translating stuff. You can do a literal translation or you can do a more freeform translation. And it all depends on the work and the context and the effect that you want to leave on the listener. For music, usually you can’t do a lot of literal translation because music is so dependent on images and metaphors. It’s an interesting thing to think about, I could talk about it for another hour.

AT: Your music is very about, or coming out of online culture. How does that affect the music?

CR: It does feel weird, because I’m a very online person.

AT: Me too, sadly.

CR: And I don’t show people who I know in real life my music. I have no reason to. I haven’t thought about it too much. I think it doesn’t really affect the creation of the music, because I’m never really making music to please other people. The main reason I make music is because I want to hear more of a certain type of music, so I make that myself. I usually just want to have more of that kind of song around. Sometimes it’s self-expression, like I have a story idea I want to express. Either way, it doesn’t really matter who listens to it. But the fact that it’s mostly online who listen to it, does really affect the way that I release stuff, and the way I market stuff, the way I tell people about my music. It’s really hard, actually. This is my least favorite part about being an online content creator or whatever you call it, which is marketing. Going around, telling people “I have an album you can listen to” is very hard because not a lot of people care about listening to albums. It’s not something people are dying to hear more of, and it’s hard to make your case and market yourself. I just go around all the Discord servers I’m in, tell them that I have a new thing out, they can listen to some songs if you want to, it’s cool.

I think it’s impossible not to mention the element of fandom in this process. Fandom is very important when it comes to marketing your art on the internet. Fandoms, communities that are formed around media, they’re really the biggest communities out there on the internet. The biggest gatherings of artists and creators and musicians are always in fandoms. There are all these communities formed around fan works and remixes. So obviously I got my start by making Homestuck fan music. That did a little boost to my early music making career, because I had a lot of friends who also made Homestuck fan music, and we listened to each other’s stuff. A lot of the time, I market myself a lot in fandoms, and that has its advantages and disadvantages.

 

Obviously the advantages: if you make fandom stuff, it doesn’t matter if people aren’t interested in listening to a new song or a new comic or whatever. They just like that one thing, they like the intellectual property you’re about so they’re going to be interested in it inherently.

It’s also hard to create long-lasting fans, people who care about my music long-term, and not just the one album that was about Homestuck or whatever. It is a constant conflict for me, trying to appeal to different communities. I’m not not thinking about it. It’s always kind of a push and pull, it’s a dilemma between me making albums that I want to make and – well, I’m always making albums I want to make, but there is always an element of “I should probably lean into this aesthetic or brand a little bit more, because it’ll be easier for me to market it?”

AT: Do you have some examples of that, of leaning into aesthetics and brands?

CR: Totally. If it’s not fandoms, it can be as simple as me being trans, me being gay, or whether a song has a cutesy aesthetic or a dark aesthetic or an edgy aesthetic. I put a lot of effort into the aesthetic of my albums, and the brand of my individual albums, so you can look at the album and instantly know if it’s gonna be up to your tastes. I try to set a strong aesthetic for each of my albums, so that I can appeal and market to certain demographics easier. It’s not always that cynical: I am trans, and I am gay, and that’s just what I write about. 

AT: It’s communication.

CR: Well, sometimes I lean into it more because I know that it all depends on gay people who would like to listen to this type of music. So I know that if I do a bit more of that, then more people will listen to it. It’s not always cynical, but it sometimes is a little.

AT: The lines get blurry, at least in my experience I sometimes stop knowing consciously if I’m doing something for one reason or another. It’s really weird.

I had another question leading off of that, but I’ve totally forgotten it so I’m going to put a pin in it and come to it later. You mentioned the new album, I guess the first question is, what’s it called?

CR: I have a working title right now, I’m not sure if it’s gonna end up being that. I’m thinking about calling it Everything To Do With You All At Once All Of The Time, which is a kind of a reference to that movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s the best movie title I’ve ever seen. I’m pretty sure it’s also going to be the best movie I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen it yet, but I was like “I should just copy it”. It’s not good for search engine optimization, but it’s a good name.

