Singer Ren Harvieu's second chance

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Ren Harvieu feared her career was over after the freak accident in May 2011

Salford singer Ren Harvieu was putting the finishing touches to her debut album when she broke her back less than a year ago. Determined to get back on stage, she is finally releasing the album - and is likely to stay in the spotlight.

It is not often that doctors are thanked alongside family, managers and fellow musicians on a pop star's CD sleeve.

But Ren Harvieu would not be releasing her album if it was not for the staff at Stanmore Spinal Injury Unit in north London.

"Thank you for taking me in and putting me back together," she says in the booklet for her debut album Through The Night.

The story of how Harvieu broke her back on a night out with friends, how she feared her career may have been over before it had begun and how she subsequently got back on her feet is a powerful one.

Although her music does not need a story to sell it.

She has had heavy airplay on BBC Radio 2 and a place on the BBC Sound of 2012 list, and Through The Night is one of the strongest debut albums of the year.

Some of the singer's seductive orchestral pop songs sound so timeless in their simplicity and poise that you become convinced that Dusty Springfield or Carole King must have recorded them first.

But these are not covers - they are contemporary classics that could put Harvieu in the same league as other British stars who have mined a similarly vintage vein, like Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse.

The 21-year-old grew up fascinated by Disney's romantic soundtracks in a house filled with Stevie Wonder songs and small-time Manchester musicians who were friends with her mum.

She privately honed her voice by painstakingly pressing play and pause on her CD player to transcribe the lyrics to her favourite albums and learn the vocal styles.

"I taught myself by listening to greats and copying what they did," she says. "Even when I was little, I was interested in phrasing and timing, like Billie Holliday, that kind of jazz timing.

"I think what taught me to sing was Blue by Joni Mitchell. I still remember the first time I heard it. I was just obsessed."

Image caption,
Harvieu tried to help her recovery by visualising herself dancing and singing

After putting her self-penned track Through The Night on MySpace, she was approached by a manager, who introduced her to a group of Liverpool-based musicians.

One of them is Dave McCabe, formerly of the band The Zutons and the man who wrote Valerie, which became a hit for Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson. He has written Harvieu's single Open Up Your Arms.

Five more stand-out tracks were written by another Liverpool contact, Howie Payne.

The album was ready to go - but while fooling around last May, one of Harvieu's friends vaulted over a hedge, not seeing her on the other side, and landed on her, breaking two vertebrae.

She was told she might not walk again and her world came crashing down.

"The first month you're in denial," she says. "You're completely numb. So you don't realise why everybody's crying around the bed all the time. You just can't handle it because it's too shocking.

"And then when it finally hits you, you're flooded by extreme rage. I was just so angry. I was so angry at the music industry as well. I was like, well, I'm in a wheelchair, they're never going to accept me.

"That angered me so much. I thought, they'll never have someone like me."

She tried to help her recovery by spending day upon day visualising herself walking, dancing and singing. "There's nothing else to do in hospital," she says.

"I knew I had something great. If I could recover, I knew I was coming back to something fantastic, so I was very, very determined."

Now, she is walking again using a stick - which she abandons on stage as the adrenalin kicks in.

If she had lost the use of her legs but kept her voice, would the music industry really have dropped her? Would the listeners have ignored the songs and just judged her by the chair?

"When is there ever going to be a singer in a wheelchair?" she says. This is a rhetorical question.

"I can't even begin to think about what it would have been like. I don't know what would have happened if I was in a wheelchair to be honest but I don't think I would have been… Maybe after a couple of years I probably would have released things…"

Her experiences have given her an insight into the different attitudes towards people with disabilities, she says.

'Horrific' reactions

"My first day trip out of hospital was a trip to Asda in a wheelchair. I'd lost two stone and it's unbelievable the way some people treat you. It's horrific.

"I went from feeling I was going to be a pop star and feeling dead confident and glamorous, strutting around in heels, to being in a wheelchair being pushed around by a nurse, with everyone talking to you like you're absolutely mental," she goes on, jabbing her finger at her head to stress her point.

"Either they don't look at you or they look at you like ' hello'," she says, imitating the condescending tone reserved for small children and simpletons.

Now, the future is looking brighter than she could possibly have hoped for a year ago. Harvieu says she now knows what really matters.

"I was only 20 and I've been through things that I wouldn't wish on anybody. It's made me think about things a lot differently.

"I was so het up before this accident. I was so scared about people slagging me off and saying nasty things about me and not liking me. Now I'm like, what will be will be."

Through The Night is out this week on Island records.

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.