renforshort (sic), the Toronto artist formerly known as Ren, was gearing up for the release of her EP, teenage angst, for Interscope/Geffen, when life as we know it ground to a halt. Her March showcases in Toronto, NYC and L.A. were postponed, as efforts to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread became increasingly stringent. The 17-year-old speaks for all of us of at this crazy time when she says, “It’s not fun.”
The singer, bassist, and guitarist – who posted covers and originals for several years under her birth name Lauren Isenberg, and even won a competition for singing a classic Chinese folk song, “Mo Li Hua,” in Mandarin – more recently, under her hypocorism Ren, amassed five million streams with two originals, 2019’s heart-stealing ache “Waves” and buzzing pop-worm “Mind Games.”
After meeting producer Jeff Hazin in 2016, her sound developed from what she now calls “calm and bedroom poppy” — said as if that’s completely boring and unimaginative — to a cool, scrappy alt-pop, not unlike Billie Eilish. She takes an unfiltered say-whatever approach to lyric-writing that could be lines from Netflix’s The End of The F___ing World, but set to music.
“Sometimes I wanna stick a cigarette in my eyes,” Ren sings in the mercurial stomp “I Drive Me Mad,” and in the plucky groove “idc,” she confesses, “Right now all I wanna do is choke you till your face turns blue.” I mean, who hasn’t thought such things, perhaps even said them out loud? But renforshort puts them in a song, there for life.
Her co-writers, she says, “Love that stuff. They eat that up. They want that,” she laughs.
Although there are some other people involved in teenage angst, her main co-writers are Hazin, Matthew Kahane, and David Charles Fischer – and have been since 2016.
“As I’ve gotten older, me and Jeff, together, experimented more until we found what we wanted. It took a really long time,” says Ren. “Jeff s very adventurous with his production, and every time I come up with lyrics that I think are too edgy, or one of them does, we’re all like, ‘Wow, that’s just the best thing that I ever heard in my life,’” adding, with a laugh. “We’re all just a little bit twisted.
“They have a brotherly feel to them, but they also just all feel like friends. We forget how big the age difference is when we’re all together. It doesn’t feel like I’m sitting with a bunch of mid-to-late 20-year-olds. They’ve all lived through high school and they really understand where I’m coming from. It makes it very easy to talk with them and sit down and write.”
“Every song we love more than the next.”
Ren wrote her first song at age 13: “Hopeless Town,” produced by Nathan Ferraro, then of The Midway State, and worked on three originals with producer Justin Gray in L.A. Before the emergence of renforshort, her earlier songs didn’t truly show certain aspects of her personality — self-doubt, humour, a sharp tongue, confusion — and what it’s like growing up in this social-media, “likes”-chasing world.
Back then, she says, “Sometimes I’d take personal experiences, and either blow them out of proportion, or just start becoming a character. I dunno,” she pauses and laughs. “Nothing super-eventful in the romance world has happened to me in my short life.”
On teenage angst, the more aggressive-sounding “Luv Is Stooopid” decimates a bed-interest for even contemplating those three little words, but several of the other songs reveal insecurities. In “Bummer,” she writes, “Looking in the mirror / My reflection got me triggered… I can’t hear the compliments / Just feeling shitty… Will it always be a bummer?” And in “I Drive Me Mad,” she goes so far as to write about an anxiety attack and hyperventilating. “It’s just hard being human,” she sings.
Being so open in her work is fairly new for Ren. “It took until I had a panic attack in a session, and they didn’t think I was going to be able to write a song that day, for me to understand that writing about more personal things and experiences is actually a relief,” she says. “And it’s more true and honest. That’s when I started writing more about personal things like that. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to write a song that session, but it ended up working out and actually opening me up to a whole new side of songwriting.”
She praises Hazin, Kahane and Fischer for helping her get through the times when she did have trouble writing songs “because I just felt like garbage.” She says all three men are very funny, and “being in a room with them is mostly us laughing. They’re all so talented, they just don’t realize it.”
Does Ren realize it? “I don’t sometimes,” she admits. “Everyone doubts themselves. If you don’t doubt yourself, you don’t have room to improve because you think everything’s already fine. So, I think it’s a good trait that we all share.”
Ren has no doubts, however, about the quality of the 7-song Teenage Angst. “I’m beyond happy with the work that I have right now, but you never know when you’re actually there,” she says. “We’re still being very adventurous with our sound, and we’ll continue to be for a long time. That’s gotten us to good places, because every song we love more than the next.”