How does a person become an artist? Sometimes, when interviewing one, they’ll be elusive in conversation. How did their career develop? How did they find their artistry? They seem reluctant to tell.
And then there’s Aimee Renata. This is how she became Erny Belle, in her own words: “I wrote down in my room, my baby blue room, opposite train tracks up North, a list, a manifestation list that was pretty much just like, ‘I’m going to write an album, I’m going to do this, I’m going to…’” She trails off. “All that’s come true so far.”
Case closed. That’s all she wrote. Manifesting Erny Belle; manifested.
But of course the story of how Renata came to be Erny Belle is much more complex, a little less mystical (though definitely still somewhat mystical), drama played out for longer.
When I speak with Renata, it’s almost six years since she wrote that life-altering list. One album is down – the one from the list – and another, Not Your Cupid, has just been released. She’s sitting in her Tāmaki Makaurau home, still recovering from her album launch party.
People gathered, mostly family and friends, at the city’s new Flying Nun store to listen to the album on release night. “It was a big night. It was a really good turnout. Lots of Prosecco and too many people,” she says, a little wearily. “It was quite full on for me, but everyone else had a good time.”
Renata had every right to celebrate: Not Your Cupid contains nine beautiful tracks that subtly but skillfully build on last year’s moving debut album, Venus Is Home. It’s a collection that, in its quiet splendour, threatens to pass by unnoticed, but as Tony Stamp’s RNZ review noted, “The more you listen, the more you realise that Renata hides a mind bursting with ideas under a deceptively placid surface.” Listen again, listen once more, and a previously neglected lyrical curio or serene melody will swim to the surface.
Not Your Cupid is technically the second of the Ngāpuhi songwriter’s albums to be released by Flying Nun: after Renata released her debut independently, it was picked up by the famed label for a repress; her signing to Flying Nun came as just as much of a surprise. She felt less pressure coming into Not Your Cupid accordingly, because she “didn’t expect to be doing a second album so soon.”
Celebrating Not Your Cupid in Flying Nun’s Auckland flagship brought her to Karangahape Road, but it’s an area of Auckland she’s not been frequenting much lately.
Born just 10 minutes away on Sussex Street in Grey Lynn, she wound up spending a significant amount of her early adult years in K’ Road’s bars and studios and music venues, but soon realised that she was turning into a person she didn’t want to be. She escaped up North, to Maungaturoto, her family’s hometown, and avoided K’ Road for years upon her return to the big smoke.
“I found it quite triggering,” Renata now admits. “I just had so many attachments to the place and memories of this weird, lost, very drunken-fuelled time of my life.” We both bemoan the changes that have befallen the area in recent times, the loss of “so many amazing characters,” as she says (though only one of us continues to live on the road).
When she finds herself sparingly on K’ Road these days, she enjoys the experience. “It’s very nostalgic. I’ll go and sit in Lim Chhour [Foodcourt]. At least the Wine Cellar is still there. We ended up there after the album release party, and it was just…mental,’ she adds, saying the last word in an affected English accent.
Renata’s debut album was perhaps so assured because it was so securely tied to a specific place. Venus Is Home takes its name and spirit from her late grandmother, who passed away in 2020, but it’s also about Maungaturoto, her grandparent’s hometown and where most of her whānau still resides.
It was a highly personal album (“I’m so lucky my Nana Venus lives up the road” must have been an aching lyric to sing during a period of mourning) but also a distinctly Aotearoa album, one with a deeply felt sense of rural life in the country. Maungaturoto looms large on the album, from lyrical references to the local Four Square to the overarching sense that all of the tracks were being blissfully played live from Renata’s family porch.
Maybe that’s why Renata’s second album is conspicuous for its lack of specificity; when you’ve written about your grandmother and her hometown on your very first album, it’s difficult to follow the emotional weight of that with a similar artistic endeavour.
