The now-famous local opens up about ‘The X Factor,’ growing up in Santa Cruz, life after addiction, and what’s next on the creative road ahead
Less than a year ago, then 28-year-old Santa Cruz native Chris Rene was collecting trash for a living and battling a drug and alcohol addiction. Today, exactly three weeks after taking third on the first season of FOX’s The X Factor, Rene is at the top of the iTunes charts, nearing a record deal, designing a fashion line, and just over 11 months sober. Motivated by fellow Santa Cruz musician James Durbin’s rise to the top on American Idol, the rapper/songwriter worked up the courage to audition for The X Factor back in September. It was there that Rene touched the heart of America with his original rap song “Young Homie,” and his inspiring story.
Though competitor Melanie Amaro eventually took home the title, Rene’s ever-expanding hometown and nationwide following—as showcased during the packed season finale viewing party at The Catalyst—and post-show success prove he came out a winner in the end. After spending the holidays and his 29th birthday (he was born on Christmas Day) at home with his family, Rene was driving back to Los Angeles where he was scheduled to hit the studio, when Good Times caught up with him. Find out about his journey on the show, his childhood in Santa Cruz, his musical inspirations, and what it’s like to beat Lil Wayne on the iTunes charts, in this exclusive interview.
GT: How do you feel about the end result of “The X Factor”?
Chris Rene: It was a win for me either way.
What was it like performing with Avril Lavigne during the finale?
That was a big highlight of the whole show for me. Just getting to perform with a star was awesome. I’m gonna say, it was just an incredible feeling. I’ve always wanted to do that. I didn’t even know that was going to happen.
You said on your Facebook page the night you were eliminated, that you are “exactly where you are supposed to be”—do you still believe that?
Oh, I believe it.
How has your experience on “The X Factor” changed you?
It has changed me in … let me just check. Well, it’s helped me grow a lot in every way—as an artist, as a professional, as a man, and as a musician. Yeah, it’s helped me grow in the aspects of professionalism within the industry, and understanding how certain things work. Performing in front of millions on live TV boosted my confidence and belief in myself as an artist and what I’m capable of.
What is it like going from performing at a place like The Catalyst to performing in front of a huge live audience?
From performing at The Blue Lagoon and The Catalyst, like clubs and bars, to performing in front of Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, Nicole Scherzinger, and Paula Abdul, and a live audience, and millions of people on TV … the difference is: it’s two separate worlds. It’s incredible, ‘cause when I was doing the smaller shows, I was trying to reach everyone, even people who weren’t there. So being at The X Factor, I had to do the same thing, but I just had to be myself—the difference is a whole other world. I think that’s how I’d explain it—incredible. That’s mind-blowing stuff right there.
Would you say you accomplished what you set out to do?
Indeed I have, Indeed I have. I went out there and actually, I didn’t know I was going to go that far, but I did, and I’m so happy that I did.
What has life been like since the show ended? Has it been really busy?
Well, I’ve basically been on vacation—came back home to Santa Cruz. And what it’s like for me is, if I go to Safeway or I go out shopping, I’ll see all kinds of different people from age 2 to age 60—there’s no limit on age—that liked my performances on the show. Going out and seeing people, my life has changed, like autographs, photos, sometimes they’ll give me clothes, you know, to basically have me wear their clothes so more people can see it … It’s just amazing.
Speaking of clothes, on your Facebook page you said you might be starting a clothing line—is that true?
Oh yeah, it’s going to be a fashion line. And we’re going to do a lot of different things. We’re working on it right now. Everything that you’ve seen me wear on the show, like you might have seen some shirts—those are definitely not the official shirts or the logos. Those were just to get people understanding what I represent, and understanding that it was going to be coming out. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I want one of those shirts.’ We got rid of all of those shirts because those aren’t the official designs. So we’re working on that right now.
What’s the best way for people to find out about your fashion line when it does come out?
Chrisreneofficial.com. And also on Twitter. There are 180,000 people right now following me on Twitter, and it’s incredible because I never thought I’d have that many people following me. It’s so rad, so beautiful. Facebook and Twitter [@MrChrisRene]. That’s it, that’s how they can find out. I’m going to be releasing it probably next month … either this month or next month.
So going back to Santa Cruz, what was your childhood like here?
Well, I went to different schools out here, just like any regular kid. We really didn’t have much money. I went to Soquel Elementary and it was awesome. I got to meet a lot of people, a lot of friends. Growing up was awesome. I was just a skateboarding, punk rock kid, who just liked to have fun. And that’s basically what I did.
You also went to New Brighton Middle School, right?
Yeah, I went to New Brighton, and I went to the Arc High School on the Westside.
Has Santa Cruz inspired you musically?
Always. Ever since I was 12, even before that. It always gave me that push. You can do what no one has ever done. Santa Cruz is like a lot of people I grew up with—they do like good music, but we’re not really Top 40 people. I’ve changed my mind and perception on that, like you know what, I grew up with that and I do like that; and influencing people who didn’t like that to open up their mind and realize they do. It’s inspired me to do things I never thought I could do.
How did you hear about ‘The X Factor,’ and why did you decide to audition?
Well, people have been asking me my whole life, they’ve been saying, ‘Why don’t you go on American Idol?’ They’ve been asking me, ‘Why aren’t you famous yet?’ ‘Why aren’t you on the radio?’ And I would just be like, ‘I don’t know.’ I was like, I don’t want to go on American Idol, because I haven’t seen one that I actually like. I thought they were all too cheesy. You know? It just wasn’t for me. So eventually, I said, you know what? I’m 28, it’s time for me to do this. And I saw James Durbin in the newspaper, and I saw that another person from Santa Cruz had stepped up and gave it a shot, and actually made it to the top four.
So that was part of your motivation?
My motivation was seeing a guy from Santa Cruz in the newspaper that was a solo musician and artist. And that really gave me motivation. I thought, ‘Well, I’m not alone now. I can go and give it a shot.’
‘Young Homie’ was in the Top 32 on iTunes—how does that feel?
Incredible. I mean, it’s not even an official released song. It’s amazing that it got so high up there. You know? It was above Lil Wayne! Right next to Lady Gaga. Incredible.
What advice would you give to budding artists, even in Santa Cruz, who might think they have what it takes?
I’d say, don’t be afraid, to any artist out there. Don’t be afraid to do what you love. Know that if you believe in yourself that you can achieve anything. I remember that Tupac said, ‘If you believe you can achieve.’ There’s a lot of negative stuff that he said too, but I really only listen to the positive stuff that he said. It’s all about going out there, giving it your best shot, and accepting whatever happens. And never give up.
Would you say that Tupac is one of your biggest influences? Who else has inspired you?
Definitely. A lot of rock ’n’ roll has inspired me, and a lot of reggae and blues, a lot of rap, even classical music—so it’s well rounded. I listen to everything; I love music. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, they’re awesome. Kanye West, he’s incredible. You know, Rihanna’s awesome. Madonna, Prince, Elton John, Eminem, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin. Lil Wayne, yup. Drake, yup. Mac Dre, definitely.
Do you hope to record with any of those artists in the future?
I definitely do. I hope to do that.
What was it like working with L.A. Reid?
Working with L.A. was a dream come true for me because he’s so professional and he loves what he does. Not only is he good at it, but the reason he does it is because he loves it. And that’s why I do what I do, so that’s where the connection came from. From that first audition, he saw that in me—that I love what I do. The passion that comes with this is just a driving force. Working with him, he helped motivate me, and made that force even stronger. Working with him was awesome ‘cause it helped me become more professional, and at the same time, never forget why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Did you ever think you’d get to where you are today?
Not this quick, Haha! Very fast.
What’s next for you? Are you planning an album, a tour, or any hometown performances?
Yeah, actually in January, we’re trying to figure this out with the mayor. We’re trying to figure out if we can do something hopefully at The Civic or The Catalyst, and it will be at the end of January. I just want to do a concert, I’d do like a few songs. And we have some other things planned around recovery to help anyone out there who needs help, to at least offer that help … hopefully at the end of January. Right now, I’m going to L.A. to work on some stuff. Basically, I’ve heard a lot of things, like Sony Syco wants to sign, Epic [Records]—I don’t know, but I’m going to the studio right now. It’s incredible.
How many months have you been sober now?
It’s been 11 months and 14 days. This is how it’s supposed to be right here. When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t need any of that stuff. I was just this person who loved life and music, and just loved to do fun things without that stuff. So that’s who I am today. It’s an everyday thing for me.
In Hollywood there must have been a lot of temptation—how did you remain strong throughout it all?
Well, when I went to the clubs and parties, for me, it was just being there—that’s it for me. Seeing everybody drinking and smoking, it definitely didn’t tempt me at all, it just made me glad to not be participating. And I’m thankful that I can actually say that, and know that today, because less than a year ago it was different. It was like, I wanted to do that, because I thought I needed that to be able to hang out, and converse. Not everybody does. Some people can do it and be OK. So I was just happy to have overcome that.
You mentioned in our first interview when you got on the show, that someday down the road you would love to create a rehab facility of some kind in Santa Cruz. Is that still a dream of yours?
Oh yeah, it definitely is. Other people, if they had the money, I’m sure they’d want to do it too. But the purpose that I want to do it, is because that’s where I came from. You know? It makes sense. It’s like, let me throw something out there that can help. There are plenty of people out there with special talents and gifts that they can share with people, and they’re not able to because they’re stuck in their cycle of addiction. But if I can do it, they can do it. And hopefully I can provide a place for that.
Were you happy to be reunited with your family during the holidays?
So beautiful being back with them, it was the best thing ever. I just said bye to my kids and bye to Melissa. And you know, life’s good. Being with my family and both of my kids. The other day we had a barbecue at Jose Park, and they did a little video shoot with Monikape and Mac Jar for some skater songs. But all the kids were there, my mom, my sister, my brothers. We were all there. It was beautiful.
How long are you going to be in L.A. for?
I’m not sure actually.
Your original songs were some of your best performances on the show. How does that make you feel? A lot of competitors sang hit songs, but you chose to do original ones, and those have made you really popular.
That’s what I do best. It felt good to go do that. I’m glad I was allowed to do it, ‘cause I wouldn’t have been able to shine. I’m not like any of the other contestants. Honestly, it’s hard for me to even do these other people’s songs. I’m amazed that I even did a good job on those songs. I’m serious! I’m used to doing original music. That’s what I am good at. For me, to be able to do that in front of the world was a blessing from God.
What is your songwriting process like? Where do you get your inspiration?
It comes and goes. Things that I’ve seen—in school, out of school. Straight up, it’s just life. From all the different things I’ve observed, you come up with things. I’m definitely very creative, I can’t even help it, it’s like automatic, it just goes, my brain just goes. I’ll be on a writing flow for like a week or like a month, and then I won’t for like a few weeks or a month. It’ll happen for like three months straight sometimes when I can’t stop writing. It’s gnarly! I’m telling you. There was this one month when I couldn’t stop.
Your sister Gina was also on the show. What’s her reaction to all of your success?
She’s so happy for me. She’s so stoked that I was able to take this opportunity and go so far with it. She’s like, ‘Yeah Chris, my little big brother.’
Do you think you’ll ever collaborate with Gina in the future?
Definitely, I hope to do that on the upcoming album, God willing this all works out.
Your grandfather, Leon Rene, was a notable music composer. Did you feel any sort of connection to him while you were on the show?
Oh yeah, big time—him and my dad. Just thinking of those olden days. If you type in ‘Leon Rene’ on Google, and you look at the picture, and you see where they came from and what era it was, it’s so inspiring because it was just a rising up. Real music bringing people together, that’s the main thing. And for me as a child, growing up with that in my mind and my heart gave me so much. And to be able to go on the show and to have that connection, and be able to tell the story—that’s what it’s all about.
What do you think is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself in this whole process?
Let me see … basically, the most interesting thing is seeing people that were inspired by my story—inspired by what is going on in my life and what I’ve chosen to do with it. Because I’ve seen people that are in rehab that are at least giving it a try, or want to try, and are applying it to their life. Seeing that, to me, that’s the most moving thing. Not just the singer/artist/musician who’s an entertainer, but someone that’s changed his life, and seeing other people do the same thing. That’s the greater message through this whole thing.
UPDATE: Chris Rene’s Love Life Homecoming Celebration will take place from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Special unnamed guests will be on hand to join in the celebration, including Chris’ sister, Gina Rene, also seen on The X Factor. Tickets go on sale at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 18. Tickets are $5/Children (13 and under), $8/Adults. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. A portion of the funds will go to supporting recovery programs at Janus Santa Cruz. For details and tickets, call 420-5260.
For more information about Chris Rene, visit chrisreneofficial.com, follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisRene, or visit his Facebook page: facebook.com/ChrisReneMusic831.
Photos: Credit 1:Aldo Rossi, Credit 2 & 3: Ray Mickshaw