Talking to Lani Renaldo almost feels like venting to a friend about hopes, dreams, and the things you dread. You realize that the singer-songwriter has a lot of hopes and she has a lot of dreams and that when it comes to dread, she ideally prefers finding the solutions rather than letting it consume or defeat her. Which is almost a weird thing to say and feel given the amount of dread looming over us very heavily on a daily basis.
She has no problem revealing the hard parts and as our conversation continues, she shares that actually revealing the hard and unideal parts come easier than putting on a mask and pretending everything has been perfect. She’s not just the singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who opened for Halsey at The Shrine or performed with Alessia Cara at the AMAs or is a Grammy Camp alum, all of which are impressive and easy to name drop but don’t define how she’s creating or viewing her career in the slightest. For the record, in our unintentionally almost hour-long phone conversation, somehow these never come up.
She’s also not LA, despite being born and raised there. And her song skills take note by both reflecting on her experiences in California and also questioning how we see California. “I very rarely leave and when I do it hasn’t been very long and so I’m always kinda dying to get out of California but I think being in California shapes everything for me. I mean, it shaped my perspective of the world, my relationships, the places I like to go,” she muses sharing how California creeps its way into her songs out of availability. “I think it’s like not only misconceptions, but everybody kinda loves to romanticize California and so I think I kinda like to play on that as well. But yeah, LA specifically shapes everything for me,” she admits before immediately saying, “I’m hoping to get out one day but I don’t think the time is now, unfortunately.”
I compliment her for her very Fefe Dobson, “Save Me From LA” vibes. And while she does love LA and the family and the community she has in her home city, she says she’s an east coast kid even having lived there very briefly.
Her single “Trainwreck” released in August highlights the anxious feeling of failure and disappointment especially when everywhere we look, we’re told that we’re supposed to be thriving at all times. “I think lyrically, ‘Trainwreck’ was a song I started on this time last year and I was really in a dark place of just feeling unhappy,” Lani starts about the song. One of the first songs solidified for her NOHEARTBREAK2020 EP and the song that closes it out on the tracklist, she explains that “Trainwreck” was born out of her and her writing partner Drew Tabor talking about not really doing what you want in life.
“I think we were just trying to capture what it felt like in that moment of doing something that you didn’t love and watching your friend succeed and knowing that you could succeed but you’re just trying to get through life, you’re trying to do the right things, and it’s just not quite gelling,” she continues.
When the two got together, Lani had just come home from work, “super pissed” because it was her last straw, she says. “I felt like I’d almost died in the car ride over and we just started exploring themes of despair but also being self-deprecating.” Her goal when developing the song was capturing the same vibe as the John Mayer song, “Stop This Train,” to which Drew responded, “Well you could stop the train but you’re still a trainwreck.”
“That was kind of the moment it just clicked,” Lani says. “Sonically, I think for me, it was the last song I finished and it took the longest because I really wanted to capture the emotions behind it. I wanted it to build, I wanted it to feel kinda antsy and anxious, but I also wanted to groove and be kinda a bit more upbeat even though the song was a little more, I think depressing is what it gets labeled as. But it was really just about trying to create something that was more fun but also honest.”
I note to her that the reason why sad bops seem to be so well received but also confusing for people to write about is that it acknowledges the layers in our emotions and experiences which she agrees. “I think people often mislabel music that’s like that,” she says referring to songs that manage to both be danceable and self-deprecating/reflective at the same time. “They’re so quick to call it sad and depressing but it’s just coping, you know? Sometimes you gotta have fun and make fun of yourself to cope,” she adds a little disclaimer that this is how she’s looking at things and along with that she gives a little laugh.
She’s not alone on that sentiment. When our 20s are said to be the “best time of our lives” and yet that’s not our reality for a multitude of reasons, it makes sense that these two would blend. Lani also notes that with that, existing in your 20s means trying to figure things out instead of already knowing the answer.
