Artist Spotlight: Le Ren

    Lauren Spear, who performs under the alias Le Ren, spent her teenage years in Bowen Island/Nex̱wlélex̱m, a small municipality on the Canadian west coast, where she studied bluegrass. After relocating to Montreal as an adult, her musical interests expanded to contemporary folk, country, and rock, and she started sharing her first songs online in the mid-2010s, drawing influence from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Vashti Bunyan, and Karen Dalton. In early 2020, she signed to Secretly Canadian and released her first official single for the label, ‘Love Can’t Be The Only Reason to Stay’, which was followed by the Morning & Melancholia EP, a heart-wrenching meditation on loss written in the wake of her ex-boyfriend’s death.

    Last week, Le Ren issued her debut full-length, Leftovers, a beautiful collection of songs whose tone alternates between mournful and uplifting, but one that is most stirring for its rich evocation of different kinds of intimacy – between mother and daughter, between friends, between romantic partners – and the way sharing your heart with someone can fill it with gratitude and the drive to keep going. Spear expresses these intense feelings through tender vocals and lyrics that can be both simple and poetic in their sincerity, while her gorgeous arrangements are fittingly brought to life by a host of collaborators, including producer Chris Cohen as well as Big Thief’s Buck Meek, Tenci’s Jess Shoman, Mauno’s Eliza Niemi, Aaron Goldstein, Kaïa Kater, Cedric Noel, and more. As lovely and enduring as they are, these songs are never overpowering, which is precisely the point: “Be soft and lay your head down/ Want not for words to sing,” she sings on opener ‘Take On Me’, “Just listen to the stillness/ Of a stirring from within.”

    We caught up with Lauren Spear aka Le Ren for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, the process of making Leftovers, collaborating with other musicians, and more.

    Do you mind sharing some of your earliest memories of enjoying music?

    This isn’t a memory of mine, but my mom said as a baby I was always very responsive to music. Whenever it was on, I would bounce and get very excited that my legs would kind of flap. So I think it’s something from a very young age that I was always drawn to and moved by. I sang a lot with my dad growing up – he’s a songwriter, so I think hearing him sing his own songs for his family and friends was always inspiring, and it kind of made me think that I could do the same, and it wouldn’t be weird. [laughs] I grew up on a very small island where there was a lot of opportunity to just sing a song, and there were a lot dinners turned into people in the living room picking up instruments and singing together. So that was always like normalised for me, and it was very easy to join in. And then I kind of started going my separate way and singing and writing alone, apart from that structure.

    Is there a strong memory in your mind of performing your own songs for the first time?

    I definitely wrote some really embarrassing songs as a child. My friend who’s visiting me right now, she’s also from Bowen, we had a band together – well, it was just the two of us, it was a duo. We sang a lot about the ocean and nature, which was very popular at the time in BC. I remember this one song that I wrote that was explaining how I was, like, part of the sea. I have a lot of memories of us singing together since we were like 15.

    What does Bowen Island as a place mean to you now? How do you look back on your upbringing there?

    It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I think I’m more grateful that it’s in my life the more time I spend away from it, because I’ve lived in Montreal for like 10 years now. So every time I go back, I’m just shocked at its natural beauty. I think I also think about it in a different way because it is quite a small, sheltered community. Growing up was really idyllic, but it was, in a sense, cut off from the world.

    Do you know other people who have moved away and have had a similar experience as you? Did your friend also move away?

    Totally, yeah. We were just talking about that before this conversation. We didn’t realize how white our community was – it’s like 90% white people – so that was something that we were naive about. And also seeing a lot of wealth on Bowen, that wasn’t something that we were aware of either. Just like a sheltered community, in a sense.

    Was the fact that it was cut off from the world one of the reasons that that led to you moving to Montreal?

    Totally. I think it’s that classic thing of wanting the opposite of what you grew up around. I wanted to be in a big city. And I think a big part of the reason why I moved here was because of the music scene. There’s so much good music coming out of Montreal when I first moved here, and it still is here today, so that was exciting to me. I came for school, but I just wanted to be in the city more than anything.

