Most good love stories have a memento of the relationship's first blush — a mash note or a snapshot tucked away in commemoration. For Andrew Stephen and Chrissy Renick, an EP serves as a keepsake of their musical and romantic partnership; Renick's 2011 pop- and R&B-influenced release A Thousand Shades brought her songs and voice under the sway of his production techniques.
"When we met, I was so inspired by her music that I really wanted to produce a record for her," Stephen, who provided much of the instrumentation on the album, recalls. "It was my first commercially produced and released project."
Since then, the pair has kept busy in performance and production — he with producing projects for J.D. Hughes, Tony Crown and Grover Stewart, she with leading her own group — but until this past summer, Stephen and Renick had not released any more music together.
That dry spell ended with two standalone singles, with the promise of more to come throughout 2019. "Summer Breeze," a cover of the Seals & Crofts hit, and Stephen's own "Pix Elated" reposition the pair as a neo-soul duo influenced by jazz, hip-hop and sample culture.
The long lead time to the release of these songs can be attributed to the duo's studies: Stephen graduated from Webster University in 2018 with a degree in jazz piano performance, and Renick (who is trained as a musical therapist) is currently enrolled in Webster's graduate program for voice and piano.
From the comfort of the second-floor studio space in the couple's Dogtown abode, Renick and Stephen talk through their process of composing and collaborating.
"We both put our own pursuits together on hold until I got out of school, so this whole idea of us working together has been in the works for many, many years," Stephen says. "It's just been a matter of waiting until I was done with this commitment that was consuming all of my time."
While he was focused on his studies, Stephen managed to double-dip a bit, using his composition classes to work on his original songs intended for Renick to sing.
"'Pix Elated' was actually written when I was at Webster — I composed it, came up with the harmonies, had everything set aside to be recorded later when I was done," he says. "There are a few more compositions from that time as well as new things that are stirring up."
Stephen serves as the arranger, pianist and producer for these initial two tracks — in attribution they are his songs, featuring Chrissy Renick — though the couple's long partnership has led to some blurring of the lines in their respective contributions.
"Initially I was thinking of it as my music, but as we've continued on, she has an awesome, wonderful ability to make melodies her own, and she has her own musical identity and contributions that are really key to the project," Stephen continues. "We're planning on continuing to collaborate on that level."
For Renick's part, her continuing education has schooled her in the world of jazz theory, something of a jump for a singer and pianist who grew up enamored with the glossy and sophisticated R&B of the late '90s and early 2000s.
"I felt like there were some things I needed to learn since I didn't study music as intensely, and Andy did. I felt like I needed to go and study jazz and pursue some things to allow myself to have the skills to do what my ear wants to do," Renick says.
To aid in her studies — and to build her performance chops — Renick has been playing with Mo Egeston's group at the Dark Room once a month. "It's a great place to practice performing," she says. "Creating in the studio, I can be a huge perfectionist about the whole process. For me, having that environment to be forced to go with the flow in a live setting has been really good."
With the first two singles already released and a third — a cover of Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody?" planned for the end of the month — Stephen and Renick plan to have an album's worth of material ready by the end of the summer. The duo looks at the use of covering songs within a more explicit jazz and neo-soul idiom as a continuation of the genres themselves.
"It's very much within the practice of the jazz idiom to play popular music — that's what all standards are — so it helps keep us in that category, even though I think we're headed for a crossover with all the pop and R&B influence that's going to be present in this music," Renick says.
Starting with "Summer Breeze," already memorably covered by the Isley Brothers, was an intentional curveball for Stephen to use as the re-launch of his musical identity, and he thinks it helps set the stage for the pair's future releases.
"Looking back, it seems like an unlikely song to reharmonize for a future soul-jazz song — it seems like such a weird tune," Stephen says of the track. "But now it seems like a perfect choice because of that juxtaposition.