Ren Harvieu:
curves and swerves

Although Covid-19 has stopped Ren Harvieu from touring her new album, the fact it’s been released at all is an achievement

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Each time the stars were seemingly perfectly aligned for Ren Harvieu, kismet swiftly kicked her in the teeth. Signed at age 17 amid the retro soul-singer goldrush, she recorded her debut album in 2011, then suffered a life-threatening injury. A broken spine followed a freak accident when a friend vaulted over a hedge, unaware she was on the other side, and landed on her. Through the Night’s release was postponed a year.

As she raises the curtain on her second album – a cinematic, sublime declaration of self that lays bare the eight-year struggle it’s taken to get here – there’s a sense of history cruelly repeating itself. Although she’s still releasing it, Covid-19 has meant that her tour and plans to promote it have been derailed.

“When I’m onstage in dramatic make-up that feels like the real me – more than everyday life.”

“It took such a long time to get to this point that I feel devastated,” she says, trying to collect her thoughts, like pieces of a shattered vase, from her home in London. “I’m actually a bit numb because I’ve dedicated so many years of my life to this moment and I feel like it’s been snatched away. It reminds me of what happened with the first album when I was all ready to go and then I had this horrific accident.

“But at the same time I feel guilty for feeling that because with everything else going on, it doesn’t comparatively feel like a big deal.”

Fittingly, the record is titled, with sly humour, Revel in the Drama. Like the 1960s divas such as Dusty Springfield to whom she was originally frequently compared, she’s secretly dealt with her own personal turbulence. Despite a top five entry for her debut, six months later she was dropped by her label Island Records.

“There was a spark of ‘Wow I’m on Later… With Jools Holland,’ but then that disappeared as quickly as it came and before I knew it, the golden ticket had been snatched back from me,” says the now 29 year old. “And I was back in Salford, living on Mildred Street – one of the roughest in the city.”

Harvieu is frank, friendly and funny, dropping disarming punchlines that arrive in extended Blackpool postcard speech bubbles. From the outside in 2012, things looked perfect: she was a buzzed-about BBC Sound poll nominee selling out Manchester’s 1,500-capacity Ritz – which she used to frequent as a teen with a fake ID – and was being flown to Beijing to sing for fashion house Burberry.

Behind the scenes, she was battling depression and undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was really ill. I was scared to leave the house. I thought I was going to be attacked, because the way the accident happened was that somebody came up behind me. They didn’t do it on purpose but my body didn’t know that. So if I saw anybody walking down the street, I’d cross the road. I was in constant fear. I found it difficult to be in cars – I felt trapped.

“At the same time, I had a controlling manager so no one could get in to see how I was doing. The label didn’t even have my email address. I was lonely, confused and thought this was what being an artist was supposed to be. Also, coming from a poor area of Manchester – I was a free schools dinner kid who was hungry a lot – you have an inbuilt feeling that you don’t deserve things.”

Her concerned family helped her find a therapist. “She said: ‘I think you’ve got quite severe post-traumatic stress.’ That was a relief for me just to hear there was a name for what I was feeling.”

Back in Salford, feeling like she’d been relegated to the former pop star pyre at 22, she had resigned herself to never releasing another record. She enrolled at Salford University to study music theory, dropping out after six months. In a further blow, in 2014 a
10-year relationship with a partner came to an end. But in 2015, she was thrown an artistic lifebuoy when Romeo Stodart of Magic Numbers contacted her to see if she fancied writing with him. Kindred spirits, they immediately hit it off, both creatively and as friends.

“He not only likes my eccentric qualities, he indulged them. He would say: ‘You’re the biggest star.’ I apologised to him for being late once, panicked, and he said: ‘Listen, you’re a diva. You arrive whenever you want to arrive.’”

All through the “dark years”, she was writing – to blot out her day-to-day existence. Revel in the Drama partly refers to embracing the past tempestuousness. “I asked myself: do I want to revel in the drama of my life or numb it out? Because when I started to write with Romeo, I decided that I wanted to knock down that wall I’d put up and just feel again.”

