It was one of the sweetest, most surprising success stories to come out of the St. Louis music scene in some time. Kevin Renick, a soft and sensitive singer-songwriter most often found in coffee-shop corners and open mic nights, found his music used in the credits of a major motion picture when Jason Reitman used Renick's song "Up in the Air" to close out his 2009 film of the same name. The tone of that George Clooney-starring film, which was partly filmed in St. Louis, echoed much of the unmoored and displaced feeling of Renick's lyrics, and the pairing of the film and the song felt like an odd but fitting bit of synchronicity for a songwriter who was just getting his start in his early 50s.
And while acclaim and opportunity followed the Up in the Air soundtrack — national press, a memorable show at the Sheldon Concert Hall — Renick's personal life took a number of dark turns. In the ensuing years he dealt with a breakup, periodic bouts of homelessness and the deaths of several close friends and collaborators. As suddenly as it appeared, his Hollywood moment was eclipsed.
"I just slowly felt like that rug was being pulled out from under me," Renick says. "It felt like the universe was going, 'OK dude, we're gonna kick your ass for a while.'
"It was not fun," Renick says with a little laugh.
But in the midst of these setbacks, Renick was never far from his guitar. A week or so after his relationship dissolved, he was in a studio in Springfield, Missouri, working out the song "Bites" from his new record Clear the Way.
"I knew I still wanted to write songs and take a different direction," he says. "It was a cathartic thing — I'm going down but I'm gonna preserve them somehow. Sometimes this thing just takes over inside me — there's still this jukebox playing in my head. It's playing these songs that I'm feeling. When a song comes to you, you let it come."
The songs on Clear the Way are emotionally honest, sometimes uncomfortably so. As a songwriter, Renick doesn't dress up his stories in metaphor or narrative distance; some songs use diary-level detail and specificity to outline, as he sings on one song, "a patch of bad luck."
"I knew it was sad and wouldn't be much fun, but it was therapy," Renick says. "I don't know how people are going to react to that sadder stuff."
To be fair, the material on Clear the Way does not dwell on sad-sack mopery; much of the early part of the album shows Renick's love of pop and rock forms. Early track "Promise Man" rides on a shuffling groove, while the sometimes-snide "Girlfriends" marries its kiss-off tone with some synthy flourishes.
One of the most vitriolic tracks, "These Things Happen," channels one of Renick's most enduring influences: Neil Young. He takes the lead role in a local tribute to Young called Shakey Deal, and on his own compositions he is able to summon some Crazy Horse guitar work to chop down the triteness of how people sidestep grief in favor of clichéd platitudes.
"I started writing that within days of Bowie dying," Renick says. "It was sparked by a guy at work that I was not very fond of. This guy literally said to me, 'These things happen.' It was the most glib response; it got me thinking of what a glib society we are. I just get tired of the lack of compassion and the depth of understanding, and that's what I was trying to get in there."
Clear the Way opens with a twelve-minute soundscape that mixes train sounds, song snippets, philosophical musings and at least one Beatles riff; it ends with the title track, an ominous storm cloud of a song that leaves the album in a kind of emotional borderland.
"With 'Clear the Way,' there's an ambiguity in that: Is life worth it? Can you survive?" Renick says. "I don't think I answer it, but maybe you can find another way and go in another direction."
These days, Renick spends his time teaching adult education classes at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, including a course called "Singing with Impact." The course is less focused on music theory or classical technique and more on how to harness the power of expression. It's a fitting course for a singer whose approach is used most fully as a conduit for emotion and experience. "I'm talking to people about using the qualities of their own voice to express something meaningful," Renick explains.
Asked if these songs, most of which were written between 2014 and 2015, are either still too close to the bone or too much a relic of a painful past, Renick asserts the long shelf life of an honestly sung song.
"Once you make a soundtrack of your life that's genuine," he says, "you can always relate to it."