Meet a Lancashire girl whose voice and sound will stop you dead in your tracks. Her name is Ren Harvieu. Her hair is heavy and shaggy, her eyes lined with kohl, her manner as down-to-earth as the streets of Broughton in Salford, which is where she was born, just over twenty-one years ago. Schooled in dusty youth club contests rather than star-spangled pop schools, she has had quite a life already; she’s also had quite a year. A terrifying accident nearly ended everything for her this summer, but now, only four months after she thought she would never walk again, she is walking back to us.
So here she still is – and how she sings. Ren opens her mouth, and her voice transports us to a place where youthfulness becomes yearning, where dreams become dramas, and music aches longingly, full of beauty and power.
Ren Harvieu was born in 1991, the youngest by far of three girls. She was shy as a child, observing everyone while the world whirled around her, soaking up the music she loved like a sponge. Her dad was a singer, touring the area’s pubs, singing Irish folk songs, James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel songs; he’d tell stories to his daughter about the locals who would carry him from his stool, and pop him in the Ladies’ toilets, still singing and playing.
Ren’s mum loved Stevie Wonder and John Cooper Clarke, stopping her car in the road one day to get out of it and kiss him, before getting back in, grinning broadly and driving off (the receiver of her lips being Mr Clarke, naturally – Stevie rarely turns up, unbidden, on the outskirts of Manchester). Although Ren loved music, she wasn’t a diva in the slightest. She just wasn’t arsed, she laughs.
But somewhere inside her, something was burning. In her first year at secondary school – the same school that Elbow went to – she entered a pop contest, although she had no idea why. She sang A Woman’s Worth by Alicia Keys, swinging her “dead Salford” earrings as she did so. Then she started falling in love with artists out of step with her peers – Shelby Flint, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, local heroes The Smiths.
She tried another local talent competition, Salford Superstar, among doilies of sandwiches and teacakes, to the confusion of the grannies lining the trestle tables. She remembers wearing her sister’s jeans – far too big for her, they were – and looking out at the audience, shitting herself. She had no idea why she kept performing; something kept her going.
And then came the knocks. At sixth form studying musical theatre, Ren was told she wasn’t good enough for her school shows; that she wouldn’t get anywhere. She would stand at the back of dance classes, thumping about, not knowing why she was bothering, not knowing what else to do. Then one day, she met a friend of a friend who had a studio, and recorded a song in one take there, which she posted on MySpace. By a miracle, she calls it – her first one, before the huge one – manager Paul Harrison chanced upon her page, falling in love with her lovely young blues. Ren took her mum and sisters with her to Liverpool to make sure he wasn’t an axe murderer, and then everything came alive.
Ren spent a year trying to nail the sound she wanted to make. She was a strange one, she knew that. She was happier in lock-ins with friends than out in the spotlight. She also loved Don McLean and Roger Whittaker as much as she loved new artists like James Blake. Above all, though, she knew she liked atmosphere – the way that female singers in Disney films sounded like beautiful birds, the way certain songs just got you in the gut, never let you go.
She finished making the album before she was out of her teens. Her first song was Through The Night, and she still hears a shy girl in its old-fashioned swing. In Twist The Knife, she hears a young soul too, but also a mood starting to reach out to the ears beyond the room. Once the mood reaches you, you will hear something extraordinary. In Tonight, a new soundtrack queen finds her feet. In Do Right By Me, a country soul is set free. In Forever In Blue, we return to a time of Autumn Leaves, sentimental journeys, flying to the moon. We hear an effortless vocal with no flounces or fuss, stunning us every time it soars.
How close these came to these being her first and only recordings; how close she came to these being her legacies.
Just before it happened, in May, everything had been like a dream. Ren had been to the US for the first time – LA, New York and Vegas, a world away from the rainy North-West. She had been invited to record a song with rapper Nas, who had heard and instantly fallen in love with her voice ; made her first video; toured the UK with Glasvegas; played her first extraordinary London solo show, which convinced the BBC Introducing team to book her for Glastonbury. She found out about Glastonbury in a text as she touched down from America. She always said if she could play Glastonbury, she would feel she had made it.
But then it happened. She was in London that night, on a night out with friends, although it felt strange from the start, she says; as if something was going to happen. After hours, they were hanging around in the warm summer air; she wasn’t even drunk, just incredibly unlucky. A friend was messing about doing running-jumps, vaulting over hedges, before the accident came that nearly cost Ren her life – his feet circling through the air, knocking her over, landing on her spine. Two of her vertebrae broke straightaway, sticking out of her clothes. She remembers every moment: the voices around her, the lack of feeling in her legs, the sensation that this was it, this is how it ends.
For the next two months, Ren was in a hospital in North London, two hundred miles away from family and friends – but not her boyfriend, who dutifully stayed with her day and night. Glastonbury came and went. In this specialist unit, she had the worst injury on the ward, and many of her fellow patients had been told they would never walk again. It felt like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in there, she says; people in all sorts of states, apart from one new friend who kept her sane, talking about music and films, showing her life still had purpose.
But somehow, Ren could feel things. Doctors kept asking if she had any sensations; one day she was able to move her legs like she was cycling. After six weeks, she wheelchaired herself into the kitchen to make a cup of tea; her doctors shaking their heads, not knowing how this was happening. The day she washed her hair by herself, she knew she would be alright. She left the hospital in August, walking with a cane; she is now getting better, slowly but surely, every day.
As Ren was recovering, she was driven by what she wanted more than anything: that chance to share her songs, to take her voice across the world. One call she had in hospital made her mission even stronger: a call from her old childhood hero, Johnny Marr. He had heard she wasn’t well; he had also heard Through The Night. He wanted to meet her, and make music with her, when she was ready to.
In September, Ren also celebrated her 21st birthday. She did so in a pub back home, her mother first on the karaoke, singing ABBA’s Fernando. Protective friends were told she was now like the Bionic Woman, a girl with metal in her spine, even more iron in her will.
Ren’s brush with death has given her life so much more depth, she says. She was determined before; just imagine how much she is now.
And as time goes on, she won’t forget what she’s learned, either. She’ll remember her Dad’s stories, his old lessons in stagecraft: ‘back against the wall, chest out, hit ‘em’. She’ll remember the teachers who told her she couldn’t sing, who have recently tried to befriend her on Facebook – she clicks ignore when she sees them, and beams broadly as she does so. She’ll also remembered the girl at the talent show as she goes up to the microphone – walking up to it now with even more purpose and meaning, having gone through so much. Then Ren will open her mouth, and start to sing; as she does, a new angel of the North will ascend.