No sooner had Ren Harvieu burst onto the scene in 2011 with her Top Five debut album than she was sidelined by a serious accident, which set in train circumstances which saw the release of her follow up delayed until this year (2020).
In a candid and eloquent interview Ren, who describes herself as a ‘gothic diva’, relates how that catastrophic incident motivated her and how her new album describes the journey she has been on since the first one; how she’s inspired by Fiona Apple; she’s writing a musical; and that she’d welcome a crack at opera singing.
GIITTV: Hi Lauren, thanks for joining us today. How are you?
RH: I’m fabulous today thanks. I woke up in a great mood. I’ve had surgery on my foot and I can’t leave the house or really move for a while but my body and mind seems to be very happy with that. Lots of reading and playing guitar and eating chocolate on the couch. Gorgeous.
For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with you, how would you describe yourself as an artist, in a paragraph?
I would hope that this is an impossible task for any artist who is ever changing to do but if I were to describe myself in one word alone it would be ‘Free’. At my core I’m a Salfordian gothic diva who looks for the humour in everything, especially the bleak and the sadness. Words are my fascination and flirtation and I’m blessed in having an emotive voice that can really express how I feel.
You have released two singles, ‘Teenage Mascara’ and latterly ‘Yes, Please’ from your second album, ‘Revel in the Drama’ which is scheduled for April and both were well received by broadcasting ‘tastemakers’. How does the album differ from the first one, ‘Through the Night?’
They are very different records. I’ve grown in confidence both as a woman and as a songwriter and I hope that really shows in comparison to my first album. It’s a braver, darker, strangely more feminine-driven album. ‘Revel in the Drama’ is not just a collection of songs, it’s much more than that. There’s a message within the record that is almost reactionary to how I felt making that first record, the journey I’ve been on. It’s fearless.
Since 2015 you’ve been co-writing with Romeo Stodart of the Magic Numbers and he appeared on stage with you at your recent concerts. Will that relationship continue? Do you prefer to control the songwriting process yourself, or are you content to work with other music or lyric writer(s) into the future? If the latter, who has the final say?
Romeo is unlike anyone I’ve ever met, he astounds me with his musical genius yet he never makes me feel less than in his presence. I’ll always want to write with him, always want to hear his ideas, and from the moment we met I felt this strange connection like I’d always known him. Apparently I told my sister after our first writing session that I had found my musical soul mate. I don’t think we’ve ever written a bad song, we just work.
You signed with Universal, a huge corporation, as a 17-year old. Is that too young, or are there any benefits in being ‘bloodied’ in the industry at such a tender age?
I think I was too young, although Universal were great, they weren’t the problem. But there was a lot going on behind the scenes that I was dealing with. I wasn’t a showbiz kid from a showbiz family and I had real problems that were bigger than singing about being dumped by some boy. I felt too young and overwhelmed but also too streetwise and smart for it all. It was a confusing time.
They say that everything happens for a reason. In 2011 you suffered a life-changing event, just as your debut album was about to be released, and one which set you back several years. Eight years on do you think the dreadful accident in which you broke your back has had any positive repercussions?
I think there have been many positive repercussions, the biggest being that I became a songwriter. The accident gave me the bravery to assert my voice. If I could get through that…writing a song? Fucking easy. There’s an internal dialogue a lot of the time that smiles with me, especially in scenarios that are high pressured, I almost feel giddy the more intense something is, a ‘come on then’ feeling. It sometimes feels like I have a private joke with the world, like a cheeky best friend that I want to make laugh and impress. The accident has made me somewhat fearless.
What attracted you to signing with Bella Union for your new album?
They’ve put out some of my favourite records and are all about the music. I think Simon Raymonde is a very sensitive soul who just seemed to get me straight from the off and get the record. I feel like I don’t have to rein anything in or compromise myself with Bella Union. I can wave my freak flag high!
Do you have any role models in the music business? A hero or heroine? Anyone you would enjoy being “mentioned in the same breath” with? (Dusty Springfield comes to mind, also perhaps Shirley Bassey).
I really admire Fiona Apple. She does whatever the hell she wants, and her records are so unique and beautiful and uncompromising, she encourages me to keep making brave choices.
You are compared occasionally with Elkie Brooks (I’ve done it myself!), a different kind of singer perhaps but a highly respected one who hails from the same city, and even the same suburb as you. And she’s still performing, in her seventies. Is there anything you feel you can learn from her and, indeed, are you ever in contact with her?
I don’t know Elkie personally but I love her, she’s a legend. (Her) ‘Rising Cost of Love’ is my jam!
You left Salford and relocated to London a while ago. Do you miss it? How did the move impact on your creativity?
