Interview: No Sinner
Canadian blues/rock/soul outfit No Sinner have returned to the UK for the first time after their roaring success of a London debut last October. And this time around, the British Isles will be seeing a lot more of them thanks to the glowing reception of the band’s debut album Boo Hoo Hoo by the rock media. But any review you may have read about this punchy quartet and the voice that fronts them, it cannot compare to experiencing their command of a crowd first hand.
Lead vocalist Colleen Rennison (whose surname reversed gave the band their name) is an actress that got her start as a child working opposite the likes of Ray Liotta and Michelle Pfieffer. But at some point along the way she crossed over to soul singing. Rennison’s powerhouse vocals are like Janis Joplin with more control, and with a soulful and brassy lower register that allows her to handle the belters and soft caresses with equal power and grace. She can rise to an Adele-eqsue warble and dive into a Big Momma Thornton growl with ease – it could and should leave any wannabe popette quaking in her stilettos.
The musical influences of No Sinner are obvious and there are homages aplenty across Boo Hoo Hoo’s nine tracks, ‘Runnin’ opens like ‘Bang a Gong’ and ‘That’d Be the Day’ has more than a whiff of ‘Stairway’ in its intro, but there is also a lot to get lost in on this record. Eric Campbell’s guitar is versatile enough to purr subtly in places and demolish in others, the addition of jazz-educated drummer Ian Browne results in an extremely tight outfit that knows how to achieve just what it wants to.
While it’s easy to draw comparisons – and this has been the general theme of coverage of the band – no one is doing anything quite the same as them. They dip into straight-up blues, sway into straight-up Motown and plow into straight-up rock’n’roll, but they do not lay idle in any of these for a long enough period to pigeonhole them.
You can now check them out across the UK over the next few weeks, just check here for details. The band had just walked out of a BBC 2 acoustic session with the legendary Whispering Bob Harris when we sat down to chat about the album, new material and their latest European tour.
Louder Than War: So this is only your second time around Europe, how did the first tour go and are you planning anything different this time around? Are there any cities who want to have a go again at?
CR: Well it must have gone well because we got a second one!
IB: It’s great this time because we get to play more dates in the UK, last time we only had just the one London show. It’ll be nice to spend a week in the country, playing different places. Playing Paris always feels like a big treat. We’re playing places we didn’t before, like Amsterdam. Last tour was mostly Germany with a few other bits, some places in Holland.
CR: I’m excited to be back in the UK because there has been such a great reaction to the album. At our first show in London there were a lot of people there, but most of them were industry. So we are looking forward to playing with some people who are just music lovers and not involved on the business side of things. I mean that was really cool too, but there is something very rewarding about winning over civilians! I think in general coming around the second time is a bit more relax, we feel a bit more prepared and I think we’ll be able to enjoy it a bit more.
I wanted to ask about all the different looks the band members have, it seems you all bring some of your own influences and styles to the table. Can you tell me who brings what from your perspective?
CR: I would definitely say that I’m bringing the soul/Motown vibes and the showman side. I’m a fan of frontmen and showmanship and that old fashioned idea of putting on a show rather than falling asleep at the microphone or being to cool for school. If that makes sense…
IB: Yeah I definitely share her love of soul music, and jazz and even more recently I’ve been getting into more African rhythms and stuff. I’m just like a student of music, I love hearing new stuff and almost from an anthropology standpoint, just thinking about where it all came from and how you can incorporate that stuff into something new.
EC: I maybe bring a bit of punk influence that wouldn’t be there if I wasn’t there thrashing away. I like The Stooges and the MC5 and bands like that who have a lot of attitude but also a lot of heart. Maybe an element of that that disrupts things in a nice manner sometimes
How do feel about the way these mesh together? Is there ever any pulling or tugging in different directions?
CR: No not at all, it’s always been a really nice gumbo and it’s different every time. We all have so many different influences that whenever we come to the table bringing our offerings, it always is a beautiful feast even it sounds different from song to song.
Ian, you used to be a jazz drummer, right? What happened to that part of your career?
IB: Yeah I studied jazz and played a lot of jazz gigs, but I always played way too hard to play with jazz groups. I’d always get lumped in with the groups who were just wailing, so I ended up playing in rock bands. I was overqualified to play in rock bands, but under qualified to play in a jazz group. You kind of have to choose. I always appreciated jazz, but I knew I was never going to be a gifted jazz drummer. Even the older I get I feel the thing that really helps you as any musician is your ear. You’ll never be able to outperform everyone technically, there are just way too many masterful performers out there that can play circles around anything you hope to do. But if you bring your own character – and a lot of it has to do with listening to a lot of music and building your own style. Accompanying someone like Colleen, you have to be able to identify great people to work with and do the right things with them. Hopefully you bring that training and the great music you listened to and then you can just sit back and just do it rather than be cerebral about it.
Boo Hoo Hoo really wears its influences on its sleeve and the coverage of the record has mostly been pointing out the homages and whatnot, but what on the album would you say is inherently unique to No Sinner?
