Few musicians are quite as resilient as Ren. Since he began making beats as a 12-year-old growing up on the Welsh island of Anglesey, this rivetingly honest rapper, guitarist and producer hasn’t just navigated the usual snakes and ladders of the music industry. He has also been dealing with major, debilitating health issues. “Okay, take another pill, boy, drown yourself in the sound of white noise,” he raps on this year’s viral hit ‘Hi Ren’, the sound of his internal monologue bursting out from his brain. “Follow this ten-step programme, rejoice! All your problems will be gone! Fucking dumb boy!”
When Ren shared the track’s incredibly moving video, which shows him in a hospital gown performing the song from his wheelchair, he wrote on his YouTube page: “Years before I was diagnosed correctly with autoimmunity, Lyme disease and brain damage, I was misdiagnosed as bipolar and spent years bouncing back and forth between therapists and trialling different antidepressants all the while getting worse and worse.” The track came about, Ren explained, because he wanted to express “all the things I wish I’d said to my doctors and therapists at the time, but didn’t have the words to.”
When we meet in central London to discuss his excellent new album, ‘Sick Boi’, which he produced himself, it’s a relief to hear Ren say that “a comprehensive plan of medication and nutrition” has had a positive effect. Trips to Canada to be treated by a specialist doctor have also helped, but Ren has made peace with the fact that he may be managing his health condition forever. “To be honest, I still haven’t got the energy of a normal person,” he says. “Even right now, my legs hurt. I still have to deal with carrying the weight of feeling a little bit crap every day. But it’s a lighter shade of crap that is easier to deal with.”
In an interview marked by the same plain-speaking candour as his music, Ren talks about the tapestry of experiences that inspired his album, his struggle to balance perfectionism with protecting his health, and an incredible guerrilla gig he played in his hometown of Brighton.
What is the overall story you’re trying to tell with ‘Sick Boi’?
“At the start [of the process], everything was a little bit too turbulent. It was right after Covid and I just wanted to make something that was fun and for the love of it…. So originally, there wasn’t really a through line – I just wanted to make [music] for me. I wasn’t thinking too much beyond that in a way, but then the album kind of grew into what it was.
“[The title] ‘Sick Boi’ came because my mind was so occupied with health at the time. You know, everything was geared towards going to Canada to undergo almost a year of treatment. So that started creeping and leaking into the themes I was writing about. So the narrative changed from just doing it for myself to this kind of tapestry. There’s tracks [on the album] that are just for the love of making [music] and there’s tracks that are a little bit more symbolic of the journey that I’ve been on.”
When you released ‘Hi Ren’ at the start of the year, did you have any inkling that it would connect with so many people?
“I knew when I stumbled across the idea that it was a pretty unique one. But funnily enough, when I came off filming the video, I was like, ‘Man, we messed that up.’ Basically, we were in this basement that we didn’t get permission to use… and everything was going well, but then the landlord ran downstairs and was like: ‘You guys need to get out of here right away!’
“I was like, ‘mate, please, please.‘ Because I had to go to Canada for treatment in literally two weeks and this was the only time we had the whole film crew out. The landlord gave us half an hour, so we only actually managed to get four takes in. Normally we go for at least 15 to 20 to make sure that we’ve got a safety [take]… But then, when I sent the video to one my friends who I really trust, he was like, ‘Man, this is going to change your career.’ And he was right, man. What it did for my entire back catalogue and I guess the trajectory of my career was pretty incredible. And I think those initial responses [from fans] really helped me feel confident in it.
“Over the course of the next three months, it was really surreal because I was in Canada treating my health. So it’s a weird juxtaposition because I’m there sitting down getting IVs in my arm five days a week, going through pretty gruelling treatment for [an] autoimmune condition and post-Lyme disease. But at the same time, I’m just watching on the internet [as] the statistics go crazy. And, like, high-level artists that I’ve admired for years are contacting me to say, ‘I’m really inspired by your work.’ It was amazing.”
How do you view your purpose as a musician?
“I’d like to say creating threads of humanity between topics that are sometimes quite difficult to talk about. It’s interesting because what I’ve realised from the community of people that are resonating with my work at the moment is that [it provides] a voice for people who either have chronic illness or anxiety disorders. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it. I’m not trying to make it anything other than as ugly as it can sometimes be – or as beautiful as it can sometimes be.
“And I think by creating that window into that world, a lot of people feel seen. I think it’s really important to see people because it’s a very isolating place to be a lot of the time. Say if you have a chronic health problem or anxiety where you don’t want to leave the house or talk to people, having a companion [in the form of music] is really important. And I think in mainstream music, it’s an area that’s not so much catered for. So I think being able to cater for that is my purpose.”
How does your health affect the decisions you make as an artist? Like, could you go on a big tour? And do you have to be super-careful on a long video shoot?
“With video shoots, I usually shoot myself in the foot because I’m such a perfectionist. Like, [when we shot the] ‘Money Game’ video, I didn’t eat all day and I stayed [on set] until four or five in the morning. But that’s purely because once I’m in in that place, it has to be right because there’s so much work that’s gone in on the back-end. I’m just a massive perfectionist with those things. I don’t want to mess them up.
But then with a tour, there’s a much higher degree of pre-empting. I don’t know how my health is going to be next year. It’s better now than it was. This year was difficult because I had to turn down a slot at Glastonbury and a lot of major festivals, which looked really cool, because I had to focus on my health. So, ‘I don’t know’ is the answer in terms of touring. But if [this] is something I have to manage my whole life, it probably means I’m not the sort of artist who can go out on a 60-date tour. Because even if you see a normal person do that, they come home beaten, bro.
“But even if I was healthy, I’d probably try and find more interesting ways to tour. I want to start doing things that are a little bit more unexpected anyway and make it feel more ‘on the ground’ for people… Like, we did this show where we just built a stage out of MDF planks in a Brighton car park. We didn’t tell anyone, and then we put a post on Instagram Live [saying]: ‘We’re doing a free show in a secret location – you’ll be met by people in balaclavas at the train station.’ And, like, 500 to 1000 people showed up… and it was one of my favourite shows I’ve ever done. The police did show up in the end, but they know me from from busking. So they were just like, ‘Ah, it’s Ren!’”
Ren’s album ‘Sick Boi’ is out now
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