Reneé Rapp unveils her unfiltered and unapologetic debut album ‘Snow Angel’, a raw and compelling journey into her life and experiences that leaves no emotion untouched.
Words: Neive McCarthy
Photos: Jennifer McCord
Reneé Rapp is extremely tired. Maybe it’s the jetlag that has thus far defined her London trip [This is before the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, ‘FYI’ – Ed], or perhaps it’s the fact she’s had probably the busiest year of her life – more likely, both. Either way, if there was an award for the most tired woman in music right now, Reneé would probably win it.
It’s unsurprising she’s teetering on the exhausted side of life, considering she’s been balancing more than most would in an entire career in just the last six months. A main role in a sitcom, another lead role in a cult musical movie adaptation, plus the whole task of writing and recording and releasing your debut album all adds up to quite the ordeal. For Reneé, though, hopping from set to studio, from city to city, soon became the norm. That hundred-mile-per-hour lifestyle is showing no signs of leaving either – ‘Snow Angel’ is just arriving, and Reneé’s own blizzard continues to rage on.
“I love and hate doing both at the same time,” Reneé ponders, sleepy-eyed in South London. “I get so tired, but I would just go from set and go to the studio, and it would be really hard, but it would also be the best thing sometimes. It does just make me so tired. I definitely run myself into the ground without thinking. There wasn’t really a balance; it was just like, ‘Fuck it all’.”
Throwing every single piece of herself into the making of ‘Snow Angel’, Reneé seemed to reach towards the deepest part of both her emotions and her resolve to create her debut. Late nights spent retreading gut-wrenching, fury-inducing situations it was a real case of tearing your heart out for the sake of your art. The road to the album’s release has by no means been smooth, but somewhere in those bleary-eyed twilight hours, Reneé found some kind of comfort.
“I love that feeling of exhaustion,” Reneé admits. “It sucks, but I really do love it. I think one day I’ll grow from it, but right now, I love the burnout and exhaustion and the feeling that I have done everything I can. I get really afraid to regret things. What the fuck else am I supposed to do?”
You might think, then, that with the album completed, Reneé had found a kind of calm and stillness – an end to the restless urge to push herself to the very limit. Unfortunately, relaxing just isn’t in her nature.
“I don’t feel at peace, just exhausted. I wake up, and I’ll be going back and forwards on whether I like a song. All I do is overthink.”
That doubt consumed the titular track on the album, the first glimpse of what ‘Snow Angel’ might be. It’s an unconventional choice: a heartfelt power ballad that came after the album was all but wrapped. Despite the uncertainty, Reneé leant into the track’s rising vulnerability and ‘Snow Angel’ became immediate proof of exactly what she was capable of. Otherworldly vocals and a dramatic swell of piano transform the track into an absolute snowstorm.
“It’s a representation of who I am and my influences,” Reneé explains. “But it also just felt like it was a bleeding song, like bleeding out. That was something I felt like I needed to have for this cycle.”
An outpouring of her innermost, darkest feelings and experiences, the track immediately established how Reneé manages to delicately toe the line of powerfully in control and total transparency. A previous, wildly popular single, ‘Too Well’, from 2022’s ‘Everything to Everyone’ EP, was a laughing, breezy pop banger recollection of grudges and frustrating exes. The mantric, painful power of ‘Snow Angel’ feels miles away from that – a new side of the singer for all to see.
“I love feeling that I have done everything I can. I get really afraid to regret things”RenEÉ RAPP
“I just wanted to make sure that everything was super artist-forward, as opposed to what is going to appease the most people. That’s not to say that ballads inherently don’t appease the most people because sometimes they do. I think they’re the best songs. I think if you can make a ballad a smash, then that’s a good song.”
The stripped-open quality of a ballad allows Reneé to take a glance further inside herself, something that becomes increasingly important throughout the album. There’s a surety and willingness to trudge through the very thick of things that seems a fundamental part of Reneé’s journey here. To truly create the art she has wanted to make for so long, she had to become okay with revisiting some darker moments and baring her soul for all to see. Walking into a room every day and reliving everything she has gone through was rough but ultimately rewarding.
“It’s a feeling of ‘I’m going to trudge through the shit; I’m not going to let that shit get in my way’,” Reneé explains. “It was this very broken resilience. I’d been feeling like bad things were happening in my life, but really good things were happening too. My personal life was going to hell, but my work life was amazing. It was maddening but also really fun.”