“Being in your 20s is being broke, being depressed, being happy, being sad, being cool, feeling sexy, like there are so many things going on,” she says adding that her new EP is who she made this for. “Hopefully, the 20-year-olds or 20-somethings will relate to that because that’s literally what it’s like being in your 20s; it is a trainwreck to some degree,” she reflects.
Hopefully, the 20-year-olds or 20-somethings will relate to [NOHEARTBREAK2020] because that’s literally what it’s like being in your 20s; it is a trainwreck to some degree.
It doesn’t help that for the most part, being honest about the unglamorous parts of young/new adulthood is a fairly new concept which means that a lot of us realized it when we started living it as opposed to having a fair heads up. “I’m still waiting to thrive, like when’s that kicking in?!” Lani jokes when I bring this up.
Still, there’s so much expectation placed on talking exclusively on the ways in which we’re thriving and talking predominantly on how we’re succeeding which makes the losses feel extra hard because we don’t know how to talk about them. “I think I’ve learned to stop putting unnecessary pressure on myself and I’ve really made an effort within the past two years coming off the back of my very first EP–it’s not even online anymore–to NOHEARTBREAK2020. I think for me, it’s all a learning experience.”
“Sometimes you’re gonna win and sometimes you’re gonna lose. But for me, what I’ve noticed is the losses are what makes me so much stronger and what makes me so much better,” she continues. “Like there are certain moments in my career I’m really proud of but I’m also cognisant that like I don’t have the biggest amount of monthly listeners on Spotify, you know? It varies. I’m not signed to a record label like some of my friends are, I don’t have the same team or amount of money to pour into videos or whatnot but what I can say is I think it’s almost a strength and I can identify some of the things I need to do to get there. Or I can see what’s working and what’s not and it’s also pushed me to be an independent artist in the sense that, you know, I can understand everything from creative direction to touring, sometimes law, and sometimes even just the physical act of producing music. So I think it’s worked in a sense to help me gain confidence and strength,” she admits.
At the same time, even though she’s able to find the positives in the losses, she’s also aware that sometimes pessimism can creep in on the bad days or the moments when she wonders “What if?” However, the growth between those “What if?” moments and where she is now, turns out to be the sweet spot for her to reflect on.
The life of an artist is often more downfalls and rejection than it is glamourous and constantly receiving acceptance and validation. When it comes to talking about and discussing art and being an artist though, it’s prettier to paint a picture looking at all of the achievements. And while it’s nice to be reminded that the path you’re crossing is meant for you, it’s not realistic and often makes the rejection even harder because it feels like you’re the only one experiencing it. I ask Lani if it’s easier for her to talk about her losses or her wins, and she shares a similar sentiment preferring discussing the losses in order to break the myth that is the idea of achieving “overnight success.”
“I think so many people have the misconception that any sort of success comes overnight and it’s like, ‘Oh, it feels magical that it happened.’ But, like there’s a lot of crap that goes into some of the most major moments in your career and a lot of pressure and sometimes it’s really easy but I think people can relate to the setbacks and the struggles,” she explains. “It’s harder to relate to success and I think success varies for people, you know? What might be successful to one person in my eyes, I’m thinking, that’s the biggest moment yet but I gotta go so much harder like I can’t stop,” she admits.
That pressure also comes from wanting both to be relatable and to make sure that those who view her career, have a transparent understanding of the steps she took and how those steps look different for everyone. For her, she chalks it up to both luck and being at the right place at the right time while also honing her craft to be prepared for when those moments arrived. “That to me is more inspiring and relatable and helpful than like, ‘Here’s all the cool stuff I was doing and you know, good luck to you if you can do it.’ It’s better to just be open and transparent and vulnerable and say like, ‘I did all these things, I’m doing all these things, but here’s how I got there, and if you’re in a similar position, you can do it too.'”
It’s definitely been a process to get there especially when the vague way we define success continues to linger over us at all times. But still, it’s something she also questions in terms of what exactly success means and why, for music artists, is it looked at through record deals and labels as opposed to the time spent on making the music and lyrics. “Okay, you get signed, okay you get a million dollars. Then what? At a certain point, you’re still gonna be chasing happiness. It might not feel like it’s enough or it might be but where do you go from there, you know? It’s always something,” she explains.
