The Human Side: Renita Cotton

June 18, 2016
20. min read
Photo by Jeni Mangana

Renita Cotton is a pop, soul singer-songwriter based in New York City. She released her first self-titled EP in the Fall of 2015 debuting three songs: The End, Summer Haze and Waiting. Since the release, she has had the honor of performing at the Highline Ballroom and Irving Plaza as well as other venues around the city. Currently, she’s in the process of working on her debut album, which is due to be released in Spring of 2017. However, the first single, Why Oh Why, from the album will be released in July.

I was introduced to Renita during a meeting with one of my freelance clients. We got together at a coffee shop to go over the status of the project and Renita—who was my client’s previous roommate—joined us after the meeting. As we chatted and got to know each other, I discovered that Renita was pursing a music career and was drawn in by her process and musings about the daily hustle of building her career. Renita has a certain quality about her that screams badass; she’s a straight-shooter with confidence that is enough to intimidate you but doesn’t come off as boastful—she just knows what she wants and is willing to work hard to achieve her goals. I listened to her songs on my way home and was blown away by her voice. Her music teeters between modern pop and 60s soul with a touch of R&B, very smooth and beautiful.

We met at Aroma coffee shop for our interview where I was able to learn more about her story: how music became such a huge part of her life, that time she forgot all the words to her song during a performance, and what it’s like building a music career from the ground up.

Growing Up

Tell me a little bit about how you grew up and what influenced you to get into music.

Renita: So, my grand dad is a musician by his own right. He played organ, guitar and harmonica, and sang mostly at church. My mom would send us away to him for a few weeks in the summer and we would stay up there until we were sick of each other. He had this weird thing of making sure we were cultured, so it was always classical music in the car, and we had to dress nicely and talk properly—mind our Ps and Qs, all that jazz. Around the age of 12-14, I wanted to learn how to play guitar so he paid for my lessons. I took lessons for about 2 or 3 years, and at one point I was really good, but then I stopped when I came up to NY for college. My grand dad is probably the biggest reason why I’m into music and why I have such a solid foundation of it. As for my parents, we only listened to gospel and oldies in the house. So, between the three of them, I have an eclectic taste of music that’s grown from there.

Renita comes from a family of artists. Her older sister is a dancer and her younger sister is currently in school studying Graphic Design and Studio Art. A surprising fact about Renita is that she and her sisters were homeschooled. Her mother created a very rigorous educational foundation for them. They would spend their summers focusing on learning math, reading books, going to museums and being immersed in a variety of knowledge-based activities. She believes that being involved in these activities helped forge the creative side they each have now. Renita continued her education at a small magnet school once she reached her Sophomore year of High School.

Can I ask why you guys were homeschooled?

Renita: We were homeschooled because the schools in our zone, back in Maryland where I grew up, were not ones you wanted to send your kids. My mom always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom so she said, “I could have worked just so I’d be able to send you all to private school, or I could just stay home like I wanted to and homeschool you all.” So, she homeschooled us, gave us a solid foundation but eventually she had to go back to work on a full-time basis. In some ways being homeschooled was more rigorous than public school, but I feel like attending public school made my transition to college easier.

College and the Path to Music

Renita attended college in New York City with the thought that she could dabble in music and fashion while allowing her time to decide if she had the courage and drive to pursue it full-time. She chose to be Pre-Med, majoring in Biology with a Creative Writing minor. However, she was not passionate about what she was studying and, during her last semester of college, made a decision that would change the course of her path.

Renita: The breaking point was when I was in my last semester of college and I realized science wasn’t for me, but I was gonna finish the degree because I didn’t want to just quit. I got to the first semester of my senior year and thought, Oh man, I can’t do this anymore. So, I completely switched my major to Business with an Arts concentration. I took a lot of poetry classes and would write a bunch of lyrical poetry. I would then convert it into music, which was great. The teacher, Jerry Williams, was amazing—most of what I learned was from his class. He was so big on: Just because you wrote it and you think it’s good doesn’t mean it’s good. It could be better. Now, when I write a song, it isn’t done. I’ll rewrite it and rewrite it and then throw everything away and then go back to the original and then rewrite it again. My business classes were actually very helpful. It taught me how to have a business mindset, how to keep track of your money, and basically how to interact on a business level.

How did staying that extra year in college affect your path?

Renita: The extra year I spent in college resulted in a degree that is way more applicable to the career I’m currently pursuing. The concentration that I focused on within the Business major didn’t exist until the extra year I ended up spending in school. I took a mix of standard business classes and a few art classes that have helped me in various ways. I was also able to use that year to make connections with people and better prepare myself for my post grad life.

Taking the leap

Photo by John Cristou

Can you walk me through the moment you decided to pursue music full-time?