I really miss the North, everything about it but I was going through a lot when I left. I was very sad and the weight of despair was suffocating because I had memories scattered everywhere. I couldn’t escape. I could walk and walk and walk and never have to lift my head because I knew every street, certain bus stops made me emotional, parks and corner shops and pubs, all had a certain glow of sadness I’d left behind. I felt my identity was too rooted to my surroundings and only in leaving could I begin to write about it. Sometimes you have to leave behind the thing you love…but that’s not to say I won’t come back in the future. I will.
When you’re writing, how do most of your songs start life? A piano part? A chord? A melody? Does inspiration simply come, or do you have to seek it?
I think you have to be open to inspiration. It’s within us all but we don’t always want to listen to it, or think it’s nothing. Once you tune in, inspiration is everywhere, in everything. For myself I visualise a lot. My songs are movies in my mind as I’m writing them, and I feel very strongly about honouring the emotion I’m channelling, giving it the platform it deserves. When Romeo and I write together, we’re disciplined, we push ourselves melodically and lyrically, and we stay within the song, no matter how long it takes.
Do you see yourself as a live artist, or a recording artist, or both?
I see myself as both. I get to appease the introvert in me by being in the studio and summon the outrovert by playing live.
How would you personally measure ‘success’? By ‘breaking’ America? Or something more modest?
Success for me would mean I get to make music forever whilst staying true to who I am and that it moves and connects with people everywhere. My dreams are huge, and my drive and ambition also, but not if it comes at a cost.
When I saw your show at the Deaf Institute in Manchester recently, in one song (I think it was ‘Cruel Disguise’), you reached and sustained a note that convinced me and those in my company that you could probably tackle opera singing. Do you have any ambitions to perform in that or any other genre?
I would love to try opera, I’m open to trying anything and I love discovering new parts of my voice. I didn’t sing high until I was about 18, I was always an alto, which I think looking back was attributed to self consciousness. But there’s a fair bit of high falsetto on this record, and of course I love the drama of singing way up there, it’s the closest I get to feeling like a glamorous ghost.
Back in 2012, while you were recovering, you performed several James Bond film theme tunes with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, including ‘You only live twice’ and ‘Nobody does it better’, both of which arguably could be applied to you. Do you picture yourself as a ‘Bond girl’ in the sense of recording the theme to a future movie, or do you even have any acting ambitions to actually play such a role? After all, the new album is constructed so that you can “revel in the drama of my life” as you say. (Incidentally, a female friend of mine – also from Salford – commented that you look like a 1950s Hollywood movie star).
It would be iconic to sing a Bond theme, from Salford with love! Yes it would be amazing. Acting, why not? In fact Romeo and I have actually started writing a musical, a gothic musical…no jazz hands! We’re really excited about it and I’m writing the script at the moment, so… who knows?
I saw one of your Christmas Special shows at the Soup Kitchen in Manchester in 2015. During the show you told a story about how a school choirmaster prevented you joining a musical assembly on four occasions for no better reason than that there was something about you that he didn’t like. Your rejoinder to that was “Well, fuck him” and of course you soon went on to release demos on MySpace which were picked up by a local manager and sent on to Amy Winehouse’s producer. The rest is history. A new song, ‘Little Raven’ was written cathartically as one to your younger self when you had no label and didn’t know if it would ever be recorded. What advice would you give to young people who find doors being slammed in their face as that schoolmaster did to you?
I would say, fuck them. Don’t let anyone come in and dim your shine. It’s easier said than done, but the earlier you realise you owe nobody any explanation for who you are and what you want to do with your life, the better. Hold your head high, turn up the music and drown out the basics, we need people like you!
What touring plans do you have to support the release of the new album?
I really want to bring this album to as many corners of the world as possible. I didn’t really get a chance to tour ‘Through The Night’ very much, I can’t seem to remember there being many shows at all outside of England so there’s a real desire to get out there and see the world and sing these songs for people. We’re currently organising dates around the UK at the moment which is really exciting.
If you weren’t a musician what would you be? Do you ever aspire to being ‘something else’ entirely (model, politician, footballer, train driver…?!)
I think I’d try and be a fiction writer. I’ve always loved books and stories and characters. Donna Tartt said something like “As much fun as it is to read a book, writing one is one level deeper”. That fascinates me.
The environment. Whose viewpoint are you closest to? Donald Trump or Greta Thunberg?
Greta of course, what an icon.
United or City?
Coronation Street or EastEnders?
Thanks again and good luck with the album and your future career.
‘Revel in the Drama’ is scheduled for release on 3rd April via Bella Union.