Get to know Ren Farren. The 24-year old L.A. based singer-songwriter is two years removed from graduating USC’s popular music program, the same four-year industry crash course that produced recent synth-rock breakout stars MUNA, as well as ought-to-be-huge up-and-comers Maddie Ross and Wolfy, whom we’ve both profiled recently.
Farren works in a slickly produced brand of confessional guitar-pop that feels comfortably current, yet jogs your memory like the bubblegum Top 40 you sang along to in your mirror in your early teens. It doesn’t really matter when your early teens actually happened, since Farren evokes P!nk and Red-era Taylor Swift alongside the 1975 and “The Middle,” and recently found life-altering influence in Bruce Springsteen‘s Born To Run autobiography and Beyoncé‘s Lemonade album-film. Farren’s brand new Good Girl EP finds her getting over a breakup and making peace with her high school years, in a way that’s poignantly universal.
“The traditional things that make you a high school success story, I wasn’t really living that life,” Farren tells Billboard. “Sometimes I felt like a child, sometimes I felt 40 — I didn’t know how to handle it! But I look back on it affectionately… You could say this song is about high school or this song is about a boy, but the songs really are about me, so much more about me than a lot of stuff I’ve written in a while.”
Like her 2015 EP Where I Am Wild, the new set was produced by her former USC classmate Brian Robert Jones, one-half of L.A. synth-pop outfit Human Natural and the current touring bassist for both MUNA and Gwen Stefani. That EP landed Farren television synchs on shows like New Girl and The Young and the Restless, while first flexing her post-grad songwriting muscle.
Today, Farren premieres the self-released Good Girl EP exclusively via Billboard, along with a Q&A: “I still identify with my first EP so strongly, but this felt like a new level for me.”
What were some of your earliest musical influences?
I’ve had such an interesting relationship with pop music my whole life. I grew up listening to Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera and ’NSYNC. I was obsessed, and I was the tiniest little kid singing all these songs. I didn’t even know what they meant — I just loved them.
My parents both grown up in California… My dad was obsessed with Jackson Browne and my mom has always been obsessed with Joni Mitchell, and they both passed that onto me. So I grew up listening to all of these Laurel Canyon-y, folksy artists: Carole King and the Eagles and stuff like that.
For a long time I would really go back and forth and wrestle with what type of music I wanted to make. because I had these strong, rootsy, folk rock, very lyrical influences, but then I also just loved pop music so much. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to go together, but I think it can be done. In the last few years, there have been so many amazing pop artists making really powerful music; you can dance to it, but it can still hit you really hard.
?What was it like growing up in Malibu and then going to college so close to home?
I definitely fantasized about leaving the nest, going somewhere else. I had a tough time for a while: “Do I really wanna live 45 minutes away from home?” I felt like I wanted to get out, so I took a semester to go to New York. But now with the perspective I have from graduating, I’m so happy I stayed and made it through.
It’s so hard to have perspective in high school. I was so lucky to grow up in Malibu. But it’s a small high school — everyone knows everyone… I was a pretty arty kid and so were most of my friends. I did all the plays, I did all the musicals, I was president of the choir. You’re in close proximity to L.A. and a lot of peoples’ parents are actors or musicians. There’s probably more of a respect for the arts than at most public schools around the country.
What was your experience like at the USC music program? How did it lead to the sound of the new EP?
I was the third year of the program, so when I started, there wasn’t even a senior class. It felt like being part of a crazy experiment. I learned so much and I got a lot better from the constant playing and learning all sorts of different things: taking lessons, playing in bands. Having to show up every week to songwriting class with new material — it gets you to a different place pretty fast.
The main thing I got out of it was the relationships… Everyone I hang out with now is a musician, whether it’s being an artist, side man, producer, or a songwriter. To be surrounded by a lot of people who are also your good friends is also a pretty invaluable thing. For me, I’ve always, always just wanted to be an artist. So that’s what I’ve just been working towards for a long time.
