renforshort talks clean hands, dirty water

22-year-old renforshort – real name Lauren Isenberg – splits her time equally between her hometown of Toronto, and Los Angeles, where she is as we connect via Zoom a few weeks back. She’s just on the precipice of releasing her new EP, clean hands, dirty water, a collection of six subdued pop tracks tackling themes of depression, loneliness and resilience. Having made music professionally since she was a mere 17 years old, her quick rise has been meteoric, amassing collaborations and seals of approval from the likes of Travis Barker, Mike Shinoda and Jake Bugg. Ren graciously spoke with me about the EP, her upbringing and her relationship with songwriting below.

[TJ Foster]: So, I’d love to dive in and get to know about your background – when you started playing music and what led you in that direction.

[Lauren] Growing up, it was deemed very important to play an instrument. I have three brothers, and all of us were put into music at a fairly young age, and we’ve all continued with it in some capacity. It was important for us to listen to music and understand the impact that it’s had on the world. I was just surrounded by it for most of my life. 

[TJ]: Did your parents perform or play anything?

[ren]: I think they knew how to play certain instruments, but they never played around us much. It was more like, “Oh my god, listen to this Joni Mitchell album or this Billy Joel album or this Stevie Wonder album!” There was always music – concert tapes, records – it was truly everywhere. 

I’m thankful that I was able to experience these things at such a young age and grow with the lyrics and watch them shape certain elements of my own music making. 

[TJ]: What are some artists that you consider pretty consistent influences? Any that you always come back to? 

[ren]: I feel like I reference different people for different things. It’s always going to be Amy Winehouse and Joni Mitchell. Amy was a once in a generation talent. She had everything. Joni is someone that, lyrically, I really look up to. Same with Bob Dylan and Billy Joel. Musically, Stevie Wonder will always be very important to me. I also listen to a lot of jazz stuff, which I find randomly inspiring. There’s also Nirvana, Car Seat Headrest, Elliott Smith… I don’t know. There are a lot of people that I [turn to] to help me get through things and make a song.

[TJ]: This is kind of a loaded question but, given the variety of influences you just named, what’s your songwriting process like?

[ren]: I experiment a lot. Normally, I just amplify the emotion that I experienced that day or week or month and put myself in that headspace, which isn’t the healthiest way to live your life. But I’ve found that I get good music out of it.

[TJ]: Haha. We’re musicians. We’re not the healthiest bunch!

[ren]: I know! That’s the thing. I was doing a session the other day, and I really didn’t have anything. Which is the worst feeling ever. We started a bunch of ideas, and [nothing was working]. My producer suggested I write down three ideas a day. I’ve always thought of lines and things, but then I don’t write them down and forget them. There’s so many great ideas that could have just disappeared that way! So, I might as well try doing that. We’ll see how it works. 

[TJ]: Let’s segue into the new EP. It does seem to have a bit more of an intimacy about it: ‘buried alive’ is a great example. What a fantastic song. It’s very focused on your storytelling and personal stuff. Did you find yourself approaching the songs differently than you have with past releases?

[ren]: Yes and no. I was kind of in a space where I was like, “I have to make this thing a little bit different.” I wanted to try a different process with some different sounds and just kind of do something fresh. But I also felt a bit restricted to do that. Maybe I was restricting myself. I don’t know what it was, but I knew what I’d done before worked. Why wouldn’t I stick to that? 

So, halfway through writing I thought, “Okay, today I want to write something different. I want to challenge myself, and make something that’s more upbeat, and not a dreadful sad song.” Which is hard for me! And I would go in and I would do that and I’d be like, you know what? That actually is pretty cool. I like that! Then the next day, I’d treat myself. “I can make a sad song today.” Luckily, this is my job. Every day, I can go in and experiment with a song. And nowadays, I feel like I have even more room to do that. 

[TJ]: It’s funny how many musicians I talk to feel the same way, that it’s the hardest thing in the world to write an upbeat, dare-I-say happy, song.

[ren]: Oh, yeah. I think everybody feels that way because you only really feel inspired to create when something super formative or life-altering enough happens. And typically that’s more of a negative thing, unfortunately. So it’s easier to be like, “I’m sad, and this is why I’m sad and blah, blah, blah.” But when you get to happy shit, what the fuck do you write about? Who wants to hear that? But, people do! Like, ‘Espresso’ is the best song. It’s so good and it’s happy and it’s cute and it’s fun, but that is so hard to do.