AT: There’s a band from my high school that used to call themselves, Possibly Something And Maybe Everything [Note: I misspoke here, the band in question went by Something And Maybe Everything. Regardless, they now go by Flamango Bay and make pretty good surf rock!], and there’s a Pat the Bunny album that’s similar… it’s rich rhetorical territory, is what I’m saying.

CR: I also thought about calling it just Love In The Time Of Discord, but I don’t think I can do that. It is a good song name, but I don’t think it’s the best album name.

AT: I think it defines the album as very much about, like, Twin Fantasy style online community love.

CR: There’d be such an expectation that it’s gonna sound like Twin Fantasy, while the album does not sound like Twin Fantasy. I don’t like that album that much. I mean, Beach Life-In-Death is very good, that’s one of the best songs ever. But it’s just Beach Life-In-Death. It’s Beach Life-In-Death and Bodys, those are the two really good songs, and I don’t really care about any of the other songs.

AT: I think I’ve kind of adopted it as kind of a totem, because it’s been a common thread between me and a lot of people, singing along with people. There’s this excellent video, it’s just a bunch of teens on Discord singing along to Twin Fantasy, and it’s really shitty-it’s so adorable.

CR: That sounds really cute, yeah.

AT: So it’s emo, the new album?

CR: Yeah, it’s kind of emo. It’s mostly power pop, I want to put in a lot of elements of post-hardcore in it, and midwest emo, and maybe some other more hardcore punk music, and a lot of chiptune sounds. I want to put in a lot of chiptune sounds, because I like punk music that has chiptune sounds in it, I think it’s like the best thing ever. I love Anamanaguchi.

AT: What’s the thing you said you loved?

CR: Anamanaguchi, it’s a band. Do you know Hopes and Dreams from Undertale?

AT: I recognize it. I did not get that far into Undertale, but I recognize the name.

CR: It’s a popular song, it’s basically Toby Fox trying to make an Anamanaguch song. And they made a cover of it recently. Look it up! I like when punk music puts chiptunes into it, I think that’s like the coolest thing. I don’t really like listening to chiptune music on its own, but if it’s on a rock song I think it’s really good.

AT: It’s abrasive in a similar way, it meshes well with-

CR: Because it’s very simple waveforms. Kinda sounds like Weezer too.

Yeah, so if you listen to Love in the Time of Discord, there are parts where I’m using chiptune synths. There’s also a lot of influences from Green Day, and obviously Beach-Life-In-Death is an influence too. And a lot of Jeff Rosenstock as well. I love Jeff Rosenstock, he’s my favorite songwriter.

AT: I do too. The lyrics are just… I’m obsessed with him right now.

 

I guess that kind of leans into my next question. What music would you say is your favorite? Or if that’s too final of a question, what music do you like right now?

CR: Right now? Like I said, I’m writing this kind of emo album. And I don’t really write a lot of emo albums. So I’ve been trying to listen to a lot of that, because there’s this seemingly new wave, they call it the fifth emo wave, of a lot of new emo coming out recently. There’s Parannoul, there’s Asian Glow, there’s obviously Weatherday. So I’ve been listening to a lot of emo albums. Also to the more authentic ones from the early 2000s, from the early 2000s. If you know Taking Back Sunday, I like that album.

Among more recent albums I really like this one band. They’re called Hey ILY, they have a new album called Psychokinetic Love Songs. And they do the thing, they do the thing where it’s power pop but has chiptunes in it. I love it, it’s basically what I want to do in my album.

And obviously, I’m listening to Jeff Rosenstock albums. Jeff Rosenstock is also in a band called Antarctigo Vespucci.

AT: I’ve heard of that, it’s like Amerigo Vespucci but with Antarctica.

CR: Yeah, because he said if America is named after Amerigo Vespucci Antarctica should be named after Antarctigo Vespucci. It’s a very stupid band name. It’s a band he has with a guy called Chris Fallen. And the albums are really good. They have an album called Love in the Time of Gmail, and that’s where I got Love in the Time of Discord from. It’s stuff like that, where you can tell where I was influenced by.