In “Uncool,” way you celebrate that trait really strikes me: “We were lovers, were were fighters, we were fools/ So excited, so united, so uncool.” What do you mean by it?
The catalyst for me writing these four songs (and a bunch of other songs I haven’t recorded yet) was going through a really bad breakup a little over a year ago. I tend to be a pretty emotional person anyway, so when that happened, I had a really hard time. I ended up spending a lot of time writing, which was the best thing I could have done for my own mental health.
When I wrote “Uncool,” I was house-sitting for my very close family friend in Highland Park. I was reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography that came out last year, Born To Run. I got turned on to Springsteen by my best friend from high school and my high school sweetheart, who I was with for a really long time. I was in this headspace, because so many of his songs are about these small town feelings and powerful high school memories.
For “Uncool,” one of the ways I was coping with that loss, was to go back — not to the relationship I’d just been in — but to go way back. I was thinking of my life as a teenager. For so many of those years I felt like, you can feel like such a loser, but then at the same time, you have a close knit group of friends, you get together and feel like you’re the king of the world. In a lot of ways, it felt like my life really started when I found these people in high school, that I really fell in love with. In the wake of a breakup, that was one of the things that helped heal me, to think about this other part of my life, before I went away to college and met new people. I figured out who I was because of these people.
What about the opening track, “Good Girl”?
These songs all helped me fix myself in different ways. I think for a lot of people, especially in your early 20s, figuring out the person you’re gonna be, there are a lot of different categories and roles you can get assigned by people, ways people expect you to behave. For me, “Good Girl” came out of me feeling like I’ve been put in this box. [I realized] instead of feeling bad, the problem wasn’t with me, it was with the expectation. For a lot of people, that can manifest in different ways.
For me, a lot of it was about femininity. There’s so many crazy things happening in the world right now and I think for me and lot of girls I know and a lot of just people, society expects that because I have this innate thing about me, because I’m a girl or because I’m gay or because I’m a minority, or all these different things, that this is how I’m expected to act. I don’t want to speak for other people’s struggles, but for me I wrestled a lot with my femininity this year — things I like and don’t like about it, things I feel are unfair about it, and things i want to embrace about it. That song for me was a way I could say, I can be myself and I can be a woman however I want to be and it’s not about being a certain type of girl that a boy wants. Or just being a certain type of girl that society is going to praise.
And then, not to go crazy into this, but part of it was also about the election. I went with my mom in January to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C… I think I actually finished these lyrics in my hotel room the night before I left to fly back to LA. I just was sitting on the floor with my journal… The world needs to listen to women and put women in positions of power and stand up when people are being heinously sexist and corrupt.
What about the last two songs? They really complete the arc of the EP, going from poppier sounds to moodier, emotional stuff.
For me, “Lose the Night” is more about finding an escape and “See Me Through” is more about leaning into pain. “Lose the Night” mirrors a lot of actual nights I’ve had over the last year. You feel like a dumpster fire on the inside, but you’re gonna still go out and try to make the most of it even though those flames are gonna pop up. “See Me Through” is like basically the opposite — having those moments where you’re just kind of like, “Okay, these feelings of sadness and darkness and pain are coming, and we’re gonna go there. It’s gonna be OK, we’re just gonna feel them.”
I used to work in this store in West Hollywood, and it had amazing acoustics. One night I was closing up by myself and I just started singing. That’s when I wrote “See Me Through,” just going through these mundane processes. I associate it with being alone at night at an empty store [Laughs].
What do you have coming up?
I’m hoping to play as many shows as I can next year; it’s been a while for me. I have an EP release show at The Satellite in Los Angeles [tonight], which is my first show in over a year.
And I’m still writing — I have a lot of songs from this batch and I think I’m gonna work on them with Wolfy. I loved doing “Solid Gold” with her, so I think I’m gonna go back into the studio with her soon.