“I think for me, prioritizing your well-being, your relationships, the work that you’re making, being proud…I think you have a priority shift,” she continues, “I think at some point, as an artist and even as a person, you have to look at that stuff and say, ‘Well what is it really doing for me? Why do I want it? Does it make me actually feel good?’ Cause if it doesn’t do any of that then like, I don’t care how many Grammys you have because it’s never gonna feel good because you don’t feel good.”
A part of Lani’s charm is her willingness to be bluntly honest but without the intention to be cruel or pretentious. Instead, it’s just the way she naturally knows how to move. But, being outspoken isn’t always something that’ll be well-received especially when the outspokenness questions or calls out things that we’re just supposed to accept. It’s highlighted in “Trainwreck” with the reflective, yet self-deprecating lyric, “Told me I’d be famous, maybe I should say less.”
I think at some point, as an artist and even as a person, you have to look at that stuff and say, ‘Well what is it really doing for me? Why do I want it? Does it make me actually feel good?’
Stemming from Lani’s experience growing up doing shows and writing music just to be met with people putting mainstream fame and stardom onto her over artistry, Lani reflects that hearing that so often when she was younger was a toxic experience. “I didn’t even know if I, one, wanted to be famous but, two, I think that 1% of fame where you’re like ‘Justin Bieber, Beatle-mania’ famous is so incredibly hard to obtain and I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves to get there but it’s very difficult. So looking at the lyrics, yeah it was definitely kinda a headfuck for me to wake up and be 20 and be like, ‘I’m still doing this, what do I do?'” she says.
Another song on NOHEARTBREAK2020 called “Woman” discusses this as well and the expectation to silence yourself for a seat at the table. “I do think you have silence yourself sometimes and not be authentically your full self to get what you want sometimes. I don’t believe in that it’s something that my spirit doesn’t allow me to move in that way. I have to be myself. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to mold myself to be stuff that I’m not to either please others or make situations better for myself or to honestly get through bullying, but that didn’t make me happy,” Lani admits.
“I think any form of art can function in that way so, in that song, I do kinda talk more about trying to switch up myself or trying to silence myself or maybe had I’d done all these things, I’d be well-liked or maybe things would have gone better for me, but at the end of the day, I have to be my authentic self,” Lani says almost as a reminder. “I don’t really know anything else so it’s kinda–in the most polite way–it’s kinda take it or leave it for me. I have to be me because that’s the only way that I’m happy and that’s the only way that the music is right, the lyrics are right, and eventually, when I hopefully get to go back on stage, all of that stuff clicks when you’re yourself. It doesn’t click and people notice when you’re doing otherwise.”
This kind of outlook is something that she admits she thinks developed gradually. Writing NOHEARTBREAK2020, for one thing, contributed greatly especially as she spent time looking at herself in retrospect. She gives credit back to Drew for reminding her the best lyrics are born of honesty. “When you’re not honest, you’re gonna be trying to find all the right words to say what you really wanna say but you’re not really gonna do it, you’re gonna kinda sugar coat it. I just really ripped into myself with this EP and tried to be as honest as possible.” She saw an overarching theme in her songwriting of both facing authenticity and relatability. “I had to show people that at the end of the day, I’m human, I have desires, I have things that I like but not everything is what you see.”
She notes how that includes the way that people know her, such as those that know her from following her online versus those who know her on a deeper level than that. “I also wanted to be myself because I think I strayed away from it for too long in trying to keep details about my life or my writing to myself and personal,” she continues after noting that she wants this project to allow her to open up to people in a way she hasn’t before. “I think I’ve been told not to share a lot and then I realized it was the things I wasn’t sharing that were the things that people either gravitated to me for or wanted to know more about and that’s why I think for the past year or so, I talked more about being queer and I’ve talked more about being Black/multiracial. Because those things are important and you can make an impact by talking about them. But also it’s a part of me and those are two things especially in America right now that I deal with on a daily basis so being able to talk about it is not only freeing for myself but goes back to what I said a few minutes ago.”