[TJ]: Is there anything specific you want listeners to take away from the EP and all the honesty that you’ve put into it?

[ren]: It’s definitely a diverse body of work. I think it’s a good representation of how I typically feel, and I think a lot of people do. There’s a long portion of the EP that is me in a rut. I’m not happy and thriving, but then there’s a couple songs that are cute and happier. That’s kind of the human experience. So, I just want people to give it a listen, and whatever song speaks to you in that moment, roll with it. You don’t have to necessarily love every song or feel super connected to everything. Some of my favourite artists, I don’t feel that way about all their music, and that’s totally cool. You can’t perfectly understand everybody else’s experiences.

[TJ]: I love that it is a diverse collection, but the songs also do make sense together, sonically and thematically. I feel like today, there’s less concern about every song having the same sort of formula or sound and there’s more room for “let’s try this here and there.” It’s one of the good aspects of playlist culture, I’ll admit.

[ren]: Absolutely.

[TJ]: You’ve had some pretty high profile collaborations over the last few years – Travis Barker, Mike Shinoda, for example – and I’d love to know how some of those came about.

[ren]: I think my favourite is probably the Mike Shinoda one, because I was just graduating high school. I was in French class or something, and I got a DM from him that said, “I love ‘i drive me mad’”. I immediately texted my manager and then as the pandemic was winding down, Mike and I collaborated on remixing that song. We would get on Zoom calls and pass mixing notes back and forth. He would give me amazing advice on how to navigate the industry, and I found that really helpful. From that age on, I’ve definitely carried a lot of that stuff with me, and it turned into this relationship where we started writing together. It’s just so awesome to be able to learn from an icon, and it was a very important part of my artistic development. He’s a really cool guy.

[TJ]: He’s always seemed like a very down to earth guy.

[ren]: So is Travis. Very humble, very kind, very down to earth. And you’re like, “oh, that’s why you are who you are, because you’re simply a good person.”

[TJ]: It’s good to know that there are good people in this industry, because it’s definitely chock full of shitty ones. 

[ren]: Definitely!

[TJ]: Okay so, potentially unhip question, but what is your relationship like with social media and what role does it play in your music, promotions, all of that?

[ren]: I don’t think that’s an unhip question at all! I think that is the question. I think that I understand the importance of it, and how much potential it has. It basically has almost all the potential nowadays to get your music out there. That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. Because I’m 21 years old, I’m supposed to know how to do this shit. But, I have no idea. It’s just not my forte, but I’m always learning things because, honestly, that space is changing every five minutes. 

It’s like the first half of the day, you “have” to do this in this space with this specific caption and it is guaranteed to go viral. Then the next day, this is what you do. But it never fucking works! So I have no idea and I have incredible help through it. But I feel like in a way, it kind of destroys your integrity as an artist. 

[TJ]: It is an exhausting game to play, for sure. And I feel like no matter what people say, no one really knows.

[ren]: Right! Like, shut up. You don’t fucking know what you’re doing. You just make good content. That’s what you have to do. That’s always what it’s been about. Good music videos have always been better than shit ones. Good music has always been better than shit music. And people will come to know that and understand that at one point or another. You see it also with TikTok – there’s so many revivals of certain songs and artists years later. People will always find the good shit. 

[TJ]: What do you find is the biggest sort of hurdle or barrier of entry right now for an up and coming artist trying to break through?

[ren]: I think one of the only great things about the industry nowadays is that nobody knows what they’re doing. How to break an artist, people don’t know how to do that anymore. It’s really just about things that you yourself can do. If you really want it, you’ll take the time to make really good content. But a lot of people don’t have that time. People are in school, people have jobs.

Also, never sacrifice your music because to me still, music is always number one. My favorite artists for the most part don’t even really use social media. I’ve kind of just found them through Spotify and friends and word of mouth, but I’m not the world. So if you want people to hear you and you want to make a splash, then you have to use social media because it’s actually a tool that is very, very friendly for up and coming artists. So don’t neglect that. Just make some content you’re proud of and you’ll be rewarded for it. Hopefully. 

clean hands, dirty water is available now on all major streaming platforms.

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