“I think that was just a natural progression of wanting to lift out of the town,” Renata acknowledges. Even in the music video for “Unchained”, one of Not Your Cupid’s highlights (“it’s probably one of my favourite songs on the album,” she says), Renata rides a bus but its destination is unclear – it could be any gently weaving country road in the entire country.
If she was going to record an album somewhere else in the world, though, where would it be? What place could even come close to Maungaturoto in instilling such inspiration in her music? “I’d love to write in Rarotonga. I’ve got family friends that are from there,” she says. (“I loved a man from the islands / An island so far away from me,” she crooned on the Venus Is Home South Pacific ballad “Island Time”.)
“I’d love to do Ireland, and then I’d love to do Italy and Spain. The Mediterranean really – hot!” Perhaps owing to talking to someone from there, she also mentions Scotland as a potential source of inspiration. “Castles and cliffs and the ocean, but [in] some weird, isolated town.” (Venus Is Home reminded me of Vashti Bunyan’s wondrous Just Another Diamond Day, the debut album by the English 60s folk singer-songwriter who fled London’s suffocating music scene to travel to the Scottish countryside on an extended pilgrimage, the result a collection of songs so tender and pastoral and tranquil.)
Renata’s father, Fred, hailed from Northland, before he became a renowned cinematographer in Auckland. It meant that his daughter was raised surrounded by creatives, so it’s little surprise that she became one herself: Renata worked in costume for several years before becoming a musician. “It was exciting for a while, and then it wasn’t,” she concedes. “I never wanted to be a costume girl. It was just that I was really good at my job.” But she’s grateful for that period of her life. “I loved the people I met in film, and there were lots of creatives in that industry. I do want to make films one day (she co-directed the “Unchained” music video), but I don’t want to do costumes. [I want to] write a film or direct or something like that.”
Renata has taken just as much from the other side of her family, perhaps even more.
Her mother trained as an opera singer when Renata was young, but her promising career was tragically cut short. “She was amazing, trained with some of the best teachers in New Zealand probably,” her daughter says, “But she suffered from really bad stage fright. She didn’t pursue it because her stage fright was so bad, she physically couldn’t handle being on stage. It’s really sad.”
That’s what we often do with our parents: we’re inspired, we reinterpret, we reinvent. I ask Renata if her mother comes to her shows. She answers “yes” with a smile. “She’s a very proud mum.”
Just a few months ago, I wrote that Erny Belle already sounded “like an artist fully aware of their vision and form.” But this was doing Renata a major disservice: like the initial story of her manifestation list, it ignores the years of hard work that went into finding her artistic form, Erny Belle as we know her now.
The hard work continues even now. “I don’t really sit down and write every day. I’ll go through massive periods where I don’t even pick up a guitar and then I go, ‘Oh, make something now and get to work,’” Renata says of her creative process. Sometimes that leads her to start with “the bones” of around three songs in one day, fleshing them out at her own considered speed.
“I’ve had tough moments. When you’re trying to condense your creativity all down to a short period of time, that’s like leaving your homework to the last minute, you know?” she adds before hesitating. “Sometimes it’s good not to have the space to overthink anything and just do it.”
Fashion seems to play a prominent part in Erny Belle the Artist, but even her style isn’t as coherently formed as some might think. “It’s cool that people think that I’ve got my shit together,” she says drolly when I bring this up. “In my head, I feel like everything’s quite different. I personally think that my aesthetic as an artist is all over the place!”
Her background in costumes certainly helps her piece together potential outfits. “Sometimes it takes a while, but mostly it doesn’t. It’s like, ‘Okay this is the vision.’ I do the sourcing, that’s what I used to do for work really. So that’s actually kind of the easy part, I’d say.”
Still, her striking wardrobe indisputably lures one in, whether it’s gothic funeral attire or a stylish outfit that could only adorn a weary romantic. Even the NZ Herald recently noticed, choosing to profile Renata and her fashion. (“Style Liaisons: In Conversation With Erny Belle, The Country-Pop-Alt-Folk Star Looking To The Stars,” the headline read; if they’d gone any longer, they’d surely have run out of genres.)