No inch of that personal life was spared, either. As Reneé acknowledges on the album’s opening track, ‘Talk Too Much’, she doesn’t hesitate to overshare in great detail. Yet, it never feels like oversharing: it’s the confessional, scathing jokes of a good friend. “Okay, having said all that, do you still wanna be with me?” she asks mid-song before every other thought comes tumbling out of her mouth. There’s no filter – instead, brutally honest truths, laughing remarks and no-holding-back is the name of the game.
“It feels like a more full version of myself rather than how I’d like to be perceived,” Reneé explains. “Don’t get me wrong, though; I’m still very particular about how I’m perceived!”
She may stress over others’ perception of her, but even when it’s terrifying, she doesn’t hold back from releasing her full, authentic self into the light on ‘Snow Angel’, more now than she ever has before. “It’s not as much my outward how I feel about other people. This is more internal, even in the ways I might not like to be perceived. It’s less a middle finger to everybody and more a mirror to myself. That was more intimidating for me.”
With a long history of acting across stage and screen, Reneé has spent much of her life transforming into different people and characters. Perhaps, then, the desire to be fully herself in her music became more important. Most recently, Reneé has gained legions of fans for her portrayal of Leighton in Sex Lives of College Girls, a college student attempting to come to terms with her sexuality. Elsewhere, she has returned to the role of Regina George in Mean Girls: The Musical as it gears up for a movie adaptation. Disappearing into such vastly different characters has undoubtedly meant Reneé’s own character has grown under those costumes, coming out stronger and louder than ever before.
“Playing other characters made me love my music so much more,” Reneé says. “I realised I don’t love this in the same way. It’s so different, and I’m so happy that I’ve done it because I feel so much surer of myself and so much better about my own shit now.”
It’s this, then, that allows Reneé to display every passing thought and feeling with such refreshing honesty. ‘Poison Poison’ opens by announcing someone is “so fucking annoying”, and yet in the very next song, ‘Gemini Moon’, Reneé professes “really, I should just be better to you”. Every multitude of her, good and bad, is on full display. Chasing authenticity became absolutely crucial.
“It drives everything,” she stresses. “I don’t think there’s a moment in my life where I’m not panicking about that. It’s all I constantly do. Am I making a good enough example of myself? Am I doing enough internal work to get myself across? It sits in my brain 24/7.”
Luckily, the making of ‘Snow Angel’ provided Reneé with an environment where she was able to put those worries to bed. Working alongside Alexander 23, they curated a creative sphere where trust was imperative.
“We understand each other so well, in a very unspoken way,” Reneé reflects. “I don’t have to overexplain myself for him to understand me and vice versa. We just get each other and are equally comfortable together, which I think made a big difference. It made me feel so much better about myself as a writer because I don’t have to worry about ten thousand opinions that I can add to myself in my head because I know the other person in the room really trusts me and has good taste. I don’t want to be blindly trusted either.”
Alexander proved to be an encouraging voice in Reneé’s corner, pushing her to take risks she might’ve been insecure about or unsure of and ensuring her vision came to life. “I was so tired of listening to older male producers tell me what they thought was good. If I’m telling you it’s bad, I know it’s bad, and it doesn’t mean that you are bad, but it just means it’s not good for me. They don’t listen. I don’t care what, ideally, is the best, either. I’m not trying to go into sessions thinking, ‘What does this producer think is the best version of me?’ I didn’t ask that at all.”
With a creative partner she trusted at last and a firm knowledge of what was best for her and what she wanted to do, ‘Snow Angel’ became about control. There’s no appeasing anyone here – instead, it’s the songs that needed to be made. The emotions that needed to be released, the anger that needed to be articulated. Whether that’s through a heavy dose of ballads that highlight Reneé’s endlessly gorgeous vocals or upbeat R&B style beats that disguise lyrics that could completely shatter you otherwise. Asking herself ‘W.W.F.D?’ (‘What Would Frank Do?’, after her beloved Frank Ocean), Reneé was in pursuit of feeling above all else – that whatever she made felt good and right for her, regardless of anything other than that.
