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Meet Ren, the viral songwriter who finds beauty in the bleakest of situations

The singer-songwriter on finding online success through soul-baring honesty and getting the thumbs up from The Verve.

By Nick Reilly

Ren (Picture: Press)

“Dark topics don’t always have to be ugly and there can be a lot of beauty and richness to be found in those moments,” says Ren of ‘Suic*de’, his latest track which emerged yesterday. “Sometimes by facing them fearlessly maybe we can understand them better…”

The need to understand each other and find beauty in the bleakest of situations is a thread that runs deep through the Brighton-based singer’s music. For the last few years he’s undergone treatment for auto-immune conditions including Lyme disease, after years of misdiagnoses including depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.

But after years of shying away from discussing his own condition, Ren found that daring to speak out proved to be a game-changer. In December last year, he released the stark ‘Hi Ren’, which sees him discussing his own struggles through the guise of a voice in his head. It’s struck a serious cord on YouTube, where the video – which sees him wearing a hospital gown and performing in a wheelchair – currently boasts a staggering 14 million views.

Similarly, his own updated take on The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, which tackles the realities of modern Britain, was even endorsed by the group’s bassist Simon Tong.

You can read our whole Q&A with Ren below.

You’re currently in Canada to undergo treatment for auto-immune illnesses. How’s that process been for you?

It is helping. There’s a lot of ups and downs, like the nature of auto immunity is that it’s not like you get a broken arm, you can put it in a sling and then they say this is how long it’s gonna take.

There’s never any windows of like how long it’s taken the average person to kind of get to a place where it’s more controlled. It’s been very sort of up and down.I mean, I’ve been sick for about 10 years.

So there’s a lot of trial and error because with this autoimmunity as well, it’s like trying to find a place where your body can kind of reach a level of homeostasis a bit easier.

But, we’re trying out a lot of new meds and sometimes those meds come with their own side effects. So it’s like a lot of trial and error of swapping some around until we find a good one. On the whole it’s positive, I found that my, my mind has, has started feeling clearer. My mood started feeling better. It’s all moving in a positive direction.

Have you had a chance to focus on music as well when you’re out there?

It’s impossible for me not to man, that’s basically the thing that helps me get through this. I’ve got my little set up here. I’ve got my mic set up and my monitor. I basically brought like a little home studio with me. I’m always writing and I’m always recording. It’s kind of the main thing that gives me purpose and makes me feel happy during these processes to be honest.

So music has been your guiding light through all of this?

100 percent. Because I feel like as human beings, we all want to feel purpose, right? When I was at my worst and I couldn’t do anything, I think the fact that I had some degree of success in music beforehand helped me. I felt like if I give up now I’m throwing all of this opportunity away, that could be there in the future if things turn around. Without that, I would have just been like I don’t know what I want to do when I get better.

Does it give you more drive to succeed and create music?

It’s a funny one. Because when you’re chronically ill, you will have these windows of opportunity to create and my windows are shorter than those that a normal healthy person will get. So when they come, I intensely pour myself into the creative process rather than wasting that moment.

I think it really does drive me in the sense that if all this treatment goes well, I’ll be gifted with good health and the possibility and opportunity to create whenever I want. I think that I’m gonna carry that feeling with me as well. I just don’t want to waste any time when I can create.

You’re an unsigned artist, but you’ve managed to foster an incredible sense of community. ‘Hi Ren’ came out earlier this year and it’s sitting on over 14 million YouTube views. Why do you think that is?

It’s so gratifying to know that people have struck a chord with my music. It’s a funny one because for a while, this health condition was almost something like I’d never really talk about it with my friends.

I didn’t want it to define me and, and the same with my music, like it would always find ways to leak in, but I wouldn’t speak about it so transparently.

And then one day I made a decision that, you know what, I’m just gonna write something, just put it out there. It’s funny that the second I stopped almost like hiding a part of myself was the second I started really, really connecting with people because I wanted to just make that as raw as it could be.

Particularly the monologue part at the end of that song. What I found beautiful was how many people from different experiences found a way to relate to it, whether they were coming from a place of addiction, depression, loss, or just health conditions.

