Defying the Odds: How One Woman and A Band Beat Breast CancerPosted: April 7, 2011
Bay Area musician Renee Harcout would not say she’s prone to premonitions. Chord changes and lyrics, yes, but not any portent of the future. Telling her band, Blame Sally, that she would have breast cancer was not what they were expecting to hear on a tour in 2006.
Five years later, Renee is rehearsing for Blame Sally’s show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco April 29 and 30 for their newest album, Speeding Ticket and A Valentine. The album, produced by Blame Sally and released on the Berkeley based record label, Opus Music Ventures, is the third in a half-million dollar record contract signed two years after Renee’s cancer diagnosis at age 50.
How does a middle-aged woman turn the worst news into the best life she’s ever lived?
Blame Sally was on the road in Colorado on their first out-of-state tour when Renee shared her premonition. She had just played to total strangers who, to her great surprise, loved them.
“That was a turning point for me,” Renee said last week at her Laurel Way Studio in Mill Valley. “Before the tour, I really believed that the only people who enjoyed our music were our friends. But people we don’t know are actually enjoying us. It’s not just our friends being nice. Strangers kept coming up to us telling us how much our music meant to them. That changed my life.”
So would the diagnosis. Her premonition was right. Renee had resisted a mammogram until she was 50. “I knew I had it,” she said, even though her family had no history of breast cancer. At the same time, she knew the events were conspiring at a deeper level to change her life.
Ever since the band formed in 2000 their motto was “if we’re not having fun we don’t do it.” But cancer made it real. They were no longer playing for fun. They were playing for life.
“I knew I needed to make Blame Sally professional,” Renee said. “I realized I had been holding the band back for a long time. And I was burnt out on graphic design. I wanted to do something that really mattered to me.”
Renee returned home after the tour to find a message on the answering machine, “We have the results of the mammogram and you need to come see us.” As if these words weren’t enough to put a buzz kill on their Rocky Mountain High, their refrigerator had died, too. “Everything was melting,” her partner, Jen Ryan of Mooloolaba Surf Wear, recalled with the kind of nervous laughter that comes after watching a loved one battle cancer and survive. “I was a mess.”
Renee recalls the next day and those that followed as surreal. “I sat on the couch for hours, stuck in this cone of strangeness. It was like a very bad dream. Then I was walking around the store looking for a new refrigerator and thinking, Oh my god. I have cancer and I could die.”
Two weeks later, one of the band’s partners was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
CHOICES – PLAY BIG
Renee considered her options and chose a slightly alternative treatment which included a lumpectomy and 7 weeks of radiation to both breast and lymph nodes. During that treatment she took time off from Blame Sally even though the band still had a few more shows booked. As the saying goes, the show must go on, and the band had to play without her — as spooky as it was. “They didn’t like it and said they would never do it again. Since then, we’ve all played shows with one Sally missing, and we all agree it just never feels right.”
The diagnosis compelled Renee and the other three members of Blame Sally – Monica Pasqual, Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones, to focus on their music as if their life depended on it. It’s not like they had a whole lot of time to decide. They were already in their mid-40s and mid-50s, and yet, because of that, established in their professions.
It was now or never. As a mother, Renee already knew about priorities by raising her daughter but she also faced a childhood fear. Her father was a musician and she watched him struggle to provide for his wife and four kids. As a result, Renee never considered the possibility of turning her love of music, even then, into something professional. Her father had her taking piano lesson since she was four even though she resisted learning to read music and “faked” her way around the keyboard completely by ear. She asked for a guitar on her 12th birthday after hearing a boy play “Magic Carpet Ride” and fell in love with the sound.
Renee didn’t even attempt to write any songs until she turned twenty, and even then, kept them locked away for another 15 years until she joined her first band. Diving into music full-time at the age of 50 was not an easy decision. She already had a ‘real job’ and was good at it.
Contrary to what most people would advise a women facing stage two breast cancer, slowing down wasn’t an option. During the months of treatment, Renee had a lot of time to reflect, inspiring her to write a whole lot of music.
By the end of December, 2006, Renee gathered with the band, friends and family at Muir Beach to celebrate her recovery from breast cancer. It was the first time we had met, and I was struck by how many people cherished Renee and whose love supported her recovery and her dream.
It was clear that music was the medicine Renee needed most at that time. She surrendered to it completely, refocusing the band’s objectives and attracting a manager, record label and tour support in the next six months. Cancer gave her no choice but to play big. Blame Sally has since released three records on Opus in two and a half years – obliterating every stereotype and statistic about becoming rock stars along the way. Wait. Rock stars at 50? Uh, yes. In Sally speak, “Hell, yes!”
