Lauren Isenberg, better known as RENFORSHORT, creates soul-baring songs that tackle youth, anxiety, romance, restlessness, and self-image. Chatting to NOTION, she talks navigating social media, keeping it candid in her music and her new EP.
Often categorised as ‘pop-grunge’ for her oxymoronic candy vocals and badass guitar shredding, renforshort is part of the Gen Z grunge renaissance currently sweeping the musical landscape. A genre originally popularised by titans such as Nirvana (one of her biggest influences), Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, artists like renforshort and beabadoobee are bringing it back, giving an accessible pop edge to an otherwise tired genre. However, ren is hesitant to categorise her sound at all, feeling that whilst ‘alternative pop’ seems like the most logical ft, “it’s hard to place myself in a category if there isn’t one that exists,” she says. “I can’t fall anywhere, I just make music that I like — and I like basically every type of music. With things that have inspired me, I’m gonna take that, regurgitate it and bring it back through my art.”
As with many stories of artistic inspiration, it all started with the music ren grew up on. With two music-loving parents heavily into grunge (like most dads, hers claims he found it before it was cool), she was constantly surrounded by vinyl, classic rock, and hip-hop from the 80s and 90s. Her brothers are talented instrumentalists, so ren jammed with them, honing her guitar skills to form the earworm melodies we hear today. “My family was super supportive from the get-go,” she explains. In fact, they urged the kids to pursue music in the same way other families champion sports, carving out time for singing and piano lessons, musical theatre and creative writing.
“I’m super thankful that they’re so supportive and encouraged music, whether that was just for fun or as a career. Having that option was awesome. Trying to think of a world where that doesn’t exist kind of terrifies me, because I have no idea what I’d be doing right now.”
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Debuting independently in 2019 with her first release “waves”, ren followed with the viral hit “mind games” before her first EP, teenage angst, dropped in 2020. Song titles on the project, such as “idc”, “tastefully depressed” and “luv is stooopid” are indicative of the devil-may-care teenage attitude she and her growing legion of fans emanate. “A big demographic of people that listen to my music are people around my age,” ren explains. “It’s that formative time where you move out or you go to college. This age is a big change.”
“I don’t think my life is super different than anyone else’s, or crazier,” she adds, “but I think that’s why people like my music because it’s so much like them, you know?”
2020 saw singles “fuck, i luv my friends” and “nostalgic (luvsick)”, before “virtual reality” and “exception” dropped this year. The latter two are cuts from off saint dominique, ren’s sophomore EP, which releases at the start of June. Announcing the news on Instagram at the end of March, she claimed that “it’s the best music I’ve ever made in my life,” and she might just be right. The six-track project flexes ren’s musical wings so that we can watch her soar. From the angsty headbanger “fall apart”, featuring hyperpop artist glaive, to the more soft and delicate “exception”, we’re taken on an intimate tour of her life and mind. It’s a diary of sorts, one that mirrors ren’s growth — both personally and musically.
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“I just feel like I have such a connection with it,” she enthuses. “It feels like such a formative part of my life. All the music that was written here feels so important to my personal story. I’ve expanded and I’ve had my project grow, and with that I’ve been able to be more honest and be more experimental with what I’m doing. I think that’s why it’s the best music I’ve made. I don’t know if it’s going to feel like that to outsiders. I hope it does.”
A year or so in the making, it takes its name from the location of the writing camp in Montreal where ren wrote most of the songs. I probe her on whether she has a favourite song — usually a question that has the propensity to throw artists into doubt, as making them choose a favourite song is like asking parents to choose a favourite child. “It changes all the time for me,” she begins diplomatically. “But a constant one that I’m in awe of every time is “lust to love”. I really love that song. I’m mad every day that I didn’t decide to put it out as a single. I don’t know what my thought process was there, but it is one of my favourite songs I’ve done; it just feels very different from everything else and very timeless.”
When creating off saint dominique, ren recalls some of the hurdles she faced, namely with one song in particular. On “fall apart” she battled with the need to assign meaning to a song that had no pre-existing meaning to her, yet sonically, it was one of her favourite tracks. She took comfort in Kurt Cobain’s outlook, who said that many of his records never had a deeper meaning. The late Nirvana frontman often threw lyrics together from various places and went with whatever ft together, even pulling on a quote from a “Deep Thoughts” skit from SNL for the band’s song “I Hate Myself and Want To Die”.
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ren tells me that “fall apart” was created purely “for the listening experience,” and expresses concern about people asking what the song is about in upcoming interviews. “It’s not about anything that is super meaningful to me. It’s just for listening, I guess. If there is no meaning, make meaning for yourself. That’s what we do with Nirvana songs — we make meanings for ourselves,” she remarks. “I feel like my music’s broad enough that people can relate to it, but it has that extra something that makes it what it is and related to my life.”