It was really nice to see that so many people were brought together by this very human thread and it inspired me to up up my level of writing as well just because I thought it shows the world that a lot of people want something like this right now. They need something like this.

But there’s been misunderstandings too. CNN did a report that cited ‘Hi Ren’ as proof of TikTok content that glamourises suicide.

Yeah, they did this piece where they were showing just how easy it was for kids to come across content that wasn’t suitable for them, but they didn’t do enough diligent research and they basically used my clip as an example of a song promoting suicide when it was actually doing the opposite of that.

It was actually promoting an acceptance of your darkness so that you could live a life where suicide wasn’t a viable option. I uploaded a response, a video response to that and then so many of my fans got behind it. They flooded CNN’s comment section and CNN actually ended up retracting this thing. They put out a statement from me and we actually kind of made a dent in what I thought was quite biased reporting, which I thought was really cool.

I think it shows the power of people and I think it shows the power of independent art.

That shows the power of the fanbase behind you though…

It’s a crazy thing. But the community has just gotten so strong and that’s what I’ve noticed about YouTube, Discord, all of these things, is that there’s such a feeling of community within the fan base and they’ve spoken to me a lot about it and I think it’s because I’ve kind of adopted this like rising tide mentality where I’m just trying to uplift as much many people as I can.

There’s a grassroots level of promotion too from people who have decided to make these YouTube videos and they’re reacting to my songs. And then a lot of my subscribers will go over to them and it’s just kind of this mutually beneficial.

I haven’t shied away from talking about my views on mental health politics, anything like that. And I think within that, it created this hub of quite positive positive politics, positive mediation between people, a positive space where people can go and meet each other free of judgment. And I think that’s been a beautiful thing, man.

Many people will know you for your take on Bittersweet Symphony which went viral a few months ago. It saw you updating the song to reflect the reality of modern Britain

With bittersweet symphony, you know, I come from a working class background and when I first heard it, The Verve’s version of it, I was struck by how much it reflected the plight of the working class man and the duality of Britain being this great country that’s also got all these terrible things that happen the lower down the ladder that you get.

There’s a lot of beauty to be found within that. That’s why I find a lot of poetry to be found within the every day. And that’s kind of what I wanted to bring to that song.

I wanted to tell the story that is maybe on the outside, quite ugly, like a pregnant woman in a pub having a pint or like the homeless situation that we’ve got which is exponentially rising.

A lot of good friends of mine ended up homeless and a lot of my good friends ended up being junkies, but there was still such human moments within that. I think that it’s it’s an important story to tell.

And The Verve gave it the thumbs up?

Yes! Si from The Verve hit me up and said he liked it. He even sent me a guitar, of which only three exist in the world. He’s sent me Bukowski books too and we’ve stayed in touch. He’s just given me a lot of advice as well about moving into the industry and it feels really cool having like one of my heroes right there, someone I’ve looked up to ever since I was a teenager because I was massively into the britpop scene. He’s just there on the other end of the phone, telling me to give him a call whenever I want and we’ll catch up. It’s been nice, man.

Tell us about Suic*de, your latest release.

I never intended for that song to be about Joe, who was one of my best friends who killed himself.

But I sat down at the piano and I just started writing and came up with that line ‘It’s hard to take off from the ground when your wings are cut’.

It was just meant to be about how I can seem a little bit lost, but then it all just kind of fell out and I wrote it within in about two hours. It was just there, it was almost like these words about Joe were there. I hadn’t really thought about him in a while, so I didn’t know why it happened, but by the end I had this whole thing about Joe and I hadn’t really written a song about him since Freckled Angels, which was like about 10 years ago prior.

It’s nice because it almost feels like a tribute and honouring someone who was such like a big part of my life and a big part of who I was growing up because I knew this kid since I was eight years old.

He’s the sort of person where I’d stay in his house for weeks at a time. And like, you know, the guy that was there when I had my first kiss with a girl, when I had my first drink and threw up. That sort of friend. I like to put things out that honour him, you know, like it, it feels good to be honest.

What’s next?

There’s more music coming before the end of the year and it’s rooted in hip-hop. I like to change things up, so that’s where we’re going next. I just can’t wait for everyone to hear it.