Musical Therapy: Rockstar Lani Renaldo Bends Genre and Gender

photos via Instagram

“Everyday I wake up and I’m choosing to perform – I’m choosing to show different sides of myself.”

-Lani Renaldo

LA based singer, songwriter and producer Lani Renaldo is exceedingly easy on the ears, their sound a honeyed nod to the rock gods ⁠— like Prince and Haley Williams ⁠— that have paved the winding roads of the music industry for the unabashed youth to come. Renaldo has worked alongside notable artists, opening for Halsey’s Badlands Tour and amassing more than 5 million streams on ‘Malibuu,’ a song they wrote and produced with Matt DiMona. Despite their success, Renaldo doesn’t take themself too seriously – regarding ‘Malibuu,’ they said, “we were two college kids in a shitty apartment writing that song so seeing it grow has been amazing.” Renaldo has also acted as one of the faces of the Good Dye Young campaign for a semi-permanent hair dye line called Metalhead, a project spearheaded by Haley Williams.

Renaldo’s latest EP, NOHEARTBREAK2020, is a critically acclaimed analysis of finding yourself in your 20s – the artist explores young adult life with unflinchingly honest prose backdropped by infectious beats. Their discography is eclectic and constantly evolving – consisting of alt and indie tracks that capture a myriad of genres, including pop, disco and electronic music with nods to R&B and jazz.

Renaldo’s newest release ⁠— “help!” ⁠— is an ode to vulnerability and the unbridled potential created by opening ourselves up to the assistance of others. Written during a turbulent time in the artist’s life, “help!” conveys the necessary torture of self-reflection and emotional growth. In the aftermath of an earth-shattering breakup, Renaldo found themself disconnected from friends and beginning to come to terms with their non-conforming gender identity in the midst of a global pandemic. The turmoil they were experiencing both internally and externally took the form of a high-octane, rock-infused track: “help!” 

According to Renaldo, “help!” was written from a place of inherent selfishness; “When I sit down to write music I generally am looking to connect with other people and looking to make music that’s relatable for others.” Renaldo said, “That’s not to say this song isn’t relatable for others but it was more of a release for myself and so I felt selfish when I realized: this is a song for me, about me, and if people connect with it, great! But it was more of a release that I needed to get out… I felt really strongly that I needed to find release and this was the only way that I saw fit or that I’ve really ever seen fit.” Renaldo has found solace in lyrical writing and music production since the age of 13, finding closure and comfort in musical expression then as they did creating “help!”

The timid optimism of the track’s smooth, upbeat sound is expertly juxtaposed against Renaldo’s haunting lyrics about wanting more of that which is bad for them and aching to be fully seen; wanting to get higher, wanting to feel relevant, wanting friends and family to hear their cries for help. On writing the track, Renaldo said, “Asking for help is one of the hardest things to do, because people have a lot of pride and ego ⁠— and that’s not necessarily a bad thing ⁠— but I did feel empowered being able to acknowledge my struggle and ask for resources. I think that’s where the power comes from – being able to own that we are imperfect – I am not a perfect human being and that’s okay.”

This power is evident in Renaldo’s work, as is their tendency to shirk genre and labels in favor of a sound that feels authentic to their personhood. Their upcoming release, “Replay,” was also inspired by vulnerability and the evolution of self. Prone to overanalyzing and anxiety, Renaldo wanted to dissect their tendency to overthink with the new track. “‘Replay’ really has to deal with me trying to understand why I over-analyze things. Now that the song is done, I can let go of all that shit.” Renaldo said. The artist also spoke on feeling empowered when acknowledging their shortcomings in their work and in life; “At the end of the day, you don’t want to be complacent with who you are.” They said, “I don’t want to be the same artist or person that I was 5 years ago and I don’t want to be the same person in ten years that I am now. There’s strength in acknowledging that there are things I need to work on, it only makes me better.”

Lani Renaldo is a defier of labels both musically and personally. Regarding categorizing and labelling themself and others, they said, “I could never.” This inclination to break down the barriers that we create for ourselves translates easily into how Renaldo presents themself to the world. Still, Renaldo acknowledges that labels cannot always be avoided.

photo via Instagram

Renaldo identifies as non-binary for lack of a better term; “I don’t love the term ‘nonbinary’,” they said, ”I think it’s easy for society to categorize people and label them, so for the sake of labelling in interviews and press, it’s easier to say nonbinary. I tell people, ‘I’m just a fucking rock star.’ What did Prince do? What did Bowie do? What does Harry Styles do? All of this is performance art. Everyday I wake up and I’m choosing to perform – I’m choosing to show different sides of myself.”

