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A Conversation With Chris Rene

Santa Cruz's rapping, singing television star is working hard to hit the big time and stay clean too

by Jacob Pierce on Apr 05, 2012

When Chris Rene isn’t writing or recording songs for his new album, he’s traveling around the country promoting new projects, playing guitar and singing for various radio programs. “I’ve been on a radio tour for I don’t know how long,” says Rene, a Santa Cruz native who finished third in television’s The X Factor in December. “But I’ve been to a lot of different states—basically almost every state in the United States.”

Rene’s been promoting his new single “Young Homie,” which he wrote three years ago and performed on the season premier of the hit FOX show. The music video came out last month.

Rene, who used to work hauling garbage, talked to Santa Cruz Weekly on the phone this week from Chicago. Enthusiastic and forthcoming, he opened up about his tattoos, fighting addiction and how he knows he was born to perform.

Your new music video features spots all over Santa Cruz. Did you have a favorite spot to film?

Everywhere, dude. The New Brighton cliffs are pretty much the utmost awesome. I have memories throughout the whole town on every street. But that’s a great place.

James Durbin says he’s going live here forever. How about you?

Yep, me too. That’s just how we do it. Always. As much as I can be there, I’m gonna be there. I’m making my rounds right now, doing my thing, getting to know everybody and letting them know who I am. It’s been a great journey. Santa Cruz is always gonna be my home no matter what. That’s my base!

You’ve listed a lot of musical influences in the past: Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Kanye West, Metalica—even Mozart. So do you really like Mozart?

Lovely. I love Mozart, love Bach, love Chopin. I love it. Every night, I go onto live streaming for classical music, and that’s a great way to go to sleep. It’s peaceful. That’s what I love about it—it takes you to a different place. All music takes me to different places.

Do all these different artistic influences give you a unique style?

It's just great music. It’s not just me that’s inspired by it. A lot of us know what good music is, and a lot of us don’t know. At least the people who agree with me know what good music is. Not to be cocky or anything, it’s just the truth. We’ve been inspired by great music, and diverse music. And, yes, I’m very fortunate to have the great ear and to have that in my soul and my blood to know the difference and to be inspired by that. [Rene’s grandfather Leon Rene wrote "Rockin’ Robin" in 1952.]

To mix [all those styles] together is a special thing. And I haven’t really seen that. And I’m here to bring a lot of that soul—that Stevie [Wonder] soul. I’m not really doing really doing any of that ignorant rap stuff. I leave that for all the rappers to do. That’s not my job. My job is to do the opposite of what they do.

So you keep it positive? Keep it real?

Yeah, keep it honest, you know? And it’s not always pretty. There’s going to be stuff that’s not always pretty when it comes to my stuff. Honest is better than being fake.

You got a call from Stevie Wonder when you were on the show. Have you met him yet?

Not yet! Not yet, but I look forward to it. One more thing about keeping it honest: that’s most important thing. Stevie Wonder sang, “They’ve been spending most their lives living in a pastime paradise.” That song is not a positive song. It’s just truth. Songs like that are very inspirational. That’s where I’m trying to get, trying to do, been working hard at.

What was it like hearing “Young Homie” on the radio for the first time?

l almost cried. I was like, ‘This is beautiful, man.’

How long before you get tired of the song?

[Laughs] I’ve played the song a lot of times, and I like it. It’s not boring. If it didn’t have so much damn meaning to me, it would get boring. But it’s truth.

Who would you say is the best tattoo artist in Santa Cruz?

You know who I heard the best was? O’Reilly’s, because they’re booked months out. And there’s this guy who’s Norwegian, and he works on 41st Avenue. And he did the “Believe” on my arm.

Is that your favorite tattoo?

I’ve been saying that’s my favorite tattoo because it’s awesome. Right now the "Love Life" on my knuckles is my favorite tattoo. It changes everyday, but I’m getting more too.

What’s the next tattoo going to be?

I’m getting East Cliff on my back. I’m getting [Pleasure] Point, where you see the ocean, on my lower back. It’s gonna be a mural. It’s gonna be pretty big.

You’ve used alcohol, weed, speed and cocaine in the past. How long have you been clean?

It’s been 11 months. It’ll be a year on the 20th of April.

Wow, 4/20. That’s a coincidence.

Yeah, it’s a crazy date! In Santa Cruz at UCSC, everything gets crazy. People just walk outside and get stoned.

Is this your first time trying to go clean?

Nope. I tried a lot. I tried. That was the whole problem. I tried all these other times. I did it this time. But I went three years clean at one point and thought I was normal and went, "Whoa! I have a job, money, car, an apartment. I can drink beer again." And it all led back to the same thing. The same thing in two months!

Here’s what happens: drugs stop working. They were the solution for me, for life, whatever. I haven’t found the root of it yet, but that was my solution, and my solution stopped working. It became a problem. And now my solution is staying abstinent from all drugs except cigarettes.

What about caffeine?

I drink coffee, but I’m not addicted yet. Yet!

Do you think you’ll last and stay off drugs this time around?

I hope I do. Everyday I pray I do, and it’s not a matter of wanting or hoping. Staying clean isn’t for people that want it or even need it. It’s for people that do it. As I long as I maintain what I need to do when I wake up and move forward throughout the day, I will be OK. That’s my plan.

Does your experience with addiction and rehab inspire you and your songwriting?

Always. Every day. I would be abusing life if I wasn’t being sober. I would be abusing people and everything. It wouldn’t be good. I’m just so happy I made that decision.

Are you working on any new material right now?

I was working on a song before this call. I stopped writing a song to talk because I’m on a mission to promote and make this dream a reality. I’m working on songs constantly. Probably four more songs to go and this CD’s done.

What’s it about?

It’s about: "you got hard times, but ultimately you just gotta know that everything’s gonna be OK." I talk about my past and where I grew up and what we used to do—which is cool because most people don’t know any of that. They’ve only seen that I abused drugs, and now I get to show them a little bit of what it was really like for me.

How does songwriting work for you? What takes precedence, music or lyrics?

Music first, lyrics second. Unless the melody just comes in with the lyrics. Then I write the music around it.

That’s funny because the two songs we heard from you on X Factor were so lyrically driven. Do you wish you had played more original songs on the show?

Of course! Definitely. That would have been great.

Was that not your call?

I would’ve done it so that every song would have been my song. It has to be fair. It’s not that type of [song-writing] competition.

Will you write a song for your son?

Who knows? I might’ve already done it. [Laughs] I think it would a great idea, and I’ve been working on a couple special things for a long time.

Different artists have names for their fans. The Grateful Dead had “Dead Heads” for theirs. You got any names for yours?

I gotta name. It’s Rene-lians! We got Rene-lians, we got Rene-gades. We got Love-Life Soldiers.

Were you born to perform?

Definitely. I started dancing when I was 8. I didn’t even know it. I just liked it. I was 8 years old dancing, and I was the only guy in the class. We went on a California tour. We danced at Disneyland. We danced in Sacramento. For me it was just like drawing. It was fun to do.

How crazy is your new life?

It’s crazy. [Singing again] "Everyday I’m, hustlin’, hustlin’, hustlin,’ hustlin’…" just like that song. This is really what it is. You fly all over to different cities, let people know who you are. This is it. You keep going.