Previously active as Renny M, Taranaki singer-songwriter Renee Millner decided to create music under her actual name after all, to avoid confusion. Staying true to her trusty acoustic guitar and folk-tinged tunes that tell a story, the first release from an upcoming selection of songs, Out Their Windows, shows a more mature side to her songwriting. Conveyed with aching intensity and a stunning soulful vocal performance, the single is a very personal contemplation on the fate of elderly people in our Western society, being left to age in homes, as Renee tells us in the story of her song below.
The idea for Out Their Windows sparked a few years back while my grandmother was still alive. She spent the last 15 years of her life in a nursing home in Taranaki. I didn’t see her very often for most of her life – usually once every 2-3 years when I visited New Zealand from Sydney, where I grew up, and spent most of my life.
I often wondered what was going through her mind in those countless hours that she appeared to be staring out the windows of the rest home. I’ve been intrigued for some time about how different cultures view their senior citizens.
When I was 20 I lived in rural Japan for a year teaching English and was fascinated by their custom of having their elderly family members live altogether under one roof. It was customary that each grandparent had their very specific role in the family. In China, for example, where I taught for a few months in late 2019, many young people are actually brought up by their grandparents and are very close to them, as their parents are away working much of the time.
I noticed how different these approaches are to getting older, and I can definitely see many benefits in how the Japanese and Chinese include their elderly in everyday life. They really are part of the community, and play a significant role.
Then, came Covid, and I thought more about the idea that suddenly rest homes were not so ‘safe’ anymore. Suddenly, the elderly seemed very vulnerable in such places. A bit of a paradox.
Reflecting now on the song, I believe it speaks of living one’s life in such a way that there are minimal regrets. Treating each moment as a sacred moment – finding the thing in life which fills you up and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. The part of life which really brings light and joy into your soul. So the premise of the song is, don’t wait around till everything is exactly as you want it, as that probably isn’t going to happen. Rather, treat the moment as sacred, and hopefully, you will have so many beautiful moments to look back on (if you can remember them).
When I took this song to Sam Johnson at Rhythm Ace Studios, I was open to his ideas. I knew I wanted it to be fairly stripped back, with acoustic guitar, harmonies and some piano added in. He suggested recording the acoustic guitar and the vocals live together – that was something fairly new to me, but I was excited by the idea. It made sense – why separate two parts that are so inextricably linked? We gradually built the other layers around the vocals and acoustic guitar.
I was aiming for a pretty chilled, ambient, reflective vibe for the song… I envisioned that people would be lulled by the steady rhythm of the guitar. I wanted there to be plenty of space. I believe we succeeded on that part. At one point, I added these touches of electric guitar (I think it was a strat), that you can hear after the first line of the chorus ‘and the old folks at the home’, they’re glaring out their windows’. We were experimenting with various sounds in the studio; the chord I used I just randomly discovered. I had never played that particular chord before that day in the studio. I haven’t played a lot of electric before.
And then, of course, Sam put his little touch of magic on the sound and tweaked it so it would sit beautifully in the mix. He has a knack for doing that.
I played the synth on this song as well. Again, we just played around with these long church like sounds… it adds a particular richness and when I listen to it now, I find those sounds to be very soothing.
What I love the most about going into the studio is that you never know where things are going to end up! I might have an idea of how I’d like the song to turn out, however, we could come up with a completely different result to my expectation. If I just stay open and tune in to the beauty of the process and start listening to what the song needs, it seems to reveal itself. I would say that creating this song with Sam was a journey of self-discovery, a journey of exploration. I look back at it with a great deal of tenderness.
My favourite part of the track is most definitely the bridge. I remember saying to Sam, “I love those big African-American choir sounds.” So many voices together, it’s so powerful. We didn’t have a big choir to use so we just added layers of my vocals. The result, for me, is very special, as I don’t think that part is expected in the song.
Just be still enough
To hear the whispers of
These inner workings
I know you’re not tough
Enough to say goodbye
I have a few favourite lines from the song, but I love the start of the second verse. It is just a constant reminder when I hear it and/or perform the song that I need to slow down, just be present, just be still, listen to my breath. The moment is really precious and I don’t want to be taking those moments for granted.
What I learned from making this song, is that it is more than okay to go into the studio alone and produce a song from start to finish on your own. It’s really liberating to know I can do that. It’s great to know that various layers can be added, but a song doesn’t necessarily need everything that you think it needs.
The songs need space and time to grow on you. We had 3-4 days total in the studio and we recorded three singles in that time. So there was a bit of coming back and forth to each song, giving each one enough breathing space. Both Sam and I could go away after each session, reflect, listen to what we had done, then come back with a better idea of what each track required. Being in the studio is kind of like being in a big children’s playground, where you just get to try things and be creative. That’s the fun of it.
This song feels like a bit of a different direction from my previous work. It definitely still has a ‘folk’ element, however I’m much more interested now in those layers of sound that can be added through synth, Hammond organ, etc. Making the single was definitely a very uplifting collaboration between Sam and myself. It was okay to say ‘No, I really don’t like that idea’, or ‘That idea doesn’t feel right’. What Sam does is he creates a level of security and trust when you walk into his studio, which means you can be completely vulnerable and open. There is no pressure, no judgement, just a pure desire from him to make each song the very best it can be.
Working on the recording was one process – the making of the music video was another incredible journey. I collaborated with dancer Sophie Gargan and videographer Hugo Eaton for the video and Sophie features in the video. Hugo had the idea for the song to be told through dance – I thought that was a unique take on it. Initially, I was hesitant, but once we started working together I could see his vision for the project.
I felt so exhilarated the first time I saw Sophie dancing to the song for the test shoot; it really moved me emotionally. The way she interpreted it was so unique and beautiful. It’s like her movements conveyed the words of the song – it’s been such an incredible privilege to see her work in this way – and including a few elderly members of the community to be a part of the video meant it gave it a whole other element. None of the senior women had done anything like this before and I just remember feeling so proud that I was able to involve them in this creative project.
The senior women did a great job and were very gracious – the making of the video was a lot of fun, and I felt a sense of sadness when the filming had ended, but also a sense of relief to have completed the project! Everyone has been so wonderful to work with, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome with the song and the video. I really hope it moves people like it still moves me.