During a time when many are longing for renewal, the symbol of the phoenix is a beacon of hope, creating something beautiful from what seems to be destroyed. Toronto-based experimental artist Renée Mortin-Toth, known professionally as Wrené, employs this image in her latest single “Phoenix,” describing the experience of regeneration: “I’m a little songbird/if I shed the last tear, I’ve won!/My heart unlocks the cage/and I rise from the ashes.”
Wrené wrote “Phoenix” about the process of leaving an abusive relationship and “finding ways to empower yourself in these times of manipulation where you feel a lot of pressure is on you,” she says. “What I hope people can take away from it is that message of empowerment – so it can be for young women, it can be for people who are stigmatized, people who feel their feelings and worth are diminished by other people.”
The song combines an upbeat ’80s synthwave pop sound with darker melodies and lyrics, beginning with erratic synths, loud drums, and theatrically sung lyrics: “Sometimes it feels like I have no choice/and so I’m stripped of my voice/I can’t let my woes carry me through the wind.” She goes on to sing about finding independence and carving out a new life for herself.
Co-producing with her friend Joash Mendoza, she broke from her usual routine of using Logic and utilized the program Ableton, incorporating EDM elements. Many of the drum sounds are samples of organic drums that they sequenced themselves, but other than the vocals, everything is electronic.
Mortin-Toth has been singing her whole life, though she previously worked as an actor. After finding the roles available to women her age limiting, she threw herself into music and released her first album, Unharmed, last year. “Phoenix” is off her second album, Live Wire, which comes out in February.
The album is “an experiment with pop sounds and different pop elements,” she says. “But they all hold a common theme of storytelling, and a lot of them are quite darker in their tone, even if they sound more upbeat.”
The title is inspired by lyrics from “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads, which Wrené adapts for her album’s title track with the passionately sung line: “Don’t you fucking touch me/I’m a real live wire.” Heavy guitars create almost a metal aesthetic as she stands up to mistreatment from a lover. The song is a response to “the misogynistic pressure to be the perfect partner,” she explains.
The album as a whole, she adds, “was a project to explore the many colors of a malfunctioning mind. I’ve always been someone who’s felt like an outcast, who’s felt like I didn’t really have places to belong, and I’m kind of vouching for the people who are shut down because of that.”
Embodying this spirit, much of the album defies musical conventions. Several of the songs lack a chorus, sounding more like one long, drawn-out verse. And rather than record the vocals line by line, she went through each song in its entirety, making the vocals intentionally imperfect and rough around the edges in places.
The minimalistic “Unravel” mixes an R&B-like beat with theatrical, despondent singing — “it’s never good enough/everything is all out of place” — that focuses on the emotional impact of being shamed and gaslighted by a partner.
“Marionette,” a cinematic song influenced by ’90s rock, critiques society’s rise-and-grind mentality with powerful guitar riffs, atmospheric percussion, and lyrics like “I’m stuck in an endless search/my feet can’t seem to grow tired.”
The last song, “Secret Garden,” has an airy pop sound, using the metaphor of planting a seed to represent recovery from addiction and self-harm. “This album has a journey within each song, but as a collective, it starts off with being angrier and more defiant, and it comes around to being forgiving for yourself,” she says.
Even as she gears up to release Live Wire, Wrené is already at work on her next project, a self-produced concept album focused on string and synth sounds and aimed at creating a surreal landscape. “This one is kind of an experiment in melding the sort of classical organic sounds with very odd dark synth or electronic elements,” she says. “I like to delve into the area where lightness and darkness coalesce.”
Disparate as her music may seem, it all revolves around the central concept of self-empowerment. “I really want to get across the notion of finding empowerment within yourself,” she says. “Especially in dark times where you feel trapped, you feel weakened or invalidated, or you feel your most vulnerable, it’s really important for people listening to understand that, whatever hardship or difficulty you’re facing in your life, you have to be the one to overcome it; you have the power within yourself to do that.”
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