    When you first moved there, were you surprised in any way by what you found? And over time, what have you come to love about the music scene in Montreal that you didn’t realize when you first moved there?

    When I first came here, there was a big electronic movement happening. This was right as Grimes had just moved out of the city, and so there was a kind of music that I hadn’t ever listened to. I listened to a lot of bluegrass and folk music and pop growing up, so that was very apparent when I came here. And I was interested, I tried my hand at it because I wanted to play music and that’s what everyone was doing. So I had multiple bands where I was trying out doing like synth stuff, and I’d just never done that before so it wasn’t natural to me. It was fun, I always like collaborating with people, but I think what I was missing was the bluegrass community that I found with my family but I didn’t find here. There was one country bar that I went to called Grumpies every Wednesday with my friend, who is from BC and we went to bluegrass camp together. That was like my outlet, but it was only until recently that I really started playing that kind of music again and decided that that was what felt most true to me.

    What makes that kind of music, bluegrass and folk in particular, so special to you?

    I think bluegrass, for me, I just have such specific memories around it, so it’s less of a genre to me and more of like a feeling. Because that was a big entry point into music for me, going to bluegrass camp with my mom and playing with all her friends and sitting down in a circle and everyone playing together. That feeling is so deep within me. And when I listen to that music, I’m not just like cooking or going about my day, I have such visual images connected to it, and I can feel the people playing together. I always picture what it must feel like to be a player in the band that I’m listening to, so that’s what puts it apart for me, because I can’t picture, when I listen to rock, I can’t picture myself in that band. And I can with folk – I mean, folk is different, I think with folk, I like the storytelling aspect of it, and I’m just obsessed with songwriting and words. I feel like it’s the perfect genre if you are of that mind and you want to create a book in a song.

    What is your relationship with writing like, and how has it changed over the years?

    I feel like for a long time, I was a very reactive writer, in that I used it as a way to help me through turbulent times in my life. Like, I went through a really hard breakup, and I was writing a ton of songs about that to kind of get me through it. Or like, someone I knew passed away and then I started writing about that. I definitely used it and still use it as a vehicle to help myself out of hard places, but I think that changed over the last couple of years, where I was able to just write about other things and write about friendship and write about my mom, and not have it be born out of loss or mourning. I think a balance has been good for me, so I don’t have to rely on really hard times to create music.

    Because of those lines on ‘Your Cup’ [“All the trees have turned to paper/ And I wait to press my pen/ For if I pencil poorly/ How could I make it up to them?”], I was curious if you write lyrics on paper or on a screen.

    I do a mix. I also just heard the doorbell ring – sorry, one second, I’m gonna bring you with me. I’m kind of thinking this might be my record, which is exciting. I haven’t seen it in real life, and it’s supposed to arrive today.

    Oh wow, that’s exciting.

    Sorry that I’m bringing you through my house.

    [connection gets lost]

    It’s the record. Check this out.

    You can open it if you want, I mean, you don’t have to wait.

    I absolutely will. Sorry, you were saying something interesting and I got side-tracked. Oh yeah, it was writing on paper. I do a mix of both, so I have notebooks that I use – oh my god, this is exciting. It says, “Congrats on your new release!” [laughs] Yeah, so I have multiple notebooks and one in particular that has a lot of this record on it, which is fun to look back and see what lines I crossed out or what I ended up going with. But I also use my phone for little ideas day-to-day, like if I think of a word I like or a song title. Oh my god, wow. I truly haven’t seen it in real life.

    How are you feeling?

    I feel great. It’s so weird that I haven’t seen this image yet, honestly. My roommate took this photo.

    I actually was going to ask about it.

