Having listened to Ren Harvieu’s music on a soundcloud loop for about two months and thoroughly abused the playing privileges of every youtube vid she’s uploaded, I was pretty pleased to hear her announce an album. But, no sooner had I heard about the 23rd April release date, a gig at The Ruby Lounge was announced (tickets bought) and then an album launch at Matt and Phred’s followed soon after (bought with bells on). The last event arrived first. So, Wednesday 7th, off I trotted, camera in hand, ready for cocktails and a decent bit of seriously soulful singage!
Now, I love a lot of different of music. I know it’s pretty hard for most people to sum up their taste, but if I had to sum up mine (which I don’t but will anyway), I’d say I generally like energetic and powerful indie/rock based music, with a particular penchant for electronic and pretty much anything from the 80’s (I wonder how many people claim a taste for the lifeless and weak?). However, my obsessions in 2012 have included Ella Fitzgerald, a rather cool Jazz On Film album, Niki & The Dove, Muddy Waters, Kuedo, Cyndi Lauper and of course Ren. It’s a pretty mixed musical bag with one common thread; whatever style they are, they are completely.
That’s not to say I’m against a bit of musical role-play; I’m all for artists straying outside of their defined genre roles (yes I’m liking this metaphor). In fact, one of the criticisms I have read about Ren is that she strays into too many styles (the Bossa-Nova tinged Through The Night, the country lilt of Do Right By Me). Although I can hear these varying influences, I mainly hear one distinguishable, almost era-less sound – very much driven, at full force, by Ren’s fantastically powerful and unique voice.
There’s a lovely interviewed by Tim Jonze on the Guardian website where Ren talks about her bored and introverted childhood. She explains how she found cinematic solace in the Disney musicals and all time classics such as Gone With The Wind, overtaken by the “Drama of it all”. You can certainly hear such influences reflected in her well-structured song writing. She also tells tales of a more-than-obsessive Morrissey fan mum who would play his albums loud and late into the night. This could certainly explain her acutely heavy sense of mood.
And it was that very same sense of mood that filled the walls of Matt and Phred’s that Wednesday for her album launch. Those familiar with the venue (previously referred to as Matt & Phred’s Jazz Club) will appreciate its suitability to her edgy and filmic sound. With a weighty anticipation creeping around the media-savvy well-packed room, she finally arrived on stage, crutch in hand (more than a hangover from her near-death experience last summer) dressed head to toe in a sheer black 20s number.
Her retro ensemble perfectly matched the jazz based five-piece that accompanied her. This included a piano, double bass, saxophone, guitar and drums played on an impressive kit donned with a cool art-deco fonted drum face. All aided the timeless quality of her style. She opened with the full-on theatrics of Tonight and no sooner had her voice filled the room then her crutch was dropped and what you thought you knew of Ren Harvieu changed right before your eyes.
She didn’t simply perform the songs; she fully possessed them. Her voice is the richest mix of both Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield with more than a touch of Film Noir about her. She smoldered her way through For You increasing the intensity with which her audience was captured with every line she sang. With Through The Night and Do Right By Me she continued to beguile the crowd to an unknown (at a gig) level of concentrated attention. For Ren, the mic isn’t something you just sing into, but something through which to transpose all the sentiment, longing and desire behind every track.
She received huge applause for her uber-seducifying version of Rihanna’s We Found Love although there was no such Rihanna style swagger on this stage. Ren spoke little in-between songs and paused only for the occasional sip of her pint while the band struck up their next swing. I’ve read that some felt her lack of confidence and crowd participation to be one of the only negative elements to the show. Not that I want the woman to be riddled with self-doubt (i’m certain this is not the case) but I particularly found this aspect of Ren’s performance refreshing. I have been in a band and am well aware of the crap advice people give you with regards to having stage presence. Ren HAS stage presence in abundance, and no amount of show-host banter, or Nina Simone-esque cabaret chat would have improved the performance she gave.
The peak of her performance had to be her rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying, an all time favorite of mine and clearly of hers too. The audience stood stunned for a whole few seconds (a long pause in gig-time) before breaking out into serious applause. Joined on stage by The Zutons’ Dave McCabe she closed with the string-surging Open Up Your Arms. The line “I don’t see you listening anymore” could not have been more ironic as she ended a show, so stunningly wonderful to watch, all were listening to the euphorically sorrowful end.
She says in the Tim Jonze interview that the music she makes is “heartfelt” and it is something she has wanted to do for a long time. It is that determined and yearning singer that sang the fantastic set at Matt and Phreds last Wednesday. Ren Harvieu is so much more than a 21-year-old Salfordian Lana Del Ray with a back catalogue of influences. There is something about her timeless quality that really is the antithesis to all the usual musical comparisons that people tend to make (me included). The line from Open Up Your Arms, “think that you have sussed me out, but I know that you don’t know what you’re talking about” seems particularly relevant here.
The dateless sound is certainly one of its strengths, yet i’ve heard various re-mixes of her songs laced over intricate and impressive electronica and they too are a joy. While her voice sounds as though it is singing from another age, she is fantastically now. She isn’t a Duffy-Adele-Ray. She’s a Ren Harvieu. And as she ends by lamenting “let me in” I know for a fact that I certainly will, and if the crowd is anything to go by, the rest of the world will too.
Ren Harvieu’s Album Through The Night is due for release on 23rd April
She is performing at The Ruby Lounge 1st April
All images © Anne Louise Kershaw