Amid the grey, overcast skies of an unusually cool July afternoon, Renao’s blueberry-coloured jacket stands out like a big daub of colour. As the songwriter and producer settles into a corner of north London’s sleek Spiritland bar, an attentive waiter rushes to compliment him on his choice of outerwear and accompanying pearl necklace. Renao – born Rahul Prasad – offers a small, sparkling smile in return, looking even more impish by the second.

Chatting with Renao is a bit like being in his audience at one of his gigs: he is irresistibly confessional and radiates an eager boyishness as he recalls his childhood spent in Bangalore, India before moving to the UK to study music production at the age of 18. He’s an open and spirited presence, full of stories. “I was lucky enough that I had parents who let me express myself and dye my hair without getting told off,” he says, taking the first bites of a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. “But I’m not quite sure they expected me to take this path…”

Yet things seem to be falling into place for Renao right now. The 23-year-old’s ‘A Space Between Orange & Blue’ EP – a collection of relaxed and endlessly replayable lo-fi songs fused with warm Syd-laced grooves – was released in March, and it moves through moods at a self-assured pace. ‘Toast’ shows off Renao’s feathery croon, while ‘Break It Down’ radiates real zen atop an airy beat. This is pop music that strives to gently push boundaries by imbuing intricate production flourishes into its melodies; it’s a refreshing respite from the sped-up vocal samples that are currently dominating the landscape.

As a self-taught musician that honed his production skills from his bedroom as a teenager, his approach brings to mind a previous generation of alt-pop artists, specifically the similarly DIY-minded Clairo, Omar Apollo and Cuco, who emerged in the late 2010s. Renao’s breakthrough eventually came with 2021’s peppy ‘Nobody’; off the back of a TikTok trend, the track’s streaming numbers quickly soared into the millions, with this viral success encouraging him to write and record with more regularity.

‘A Space Between Orange & Blue’ picks up where the ‘Nobody’-featuring EP ‘From The South’, released last year, left off. Heavy on dreams and manifestation, Renao recalls sketching out demos for these optimistic songs in high school, where he balanced a burgeoning badminton career with a desire to become a musician. That sense of fearless, life-changing ambition is captured in the music he makes today. “Playing competitive sport at a young age taught me patience, which I can apply to what I’m doing now,” he tells NME. “If you stick with something for long enough, things will change.”

You once lived a double life as a full-time badminton player and an EDM producer. How did you pivot to songwriting?

“My family were quite liberal for Indian parents and encouraged me to pursue a degree in music, while my sister studied at culinary school. With badminton, I was in the Top 10 in the country for my age, and at around 18 I had to make the decision to either continue with music or badminton. When I was younger, I lived in a dorm and had to eat, live and breathe badminton.

“But I couldn’t let go of my laptop. Being in my room and making music brought me so much happiness, and I knew I’d have to give it up if I continued with my sport. I just needed to prove to everyone that I would be able to continue to create and provide for myself. And now, my dad is so proud: he keeps up to date with all my stats and radio play. I just had to follow my heart.”


Did the late-2010s boom of young, self-made artists making bedroom-pop have any impact on your music?

“It was an exciting time, and proved that the DIY mindset can take you places. I was also interested in the EDM wave, as a lot of producers were filming tutorials from their bedroom. I remember I saw Omar Apollo play to 50 people in Leeds in 2019, and it’s amazing to see how he has grown from that show.

“I was put onto those artists when I lived in India. When I was younger, the only Western music I was aware of was more traditional pop artists, such as Bruno Mars and other mainstream radio acts. When I moved to the UK, my friends here introduced me to the likes of Brockhampton and Tyler, The Creator – and then I found Dijon and Omar, two artists who helped me to build the framework of who I wanted to be as a musician.”

“We need to make sure that younger artists keep the needle moving”

What was behind your decision to move to the UK?

“Initially, I wanted to move to America. I wanted to go to Berklee College [in Boston] but the fees were too much, and the course looked too intense. An agency in India helped me to find a music production course in the UK – which was extremely helpful, as I don’t have any music theory qualifications.

“Back home, I was at badminton training all day, every day then I would come back home to make music. I didn’t have a social life; I didn’t retain a lot of friends as I missed their birthdays due to tournaments. I was quite comfortable at the time and perhaps didn’t understand the situation I was in, as I was ready to go all in on EDM and become a DJ. But it was my sister who pushed me to come over here and start fresh. I needed to open up my world.”

Much of your career thus far has been entwined with your online presence. How have you learned to draw boundaries on social media?

“When I’m working on music, I don’t feel the need to draw any boundaries. I could experiment in the studio and post [Instagram] carousels without the aim of having to reach a certain number of people. But when it comes to putting out the music officially, that’s when it becomes difficult to draw a line between what I need to be doing and what I am interested in making.

“Some of the artists that I deeply care about haven’t ever had a viral moment – and they’ve changed the way I look at music and culture. I’ve had to learn that the industry puts a lot of pressure on artists in alt-pop, as it’s a hard space to navigate. When you meet people, everyone’s first question is always, ‘But what are the [streaming] numbers like?’. I know that if I want people to care about my music, I need to open up online; you can’t be an enigma or an elusive, Frank Ocean-esque figure today – it’s not possible. I see TikTok as a way to engage with people. To me, building relationships is more important than going viral.”


The video for your recent single ‘Day Off’ speaks to the pressures that are faced by emerging musicians. What prepared you to start out in the industry?

“More people need to talk about how scary it is that prices keep rising – I wish new artists had the funding to be able to create solely from a space of freedom. The freedom of expression now comes at a price. Labels are trying to make sure that acts hit certain numbers on streaming or socials – but the best music often comes around when people aren’t thinking about those things.

“We need to make sure that younger artists keep the needle moving, as they are the ones who will continue to come up with sounds that we’ve never heard before. It’s hard having to navigate the pressure of TikTok while holding down a job and worrying about money constantly as a young musician. I just hope people will be able to continue to make their most authentic music.”

You have previously described your music as sounding akin to “the lovechild of Frank Ocean and Harry Styles”. Where does that confidence come from?

“The idea was that I want to bring Frank Ocean-style music into the pop world, and I think what Harry Styles has done in terms of bringing gender-neutral fashion into the mainstream is amazing, and I want to embody his showmanship. I knew from day one that I wanted to take inspiration from these two artists. I believe in myself, even on hard days – I always have to be bold.”

Renao’s new EP ‘A Space Between Orange & Blue’ is out now via AWAL

The post Renao creates pop music that’s as vibrant as the story behind it appeared first on NME.


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