Yet it’s also a jet-black joke about how her life at the time was stultifying and mundane. “I used to say to Romeo ‘I just want them to revel in the drama of it all’ because I thought it was funny to make this dramatic music when I did fuck all.” Day-to-day life was “nothing”. She’d put her in hair in a “Salford pineapple”, then think: “I’ve got no milk – I guess I can make it down to the shop. But I’m not getting out of my pyjamas so I’ll put a long coat on.’ But I wasn’t capable of doing anything – I needed time to heal emotionally and physically.”

When she started singing and writing, “all of this emotion that had built up needed to go somewhere”, she remembers. “My life would become technicolour when I started to sing and write, then I’d put the pen down and it goes back to black and white.”

You can hear that pent-up emotion bursting through the album. She only co-wrote three of the tracks on her debut, but Revel in the Drama is a singular, visceral vision. There’s the sweeping gothic swoon of Cruel Disguise, questioning the point of it all (“Taking my numbness and making it huge”), the self-acceptance anthem Curves & Swerves, Little Raven – tenderly addressing her 18-year-old self (“It makes me tear up when I hear it”) – and Spirited Away, which tackles the black dog and daring to dream, and originally started life as a track from a partly autobiographical stage musical she and Stodart are writing together.

Lush and filmic, throughout the album she sounds like a Lynchian muse with the doomy glamour of Lana Del Rey. Although rather than Del Rey’s Americana, she almost feels like she’s channelling local matriarchs like Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner – who didn’t have a penny piece yet worked hard at effecting a Hollywood goddess. She moved from Salford to London two years ago for a fresh start (“Every bus stop had a memory”), but its influence is writ large.

“There’s delusions of grandeur on the album, humour and the sense of: ‘I don’t have 50p but I’m going to pose and pout.’ It’s almost like flaunting your misery, like: ‘It’s all so tragic but don’t I look gorgeous when I’m sad?’

“It’s grand in a Salford way – like ostentatiously wearing a leopard skin dressing gown around the house when you’ve got a bit of toast stuck to the side of your lip.”

You may recognise Curves & Swerves as being Latrice Royale’s catchphrase in RuPaul’s Drag Race: a title that subconsciously seeped in because she binge-watched the show during the torrid times.

“I really identify with drag queens – and becoming something you feel is beautiful,” she notes. “When I’m onstage in dramatic make-up and big eyelashes and wearing sparkles, that feels like it’s the real me – more than everyday life. And it feels powerful.”

Her mother – a free-spirited, unpredictable born artist who never had the opportunity to pursue it as a career – was another influence on the record, someone fearless about being their authentic self. Harvieu’s upbringing was creative and unusual: her mum would make her perform monologues she’d written in their living room, and act in surreal plays she’d penned in working men’s clubs. “Being in a conversation with my mum, you never know where it’ll go. Someone said to me: ‘Yer mam came down the pub the other night. We were sharing a cigarette and then she just started scatting.’”

Her father, a charming pub singer, drifted in and out of her life. Neighbours knew them as “the Salford eccentrics”. By way of illustration, she recalls “an ac-tor” – she adds a regal flourish to the word for effect – visiting her house for a barbecue. “Halfway through, everybody’s drinking and he announces: ‘A-hem! I just want to do something.’ He’d brought stepladders with him, put them against the wall and after a massive confused silence for ages, pulled out a red nose and solemnly said: ‘I am… the clown’. And did a monologue. In a Lower Broughton barbecue on a Tuesday afternoon. That kind of thing was a daily occurrence,” she laughs.

Revel in the Drama culminates with the torch song finale My Body She Is Alive, which sees her coming to terms with the accident that plunged her into the tailspin. “It’s about me one day intensely and overwhelmingly grateful that I was still here and marvelling at the fact this wonderful body – that for so long I had given such a hard time, talked down to and covered up – could have such strength to withstand what it went through.”

But then Harvieu is done giving herself a hard time. Last week, she was looking at promotional photos for her first album. “There was so much shyness going on. Hiding behind the fringe, skulking in the shadows,” she says.

Not any more. “Now I know I deserve to be in the spotlight.”

Revel in the Drama is out now 

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