Chris Renzema, affectionately known as Renz to his friends, is the textbook definition of unassuming. With kind eyes and a soft-spoken voice, he’s immediately warm and friendly, at ease in himself in a quiet way that’s a little bit mystery, a little bit careful observer. While many artists have to work at giving off the same affable vibe, Renzema comes by it honest, which is perhaps the key to his simmering success.
Renzema’s love for music developed in high school when a friend invited him to church youth group. There he was introduced to God and the guitar, two things that would become the cornerstones of his life.
“I started out learning some chords on the guitar,” Renzema says. “I’d look at a chord chart and think, how do I make my hands look like that? It quickly became the thing I spent all of my time doing.” Songwriting soon followed, although he wouldn’t have classified it as songwriting. “I hated learning other people’s songs, so I made up my own. I wasn’t any good, but it’s what I did all the time. It was basically my way of processing things.”
The real challenge came when a youth leader encouraged Renzema to join the youth worship team and lead some songs. Renzema balked, feeling too inadequate, too unprepared, but the youth leader pushed him saying, “You’re not gonna get ready to do something by not doing it.”
“I couldn’t sing at all,” Renzema says, shaking his head and grinning. “I’d been playing guitar for a while and had gotten to the point where I could play with the band, but I didn’t sing. I had a very tenuous grasp of how the human voice works.”
Turns out, the youth leader was right to push. Whatever rough start he claims, Renzema’s voice yearns like a desert island man singing for a cup of water. It’s bone deep, an echoing of the universality of pain and praise. Perhaps because he doesn’t think he’s a singer, his voice has the freedom to be natural, raw, with a genuineness that reaches out and grabs a hold of your heart.
As he spent time developing his voice and playing and writing songs, more doors started opening for Renzema. He got an email from a local studio offering an opportunity to record an EP. He and some friends recorded four songs in two days with zero knowledge about any of the functional parts of recording music. “I didn’t even know what a click track was,” Renzema jokes. When it was finished, he uploaded the EP to iTunes, happy to be a part of the music community, to have his name in the mix with artists he’d long admired. For him, that was enough.
That first EP, Age to Age, quickly took on a life of its own. His song “You’re the Only One” was chosen for a feature in Worship Leader magazine, something he found out about in an email. When asked how they got the song, how they found out about him and his music, Renzema smiles and shrugs. “I have no idea? It just sort of happened. My life consists of receiving emails.”
With the growing success of his EP, Renzema started playing his own songs live. The experience held a new kind of energy, but not enough to push him into pursuing being an artist full time.
“I wasn’t planning to do music as a career. I thought I might move to Nashville, play guitar, maybe teach guitar lessons. If music was a part of my life, if I had that, I knew I would be happy.” He’s quick to say moving to Nashville wasn’t a pursuit of fame or name recognition or even making a living as a songwriter. “I’m a very practical person. Nobody needs another songwriter. My focus was playing guitar.”
Evidently God had other plans. In another twist of accidental right place/right time, Renzema’s roommate, a videographer, asked if he could video Renzema playing one of his songs. At the time, it was more “something to do” than a calculated marketing move. They filmed Renzema’s song “Adonai” on the roof of their house, with cables running up from the porch, in one take. The video was uploaded to YouTube and, not too much later, Renzema got another surprising email.
“I got an email from an A&R guy from Centricity Music saying he saw my video and wanted to get coffee. I was really excited, but I didn’t tell anyone. If you keep it to yourself, and then it doesn’t work out, you’re not publicly sad about it later.”
That chance video viewing and follow-up coffee resulted in him being invited to an artist retreat with Centricity Music. Renzema wasn’t expecting anything to happen, just went and did his thing. “Being a part of something like that wasn’t my scene. I was in a room with all these artists, but I was the guy in the corner with imposter syndrome. We spent the week working on songs and then performed them on the last day. Everyone else wrote these super crafted songs you’d hear on Christian radio and there I was writing a ballad about a WWII guy falling in and out of love.”
Renzema’s inability to be anything but exactly who he is impressed the Centricity staff. They loved his natural talent and forthright songwriting, including the independent record he’d made on his own, I’ll Be the Branches.
It wasn’t just Centricity Music who noticed Renzema’s talent. To date, his songs “How to Be Yours” and “You’re the Only One” have over 5 million streams each, all without any radio play or major marketing campaigns. It’s happened through organic word of mouth, person to person, which falls exactly in line with who Renzema is, both as an artist and a person.
“From the beginning, the win for me was the music existing. I never mentally got to the part where people would hear it. At my core, I’m still doing something I’m proud of, even though now I’m part of a bigger thing. The hope moving forward is getting more opportunities, but to keep doing the honest thing and creating music that’s true to me. If the deepest place in me was a relationship with a girl, I’d write about that. If it was a political stance, I’d write protest songs. My deepest place is how much I love Jesus. For me, it’d be disingenuous if I went around that.”
Renzema’s music is acoustic at heart, shifting seamlessly from indie rock to folk worship to Americana; it’s gritty but accessible, profound but infinitely listenable.
Currently working on a debut record from Centricity, Renzema is resolute to say he’s not veering from who he is as an artist. “The music we’re making isn’t being engineered to hit any playlists or radio or anything like that. The strategy is to let it hit the people that want it already and let that inform where it’s going. We’re taking the toolbox we have and refining it, not adjusting or changing or moving it.”
The early groundswell continues to surprise him. When asked what he hopes comes next, he doesn’t have an easy answer. “Contentment is tricky because we’re unsatisfiable people in this life. The way things are now are ten times better than I ever expected them to go. Barely a year ago I was freaking out because my monthly listeners were 100,000 and now it’s 500,000. It’s a reference point I don’t understand anymore.”
Renzema’s genuine disbelief in his success is why he’s selling out shows and tipping the streaming scales. Fans are drawn to his unwavering authenticity, to his message of real-life hope. His latest release (and first from Centricity) “Jacob” gives fans exactly what they’ve come to expect from Renzema – soul-stirring music with an earnest, drowning-man vocal singing about a hope that cuts through life’s inevitability.
I know that I’m not right, but I’m still putting up the fight
I know my hands can’t hold all I aim to steal
I know that there is a cure, for this sickness my heart endures
But it’s hard to walk naked into the light