Grand Illusions

Having a voice like Sade's must be a real pain in the ass -- just ask San Francisco songstress Gina Rene. When her band Soulstice finally released its debut album, Illusion, last year, flustered critics who couldn't quite pigeonhole this eclectic quartet tirelessly pointed out that the lead singer can carry a tune the same way that cocoa-colored enchantress can. But that's not all Gina Rene's about, she hastens to explain.

"Yeah, I was getting a little sick of it," confirms Rene. "But I don't know if I wanna say 'sick of it.' But it's just interesting to me because there have been several people saying that same thing, and what I notice was that on Illusion, the style of singing is pretty smooth, [but] that's not the only style I do. And that's why this remix tour we're doing is really nice, because I can do more free-form. It's cool to be compared to somebody that's good. But it's funny 'cause I don't think of myself at all like that."

When Rene and the rest of her Soulstice bandmates -- keyboardists/programmers Andy Caldwell and Gabriel Rene (Gina's brother) and DJ Mei-Lwun Yee -- went out on their first national tour last spring, their four-piece outfit soon ballooned into seven, turning each club date into a full-fledged live band experience.

Now, with the recent release of the dance-remix companion album Mixed Illusions, they're back on the road, but this time they're staying more in their element, even scaling back to just one of the three men accompanying the front-and-center Rene on each stop. "What we're doing right now is what we're calling a PA tour," says Caldwell. "It's basically a chance for us to get out on the road and do something a little different, where we're not locked into the same set list every show and do kind of different ideas. It's a little more fun and free-form."

"Free-form" is a term that keeps popping up with Rene and Caldwell during our phone interview. Like jazz artists dropping an impromptu groove, Soulstice loves giving listeners what they don't expect. This isn't to say they love impulsiveness for its own sake. Despite their blend of musical genres on Illusion, where a song can shift from Delta blues to underground techno to Brazilian bossa nova faster than you can say Antonio Carlos Jobim, they are quick to mention that it wasn't their intention. "I don't think it was that we were trying to be so eclectic," says Caldwell. "It was more like that's just what happened when we were done making all the songs."

With their clash of influences and rich family history (Gena and Gabriel are the grandchildren of Leon Rene, who wrote "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" for Louis Armstrong and the pop standard "When the Swallows Return to Capistrano"), Soulstice has made bouncing from groove to groove, past to future, their trademark. Explains Rene: "The thing about Soulstice is that when we first started out, we could pretty much make a song in any style. We could do a total house diva-style song, and then we could do something like actually interesting kind-of trance, and it was like the good kind-of trance. And then, we can do hip-hop. So then when it came to actually making this album, we're like, well maybe we should try to make our songs more similar to one another. And at the same time, we were doing what we liked, you know."

For folks who hate to have to describe a musical group as, well, beyond description, the members of Soulstice have already coined their own brand-spanking-new terminology: futuristic electronic soul. "We didn't know what to call ourselves," continues Rene, "but we're just like, hmmm, there's something about our sound, you know, with the music and the styles that we needed. It's got, like, a futuristic tone -- at least, when we started out, that was more of what it was like, and then we fused it with our love for jazz and all these other styles."

Folks who listen to Soulstice can agree that even if they're not captivated by the music, they have to be amazed at the stupefying vocal magnitude singer-songwriter Rene brings to the table. While she looks something like an Orange County-bred Lili Taylor, something mighty dwells in her vocal cords. And to think, if Caldwell and big bro Gabriel hadn't approached her with bringing her skills to the fold, she would probably be singing torch songs with a jazz band. "I had been listening to a lot of blues and jazz and soul," she recalls. "So I was thinking I wanted to sing that kind of music, and when I hooked up with Gabriel and Andy, I ended up fusing my style with the more dance tracks that they were doing."

The fusion was enough to entice San Francisco-based Om Records, which signed the group in 1997 and went for a subtle approach in promoting the band before they broke through with Illusion. The label released Soulstice tracks on a few compilations and dropped tunes in the laps of radio stations like Santa Monica public-radio station KCRW. While the approach didn't garner them a huge audience, it did attract a cult following. Rene was surprised to find a recent Washington, D.C., gig packed full of folks. "It was the first time I really got to see that, okay, we do have fans out there," she says.

With this tour and the release of Mixed Illusions, Gina and Co. seem poised to acquire a steady stream of die-hard fans -- from 40-year-olds looking to chill to 14-year-olds looking to get ill. "It seems like most people who like us are people who listen to a lot of different music," says Rene. "We get different kinds of fans, and that's a good thing. It's like, cool, we're not limited to just one age bracket and then one style bracket."

And they hope to attract the attention of some critics who know better than to confuse her with Sade.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey