Interview: Reyna Roberts’ Music Career Was Years in the Making
Reyna Roberts hesitates to call 2020 great. It's hard to describe a year full of death and hardship due to a global pandemic, a reckoning with racism and inequality in the United States, and a variety of other social and political turmoil as anything even resembling good, but for the singer, songwriter and pianist with a range that rivals music's legendary divas and an uncompromising style -- well, it was a good year.
"2020 was life-changing in a different way," says Roberts, pausing as she speaks to thoughtfully choose her words. "It was tragic for a lot of people in 2020, but for me, personally, it helped me: It put me on the path and made my dreams become a reality -- things that I had been working hard for, praying for, since I can't even remember how old -- they actually happened last year."
Roberts has been musically inclined practically from birth. She moved to Nashville in early 2020, had assembled a creative team and was ready to promote "Stompin' Grounds," a rallying cry of a single -- but then, something happened on Twitter.
In late June, Mickey Guyton shared a video of Roberts singing Carrie Underwood's "Drinking Alone," accompanying herself on piano. "Country music also looks like this," wrote Guyton -- who, like Roberts, is Black -- in a nod to the racist trolls who routinely put Guyton down for the color of her skin and her songs about her experiences as both a Black person and a woman in the country music industry.
"Looks AND sounds great!" Underwood added when she retweeted the video.
With two quick tweets, Guyton and Underwood made sure Roberts was on fans' radars. She's now part of CMT's 2021 Next Women of Country class, and the New York Times recently included her -- along with Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Miko Marks and Brittney Spencer -- in a roundtable discussion about being Black women in country music.
"A lot of a lot of 2020 has been definitely awful," Roberts continues. "But at the same time, I can't just, like, completely say it was awful, because it was a different experience for me. And that would be minimizing what I've done, what my team's done, what my family's done to get me to this point."
Indeed, Roberts is ready to give credit where it's due, starting with her parents: Army veterans who began playing every form of music for their daughter when she was born two months premature and weighing only 2 lbs. Her mother, now a professor, was in college at the time, and the new mom's professors told her music would help with potential developmental delays.
"So, that's what my parents did: They played classic music. They played gospel, country, rock, rap -- they played, you know, everything -- Latin music," explains Roberts, whose father is Mexican. "And because of that, I ... was able to do things at the same rate as kids that were not born prematurely -- actually, a little bit faster."
Roberts says was singing before she could speak, in fact, and her parents -- again wanting the very best for their daughter -- did everything they could to encourage her musically. "I wouldn't be here without all that they've supported," she offers.
"They have been instrumental in everything that I do, because they could see my path. Like, we've never questioned if I was going to be an artist or a singer -- we've just always known ... [so they've always ensured] I would have the tools to be able to be the artist that I am today," says Roberts, who was born in Alaska but also lived in Alabama, then California, before moving to Music City.
"Sending me to Nashville -- it wasn't like, 'Oh, I don't know if you should go there,'" Roberts adds, even though it meant navigating a new city, on the other side of the country, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although she's always been musically inclined, Roberts is also a former high school wrestler and is currently studying child development and psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, in addition to working on her music career. She also describes herself as "really shy and awkward, and just really nerdy" -- which is somewhat hard to believe coming from such a talkative, bubbly and fashionable person.
"I've always had confidence in myself as an artist; as a person, that's definitely different," Roberts reasons, sharing how her mom would encourage her wannabe-superstar daughter to talk to strangers as a teenager to help build her confidence.
"She was like, 'How do you expect to be a star -- or to be, you know, a singer -- if you can't talk to people? Like, how does that make sense to you? You have to be personable. You have to be able to communicate, say what you want, and not be afraid to go after things,'" Roberts recalls. "I'm so thankful that she did those things. Because without that, I wouldn't be able to be this personable."
As Roberts works to make a name for herself in Nashville, she's trying not to focus too much on conforming to what people might expect from a country artist or a Black female artist in the South. Her song "67 (Winchester)" has a prominent banjo line, but also a heavy drum beat and lyrics inspired by the fictional Dean Winchester, a character on the TV drama Supernatural.
"I'd be writing a rock song, I'd be writing a pop song, I'd be writing a country song, and I'm like, 'What am I?'" Roberts explains, "and I got to the point where I'm like, we don't have to necessarily specify what genre I am. I'm me ... My sound is Reyna, whether I have a banjo or whether I have an organ.
"Whatever it is," she adds, "that's just me."
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