AT: You can just take random things. I love doing that. I haven’t done it in any finished projects but I love that.

CR: It’s like, you get to trace the lineage of certain artists. Because you realize this artist was influenced by this artist, who was in turn inspired by this other one, and you can kinda just go back through generations of musicians who are all influencing one another. And you realize that there really isn’t anything original, we are all always influencing one another and taking from one another and reiterating on certain ideas. There are some people who try to hide it, but I think usually the cooler ones are like “Yeah, I did take from this artist and I really like them, and you should go listen to them too if you like my art.” I think that’s really important, to be honest with your influences, and for me that’s something I can respect an artist for.

AT: Not just out of honesty, I feel like that also lets you be influenced by them more unapologetically.

CR: Yeah, because a lot of people are afraid of being inspired by other people. They think it’s plagiarism, but if you’re always afraid of plagiarism you can’t write anything. That’s how you get stuck, that’s how you get writer’s blocks, because you are too afraid to receive input. I know some musicians, I don’t want to be mean to them, but they tell me “I don’t listen to any music from any other people, because I don’t want to steal any melodies”. How do you do that? How do you not listen to any music ever and write music, I don’t understand.

AT: I wanted to ask, as a closer question, what’s the best advice you’ve ever had? It might not be closer if I think of something else.

CR: I think people should put out a lot of stuff. I think you should release stuff, that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t even have to be finished, is the thing, because the definition of a “finished project” and an “unfinished project” is very subjective. Really, it’s only finished once we release it. Every artist wants to go back and fix stuff, there’s always stuff that you can improve and make better. But the point is that you put it out now, and people can hear it. And you receive feedback, you can look back on it and do a retrospect and you can improve upon your failures. If you can’t move on from projects, if you’re stuck making one thing over and over for years. No matter how good that one project is –

AT: It’s not gonna be that good!

CR: It’s not gonna be that good! Because you’re always going to make something better after. And that one thing might be really good, but you as an artist or as a musician are not really progressing, you’re stuck doing this one thing. So I think it’s really important for people to learn how to make stuff fast. People say quality over quantity, or vice versa, but I think you can aim for both. I think you can do both quality or quantity if you are more speedy with your process. I think a lot of artists actually, they missed their chance to learn this. If you don’t care about speed, and years go by, you can’t really get that back. If you spend like five years, and your process of writing a song is that it takes a month to write each song, then once five years go by, that’s just how you make songs. You can’t get any faster, because that’s now the habit. So you have to fix bad habits really early on, when you’re learning to write stuff. So my advice is, when you’re early in learning to make something, whether it’s art or illustrations or music or making games or anything else; I think the first skill you should try to capture is how to get faster at the thing you’re doing, and make more stuff faster. Because as you put more projects out in a short span of time, all of them might be garbage, but you’re gonna get way better at it way more quickly than all your contemporaries, who are all stuck trying to make like one thing for a few months.

I don’t make video games, but I know in video games there’s stuff like game jams, where they seem to understand that making stuff really quickly is actually really useful for you. Musicians don’t seem to get this actually, it’s really interesting. That’s one advice that I’d give to people: get faster at doing stuff quickly, release a lot of projects. And no-one even has to look at them, it’s not just about receiving feedback, it can be about looking back on your own projects and learning what to improve. Instead of spending weeks thinking about what you’d fix about this one song, just leave that song behind. And when you write the next song, you can do that part better. 

[Bonus! An hour later, over text messages]

AT: The question I forgot about was: do you try to develop an aesthetic for your music in general, or just for specific albums?

CR: Ohhhh, this is an interesting question. So for JohnJRenns i tried to make it as if that was a musical project, like i didn’t really wanna be seen as a person or creator, but more like a brand.  So that was the image I wanted to have, more inanimate I suppose. For Cecily Renns I want the music and subsequently the image to feel more human, like there’s more of a person behind the songs

 


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