That freeing feeling of getting to look at and understand herself more, she hopes, comes with the opportunity to impact others and make more space for those experiences to be told and seen.
With NOHEARTBREAK2020, Lani is carving her own space in it all in order to do it. Which ironically enough, fits this year despite the EP originally intending to be released in 2019. When I ask her about including 2020 in the name of an EP given the way 2020 has panned out, she laughs. “I don’t think we knew, I mean obviously, I think it’s a very fitting title for 2020 because I think it has been very heartbreaking in a sense. I didn’t think about it at the time like an homage to the year. It was more like this year being 2020, I wasn’t going to be heartbroken in the sense that I didn’t want literal heartbreak to happen to me.” Heartbreak then found itself taking a new understanding as she continued writing, “I was feeling heartbroken at work because I wasn’t doing what I loved, I was feeling heartbroken myself because I didn’t feel like I was authentic or being my true self and being all the sides that I am. I think people think of it as being very literal heartbreak but I think that heartbreak can also just be heartbreak. It’s heartbreaking to not do what you love, it’s heartbreaking to not be yourself. It’s heartbreaking to go through heartbreak sometimes if that’s what you’re going through.”
She describes her thoughts as more of an observation instead of a statement on what has happened in 2020. “I think that hopefully there will be no more heartbreak,” she says both wanting to be optimistic but also sounding realistic. “That’s the goal with this is 2020–and I don’t want to speak too soon on 2021 because as we can see, don’t expect anything–but hopefully 2021, we can enter it without it being as heartbreaking or the things that make us heartbroken we can get rid of them in the past and I guess that’s what I was aiming for.”
“It’s very serendipitous how it all came together truthfully. I try to name my EPs before I start working on them so I kinda know what I wanna talk about and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t but this one kinda came together in the most perfect way,” Lani continues. “I wouldn’t change it now because it is heartbreaking right now to be Black, queer–I mean anything that is other than cis, straight, and white.” Lani acknowledges the ways in which it’s a hard time but hopes that the rock bottom we’re in means we’ll finally gear towards better.
“We can only go up from here, right?” She asks which leads to both of us having a mini-life crisis surrounding wanting at least a moment of peace despite how almost impossible it is to feel.
NOHEARTBREAK2020 also finds Lani creating a space and demanding those who talk about music do better by Black, multiracial, and/or queer artists especially when they make music that doesn’t check the boxes that they’re assumed to check. Lani finds it important for her to also do the same by familiarizing herself with other artists with the same or similar identities also breaking their way into the space.
“It’s really hard for me when I give an interview or when I get a write-up and I’m so grateful that people wanna talk to me and write about my music but it’s hard to see that the only people that I can be compared to are the likes of BANKS and The Weeknd. I love both of those artists but there are so many artists–I’m sure–that are Black and/or queer that are in the space making pop music, making electro music, making anything other than R&B and hip hop, right? It would be ignorant for us to assume that’s the only type of music that Black people and queer people make.”
That realization is something that Lani hopes the industry and those who write about the industry accept sooner rather than later. As a result, it also gives Black and queer artists more room to explore their sound without having to explain or defend themselves constantly for veering away from the “norm.”
“For me, I just dig the music that I’m making now, I’ve found the sound that I really like and I do think it’s a little more electro-pop. I don’t know if it’s as much rock influenced but it’s definitely electronic, it’s definitely pop-y, it’s definitely got an 80s vibe to it.” And still, that’s not how she would necessarily describe her music because her music isn’t based on genre, it’s based on music.
“I have to serve the song, not every song is gonna be an R&B song that’s gonna sound like The Weeknd, and not every song can sound like Paramore, you know? I have to do what sounds best for the song and sometimes that’s making an R&B track, sometimes that just means making a straight-up pop bop. Do you know what I mean? I have to do what feels right.” Like a lot of artists, Lani shares a similar sentiment regarding the way genre exists, how it had died, and how it does and doesn’t serve those making the music.
