X Factor's Chris Rene on Fear of Cover Songs, Childhood Dance Class, and Unplugged Dreams

Chris Rene showed off the many sides of his personality during Season 1 of The X Factor: Crowd-pleasing urban artist, sensitive acoustic troubador, and optimistic young dad struggling to overcome a drug addiction. TVLine caught up with the third-place finisher to talk about his memorable audition, his fight to perform a second original track during the season, and a live-performance snafu you may or may not have caught.

Your performance of “Young Homie” was probably the most memorable of all the auditions from Season 1 of The X Factor. After it aired, though, a lot of people wondered if competing on a huge, network talent competition — and being thrown into the national spotlight — was a wise move for someone who’d only been clean and sober for a few months. I’m wondering if you ever had any worries about that, like “Should I wait a year before I try out for something like X Factor? Will that kind of pressure-cooker environment be too much for me to handle?” 
Let me tell you, I had nothing to lose at that point. In that kind of life that I’d been living, you’ve got a lot to lose. You have your life you could lose on a daily basis. And being clean and sober, fresh out of rehab — whether I was in the spotlight or wherever — that chance to be on the stage and show them who I was, that meant more to me than anything. I did not have fear about it at all; I only had happiness about it. I was proud that I actually had the guts to go up there and audition, straight out of rehab. I can’t say that it boosted my confidence, but it gave more meaning to my music, you know?

Tell me about “Young Homie.” When did you write it?
It’s probably two or three years old. I wrote it with my sister, Gina Rene. And I had two months clean and sober — 70 days — when I was on that stage, so I had to change the lyrics [which had originally been] “three years” to “two months.” And I was not ashamed to do that. I was actually happy because I knew someone out there might be going through the same thing as me.

Were you at all afraid of not doing a cover song for your audition, something the judges might already be familiar with?
I was afraid to do a cover song — because I don’t know any! [Laughs] Well, I knew a few, but it’s not my music and it’s not who I am. I thought, “They’re not going to get to see who I am if I don’t do an original song.”

That’s interesting, because the first couple weeks on the live stage, when you did “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Superstar,” they didn’t quite resonate, and you didn’t seem 100 percent comfortable. Were you just getting the feel of being on that big stage, or was it more about the song selection?
Those are both very cool songs, but they weren’t totally my type of music, clearly, so I felt kind of weird doing them. I couldn’t give all of myself to it, no matter how hard I tried. But they turned out well, and I was actually surprised that I even pulled it off.

I thought when you did your version of “Gangster’s Paradise” or, rather, “Pastime Paradise,” was when you started to really hit your stride on the show. How did you decide to mix Coolio’s version with Stevie Wonder’s original, along with your own lyrics?
L.A. Reid and Claude Kelly and David Gray and me and Soulshock, the music producer, we all thought it’d be awesome if I could put my own spin on it. I’m like, “I didn’t know I was even able to do that,” in terms of writing my own verses. I was like, “Wow. If I can do that — write verses and then sing someone else’s hook — then I guarantee you I’ll do a good job.”

And even though you had the Coolio-esque rap, you went with the original Stevie Wonder hook, “Pastime Paradise.”
I was actually supposed to go with [Coolio’s] verse — [Sings] As I walk through the valley in the shadow of death… — but the beat came in really quick and I was like, “Oops.” So I just went into my lyrics right away. I don’t know if you could see it [on TV] but I’m like, “Oops. OK. I’m good.”

A lot of times we heard comments from the judges about you having “the X Factor,” having something about your live performances that makes you compelling to watch, that makes people feel a certain degree of honesty and emotion. Is that something that you’ve always had within you? Or is it something you’ve had to work on during the course of your career?
When I look at the pictures of what I used to do when I was younger, I’m like “Daaaamn. I used to do that?” I used to take dance class back when I was eight, and looking at those pictures, I still have the same smile, the same everything from when I was a little kid. I was definitely born like this and born to do this. There’s this one shot of me in dance class, at my old elementary school, wearing black pants, black shoes and this black jacket. I was the only guy in the picture, and the rest were girls, but I just wanted to do it. I love dancing and entertaining and just seeing the reactions from people, so I definitely feel like I was born with a gift here.

Getting back to the competition for a moment, during the week where they made a last-minute change, and every contestant had to perform his or her “Save Me” song, you broke out another original: “Where Do We Go From Here?” Up to that point, you’d specialized in more of a hip-hop vibe and bigger production, and so it was a surprise to see you come out with a second original song that was a lot more stripped-down and acoustic. Was there any resistance to you doing a second original track at that point in the competition, especially one that was such a departure from your typical sound?
Well, the song was written by me and my brother, Gabriel Rene, maybe three or four years ago. And I showed [the producers] that song because originally, the track I had [for my “Save Me” song], well, it wasn’t my taste, and if I’d had to perform it, I would have been voted out. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t learn the lyrics to it. So I grabbed the guitar and I said, “Please listen to this. I want this to be my ‘Save Me’ song. And they said, “Yes.” And I thought, if I end up in the bottom [singing this], I’ll be okay. I just felt confident with it. It reminds me of the Beatles or Jack Johnson or something that everybody can feel, no matter who you are or where you’re from. It’s universal.

I feel like that acoustic side of you is something we didn’t get to see as much on the show and I’m just wondering how big an aspect of your sound that is, versus the more urban vibe we heard on “Young Homie.”
I have probably a whole album full of songs like that, more stripped-down songs, and I got to show the world one of them. So now people have a better understanding of what I can and can’t do.

How will you navigate that in your post-X Factor career? It seems like record labels and radio both like to put artists in definitive boxes, and they might prefer you stick to one genre. What happens to the acoustic songs if that turns out to be the case?
Right now, I would like to work on an album of songs more like “Young Homie,” but bring more [live] instruments in as well. Ideally, I’d like to eventually do a tour where I redo all the songs in an acoustic style, too. I don’t know how the marketing works for something like that, but I think it would be very interesting for people to see those songs from two sides, you know what I mean?

We also saw you at the keyboards for your performance of Alicia Keys’ “No One” near the end of the season. Was it important for you to make sure people knew that you could play the piano?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I wanted people to know that there are many things I can do. And not just sing-rap, which I call ringing. I played it safe on the piano during “No One,” but it was definitely important for me to show people the piano skills, along with the singing and dancing.

So when you made it to the finale, how much emphasis did you place on winning? Was that your primary focus, or was it more about just going out and trying to do your best performance on those last two songs?
It was basically about giving back to all the fans, sharing with them what I came there to do in the first place, which was have a good time and to be myself. Because throughout the whole X Factor process, [the people involved] tell you, “Look, be yourselves.” So I just kept that in my head, “I’m not trying to be anyone else.” All I could do was go our there, show them fully who I am, and have a good time. And that’s what I did right to the end.