Renita: During the last two years of being in college, I finally said to myself, Ok, you wanna do music and it’s fine. You can do it and not struggle because you’ve seen people be artists and not struggle. I tried to be a scientist by forcing myself into a box because you want a job, you want to be able to pay your bills, and take care of your family, but I wasn’t happy. I sang a little bit in a choir and in youth group—I sing here in church as well. My biggest thing was I thought I was still going to be a guitarist. I had it written down on my notebook saying, By this age, I’ll be touring the country as a guitar player, but that dream kinda died. So, I started singing more because it was something I began to gravitate toward, but the issue was I’d always think, Well, I’m good but I’m not THAT good.

While many people had acknowledged her talent, it wasn’t until she met her current producer and friend, Kevin, who made her realize her musical potential.

Renita: About 4 years ago, someone was finally like you're really good. His name is Kevin and he’s the producer who ended up recording the first bit of my music. I started listening to him and other people and thought, ok, I’m not so bad, maybe I can get some training and then I’ll be better. Within those last two years of my college, I started taking voice lessons, writing more and I talked to Kevin and said, “Ok, I’m gonna do this.” I just locked it in and made that decision to commit to art—which is something I still feel like I have to commit to every day.

When you decided to make this leap, how did your family feel about it? Were they supportive?

Renita: Luckily my mom’s really cool, and after I told her I was switching majors she was like, “I don’t even know why you were trying to be a scientist anyway, you always hated biology.” Her thing is that she’ll help as much as she can but she’s not paying my bills. She wants to retire too so she says, “Great, do what you want, let it be legal—like don’t be in the streets doing stuff that you shouldn’t be doing—and I will support you.” My dad is kinda just like whatever goes. So, that’s the biggest thing for me is that I have a family that’s super supportive.

Something I admire deeply about Renita is her exceptional discipline. After making the decision to commit herself in this pursuit, she drew out a logical plan in terms of housing and side income. Living in New York City and being surrounded by people who are intensely driven, there is a lot of pressure to maintain a certain standard of living because everyone has to project success all the time. With Renita, there was only one thing that mattered to her: music. 

Renita: Being surrounded by so many artists in the city makes me realize that I don’t need a lot of money to be happy, and I don’t need to live lavishly. It’s more worth it to be doing something you love versus having a really great job with financial security but you’re miserable. I live as cheap as possible so that I don’t have to stress out too much about paying my bills. This allows me to use my free time to do artistic things like write music, sing, go to museums and find inspiration. New York is a city where if you want to do something, you can make it happen. Problem is, people try to live so glamorously here and keep up with everybody that you’re struggling to pay rent instead of being able to do what you want to do. All I really wanna do is music and everything else is extra. I’ve been very lucky where I’m able to manipulate my life in a way that allows me some freedom, and that’s because I have 3 roommates and I live in a box but it is what it is. You can’t have it all all the time so that’s my sacrifice: Lots of roommates. Cheap rent. Work a little bit.

What are your side jobs?

Renita: I do a lot of babysitting. I used to have an office job that was music related but that ended. I’ll do random things like dog or house sit, but I mostly nanny/babysit. That’s my main hustle: I watch people’s children.

Learning & Growing

One common factor I think a lot of people deal with is self doubt. How do you deal with self doubt?

Renita: Usually, I just yell at myself to just stop it. And I go back and say, Ok, let’s think of the timeline. At the end of 2014, you made the decision that you’re gonna do this. Between 2014 and 2015, you wrote some pretty solid music, recorded it, released it, played a really tiny show and then a few months later you played at Highline Ballroom. This year, so far you’ve played at Irving Plaza and you’re going back to Highline Ballroom—and you’re not going back because you’re cute and they need someone to fill the spot, you’re going back because you’re good, and you can bring in a crowd. I try to think of what I’ve done because I have a really bad habit of not acknowledging it, so I have to stop and think about it and then take the time to celebrate that. The most important thing for me is to surround myself with people who are willing to give me a critique but not break me down.

Lucky, I have really great friends who check me when I start saying, “Oh my god, what am I doing with my life?” I always think that I started too late and I’m having to play catch up, or that I don’t think I’m as good as people think I am—it’s something I’ve been working on. I saw something online one time where it was Oprah interviewing Michael Jackson. He was doing some dance move and was like, “Oh, but it’s not good, I have to work on it.” And she’s looking at him like, “What do you mean it’s not good?!” I feel like sometimes that’s how I am, but It’s a level of humility that I don’t want to lose.

How do you work through discouragement?

Renita: I dont let myself wallow in instances, but I do allow myself a few minutes to be sad or whine and then I get over it. Then the next day I’ll figure it out because if you spend too much time worrying about what went wrong or what could’ve gone better, etc., you just get stuck in this really sad state of self pity that prevents you from moving forward and growing. So, any time there are those weird moments of funk, I don’t let myself stay there; I have a time limit and then I move forward.