“It’s important to me to explore and to make curators and to make writers question like, ‘Hey, I’m a queer, Black person, I exist, I have a right to be here and this is the kind of music that I wanna make and no it’s not stereotypically what you think I’d be making and that’s more of the reason why you should be highlighting and writing about it.’ Like, don’t write about me because I’m queer, write about me because I’m doing something that’s a little bit different.” She takes a pause before saying like it’s an in-time realization, “I think I’m just trying to challenge people,” and then laughing.
She continues, “And trying to just show like there’s a shitton of cool artists out there who are making really great music but the algorithms are kinda skewed and the faces that we see aren’t always actually representative of the people making music. So my hope is that we can see a shift in that because there’s so many artists who aren’t just queer, who aren’t just Black, making really great music but we don’t see it because there’s only a handful of them who are getting playlisted and written on.” With that, she also hopes that while we see the way we define indie music becomes more diverse, we also do right by those artists and give them love and respect.
In terms of why we’re still holding on so much to genre as something that is very definitive, Lani says she thinks it’s because of a fascination with labels. “I don’t know how that’s gonna continue to work because I do think this idea of genre and labeling has kind of died and is fading out because people are just experimenting and people are becoming comfortable with what they’re making and who they are,” she explains. “I think there’s a lot of fluidity within genre, music, sexuality, gender… I think we’re gonna find people stray less away from that, I hope.” An example of that which Lani names is indie artist Claud, known for their song, “Wish You Were Gay.” In a tweet they posted earlier this month, they said that while they’re happy that people are writing about them, they wish there was more of a focus on their music and not just their gender identity. It’s a statement that Lani also resonates with. “I mean it matters, but it’s also like at the end of the day, just listen to the music and if the song is good, tell me why the song is good.”
I think I’m just trying to challenge people and trying to just show like there’s a shitton of cool artists out there who are making really great music but the algorithms are kinda skewed and the faces that we see aren’t always actually representative of the people making music.
It does also bring up something that has been discussed and debated a few times, especially lately, around forcing people who are queer or aren’t cis, especially when they’re well known, to publicly come out and let that determine their value or validity of their work or talent. When you factor in Blackness and Brownness into the equation, it shakes the playing field even more with how these voices are centered and prioritized safely and fairly without tokenization.
“I think it’s hard to decipher and I’ve tried to stick to my guns with being involved with Black talent, using Black talent on my team because this isn’t just a moment and I think some people are treating it as such,” she responds once I bring up how Blackout Tuesday earlier this year was an example of that difference. “I think at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, kind of the uprising in May in the summer, I think a lot of people were like, ‘Never again! We’re never gonna do this! We’re gonna take space for Black artists!’ And you know, as you said, it feels like it was somewhat of a temporary self-serving action and I’m just hoping that we stray away from that and we take this seriously cause it’s real.”
Looking at art and activism as things that need to go hand in hand, Lani considers activism to be a responsibility for artists, especially with a large platform. “That’s not to say you always have to make a statement on things but like, you gotta use your best judgment on when to speak out on what’s right. For me, like I’m not shy at all about calling things out and speaking up about things that matter to me and sometimes I feel like it gets me in trouble,” she laughs as she mentions that she’s found herself getting into trouble on Twitter for speaking out a few times. “I have to do it. It’s so much of who I am and so much of what I’ve built my life on. I’ve always been very outspoken in a sense for what I hope were the right causes and I’ve been really blessed to have somewhat of a platform.” She notes that people pay attention to how a platform is used and what we all put out into the world. “I’m cool with being labeled an activist and going hard out in the streets. Literally protesting or making statements or talking about it because they’re important.”