Will Not Your Cupid be as critically acclaimed as its predecessor?
Venus Is Home earned Renata nominations for the Taite Music Prize and Best Independent Debut this year, which is probably more than she was expecting. I ask if such accolades are something she cares about. “I’m sort of green to the industry. I wasn’t super aware of all these different awards and stuff, but it was good to get nominated.” She pauses. “I think I do care about it. You do want to feel a sense of being recognised or validated for your work, especially in such a small industry in New Zealand. Like it’s tiny so if you’re not being recognised, it’s kind of like, ‘Fuck you!’”
It was Princess Chelsea who won the 2023 Taite Music Prize, for her fifth album Everything Is Going to Be Alright. Renata seems a little frustrated. “She’s been around for quite a while. She totally deserved that award, but what about all those years ago? I was at the SRN [Student Radio Network] Awards and Bernie Griffin got an award for his involvement in BFM, but he died a few months ago. Like cool! Here’s the award when you’re dead. I think they should be choosing wisely who they’re giving awards to. What’s good at the moment, not we’ll give it to them when they’re dead.”
Shortly before our interview, Renata spoke with The Spinoff in a wide-ranging piece on the decline of the New Zealand music industry. In it, she rued having to contend with Spotify and TikTok and social media of all forms, because it reduces art to content, which it is not. There is nothing viral-ready about the songs on Not Your Cupid, and that’s a good thing. There are myriad differences in their styles, but Aldous Harding feels like a spiritual forebear to Erny Belle, yet the former had access to an attentive media that just isn’t there for Renata.
Renata knows, sadly, that she has to play the game a little bit. “I really need an international manager or something because I don’t have a manager. I think without that you’re kind of just stuck in the same loop,” she says. “Can’t wait to meet my future manager!” Because for all the beauty of her album and the admirability of her intentions, Renata is still trying to make it through like the rest of us. “Make a living! she answers when I ask about her plans for the future. “Make a living,” she repeats.
Renata will conclude her year with a special album release show in The Civic’s Wintergarden, a fitting venue for her timeless folk and pop ballads.
All of her Auckland shows have been held in such intriguing venues, from the Auckland Polish Association – her father opened for her that night – to the Point Chevalier RSA, not far from where she now lives.
But as she readily admits, she hasn’t performed live as much as one would expect since becoming Erny Belle. Is this because her mother’s stage fright has been passed down along with her singing talent? Renata mulls over her answer for a moment. “No, I definitely get nervous. I can’t speak to anyone before I play. I think that’s normal though. I feel sick, sort of vomiting.”
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After disastrous experimentations with drinking too much coffee, she’s now got her pre-show routine down to a fine art. “I’ve narrowed it down to one beer and one shot of whiskey. And then I have one glass of red wine onstage. So it’s a total of three standard drinks throughout the whole show. I still feel like I could get it down a little bit though. Even sometimes having a shot of whiskey can be a bit much.”
Next year she’ll appear at Laneway Festival, where she once saw Julia Jacklin and Marlon Williams (a major influence alongside Pauly Fuemana) play. She’ll also reschedule a Wellington album release show that unfortunately got postponed.” I just really want to play more live shows,” she says. “I think that’s what I enjoy the most, but I love it all.”
How does a person become an artist? Renata is still finding out.
She’s completed one manifestation list, one that guided her well towards her 30s, and now it’s time for a new one. I’m curious about what’s on her next manifestation list. “I definitely want to keep making music. I want to play more shows and I want to go overseas. I want to tour all over the world,” she answers.
“I want to see the world someday / That’s where I’m going / It’s so easy to get tied to this town,” Renata sings solemnly on the closing title track to her new album. Maungaturoto may have her heart and spirit, but there’s a wider world out there for an artist like Erny Belle. One manifestation list already worked – it’s only a matter of time before a second one is completed, too.