J-Pop Singer-Songwriter ReN on Ed Sheeran's Influence & Writing New Single in Nashville: Interview

do not reuse-- international
Courtesy of Billboard Japan
ReN

Japanese singer-songwriter ReN recently released "HURRICANE," his first single under Warner Music Japan. The 25-year-old artist's first new song in six months was written in Nashville, where he stopped during his travels across the U.S. after a week-long recording session in L.A.

ReN decided to pursue music professionally after being forced to give up his dream of becoming a Formula One driver due to injuries incurred in a racing accident. The music he listened to during his period of physical and emotional recovery inspired him to kick off his current career.

Billboard Japan spoke with the young artist about his musical roots, the process of writing and recording his new single, his thoughts on performing live, and more.

Could you elaborate on your musical roots and what lies behind your music?

I think the momentum and impulses that I had from when I was striving to become an F1 driver are carried over into my current music. Apart from that, obviously a lot of my songs have been inspired by the music that I always listened to. In particular, the artist I referenced first in terms of my current musical style and way of performing live was Ed Sheeran. His presence motivated me to start a career in music.

After you gave up on your dream of becoming an auto racer, why do you think you ended up choosing music among the many career choices you must have had?

Danger is ever-present in the world of auto racing, so we drivers harbored a chronic sense of dread. But, at the same time, we also felt a desire to grasp what lay beyond that. When I used to constantly feel that kind of thrill, music was something I needed personally. So even before I got into music as a career, I depended on what you might call "the power of music" to live.

You lived in the U.K. for a year when you were a teenager. Do you feel that your experiences from that period influence your current music?

I lived in the U.K. in 2010, which was a big year for EDM. Ed Sheeran was also already pretty famous in his home country at the time, but not so much outside of the U.K. But even so, there were so many magnetic singer-songwriters there, and music on the radio that would never make it to the airwaves in Japan, so my experiences from that year have stayed with me like treasures. And all the more so because it was also a period when I really wanted to hear music.

Tell us the concept of your new single, "HURRICANE."

I think rock is music that "supplies emotion." Using sadness as the theme, for example, I think folk music is a genre that depicts why you became sad. But rock is music where everyone shouts that emotion called sadness together. This new song "HURRICANE" contains my definition of rock. It sings about feeling conflicted and anxious, but intentionally doesn't say what exactly those emotions are about.

Those of us living in modern times all harbor an inexplicable sense of anxiety. I can't write songs that say, "This is how you find an answer," to address that, but I hoped to create something that tells people, "Hey, let's blow away pain and sadness through music together!"

So, you wrote the lyrics based on an underlying sense of stagnation of the times?

I don't want to blame everything on society, but we don't feel that way because we want to, right? And we don't know where or how to direct those kinds of emotions and demands. I felt like singing about such conflicted feelings and irritation.

I'd always sought answers from music and had never sung about such emotions before. But I figured singing about things that have no answer is music, too. I wanted to wash away such negative things by singing about them in the context of a catastrophic phenomenon like a hurricane.

Did you come up with the title after you finished the song?

I came up with the phrase for the intro when I was in Nashville, and while we were building up the song based on it, the word "hurricane" came to mind. So, the way this song was written, the scenery popped into my head first, and I started from there to unravel the feelings that I wanted to entrust the song with.

I didn't go to the U.S. just to work on songs, actually. Like I said earlier, my life in the U.K. became an extremely valuable experience, so I was genuinely looking forward to taking in the American cities where people spoke the same language (as in the U.K.) but had completely different cultures. I was curious about what kind of songs would be born when I placed myself in that environment.

Where else did you go besides Nashville?

After working in L.A. for a week, I went to Nashville during the time I had left. Nashville is a city of folk and country music, you know? Returning to what I said earlier about rock and folk, I was pursuing my definition of rock at the time, so was striving to create that kind of music while in L.A.

And on my last day in the States, I went to Nashville, basically on a whim, but the song that I made there became the brassiest. [Laughs] I guess the atmosphere of the city itself didn't affect me so much as the inspirations that I gained while I was there. That might be one of the interesting aspects of writing songs outside of Japan.

If you tried any other different ways of approaching this record, could you tell us about them?

There were other musicians and producers in the studio this time from when I was writing the lyrics and music, and we discussed things along the way during the production. That was clearly a different way of doing things from before.

But if I'm going to sing a song to express myself, I have to place my intent in every essence of the end product. So I made sure to communicate with everyone so that nothing that I didn't intend went into it. It was a new attempt for me in that sense as well.

I was able to receive objective feedback, as well as see how others reacted to my opinions. And when that overcomes language barriers, a sense of mutual solidarity is born. There's definitely a merit to music created in the midst of that sensation, so I think being able to travel back and forth between a perspective born from that kind of openness and an introverted one that can only be reached alone will become one of my strengths as a singer-songwriter.

The Grammy-winning mixing engineer Tom Lord-Alge worked with you again following your previous release.

"HURRICANE" was made mostly in the States, so I wanted someone who knows that world inside and out to mix it. He really examines every little detail, and sticks with me to the point where normally people would be like, "That won't change anything anymore."

Do you plan on working more outside of Japan in the future?

Yes. The fact that I was able to create songs overseas that I think are good, and that I was able to maintain a good groove with the local musicians gave me confidence. Playing music on a global scale is probably any musician's dream, and of course I always have that in mind as my goal.

But to do so, I still have to work on changing things within myself, such as my way of thinking and feel for language, and in a way I think it may be necessary to forget about Japan at times. I think I sort of grasped that feeling while working on "HURRICANE."

Do you have anything you keep in mind when planning your live shows?

I try to be strongly aware of giving a unique performance each time. My concerts are like showing people the process of cooking, so there's always a tension there. Because I'm drawing upon the strengths of my entire body and every equipment around me, it's reminiscent of the thrill from my racing days.

It goes without saying that Ed Sheeran's towering presence had an impact on me, but I think I was able to devote myself to this simply because it's fun. If I were doing live shows where I'm just presenting the songs I made, some people might end up being bored. But I'm never bored by my own shows at any rate, and also enjoy the process of trial and error in sharing that tension with the audience through my performance.

Because I'm the kind of person who can't be satisfied if there's no thrill in life. Experiencing a bit of cold sweat underneath a seemingly nonchalant attitude feels just right for me.