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Renao was among the top five badminton players in the country “and doing a lot better at the sport than at music”. But soon he felt that music was where he belonged Image Credit: Supplied

In a cosy compact room in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru sits a 20-something  musician and songwriter who has arrived to unobtrusively take up space in a global industry that pours millions of dollars and reams of hectic PR campaigns to create stars. Even on a grainy Zoom screen, his calm, steady eyes and ready smile are unmistakably different from someone who is driven by fame and not much else. He is just like his music. Rooted, yet free. Clear-sighted and cohesive, yet spontaneous.

Meet Renao (he goes by just one name), a rising star who discovered his passion for singing while studying music production in Leeds, UK, and used TikTok to put his music out there.

If his debut EP, From The South, showcased Renao’s splendid vocals and deep lyrics, it also featured a track, Nobody, that went viral on TikTok picking up over 20,000 pre-saves before release. The track went on to notch up over 4 million streams on Spotify alone, and is still thrilling listeners. From the South won rave reviews from the most hardened critics but most importantly, struck a chord with listeners across the world. 

Renao, who was once a badminton Olympian hopeful, also gained the acclaim of British radio DJ and TV presenter Jack Saunders at BBC Radio 1, The Line Of Best Fit, Wonderland and more.

His music has been described as something that transcends normative notions of geography, identity, race and skin colour. 

Right now though, Renao is in Bengaluru to meet his parents after over two and a half eventful years that changed his life forever. When Covid first hit, he was just finishing his university degree in England and “felt that my whole world had blown apart”.

Charting his one course

“Being in England was important for me to be able to make the music I was making and there were loads of desperation and uncertainty about the future. But the pandemic made me more focused and I started posting my music on TikTok constantly,” says Renao. “I got a lot of confidence when people began to say, ‘Hey that was great.’ This gave me clarity about what kind of an artist I wanted to be and helped me to connect with people I could work with, like my manager.”

He smiles and dismisses the rumours that a major music label has signed him and says, “I am going to stay independent for a while. It has been nice to have control over my music but we will see.”

Renao believes the rise of social media and TikTok in general is a good thing. “It helps artists like me  to build an audience. It is unheard of that your first single has 20,000 pre sales even before you have released the music. But it can also be a bad thing because once you have success,  there is this pressure to make that happen over and over again. I feel it is important to be honest, genuine and upfront  because then people can gauge that the artist is creating music  to not just go viral.”

Keeping professional and personal separate

As an artistic ambivert, is it tough at times for him to decide how much of himself he should share with the world? He nods, “Yes, it can get hard to find the balance between my authentic self vs how much of myself I can give to social media. To draw the line when something is going too much into my space versus trying to show people what I am making every day as a musician. But I feel fans deserve that access because that is the role you sign up for as an artist.”

Even while creating his music, he needs collaborative energy and also some ‘me time’. He says: “I have made so much of my music in this bedroom while pretending I was playing at a festival! But it also made me feel lonely because there is a certain kind of connection that you can only feel with others. It’s like having a conversation in your head versus having a conversation with a friend. To find a balance between working with other people and then going home to be alone and vulnerable and write something personal is what I seek.”

While creating music, Renao says he needs collaborative energy and also some ‘me time’ Image Credit: Supplied

For instance, he wrote, Holding My Breath after he came back from a session that had not gone well. “Collaborations are like speed dating and sometimes when you meet someone for the first time you don’t really know if you are going to jell or not. But Nobody was made when I had met somebody for the first time in a studio and it emerged from conversations about life, relationships and what I was going through at that time. I give a lot of credit for where I am now to the people I work with.”

The point is that creating a song shouldn’t feel like work, he believes. “A song can be created in two ways. I may write something personal if I have experienced something significant or even if I have had a bad day. Or I may go to a session with nothing and start from scratch. Someone will play something and I may pick up a sound and say, ‘That’s it.’ And depending on how it sounds sonically, I will write something. The moment I hear a melody, I know what the song is going to be, I frame a word and the song emerges from that.”

Lyrics that ring true matter a lot to him, preferring songs that are metaphorical rather than straightforward. “I am always thinking of the most random things that I can use to describe something really important. Frank Ocean’s music, I think, is the perfect example of lyrics that make you go back and revisit a song and then realise, ‘Oh this is what they are talking about!’ I want to make music that makes people think, sit with their feelings and discover themselves in the layers of a song.”

When Nobody came out, he recalls, loads of people messaged him to say how much they appreciated the song. He is currently working on his second EP with feel-good music ‘because that is what people need right now. I am really happy in my life so I want to make some happy music for others.”

During the conversation, Renao uses words like “balance” and “gut feeling” many times to indicate how he grapples with questions that can confuse someone who at a young age is possibly at the cusp of global stardom.

Building a team

He talks with feeling about his manager Zakir Samad who, Renao says is his inner compass, “These days it is so easy to find people to fill up your team but whether they can be trusted is another matter. But with Zak, who found me online, my gut feeling told me that this was someone who is going to have my back. I understood this early that I have to keep those who have my best interests at heart, close to me. Then it becomes easy for me to tell them what I’d like to do or not.’

He admits that it is easy to be ‘controlled and manipulated’ in the music industry. It takes a lot to stand up, choose the path you want to take and speak your mind, he says.

Renao was among the top five badminton players in the country at one time “and doing a lot better at the sport than at music”. But soon he felt that music was where he belonged and chose it over badminton. Always open to trying new things, he believes it is important to explore new areas. “I have learnt that as human beings we can change. At 17, I wanted to be the biggest DJ in the world! And then I realised I love singing even though there was hardly anyone who looked like me, making English music... Now I know that Indians can make English music and sing well and the world is ready for us.”

Renao also credits his parents not just for his musical tastes, but for their unconditional support. He says, “They have been very liberal and let me choose what I want to do and it has kind of paid off. My parents played loads of English music and from an early stage, I got into Western music because it spoke to me at a different level but there was always AR Rehman’s music too and I remember especially Gajini’s Kaise tum mujhe mil gayi’!

About his avant-garde fashion sense, he says, “Fashion is just another way for me to express my music and it is like any other form of self expression. There is something about femininity that I love so much and that is why ungendered, unisex clothing stood out for me because it broke masculine tropes. To wear something that feels natural without worrying about being judged is what fashion means to me. Music and fashion are the biggest forms of culture and I will always credit my fashion for the person that I have become today.”

The power of manifesting

From singing in front of the mirror to amassing a large global following, Renao has manifested a path where none existed. “Manifesting, to me, is a belief system. As with anything, the moment you have a positive attitude towards something, you are more likely to get it than by being pessimistic about it.”

To young people struggling with rejection and isolation, he says, “Small steps are a lot easier than big leaps when we struggle with the fear of being judged. So find comfort in your room as this is one place where you should feel safe enough to do anything.”

He says it is important to start “expressing yourself truly even if it is just in front of the mirror and try to manifest who you really want to be’. I was in this room pretending that I was playing to a whole crowd and you can start too because what goes on in the outside world is less important than what is within.”

As we come to the end of the interview I ask him why Rahul Prasad chose to call himself Renao?

He laughs, “Well, I was googling different words in various languages and came upon this Chinese word that meant, ‘Lively and bustling, a vibe that makes people want to stay.’ And I thought, it would be great if people came to my show and said, ‘that was lively, I don’t wanna leave.’ So Renao it was!”

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