Of all the St. Louis musicians hoping for national recognition — well-coiffed rock bands, streetwise hip-hop acts or blog-buzzed indie kids — Kevin Renick is an unlikely candidate for stardom: At 52, he only recently made the move from bedroom songwriter to performing artist. However, while Renick's well beyond the window of teen idol-dom, he has achieved more fame and notoriety than almost all of his local peers already — although major doses of frustration and heartache have dampened these achievements.
In the fall of 2008, Renick lost his post as a proofreader for the St. Louis office of the advertising agency Momentum. To process the feelings of being unmoored, Renick picked up his guitar, wrote a simple, down-tempo folk song and titled it "Up in the Air." Little did he know that director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) was set to shoot a movie of the same name in St. Louis. Armed with a cassette tape and a humble back-story, Renick approached the director at an early 2009 appearance at Webster University and kindly asked him to consider the song for the film. Three days after their meeting, Renick's mother fell on some concrete steps at her church. She died in April 2009, following complications from the accident.
But while Renick's personal life was mired in grief and loss, his musical career was about to receive a Hollywood-size shot in the arm. Last fall, Renick received a call from Reitman's offices informing him that Reitman wanted to use the home-recorded song in the closing credits of the George Clooney-starring Up in the Air. For someone who has spent much of his adult life as a music critic (he has written for Playback:STL and Sauce magazines and, full disclosure, has worked for the RFT), Renick began a trip through the looking glass. Since the film's release, Renick had been profiled in the Washington Post and on the CBS Evening News. He's received complimentary e-mails, fan letters and offers to collaborate from all over the world.
For now, he remains an unemployed singer-songwriter who hopes to sell copies of his new CD, Close to Something Beautiful. Renick discussed going from an unknown songwriter to a contributor to a major soundtrack, as well as his hopes for his just-blooming music career.
RFT: You said that people treat you like a star in some quarters. In terms of the monetary kickback, does it remain to be seen?
Kevin Renick: Oh, yeah. One of the big TV interviews said, their closing line was, "The only thing Kevin Renick has to worry about now is how much he gets in royalties." We were joking about it — no, Kevin Renick has a lot more to worry about that that. [Laughs]
I don't know a single musician in town who makes a living from playing music without also doing something else.
I'm not naive enough to think that I will [make a living off of music] either. It's a dream, and I want to do it. But I'm still in what I call the "shock mode" of how dramatically my life has changed since the fall of 2008. I was a working stiff like anybody, doing freelance writing and working at Momentum. And then within quick succession, I lost my job, and my mom died. I was basically camped out at the hospital watching over her while she was dealing with the effects of her accident. That was the first four months of last year. It was just a tumultuous period, and I think in some ways I'm still reeling from that. I'm grateful that I've been able to work on my music and that the Up in the Air thing happened, but I'm not really settled and anchored yet.
When I had gotten laid off, my primary thing was to try and take care of her, run errands for her. I was just doing music as a diversion and writing some songs. Then, Up in the Air happened after all of that. I met Jason Reitman three days before my mom's accident. So, part of the weird thing is if she had had her accident sooner, the Up in the Air thing wouldn't have happened, and God only knows where I'd be.
Did Jason Reitman know your story when you handed him the tape?
I just told him that I had lost my job and that I was angst-ridden and that my song was sort of about that.
Do you think that your back-story helped sway him?
I think it did help, because I think he had already decided he was going to do something authentic about unemployment and the harsh economic times that we started to plunge ourselves into; we were in the full throes of the economic downturn by then. I think he was intrigued by the fact that an unemployed guy walked up to him, and also that I was older. He made a comment saying that it's not like some young kid walking up to him and saying, "Hey, you did Juno! I got a cool song, too!" I'm sure the fact that I was a statistic appealed to him.
I knew you first as a music critic, so it was a surprise when the story broke, and you were on the soundtrack.
Everyone was surprised. I have really wanted to do this most of my life. Going all the way back to Kirkwood High School, I was hearing songs in my head and scribbling lyrics out and wanting to be in the vein of Neil Young, who is my big influence. So I would imagine whole albums in my head — I couldn't even play guitar at the time, but I was already writing albums and thinking, "Someday." Finally, my senior year, I got my first guitar. So I started writing songs and wanted to do it, but through the years, there was always something that got in the way. Either there would be a friend I was collaborating with that let me down by not wanting to do it, or there would be some ego battle, or I myself would get disillusioned. I'd break up with a girl and decide life is miserable. For various reasons, I didn't pursue it. It took a long, long time — it took until fall of 2008 to get me thinking more seriously about it.
Being a music writer, how hard is that jump to the other side of the stage?
It was surreal, actually. Part of me didn't even think about that initially, but when I did think about it, if people are gonna come and hear you, you have to at least be competent. I tried to at least do the songs I wanted to do well. I just had to learn that being a musician isn't something you just walk up there and do — you have to put something into it. People told me that I had a persona and a friendly, entertaining way of bantering up there, so my confidence kind of grew slowly. So I had those moments where I thought, "Wow, Mr. Music Writer is now up there trying to make it as a musician." And it felt weird, and it got even weirder when Up in the Air hit because then there were e-mails coming to me from all over the world, in some cases saying things to me that I used to say to musicians I like.
What sort of response have you gotten from the industry? Being on a major motion picture soundtrack seems like a pretty good foot in the door.
That's what we're waiting for. I have not specifically gotten any offers yet. Partly that's probably the result of us being careful and slow in what we're doing. I don't know what the CD will do. I think there are some good songs on it, but it's a homegrown thing. It's not something I spent a million dollars on. But we hope that someone will take note of me as a songwriter and that something will come through eventually.
What is your hope, then, for your musical career?
If my dream comes true, my ideal would be to have a chance to make numerous records, because I've written over a hundred songs, and I keep writing new ones all the time. So I'd love to have a chance to actually do this, with songwriting being my number-one interest. [I would also be able] to do modest touring, at least of college towns and places where there are folk/pop venues, and maybe get the songs placed in other movies and TV shows. So I'd like the chance to be known as a unique voice in songwriting. I think I have something to say and have a habit of writing peculiar songs about things that other people don't write about.