The other title that Lani holds is as a producer. “Truthfully, I love producing myself because my brain works very fast and most of the time when I sit down to start working on a song, within the first few minutes, if it’s something that I really love, it comes together pretty quickly and I can hear the song in my head and then it’s just a race to get it out and into the session.” Self-production is something that excites Lani, especially as it’s become more accessible not just for her but to other people too. “I try to find a nice balance between it because I do think my influence has always been pop music, R&B music, and I did grow up playing in bands so there’s a bit of alternative and rock in there too. Again, I just try to serve the song and see what feels right and I think producing myself is just helpful because again, I don’t really love being told how to be myself.” That said, the idea of collaboration is something that excites her when it works and proves beneficial. But, there’s something special, she finds, in getting to create your own music.
“I think for me it’s really efficient to do it and it’s really fun and I love doing it, I love creating new sounds, I love finding new samples. To me, it’s the best part of the creative process. Like it’s super fucking cool to me that I get to create songs that don’t exist and then one day they do.” It’s something she thinks about a lot and contributes to her love of producing especially as it allows her to understand and define herself sonically while also getting to grow without others putting their expectations onto her.
It’s one of the things she hopes is seen through her work producing NOHEARTBREAK2020 and what she’s learned since producing her previous music. It’s also a learning experience in terms of the difference between producing her own stuff and producing for others. “I think the difference is like, if I know I’m working on the track for somebody else there’s a level of detachment I have from the song already but I kinda quickly know if I wanna take a song and turn it.” One example of that is her song “Love Games” which was intended for another artist and ended up becoming something for her after messing up the drum part. Calling herself a drummer first she finds herself starting on the drums and gravitating to songs where they play an integral part. “If something just feels funky like, I’m all over it cause it just makes me wanna move and I love that. I love music that you can dance to, I love stuff that’s upbeat.” The mess up on the drums ended up becoming the drum part for the song and inspired the additional parts to the song.
Simply put, if she feels like she can dance to the song, she knows when producing that it’s her song. “There’s nothing more that I love than like a pop bop that makes you dance and jump around. So that’s kinda how I know,” she says.
As a producer and a fan of the 70s and 80s, when I ask her about a recording session she’d love to be a part of, she immediately thinks of Lou Adler and his work on Carole King’s Tapestry and The Mamas & the Papas and what she could learn from those sessions. Still, it’s a hard question to answer and she gives a shoutout to producers like Louis Bell and Stephen Foster as well along with Butch Vig producing Nirvana’s Nevermind.
She speaks about the genius, hard work, and admiration she has for other producers the same way that she speaks about the craft in general which is to say excited and full of passion like a kid retelling their favorite movie after being asked what it’s about. And it leads to us talking about what more she’s working on learning and getting better with to make music. “Something that I don’t actually do is mix my own music,” she admits saying that getting a better understanding of mixing and mastering is her goal for the year. “I’m still learning and I feel like I’ve been learning for a very long time, I’ve been producing since I was in high school, so I’m still learning, still on a quest to learn more about it.”
She doesn’t call herself a great mixer now and currently, she considers it unknown if she’ll ever be one because of the skill and subjectivity required. As a perfectionist, she says it’s something that makes her unsure if she’ll ever be the best mixer but even if she’s unsure about being a great mixer or the best mixer, she’s interested in trying in order to be a good mixer.
While she works on that, the rest of her 2020 now kicks off with her excitement about the release of NOHEARTBREAK2020 today. “I’ve spent a lot of time on those songs and trying to make this project as cohesive as possible so I really hope people like it,” she says about the four tracks. “I don’t know what the rest of the year looks like in terms of music. I’ve got some more songs up my sleeve but I don’t know if they’ll be released in November or if I’m gonna keep em until 2021 when I can actually and hopefully play them live.”
As we close out our conversation, she geeks out over her excitement to get into all the new music that dropped the day of our call and the importance of having good music ending with a declaration that summarizes both her music and how a lot of us are feeling in general, “We need bops!”
Lani Renaldo’s Mini-Playlist for Readers:
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NOHEARTBREAK2020 is out now wherever you stream music.
(photo cred: TBA)