CR: That’s really difficult to say. We’ve been categorised in the blues, which is where a lot of the different styles of music we’re playing started, but that’s a very simplified way to describe what we’re playing.
EC: I think the question you asked us previously about what we all bring in can answer that. What makes the band unique is all our different influences forming together.
IB: We probably have more in common musically than a lot of bands. When we first got in a room together it was obvious that working together was something that wasn’t going to take a lot of effort to make something that was more than ordinary.
CR: There isn’t one leader of the band that is deciding what they want things to sound like. We all have such an identity in our own fields that I think it’s why the songs sound like they have so much strength and why they are so different from one song to the next. Though I still think it’s a really cohesive album.
IB: It’s also when you find a great singer, it makes the musicians really want to feature the people who are good. Having Eric and Colleen makes my job easy, all I have to do is not get in the way.
Ooh so you have the easy job?
IB. Definitely! Easiest job in the band.
EC: In the WORLD.
CR: Drumming is the easiest part of his job, it’s all the other stuff in between with the band he has to deal with that makes it difficult.
EC: He’s our father figure (laughs).
IB: Thanks… that’s nice…
Colleen, you’ve had to put your acting career on hold for the band at the moment…
CR: Yeah you have to be in one place for acting. If you get a role you fly to go do it, but in order to do auditions you have to stay in one place for at least a year. It’s so different. It’s much more straitforward. You hear about an audition, you go to the audition, they like you or they don’t, you get a call time, you show up for work and you go home at the end of the day. Acting is really hard, you constantly get beaten down, but there is a lot more grey area and a lot more uncertainty with music because you never know, it’s not cut and dry. You aren’t getting hired for things where you know that you have a day rate. There is so much spontaneity. I’d like to go back to acting, but I don’t really forsee myself being in one place for a long time!
Do you prefer the being in a package aspect of the band as opposed to selling yourself alone as an actress?
CR: It’s funny because having grown up with that instinct I constantly feel, especially in interviews, like I’m at an audition. I’m going “Like me!! Am I what you want? Let me be what you want!” And with music, there are aspects of that, but you don’t have to be as accommodating because what people want is what you have to offer not necessarily what they want you to be. It’s nice to have both of those things. If you land a big role, you know it will pay well and it will do things for your career… I guess getting an opening slot with a famous band or a good festival spot, but you never know how effective a gig’s going to be. There may be that one person out of five in the room that you really want to play to and you have no idea. That’s why you’ve got to play every show like Bob Harris is there!
Did you know much about Bob Harris before you were on the show today? He’s quite the legend here. Have you met any other music legends in your travels so far?
CR: I did a bit of research after the opportunity came up. What a cool guy! It really means a lot that he likes the album. We also met Nicky Horne on TEAM ROCK Radio and I know he’s got a pretty long history in broadcasting and that was pretty cool, we did an acoustic session for him.
EC: Glen Matlock was at our last London show!
IB: I kind of got to meet Prince, which was a thrill. I stood next to him, that kind of counts.
CR: Isn’t in the contract that you can’t look him in the eyes?
IB: Yeah there is some story that he fired someone because they looked him in the eyes. I looked him in the eyes, I broke the contract. I looked at him, I nodded and then he jogged past me. He didn’t seem like that kind of guy in person…
Absolutely! Anyway, Boo Hoo Hoo has been around for quite a while now, what’s going on in terms of new material?
CR: We have tons of it! We have new material that’s old now!
IB: We have some tracks recorded a couple years ago that may be released and there’s a least a half a dozen other songs that are 70-80% done, so yeah we’re really excited about recording some new stuff.
CR: We’re a little bit unorthodox in the way that we do things. I started writing the songs before we had a band and we recorded the album before we’d ever played any shows. Yeah, definitely unorthodox.
IB: We’re really looking forward to the next album because it’s all road tested, we’ve played together more. We have more of a cohesive band sound.
CR: Rather than transplanting songs that were written just on an acoustic guitar with someone for the band we’re actually writing these new songs with the full band.
What differences in the sound are coming out of that?
CR: It’s just a lot more jammy, it’s less structure, and more musically driven than lyrically driven. How we often do it now is that these guys will play and then I’ll write to it. It’s a really different process and I think it’s giving way to a cool new sound for us. More like ‘Devil on My Back’. A little heavier. The lyrics on Boo Hoo Hoo were written before I was even in a band so those are songs of great yearning and I’m talking about things I’m not necessarily experiencing at that moment. I feel this next record is a bit less autobiographical, but a bit more explorative of the human psyche. My life is completely different! I’ve been in a band for three years, I’m in a long-term relationship, I’ve had heartbreak since then. It just reflects where we are now, which is a much more rich and surreal landscape. Is a little bit more outside the box.
EC: The road just opens up as you go.
No Sinner are on tour – get full details from their Facebook page.
All words by Valerie Siebert. More from Valerie on Louder Than War here.