Renell Shaw is a composer, songwriter, and Associate Artist of Hackney Empire.

Last year, at The Ivor’s Composer Awards 2020, Shaw won the Jazz Composition for Small Ensemble award for his composition The Vision They Had, a piece written to mark National Windrush Day and part of his Windrush Suite live streamed via The Vortex Jazz Club.

The Vision They Had is a deeply personal work, featuring the voices of Shaw’s grandparents and his mother telling their stories. Otis Dominique – whose music video credits include working with artists such as Jorja Smith, Giggs, and Kojey Radical – directs the accompanying visual piece, choreographed by Delycia Belgrave (Legally Blonde, White Christmas, Guys and Dolls) and starring dancers Samara Casteallo (Tina, Starlight Express), Jordan Crouch (The Greatest Dancer, White Christmas), Anu Ogunmefun (Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, Tina), Terique Jarrett (Find Me In Paris – Hulu/Cottonwood Media, Motown The Musical), and Tonye Scott-Obene (Wicked, Best Recent Graduate Award Winner 2020 BBTA).

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Renell Shaw, I am of Jamaican and Dominican heritage. I’m a Composer, Songwriter and Music Producer. 

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now.

My life is pretty chilled right now. 

Firstly, congratulations on winning the Jazz Composition for Small Ensemble award at last year’s Ivor’s Awards for The Vision They Had – how did it feel to be recognised with this accolade?

Thank you, it was both a humbling and encouraging experience. To be acknowledged by songwriters and composers you respect is always a rewarding feeling for me.

Can you tell us a bit about how you got into composing and songwriting was your home always filled with music?

I’ve been writing lyrics for as long as I can remember, my mum got me into it as a way for me to express how I feel. I started writing poetry first, but when I discovered Hip-Hop, I wanted to get into rapping and performing. It wasn’t until I joined Hackney Empire’s Artist Development Project in 2002 that I started writing for other vocalists and composing music for ensembles. I fell in love with theatre instantly. The Hackney Empire is also where I met my mentor Orphy Robinson MBE who introduced me to the London live music scene and opened up opportunities for me to find my voice as a composer and songwriter.

The Windrush Suite was commissioned in 2020 by Kathianne Hingwan from London’s The Vortex Jazz Club. Where did the idea to compose The Windrush Suite initially come from?

The Idea was Kathianne’s, she approached me about a composition commission to honour the Windrush generation that would be performed live at The Vortex for Windrush Day – 22nd of June. I loved the idea of it and accepted the commission, we had a few conversations about the importance of the Windrush generation and then Kathianne left me to do my thing. When the first lockdown happened, I suggest an online version of the performance with all the musicians recording their parts from home. It ended up capturing our 2020 experience as creatives accurately. 

The Vision They Had features the voices of your grandparents and mother telling their stories – what came first the audio recording of their voices or the composition of the music?

The music came first, I play about with chords and melodies and let the music tell me what to say. Once I have that, it’s easy to fill in the gaps.

Exclusive behind the scenes footage of the making of The Vision They Had

How did your family respond when they heard The Vision They Had for the first time, with their voices being so integral to the piece?

They were excited to hear the complete project but my family are pretty chill, they’re used to experiencing my experimental phase where everything is a mix of random ideas, it always sounds complete in my head though, so I normally explain the missing pieces as they listen. They’re very proud and have always been supportive of my creative ventures.

You also feature in the accompanying visual piece, directed by Otis Dominique. When did you get to see the completed piece?

I had a strong idea of what the choreography would look like. My wife Delycia Belgrave is the choreographer for The Vision They Had and a musical theatre performer in her own right (she is also the tap dancer on the last track Purgatory). We discussed how the physical narrative could expand on ideas that I couldn’t achieve through music and then I gave Delycia the space to do her thing. All the dancers are West End or film performers who Delycia knows and who she felt could deliver the narrative accurately, I watched some of the rehearsal process but I was busy finalising storyboards with Otis.

The Windrush Suite is a moving jazz composition that makes the stories of the Windrush generation resound in the 21st century. What are your thoughts on jazz in general and do you think it effectively resonates with audiences today?

I think young people who take what they discover and what they’ve experienced then find their own way to express themselves with what they create is the essence of Jazz. Jazz is all over early Hip-Hop, the kids making it were sampling their parents’ jazz and funk records to make a sound that felt like it belonged to them. I’m aware that The Windrush Suite currently sits within the world of jazz but I’ve never called it jazz music (GRM Daily did a feature on the song Bacchanal!). It’s my soundtrack music, jazz just seems to be the genre that is most open and accepting to how I hear things.

You’re also Associate Artist of Hackney Empire – have you got any upcoming projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

I’m officially releasing the second part of the Windrush Suite entitled Echo In The Bones later this year for Black History Month and all digital service providers. The first single from Echo In the Bones is set to be released on Windrush Day. I’m currently working on a short digital Opera with an amazing creative called Rachael Young and I have a succession of singles coming out this summer under my band’s name 2fox.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

  • A book you have to have in your collection?Ikigai by Hector Garcia and Frances Miralles
  • A song / album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – The Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra – Get It How You Live
  • A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly?Kung Fu Panda, all of them.
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? – The Fugees reunion concert in 2007. The Fugees were my introduction to Hip-Hop. That concert was a mix of all the Fugees hits as well as Wyclef and Lauryn Hills’ albums.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?Sad – My wife is currently in Ireland filming, I miss her.  Mad – Nothing really. Glad – Summer has finally started!

The Windrush Suite EP is also available to listen to via Spotify, YouTube Music, Apple Music and Deezer.

The Vision They Had is now available to watch and listen to via FUTURE’s YouTube channel