James Renald was known to many as the blond singer and songwriter in Montreal pop duo Sky during the late 1990s – but to his friends he was a complex person who struggled to balance his desire for marketable endeavours against an unmistakable dislike of fame.
The La Tuque, Que.-born musician, whose silky vocals helped make Love Song a No. 1 single in Canada, split from the successful pair near the peak of their popularity. Soon after, he embarked on a multifarious production career in Los Angeles with artists including Mandy Moore.
Mr. Renald died of suicide on Aug. 11, 2018, but his death was not made public at the time. He was 47 and had been staying in Quebec.
Few people beyond his closest friends and family knew details of his passing, Mr. Renald’s sister told The Canadian Press recently. The family chose to “deal with the terribly difficult circumstances on our own,” considering Mr. Renald was an intensely private person who battled anxiety.
While Mr. Renald’s insular personality invited few people into his life, back in 1993 he caught the attention of one classmate at Montreal production school Musitechnic. Antoine Sicotte, who became the other half of Sky, says he was intrigued by Mr. Renald’s unusual style.
“He had a flannel shirt and a big-ass beard – he looked like a lumberjack,” Mr. Sicotte remembers.
“We realized we had [similar] taste in music,” he said, pointing to Steely Dan, jazzy R&B and seventies pop. “It was like, man, there’s definitely something we can do together here.”
The pair wound up roommates and Mr. Sicotte was impressed by the sheer number of unfinished, quality songs in Mr. Renald’s stockpile. For several years the musicians experimented with rock and rap-metal, though by 1997 they found a pop sound that was “something more spontaneously us.”
Adopting the name Sky, they began producing demos in hopes of securing a distribution deal.
Sky’s recordings landed on the desk of Bonnie Fedrau, an EMI Music Canada talent scout at the time, who remembers how persistently the duo’s manager pushed the act.
“They kept sending demos, literally on a weekly basis,” she said.
“Finally I just said, ‘Look, I’ll pull them out of the pile and listen to them now.’ " She was instantly struck by America, a deceptively optimistic hook laid over lyrics of broken dreams co-written by Mr. Renald. Wasting little time, she herded a few EMI colleagues and set off from the Toronto area to Montreal to witness Sky perform live. They inked a record deal with the label not long after.
But even before Sky was signed, Mr. Sicotte saw hints of the troubles ahead. Mr. Renald’s anxiety crept up in times of public pressure, such as when they performed for executives at music industry events.
“You would see he was very uncomfortable with all these social situations,” Mr. Sicotte said.
“I knew then [Sky] was bound to eventually collapse – sooner than later.”
The runaway success of Sky’s label debut, Piece of Paradise, didn’t help matters. The album’s first major single, Some Kinda Wonderful was an instant hit on Quebec radio, which led MuchMusic to put the video into rotation. The song topped out at No. 4 on the Canadian charts.
Love Song was their biggest single, becoming one of the most-played songs on Canadian radio in 1999, and charting in the U.S. Top 40. The cheerful production veils Mr. Renald’s abstract lyrics, which seemingly explore the weight of depression on a romantic relationship.
Mr. Renald struggled in those days of Sky’s success, Mr. Sicotte said. Fans swarmed their tour bus, crowded at an autograph session in the West Edmonton Mall and gathered in droves overseas when the album took off in Asia and parts of Europe.
“He’d always say how much he hated it,” Mr. Sicotte said.
“The adoration and people looking at him – he was very uncomfortable with that. ... He wanted his songs to be popular, but I guess he didn’t want the attention related to it.”
Those moments eventually became too much to bear.
One day in L.A., Mr. Sicotte says his manager broke the news over the phone that Mr. Renald had made a pivotal decision – he was quitting Sky. They played a single concert to mark the year 2000.
“And that was it,” Mr. Sicotte said. “We never got to talk about these things afterward.”
When Sky won best new group at the Juno Awards in 2000, Mr. Sicotte accepted the honour by himself. He eventually repackaged Sky twice, with fellow Montrealers Anastasia Friedman and later Karl Wolf.
Meanwhile, Mr. Renald settled in L.A. where he signed a record deal for a solo project, called Mackenzie, B.C., which never saw the light of day.
Around the same time, he forged a creative partnership with Mandy Moore, a rising pop artist whose singles Candy and I Wanna Be With You were favourites on MTV’s Total Request Live. Mr. Renald wrote Cry for the singer, which appeared on the 2002 soundtrack for A Walk to Remember, Ms. Moore’s first leading film role.
They continued working together for several years with Mr. Renald lending his production skills to Ms. Moore’s From Loving You, written by Diane Warren. He also penned two songs for Ms. Moore’s 2007 album, Wild Hope.
“He had the ability of writing on command,” said Alexis Dufresne, one of Mr. Renald’s closest friends, who collaborated on some of Ms. Moore’s tracks.
“He was never short of inspiration, especially when people needed him to be inspired. He could just do it, over and over again.”
In his later years, Mr. Renald largely gravitated away from pop, finding interest in scoring Hollywood movie trailers and commercials. His work appeared in previews for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rampart, as well as a Funny or Die spoof of Field of Dreams starring Taylor Lautner.
Mr. Renald drifted away from many friends as he focused on learning computer graphics programs. He was passionate about the evolving world of virtual reality, and shortly before his death he planned to create a VR program that harnessed elements of storytelling in an interactive world.
While years had passed since Mr. Sicotte spoke with his old bandmate, he often wondered how Mr. Renald was faring in L.A., and if they’d ever rekindle the friendship that led to Sky.
“I dreamt about him many times over the years, and those dreams were always about us reconnecting,” he said.
“So there’s a lot of sadness that feels like this has ended.”