PLAY AND THEY WILL LISTEN
After the 2009 release of Night of a 100o Stars, Blame Sally played to a sold-out audience at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and were named to Neil Young’s top 10 list on his website for the political hit, “If You Tell a Lie.” Later that year, in July 2009, they opened for Joan Baez at San Francisco’s summer concert series at Stern Grove, where Renee announced to 14,000 people that she was a third year cancer survivor. “People went berserk with support. That is such a beautiful thing. They were so compassionate,” Renee recalls, adding that at least a few people after every show come up and tell her that they are also breast cancer survivors.
Last year, they toured throughout Germany to adoring audiences and last weekend, they performed tracks from Speeding Ticket and a Valentine on the radio show “West Coast Live” where Joyce Carol Oats was the featured guest. It won’t be long before Renee Harcourt and Blame Sally are a household name. Bay Area rock critic Joel Selvin said about the band, “They have one of the most powerful world-of-mouth success stories I’ve heard in recent years.”
What do they sound like? It’s hard to say exactly because all four band members share the frontperson status. There is no ‘lead singer’ of Blame Sally, which makes them astonishingly one of the most functional democratic bands on the planet. Competing egos? Not a problem.
They’re like sisters, telling each other like it is. The result is authentic performances from mature yet spirited women who are comfortable in their own skin. The limelight is rightly finding them – not because they need it, but because they are more into giving joy to their audience than getting approval. Blame Sally plays what they love – everything from folky acoustic, blues, seductive ballads to bouncy pop songs, and we end up loving what they play.
PBS recently approached the band about doing a one-hour documentary. People obviously want to know who these women are. Their story is not only inspiring, it’s beguiling. Though they appear to have come out of “nowhere,” their 11-year history has depth. Their success did not come overnight. The didn’t just quit their day jobs on a whim. They paid their dues.
FOLLOW THE MUSIC
Renee recalls the early years. She’d been working as a graphic designer in LA and played part-time in the band No Strings Attached. At the advice of a former financial planner, Renee invested in a house in Van Nuys and commuted from ‘The Valley’ to her studio in Culver City’s famous Helms Bakery Building. After her car was broken into for the fifth time in Van Nuys, she decided it was time for a change. “I thought, this is not how I want to live my life.”
In October, 1990, Renee packed up and moved to Northern California, finding a sweet house with a view in Sausalito. “The first morning I woke up, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I kept thinking this is going to be taken from me any moment,” she said and laughed, flashing the smile and two huge dimples that have become endearing hallmarks to her audiences.
One week later, at the bequest of former band mate Nancy Felixson, (of McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica) Renee entered the Napa Valley Song Writers Contest and won.
“The minute I moved up here, the music kept coming at me,” Renee said, relating how the contest lead her to meet Monica Pasqual, who was in the band Planet Ranch at the time. For the next several years, Renee’s band, Ruby’s Tattoo, would compete with Planet Ranch. “We were both very serious about trying to make it in the 90s. That was the big time to make a name for ourselves, but even then, people were telling us we were too old.” Monica was 24, Renee, 33.
Then in 2000, Monica had recorded a solo album and needed Renee’s help with the release performance. She also called established musicians Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones for a rehearsal, and according to the tale, they had so much fun they wanted to keep playing together – and Blame Sally was born.
A HAPPY BEGINNING
They would continue to meet at Monica’s San Francisco apartment where her boyfriend and their friend, Pepe, lavished the women with fine wine and meals. “Pepe kept telling us to come back and play. We had so much fun,” Renee recalls of those early years. “Pepe would make this fantastic food. We’d sing for two hours, eat, play some more music, drink. That was how we worked for a long time. Lots of food, wine and fun. That was the foundation of Blame Sally.”
Blame Sally would play some of their very first shows at the Bazaar Café in San Francisco, where Jen Ryan remembers “people spilling out of the café and lined-up down the sidewalk trying to listen.” The Sally’s were being followed whether or not they knew it at the time; the truth is they have always had a loyal following. And their friends are also true fans.
It will be exciting to watch Blame Sally perform Speeding Ticket and a Valentine, a lyric in the song “Living Without You” that Renee wrote prior to being pulled over by a cop for speeding while on tour in Oregon last year. According to the story, the cop was really cute and after he issued the ticket, Renee turned to her band mates and said, “Now that was a speeding ticket and a Valentine.” Not unlike the diagnosis that begged Renee to confront the one question that would change her life: Are you really doing what you love? She can honestly say yes now.
“You have to be clear about what you want, to get what you want. What changed was my heart,” she said. One year after she had the contract with Opus, she made the bold decision to sell her share of i4Design, the graphic design firm she had worked with for nearly twenty years.
“It was the scariest decision I had to make. Graphic design wasn’t filling my soul and I needed to do more music. So the choice was easy. I feel very grateful I never had to find ‘the thing’ that fills me up. I’m lucky. I wake up every day and feel grateful that I get to go to work.”
Hopefully Renee Harcourt knows now that the Sausalito morning she had so long ago is hers to keep. The dream didn’t die and heaven, she discovered, is anywhere she’s on stage singing.