Identifying as queer and nonbinary put Renaldo in an interesting place in the music industry. Acknowledging the barriers for the LGBTQ+ community in the industry ten years ago compared now, Renaldo recognized the undeniable progress that has been made without minimizing the change that still needs to take place. “I think this younger generation is a lot more unapologetic about who they are, so it’s been really empowering to me because from the time I started my career all I’ve been told is ‘keep your sexuality a secret,’ ‘be more feminine, that will get people to like you,’ – I was told not to be myself and that’s obviously a very difficult thing to because music is incredibly vulnerable. It has to stem from me. But at the same time, I was being told to limit what I was showing of myself.” 

Renaldo went on to recall their experiences as a female-identifying person in the industry, shuddering as they recalled being inundated with unwanted sexual advances and microaggressions. Renaldo’s experiences illuminate the disparities still present in the industry. “There’s a lot of situations where producers can be extremely inappropriate and being the only female-identifying person in the room is something you get a lot of shit for.” They said, “You either aren’t in the room or people are talking over you or talking for you.. Women aren’t treated with the same respect that men in the industry are.” 

Despite their negative experiences, Renaldo is optimistic about their place in the industry and quick to note the privilege that allows them to be themself with ease. “Obviously, I come from a lot of privilege: I live in LA, I was able to get Top Surgery and so much else that I have no problem acknowledging.” they said. The artist described the nuances of privilege as a gender non-conforming individual: “I do think, unfortunately, that people can make more sense of nonbinary than they can of trans people in this industry. It’s incredibly wrong and hurtful but I think I get a ‘pass’ because most people categorize me as a woman even without my breasts. If someone’s trans and others don’t know, a stigma arises when they find out and the trans person is often dehumanized where you don’t see that as much with non-binary people. It’s not fair and it’s wrong but I do think non-binary people can get more of a ‘pass’ that people who are transitioning do not and I see the privilege in that.” 

photo via Lindsey Byrnes

According to Renaldo, acknowledging the complexities of intersectional identity, privilege and inequality in the music industry is the first step towards enacting positive change. They said, “We have to be vocal about these disparities because the industry is changing and we can change it for the better.”  

Because of this worldview, the positive response to Lani Renaldo’s non-binary identity wasn’t a surprise to the LA native. After their Top Surgery, Renaldo posted about their experience on Instagram. Describing the reaction to their post, Renaldo said, “I’m finally in a body where my chest is completely flat and I can share that with people. I have yet to have anyone say anything negative about me coming out as nonbinary or getting top surgery and being vocal about that.” 

Renaldo cherishes and relishes the opportunity to help others affirm their identities. “I get messages from young fans who are nonbinary and interested in Top Surgery and it’s the best feeling in the world because I know what it’s like to not be able to fully be yourself. To see people wanting to take that plunge and become themselves in the best way they see fit and to know that I can be a part of that through my music or by merely existing publicly.. that’s a really beautiful feeling. I always think that the right people find me. It feels wonderful to help others, spread awareness and show people: ‘you can be yourself!’”

“I think we’re entering an era of music where people aren’t really tied to genre and I don’t really believe in adhering to one genre because at the end of the day, a good song is a good song and people are going to interact with it.”

-Lani Renaldo

The various facets of Renaldo’s identity are prominent in their genre-bending work. Their sentiments about categorizing music are similar to their thoughts on the gender binary and publicly identifying as non-binary; “None of it makes sense to me and I don’t worry about it – I just try to make a good song and I say ‘alt’ for simplicity.” 

Renaldo is most excited for the music video that will accompany the release of “Replay” this Spring. Their voice thick with excitement, Renaldo said, “We really wanted to play with the idea of gender in the video..  It’s the most involved video I’ve ever done and I’m very excited to surprise people with some of the looks in it! So look out for that.” Renaldo worked on the video with a few friends, including Larry Saperstein from “High School Musical: The Series.” 

Lani Renaldo’s advice to those struggling with mental health is humble and straightforward: “I’m not a qualified therapist or psychiatrist in any way, but I can speak to what works for me..  If I could go back and tell myself one thing, it would be to take things day by day. I hate shit like ‘it gets better’ because in the moment it’s not helpful – but I do think knowing that nothing is permanent, everything is a temporary situation, you can get yourself out of anything that doesn’t feel right to you. It does get better. Take it day by day. Breathe. And find good music to listen to.” Renaldo’s music, new and old, has got you covered. 

The artist always has fresh tracks on their horizon, saying “In terms of new releases; I’m always working on stuff and I think next year will be an EP year but we’ll see.” There’s no doubt that their future work will further blur the lines that separate genres and highlight the most vulnerable aspects of the human experience, namely emotional growth and the evolution of the self.

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