5 things you need to know about Le Ren, Canada's rising folk singer
Meet the woman who's writing a new chapter in the folk canon
Le Ren's music may feel familiar, even if she's new to you. The Montreal-based singer-songwriter's musical influence is marked by the catalogues of Karen Dalton, Bob Dylan and John Prine in a way that feels both nostalgic and timeless, while her voice holds a wisdom that rings much older than her nearly 30 years.
But don't let the comparisons fool you: Le Ren, real name Lauren Spear, is a singular entity. Her songs, spanning folk, bluegrass, country and their intersections, are lyrically universal and devastatingly specific. Her debut album, October 2021's Leftovers, is about all the connections in her life, including her relationship with her partner as well as important platonic relationships in her life, including with her mother and her best friend.
"They are all kind of coming from different parts of my life," she says, of the songs on Leftovers. "Reflecting on relationships…. Trying to understand myself through the way that I love people. Or how people love me. I think that feels like a throughline."
Spear's references for her debut record included albums by Gillian Welch (specifically from Time (The Revelator)), the aforementioned Dalton and the a-sides and b-sides project from Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek.
"I made a playlist of people that I look up to and I feel like collectively," she says. "Like, I wanted there to be a vibe that kind of encapsulated all these artists, but I was pretty clear with what I wanted it to sound like…. I just wanted it to be stripped down and intimate and pretty bare bones. And yet still have the essence of some people that I look up to."
And while she made the album in near isolation due to the pandemic, she gathered a (distanced) community to work on it: Kaia Kater (banjo), Cedric Noel (guitar), Saltwater Hank (fiddle), Eliza Niemi (cello), Tenci (vocals on the "Annabelle & MaryAnne" duet) and, to Spear's surprise, Big Thief's Buck Meek.
Spear spoke with CBC Music ahead of her appearance on The Intro, streaming above. Below are five surprising things we learned, including how she landed one of her favourite artists to play her debut album.
1. Her music moniker and her first name are pronounced the same
While the "Le" in Le Ren suggests French origins for Spear's artist name, its inspiration is simple: it's how you pronounce her name, Lauren.
"It's just been a lifelong thing where people are like, 'Lauren [pronounced: Lore-in]?' And I'm like, 'Kind of,'" she says, joking. "And so I think it was a way for me to just have a phonetic spelling of my name."
2. She comes from a musical family
Spear grew up on Bowen Island in B.C., though she's been living in Montreal for the last decade. Her parents, who still live in B.C., are musicians, with her dad often performing at events and even starting his own folk festival in Winnipeg years ago. (The now defunct Barley Butter Folk Fest.)
Spear says there are always instruments in the house, and her parents' friends also play music, so family and friend gatherings turn into jams pretty quickly.
"When I was there [in B.C.] over the holidays, I brought my boyfriend home for the first time and I knew it was going to happen, but I wasn't sure when," says Spear. "But there was this big jam where everyone went down to the fire pit and were singing songs and they all have the song books with like Bob Dylan and John Prine. And my boyfriend's a musician as well, and they just put a guitar in his hand. And so I feel like that vibe was very normal."
3. She fell in love with bluegrass at a summer camp as a teen
Spear has been singing and writing music from a young age, and guitar and voice have always been her preferred combination. ("I played piano growing up, but it never really stuck," she adds.) She didn't find her lane of music, though, until the summer she was 14.
"My mom took me to this bluegrass workshop/camp where I actually took guitar lessons and really fell in love with that style of music," she explains. Spear attended the summer camp until she was 17, cementing bluegrass as her new love — and forcing her previous love, Avril Lavigne, to share the spotlight.
"If it had been a jazz camp, it would've been a different story," Spear jokes.
4. One of her dream collaborators was Big Thief's Buck Meek — and he played on her debut album
"I love Big Thief so much," says Spear. "I love [Buck Meek's] album with Adrienne Lenker, just the two of them, a sides, b sides…. I kept going back to that being like, how do I want [Leftovers] to be produced? What do I want to sound like? And that was just so stripped down and intimate and beautiful."
When Spear first met up with her label head at Secretly Canadian, she was asked what she wanted her debut record to sound like. She listed that Meek and Lenker project, and her label head suggested they should ask Meek to play on Spear's record. A bit shocked, Spear quietly agreed — and to her surprise and delight, the two were soon covering Gordon Lightfoot together, and Meek was contributing to her debut album.
"He's so lovely," she says, of Meek. "But, never met. Only on the computer."
5. She thinks her songs are more optimistic than most
The lead single for Leftovers is a beautiful, upbeat tribute to Spear's mother, Dyan. The song is bright and joyous, but the bridge feels a bit ominous:
If I go before her
Sew my ashes in her garden
Lay my body by her side
And say goodbye
If I lose my bloom
Light a candle in the darkness
Say my name
The one she gave
And shut my eyes
"[My mom] was like, 'Are you OK? What's happening?' She really listens to my words, and is trying to see what's going on. It didn't feel like," Spear pauses and laughs. "I understand how it sounds dark. To me, I thought it was so nice. It was like, 'Listen, if I die, don't worry about it. Keep me close.'"
If you listen to Leftovers in full, "Dyan" is arguably the most upbeat number on the tracklist. Le Ren's music sounds comforting and nostalgic, but is often quietly devastating.
"I think what I'm realizing, the more that I talk to people who have listened to the music and who don't know me very well, is that a lot of my songs come up as, like, very sad," Spear says, laughing. "And dark, and I just, I don't see them that way. I mean, some of them, sure, it makes sense. But I just have a different perspective."