    Yeah, we definitely went back and forth with the artwork. I had this very specific image in mind, which we did a photoshoot for. I made this quilt that was made out of different loved ones’ clothing and I cut everything up and I sewed them together, and so I wanted that to be the image on the record. We did the shoot and I liked the photo and it’s on the inside of the record, but for some reason it wasn’t landing, just didn’t totally make sense. And then Lo, my roommate, took this photo of me. And I don’t know, it just looked like myself. I saw the image and I was like, “Okay, yeah, that looks like me.” I feel like there’s a lot of photos where I’m like, “Who is that?” At first, I think I just didn’t want a photo of myself as the cover, it just felt a bit much. But I think I think it makes more and more sense, and it’s nice because I have like a memory attached to it that feels intimate, and I feel like this record is really intimate. Oh, it looks nice. I’m glad you’re here for this.

    Something I wanted to ask you is the sequencing of the record, because I think it does a great job of bringing together these different types of love that you sing about. You mentioned your mother, and ‘Dyan’ is dedicated to her, and then ‘I Already Love You’ considers the prospect of motherhood from your perspective. How are these songs connected to you? Did writing one feed into the other, or was it just something you were thinking about?

    I think it was just something I was thinking about. I wrote ‘I Already Love You’ before ‘Dyan’. I mean, I think they feed into each other because they’re all coming out of my own mind, and I think about motherhood a lot. I don’t know, something about going into my 30s – I’m 28 now, but I will be 30 in a couple years – I’ve just been thinking a lot about being a parent. So, I think those things are related, it’s like trying to think about my mom and my dad’s experience having kids and growing up and moving away from that kid-parent dynamic where you’re just not really aware of your parents as people, or at least I wasn’t. You know, you’re just kind of crashing around, you don’t consider their own experience. So I think that, growing up and having space from them, being like, “Whoa, that must have been so hard to raise kids and give up parts of your life to do that.” And I think as I’m moving into this stage of life where I’m considering that, I’m thinking more about their experiences as well.

    I love how the idea of already loving someone, which you’re talking about in that song, extends to strangers, in a way, on the song ‘Who’s Going to Hold Me Next?’, where you’re embracing independence but also a different kind of family and community. When it comes to people that you haven’t met yet, where do you think that kind of love comes from, this desire to connect with someone that you don’t but could potentially know?

    I think all of us have this kind of well of love inside of us at all times, and choose who to give it to, and in what ways it comes up. I think, with ‘I Already Love You’, there’s a type of love that I haven’t experienced, which is being a parent. And I’ve heard so much about it, and I can’t begin to understand it. But I think different kinds of love is what I’m deeply interested in, because it’s this umbrella term and yet it feels so different when it’s with a partner, like a romantic partner, versus like a parent. And it’s just this feeling of connection,  and I think it’s interesting to me to think about a version of it that I haven’t experienced yet, in the form of being a parent. And also, with romantic love, for ‘Who’s Going to Hold Me Next?’, that was written at a time when I was single. [laughs] And I was just kind of moving through that way of life, and trying to think about different forms of intimacy and not being in a long-term committed relationship, which I’m used to. At the time that I was writing it, I was just trying to date casually for the first time, and now I’m in a committed partnership, but I think it is interesting to have that song as a relic from that time and to think back about how I was perceiving the world of love in a different way.

    I think “well of love” is a wonderful way of putting it. What separates these different kinds of love in your mind?

    I think that’s an ongoing question for me. It’s like, why is it so different, the way that I feel for like my boyfriend versus my best friends? It’s like the same feeling, but then it is weird how it changes in romance, and how there is sometimes a different layer of connection and and intimacy. I think because in a romantic relationship you pair with someone in a different way that is beyond friendship, where you’re kind of living in unison or side by side and like, that’s your person. That is so interesting to me, that we as humans do that and connect with – I mean, sometimes multiple people, for me it’s like a monogamous situation. And it’s also interesting to have loved different people romantically and feel different in each of those relationships. That’s strange to me too, where we’re still using this umbrella term, and yet I felt specifically different in this relationship than I did to others. I don’t know, it’s an ongoing mystery to me that I am sure I will write about for the rest of my life.

    We were talking earlier about responses to your music, and I was wondering if that’s another layer for you, connecting with strangers in that way. Is that something that you hadn’t considered before releasing this album or music more generally?