Can you tell me about a time you really scared of doing something and how you got yourself to do it?

Renita: Oh, every time I get on stage. I have a little bit of stage fright; I get so nervous before every performance. Even when I sing at church or small places, anything where I have to be in front of a crowd and I’m by myself and there’s no one really close to me. I always go, Ohhhh, why am I doing this? Oh dear Lord Jesus. Usually, once I start singing I’m fine, I can block it all out. I don’t wear my glasses on stage so I can’t really see anybody—that’s my line of defense; I can’t see you. Great! Perfect, you’re not there. At this point I’ve learned to just suck it up and do it, but I’m always scared right before I go on stage. People always say, “But you look so calm up there.” and I’m like, no, no, no, I’m faking it. But, each time I go up there it gets better.


Have you ever had something go wrong while you were performing? 

Renita: During one show I forgot all the words to my song. I sang the verses from another song the whole time and made some stuff up, it was great. I looked at my singers and they peeked back to look at one of the guys who was playing the music. He couldn’t figure it out either so throughout the whole song I was just making stuff up. I guess it was fine, but I haven’t looked at that tape and I won’t look at it. Every time I get to that part, I skip past it and go nope, I don’t wanna know. So, we’re not singing that song for a while.

Do you have any specific daily routines to keep you on track with your progress?

Renita: Not really. I don’t really like routines, but in general I try to practice every day, like vocal warm-ups. If I’m preparing for a show, I’ll sing through the material for that. Generally, I try to make sure I’m writing something every day, which is something I’d picked up from my teacher too. Even if it’s just gibberish. I have a bunch of notebooks and random scraps of paper, random memos on my phone or voice recordings that can become something but hasn’t yet. So just being in the habit of forcing my brain to be engaged in writing something.

How do you discipline yourself to do something you don’t want to do?

Renita: If someone else is going to affected by it then I’ll set a deadline and get it done, but if it’s only going to bother me, then I just won’t do it. I don’t really force myself to do things I don’t want to do. Technically, I should be done writing this new album—there’s 2 more songs and a few weeks ago there were 4 more left to write. I was meeting a friend who was going to help me work through the new stuff so I forced myself to stay up all night. I was grouchy and tired the next day, but I had to because when I went to meet him, I had to have at least 2 songs. Based on my original deadline, I should be done writing but sometimes you can’t force it. So, I’ve pushed back the release date to ensure that I’m proud of every song that ends up on this next album and there’s no fluff.

How do you find inspiration to write music?

Renita: It’s weird. Sometimes it’ll be a personal encounter I had with someone. Sometimes I’ll hear a story or a friend will tell me something and then I get inspired to write something. Sometimes I’ll be watching TV or I’ll hear music. I can be sitting somewhere and I’ll randomly hear a tune—I don’t know what it is, but I record it and it becomes something. Or, I hear a line or I just randomly have a thought come up and I write it down. Then, I’ll go back and look at it and if I look at it long enough, words will come to me. There’s no set way that I write, but I prefer when it’s organic and not forced.

What is your end-goal as a musician? Do you want to become famous?

Renita: My end goal right now is to be a songwriter. I’d like to sit on the beach or in the mountains and just write. Honestly, I want nothing to do with being famous. I want to be able to walk down the street and not be bothered—not that that happens now—but I want to be able to do what I love without the unrealistic pressure of perfection that society places on people in the spotlight.


Life Lessons & Advice

What would you say is the most difficult thing that you’ve discovered about pursing music?

Renita: Probably being open and vulnerable. Writing about my personal relationships or other people’s stuff, but it’s also part of my story, so essentially, letting people into my life through writing and music is what I’m doing. I’m all about my privacy and everyone knows only what they need to know, so no one knows ALL about me. There have been songs I’ve written that I’m not ready to share yet, and there’s definitely times I’ve written stuff and cut lines out or changed it.

What has been the most surprising aspect of this process?

Renita: That people actually like what I have to say. To have random people come up to me and say, “That was good!” after a show, or like the last show I did people said they got chills. That’s like whaaaat, no. Me?

How do you recharge and prevent yourself from burning out?

Renita: I’m not good at stopping I’ve found. I just like to work, work, work, work until I’m exhausted and then I die over the weekend and come back to life. When It’s nice outside, I sit in the park and that seems to be my way to recharge. When I go back to Maryland I’ll go out and lay in the grass for an hour or two in the sun. Being around friends, doing things that are not related to your art in any way is great. I find ways to kind of check out of life for a bit, like I’ll turn my phone off or go sit somewhere and do nothing. I used to be really good at scheduling ‘do nothing’ days where I won’t check emails and if someone calls me about business, I won’t answer or I say I’ll get back to you later. New York makes you tired. You can get in the go-go-go and realize you haven’t taken a break in forever. When I feel like things are getting a little crazy, I usually go back to Maryland where my parents still live. I’ll go for a few days until I miss New York and then I come back.