“Playing other characters made me love my music so much more”RenEÉ RAPP
‘Pretty Girls’ chased that sensation and came into being as one of the album’s strongest tracks – at first glance, a pop-tinged, light track, up close, it is smartly delivered with an eye roll and underlying frustration at a sexualisation of bi women that quickly becomes repetitive. It’s a hook that’ll bounce around your head incessantly, but it bristles with a quiet anger.
“I really wanted to have something that feels super up, but the lyrics are really down. It felt like that was the only way to do that song. If you understand it, you understand it. If you don’t, you’d still like it. I just knew it would be exactly what it needed to be, and I didn’t want to put any pressure on it.”
It’s a track that will no doubt feel familiar for many – her raw, to-the-point lyricism has become a source of comfort for many of her fans who have had identical experiences, and it’s led to a fanbase so dedicated they bring baguettes to her shows, flood the streets to sing her songs post-gig and revel in her laugh-out-loud moments mid-set. It’s a special kind of kinship.
“They’re crazy!” Reneé laughs. “It feels like a big community of a bunch of people who are kind of assholes to each other, but in a very loving way, which is how I am with the people around me. I’m very sarcastic, and I’m very loving. We’re very down for each other. We would take a knife for somebody. They’re an amazing group of people.”
After Reneé teased a snippet of a track called ‘23’ a few months back, that amazing group of people clamoured for it. A cut-open piano track that sees her on the eve of her 23rd birthday, pondering if she’ll ever learn to calm down or if she’ll ever stop thinking everyone hates her and be completely free, the track is absolutely full of sentiments that will speak to so many of her listeners. It’s a snapshot of that age – the façade of being an adult and having everything together whilst secretly simmering under the surface. That ability is truly a highlight of the album; she dilutes an array of experiences into these twelve tracks, capturing such specificities but with such distinctive humour and tone that it could almost be any of her listeners’ inner thoughts.
Part of that returns to her need for honesty, for confrontation within herself and for the chance to turn to the studio to unleash all these feelings. Whilst everything may have felt like an avalanche at the time of making it, it has become something positive. It’s a vehicle for connection, for resonance and for release.
“It’s the moment I look forward to constantly,” Reneé admits. “Every relationship, every experience I have, even right now, I just think that this ultimately is going to be something really good for me. That’s true to life but specific to my career. The bad things that happen to me, I’m literally just going to turn them into something good, which is really, really nice.”
It does make for a somewhat boundary-less experience at the time being, but this is only the beginning of a long learning curve. As Reneé chronicles her every thought and experience to song, there’s little room for keeping things under lock and key, something she may (or may not) want to change down the line. “I’m trying so hard to establish myself as a new artist and be taken seriously that I don’t really think I’m even there. I don’t have the wherewithal to be like, ‘Here is what I’m going to share; here’s what I won’t’. It’s whatever is going to be the best representation of me and myself. I think I might always just be like that, though.”
Reneé makes it clear that there is no doing things by halves for her or restraining herself in any way. Though she may be able to close away parts of herself in her acting career, her musical career at the moment sees her become completely transparent. It’s that transparency, however daunting it may be, that makes Reneé and her music so likeable, though. It comes from such a genuine place that it’s hard not to live every beat of ‘Snow Angel’ alongside Reneé – that perseverance and the desperate need to crack a quick joke through the pain is all too familiar and makes it all the more compelling.
There’s a sense that Reneé is still shifting, still learning and still becoming okay with owning who she is. ‘Snow Angel’ has no doubt allowed the 23-year-old to discover a great deal about her ability to cope, to heal and to unlock that inner strength. A mammoth debut album, it has a core that is permanently entangled and attached to who Reneé is, with no smoke and mirrors. Just pure Reneé and her quest to navigate this chapter of her life. For her first full-length project, Reneé refuses to hide any part of it.
With her unfiltered, unapologetic take on her life and experiences up until this point now ready to be unleashed on the world, Reneé is ready to take a backseat from here on out – and hopefully get some rest. She may live for that feeling of burnt-out exhaustion, but it’s safe to say she’s accomplished what she set out to do here. ‘Snow Angel’ is the album Reneé had to make, and she has thrown every last piece of herself into the making of it. Now, it’s time for Reneé Rapp to catch up on sleep before she does it all over again. ■
Taken from the August 2023 edition of Dork. Reneé Rapp’s album ‘Snow Angel’ is out 18th August.
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