By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
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.