What do you think is not expressed enough about pursuing your dreams. 

Renita: How much you have to work. You think your 9 to 5 is a lot of work? You have to work at least twice as hard in the beginning to be established and get to some level where you can be more comfortable. My roommate is an actress and she does Broadway stuff; that girl has like 12 jobs. You have to work so much harder so that when you have those opportunities to book a show, you can take a break and pursue your dreams. A lot of people think, Oh, I’m gonna quit my job and tomorrow it’s gonna happen. No, you’re gonna work hard, and then one day you’re gonna catch a break, but until then, that’s all you do. I don’t have an agent that manages what I do so I’m the one who reaches out to people and finds auditions—I’m the artist and the manager. In the beginning stages, you’ll be doing everything, but it’s great because you set your own schedule and you’re finally doing something that fulfills you. 

Photo by John Christou

For those people out there who want to start a music career but don’t have any connections, how would you suggest someone get started? How did you meet and make your connections?

Renita: I would say I got lucky. The church I go to has so many musicians and talented artists who go there. I’m not that kind of person who’s like, “Oh you do this cool thing so let me see what I can get from you.” I just lived my life and spoke about what I wanted to do and someone reached out and said, “Hey, I can help you.” If you don’t have connections it’s definitely harder, but I think if you’re good eventually people will find you. If you perfect your craft and take advantage of any opportunity you can get and all the platforms out there to get exposure and get seen, I think that’s a good place to start. Even if you don’t think people are watching, they are watching.

What is an important life lesson you’ve learned?

Renita: Probably to be willing to reach out for help and be willing to reach out to people who have done what you’re trying to do because there’s always someone around saying, “If you need advice, let me know.” or “I know this person who can help you.” I’m not very good at asking for help because I wanna do it myself and I don’t want to owe anyone anything, but I’ve learned over the past couple years that there’s so many people around you who actually love and care for you, want to help you and don’t expect anything back. People are much nicer than we give them credit for. Especially in this city, we all seem to think everyone is disgruntled and always scowling. No, you probably just caught them on a bad day or during rush hour—everyone’s grumpy during rush hour.

How do you want to be remembered?

Renita: (jokingly) She made me cry when I listened to her music—that would be great. I don’t know that’s a big question. Hopefully it’ll be good things like, “She’s secretly funny or she took really good care of me.” I don’t necessarily want my music to be what people remember me by, I don’t need people to say, “Oh she made all this money and won all these Grammys.” I think at the end of the day, being a good person means more to me than anything else, it’s like that saying: People will never forget how you made them feel. Even if I’m not having a good day, I do my best not to project that onto other people and make sure that I’m taking the time to understand where a person’s coming from, give them the time to express themselves and listen to them.

There were so many great snippets from our interview that I wanted to include that were shared during regular conversation so it didn’t fit into the question/answer portion. However, I couldn’t let these go because I found them to be very valuable and introspective.

Additional Wisdom

On creativity and writing:
Create something. Throw it all together and play with it long enough and sometimes you get something magical, or sometimes you try something and it’s trash, but you can still say: Oh well, I tried. My teacher was really good at saying the more you write, the closer and faster you get to the good stuff; you get through the trash. Or, maybe you’ll write something and it’s like eh, but you can pull a line from there, which is what I do a lot.

On purpose: Someone asked me before, what is your purpose? Are you trying to make a political statement, like what do you do with this music? And what I think I’ve come to realize is that music is my way of memorializing experiences or reliving an experience. I’m not good with connecting with my emotions all the time. Sometimes you just want to turn on a song and feel your emotions or go back to a memory so I guess in a way, I’m trying to help people reconnect to something.

On hard work and achieving your goals: Someone once told me when you’re talented and you’re a good person, good things will happen to you if you’re willing to work hard. There’s a lot of hard work in there that you never see. One of my friends, who’s a Broadway actress, had a 10 year goal to make it to Broadway. That girl did not just do Broadway stuff. She would work here, she would work there, and then when she got opportunities for shows, she’d take a break and then go back. She would go to the theater where she managed the house to a job at the gym to auditions and rehearsals. She made her goal of being on Broadway in 9 1/2 years and was in a production called Amazing Grace. She had a goal and she made it happen. When it comes to art, there’s no clear path. It’s the culmination of all the little things that help you move forward and get you closer to goals. If you’re willing to work, it’ll happen.

Learn more or purchase music by Renita Cotton here:

iTunes: Renita Cotton

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