    Totally. One of the first songs that I released was a song called ‘Love Can’t Be the Only Reason to Stay’, and I wrote it very much for myself when I was in like the pit of doom, going through the roughest breakup I’ve ever been through. That was a song that just helped me, and then I put it out just like on a whim – I didn’t think it was a very good song, but my friends were like, “This hits home, you should share this.” So I did. And then it was that song that I got a lot of response from strangers. People would write to me about their own breakups, and a lot of people had said that it had helped them in a real way. And I think that really affected me, I was like, Damn, this is why you make music. So you can share it with people in this strange way where it’s just human connection. It’s like, once you explain very specifically what you went through and then somebody says “I’ve gone through something similar” or “I can relate to that,” it just makes you feel connected to the world. That is what is so special to me, and I strive to keep doing that. And I think the more honest I can be about my own lived experience and putting that into song, I feel like, hopefully, the more people will hear that and connect to it.

    We’re talking about friendship and how that’s another theme on the album, which I thought was interesting because it also features all these different musicians and singers. Can you talk specifically about ‘Annabelle & MaryAnne’, your duet with Tenci, and how that collaboration came about?

    Jess from Tenci is so sweet. My roommate, Ali, was a big fan of theirs, and introduced the record My Heart Is an Open Field. I just love that record so much and I was so struck by their voice, so I added them on Instagram and messaged them being like, “This is so beautiful.” And then we just started talking and became pen pals, we wrote each other letters, which was so sweet, and we’d never met. And then I just asked them if they would sing the song – the song was written about one of my best friends and it’s supposed to be us in conversation with each other, so I just explained the nature of the song to them and they were down and did a beautiful job. I met them finally for the first time a couple  of weeks ago when I was in Chicago and I saw them play a show, so that was really special. It’s funny because I’m sure over the next couple of years I’ll start meeting everyone that played on my record. I haven’t met Buck [Meek] in real life, Kaïa [Kater] – yeah, there’s still people.

    Do you mind sharing some of your favorite contributions to the record, anything that stood out to you?

    Kaïa is an incredible banjo player and musician. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, so I was really excited that she agreed to play on the record. I feel like in making the record this way, there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of trial and error, and with Kaïa’s session, I was so excited when she sent me what she did, and it was one of those moments where I was like, “This just elevates the song so much, and the essence feels like what I was trying to write about.” She plays on ‘May Hard Times Pass Us By’. Also, Eliza Niemi plays cello all over the record and did a perfect job, where she created arcs within the songs that I couldn’t have done on my own.

    I was wondering, on the lyric sheet for the album, the line on ‘Who’s Going to Hold Me?’ reads “I found in my past that it’s built to last.” But I heard “not built to last.”

    It is “it’s not built to last.” Oh no, a typo! [checks record] Let’s see… It’s nice that we have this right here. I mean, I haven’t looked at this yet, so I don’t know if there’s any typos. [gasps] “But I found in my past…” You’re right.

    Oh no.

    It’s supposed to be “it’s not built to last.” That was me feeling pessimistic about long-term love. You know what, good catch.

    I have one more question, but it’s not a serious one. I was curious about your Twitter handle [@secretlyfurious]. Obviously, your label is Secretly Canadian…

    I definitely made handle way before Secretly Canadian was in the mix, so it’s just a fun coincidence. And now that that is my label, it’s a funny combo.

    Like implying something?

    Literally, I’m like, should I change it? I don’t know where that came from. I think I thought it was funny. I’ve always had those photos of me as my banner – it’s a photo of me really young, and I just look like a little bitch. [laughs] And I thought that photo was funny because, I don’t know, I don’t think I’m read as an angry person ever, but I look so mad and young. I think it’s just funny when you see young kids looking so mad and you’re like, “About what?” [laughter]

    So you’re not secretly furious about anything?

    No, not at all. I have no qualms. I’m happy, generally.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Le Ren’s Leftovers is out now via Secretly Canadian.

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