How Ranee Lee was inspired by Snarky Puppy to put a jazz spin on Céline Dion

Ranee Lee isn’t exactly an artist you’d describe as predictable.

Lee has always stretched the creative boundaries of her artistry, experimenting in projects and sounds from one thing to the next, while still maintaining the magical presence that she exudes in live performances regardless of what she’s performing.

Her latest recording Because You Loved Me finds the Juno-winning Order of Canada recipient putting her unique stamp on the material of a somewhat unexpected fellow Quebec artist: Céline Dion.

Lee joined us to tell us a little bit more about the project.

Let’s start from the beginning. This idea was brought to you by your label and initially you said no, and then you said no again. Eventually, something turned you around. What made you change your mind about doing this?

Shortly after both suggestions, I had gone to New York to visit with family. One evening while we were resting and watching television, a gentleman came on — a wonderful pianist, I can’t remember his name — and his favourite group was Snarky Puppy. We were so enamoured by what we had been watching of this young performer, so we looked up Snarky Puppy, and I was extremely blown away by the talent, the variety, the passion and the various forms of music they would reshape. We watched YouTube videos for about three hours. It was a lightbulb moment. I could have arrangements that are the same flavour of these Snarky Puppy arrangements. I mulled it over and when I returned to Montreal I spoke with Jim West, our record exec, and he seemed to go for it. I presented it to my pianist Taurey Butler, and the arrangements that he came up with for these tunes, they are magic. They transcend the pop idiom — which they’re nothing wrong with, but it’s not the style of music that I prefer to live in. The songs were adapted to how I feel about the music and how I like to sing. I started to realize the connotation of the lyrics. They’re meaningful to me because of the loss of my wonderful husband, guitarist and best friend Richard Ring. He became my muse for the lyrics.

This is the first record you’ve made since Richard’s passing. You could feel him there with you?

Oh yes. I feel him there with me anywhere, even in IGA. I often say, “Please find me a parking space,” and I’ll get a parking space.

Recommended Links

How did you choose the tunes?

I went for her signature tunes. They also represent tunes that were faithful to her audience. It’s much like when I chose the tunes for The Musicals: Jazz on Broadway. They have to bring both audiences together. I respect and love the work that Céline does. She’s absolutely fantastic. She’s the epitome of her style of music, her strength, her musical ability. Like all jazzers, they have signatures. I thought to respect the fact that I was even doing these tunes that I would choose tunes that were recognized in her world, and also songs that I didn’t have to struggle too much with learning the adaptation and the original. Who hasn’t heard I’m Alive, you know? But having that twist of the arrangement made it easier to choose tunes that I felt familiar with and that I could be familiar with in the performance.

With the way that Céline’s music lives in the pop world, did you alter the way you sang it? The arrangements are one thing, but did you change your vocal presentation?

Yeah, I had to. You know, I don’t consider myself a smooth jazz singer. I have varying degrees of dynamics, and I like to explore. I don’t like to be held hostage to a melody, so to speak. I did find that the nature of the music and the style of the arrangements encouraged me to take those types of chances that I normally don’t do when I sing traditional jazz. As a young person before my career really kicked off, I listened to the Top 40, the blues, the jazz. I’m familiar with the styles. In the studio, all of the possibilities open up. You just reach for them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.