Riverhead singer finds peace in the music of her childhood

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTORenee Stakey sings 'God Listens When You Pray' as Freddy Esposito of Elevation Management of East New York videotapes her at Roanoke Landing beach in Riverhead Tuesday morning.

Riverhead singer Renée Stakey has had her share of musical success recording electronic dance music in the 10 years since she left high school.
But this year, that young girl who sang in the choir at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church when she was just 8 has come full circle: She has just released an album of liturgical music, “Be My Song,” that honors her hometown roots.

“I’ve been a singer since as far back as I can remember,” Ms. Stakey said in an interview this week. “I was singing into a hairbrush when I was a kid.
“The first opportunity I had was in dance music. I was trained classically, but I somehow ended up with a record deal in the dance industry. I always knew I wanted to do a spiritual album. Spirituality is at my core, but it was kind of on the back burner.”

Ms. Stakey, who earned a bachelor’s degree with vocal music concentration from the Crane School of Music at SUNY/Potsdam, has led a varied musical life. She began playing the organ when she was a young girl and continued her music education on the piano. She’s now taking bagpipe lessons with Mike Smith, pipe major of Eastern Long Island Police Pipes and Drums. She sang in Spanish as an exchange student in Ecuador and with an R&B group during her last years at Crane.

“I can’t believe that I play the organ,” she said. “When I was a little girl my mom said I could take lessons when my feet touched the pedals. When you wait so long for it, you really want it. And it helps that my teachers gave me cool music. I kept thinking in my head that I want to play at weddings. I would play Wagner’s wedding march, that sort of thing.”

It turns out, it was her original path singing in the church that led Ms. Stakey to her current work. After years of touring the world on the dance scene, she’s now musical director at St. Martha’s R.C. Church in Uniondale and works on musical programming at churches throughout the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

But before she turned back to religion, she went through a decade of commercial music. Just after college, she called WBLI radio personality Vic Latino and asked him to give her a job on the air.

“I was nobody. I called him up and he set something up for me to come down to the station. I don’t know why he took me seriously,” she said. “I got a job on air working there [as a DJ] and I began to meet people from record labels, producers.”

She began singing, writing and recording dance music and in 2003 had a No. 1 Billboard Dance/Club Play single with her original song “Rainy Day.”

“Somehow, some way, it started and spread like wildfire, but before I knew it, it was like a beast,” she said. “I had enough of it. I want to explore other genres, and sometimes, God speaks to you and you feel so compelled, so much, to do something. The signs are all around you to do this.”

About a year ago, Ms. Stakey put the brakes on writing dance music and reconnected with the Riverhead religious songwriters and musicians who first encouraged her interest in music. Among these were Peter Pace and his wife, Pattye, who have been mentors throughout her career. Her new album takes its title from a song by Mr. Pace that she had sung in the children’s choir at St. John.

When she recently mentioned to him that she’d like to record “Be My Song,” he told her he’d written several other devotional songs.
Four songs by Mr. Pace are included on the 15-song album, along with standards ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “How Great Thou Art.”

The last song on the album is the only one written by Ms. Stakey. Titled “Waiting for You,” it is in memory of her hometown friend Andrew Droskoski, who died recently.

Creating the album “was a year-long process. I had a list of songs that was pages long. I wanted to have standards, public domain songs. In the end, it was God leading me through the process” of deciding which songs to use, she said. “I wanted to go back to my roots.”

Ms. Stakey worked with producer Freddy Esposito and engineer Peter Weis on the project, which she financed herself without the backing of a record label. She’s doing all the marketing for the album herself and is distributing it by hand at Christian stores and churches throughout Long Island and at Pete’s Bait & Tackle in East Quogue. (A friend, Alvin Alonso Ingram, works at the shop and on Ms. Stakey’s album sings backup on“Pescador de Hombres (Fishers of Men).”)

She also plans to have a booth at the Riverhead Country Fair on Oct. 9. She’s charging $10 for each CD.

“I want to share it with Riverhead,” she said of the album. “It’s more important to me to get it out there and keep the costs down. I just want people to know what I’m doing.”

“I used to play things very safe,” she continued. “I think I feel ready to put myself out there more. I don’t care what people think anymore. I’m doing what I love and my heart tells me to do. Success is being happy doing what you love. I think it would feel empty if it was any other way.”

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