Music has long provided a safe space for artists to share the thoughts and feelings they can’t say out loud. Finding catharsis — and sometimes therapy — through song is a tale as old as time, and it’s something ren most definitely relates to. “For me, it’s about not having to deal with that face-to-face conversation,” she reveals. “It’s like being able to put this tiny message in a bottle and send it out to the sea. Like, it’s here, and you’re gonna hear about it, but not directly from me because I’m not ready for that conversation. It’s hard for me to talk about because I don’t want to feel like a burden.” Whilst she is more than able to provide a shoulder for her friends to lean on, ren says that she struggles to open up about her own turmoils. “For some reason it trips me out,” she says. “So I put it in songs and explain it in interviews so it’s out there for everyone, and then people know.”
Despite this inner wrestling, ren still strives to be candid in her music. “I feel like it’s my duty. I have a platform,” she declares. “The first songs I’ve ever written were about my struggles with my body or my mental health. Those are things that I feel are very personal. And then you put it out and people message like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never heard this articulated better’.”
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Whilst social media allows ren to connect with her fans and see the impact of her music firsthand, she has also been honest about its pitfalls. On “virtual reality” she sings about how she doesn’t want to ‘live my life on the internet’ and ‘check my phone before I even get to take a breath’ in the morning. Social media undoubtedly presents such a paradox for artists in today’s digital world, many finding themselves in a ‘can’t live with it, can’t live without it’ predicament. An online presence is integral to an artist’s success, but it creates a lot of pressure — in particular, by exposing them to cyberbullying and trolls. In a recent study, it was revealed that 42% of the Tweets Billie Eilish received in 2019 were negative, whilst Ariana Grande came in at 41%, Jorja Smith at 19% and Adele at a whopping 66%. Tormenting others online whilst hiding behind a keyboard is such a prevalent phenomenon that artists such as Jesy Nelson have spoken publicly about their struggles with it. In Jesy’s case, the trolling was so bad that she felt driven to leave her girl group, Little Mix, and even attempted suicide in order to make it stop.
ren recalls a time when she happened upon a video that Universal had posted of her on social media. She recollects how some users had made derogatory comments about the way she was sitting, trying to find problems and pick holes. “I was like, ‘It’s insane that this is something that bothers someone’,” she remembers. “I understand if it was me singing and someone didn’t like the vibe or my voice or the song or whatever. I totally get that. But how can you pick on something when there’s nothing for you to hate? I just can’t understand it,” she says searchingly. “It’s not even that they make me upset. It just seems completely unnecessary and I can’t understand the thought process behind the people that comment shit like that and find a problem with literally everything.”
The last year has been a hellscape to say the least. Amongst the shared losses of freedom and ability to see loved ones, musicians like ren have also lost a year of performing time, chances to engage with their fans and play their songs live to increasingly large audiences. What kind of toll has the past year taken on her? “So, I’ve been OK,” ren sighs, world-weary. “I’ve been as good as I can be.” Touching on her struggles with mental health, she makes a joke that the standard was already “pretty low,” but has been focusing on the small joys in life such as skincare and daily routines. While she originally lamented missing out on her high school graduation and prom due to the Covid crisis, now she “literally couldn’t give less of a shit about that.” In fact, she thinks the pandemic has had somewhat of a positive impact on her mental health. “I’m able to see more in the grand scheme of things — how not important these little things are that have completely tripped me out in the past, because you have way more time to reflect on it.”
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However, without the ability to tour and do all the normal promo expected of a rapidly growing artist, ren has been shielded from the true weight of her success. “It’s hard to grasp how many people actually listen to your music,” she says. “You could see numbers — like million, five million or 600,000, it doesn’t matter. You can see those numbers and be like ‘Oh awesome, it hit this, that’s so exciting’, but it’s not like you’re really getting paid for that because you don’t actually make money from Spotify. It’s just a mark in the tracks — like that’s cool that it happened and fuck yeah, that’s obviously so awesome because you’re growing and people are still listening to your music and maybe you’re accumulating new fans, but you don’t know. It doesn’t make sense until you see the people singing your songs and you’re like ‘They’re actual human beings!’” ren reckons that a lot of artists on a similar trajectory to her — especially those who came up through TikTok — are going to get “a really big punch in the face” when we emerge from the pandemic and ‘normal life’ can resume.
Before the world went into lockdown, ren was able to open for Two Feet on tour and play a label showcase. Even in the early days of her career when she had just a few songs to her name, fans would come to the shows specifically for her. Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, she would marvel at the novelty of people singing her songs back to her in the crowd. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’” she recalls, agape at the experience. “It’s so, so weird. Like how do you know this is my song? It could be one person singing it and it’s still like ‘Holy shit, I wrote this in my room; this is about my life and you know every word and you’re singing it in front of me!’” She smiles at the memory. Hopefully it won’t be long until she’s back on the stage. This time, however, her name will be the one in lights.