Le Ren and Bria on Being Very Personal, Very Publicly

The friends catch up about recording covers, getting stage fright, their new album, and more.

Lauren Spear is Le Ren, a Montreal-based folk singer-songwriter; Bria Salmena performs as Bria with Duncan Hay Jennings, who is also her partner in the Toronto band FRIGS and in Orville Peck’s backing band. Both Le Ren and Bria have new albums coming out soon — Le Ren’s Leftovers is out October 15 via Secretly Canadian and Bria’s Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 is out tomorrow via Sub Pop — so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a Zoom call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Lauren Spear: Here we are on the internet. I haven’t seen you in so long.

Bria Salmena: When was the last time? Was it on tour?

Lauren: I think so? Maybe I saw you in Toronto after that, but I don’t think so. I think the last time we were properly together was in New York City, baby, which was 2019. 

Bria: That’s really sad!

Lauren: A lot has happened since then. 

Bria: A lot has happened. Let’s skip the boring quarantine conversation.

Lauren: Yeah, let’s leave it in the dust.

Bria: Should we talk about our music? 

Lauren: Yeah. I said this to you before, but your latest single [Bria’s cover of Waylon Jennings’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You”] made me cry. I listened to it over and over again. It’s so good, it’s so beautiful. Dare I say, I like it better than the original.

Bria: Oh, no, he’s turning.

Lauren: I’ve never been, like, cuckoo crazy about Waylon, I will say.

Bria: I mean, I wasn’t really either, and then for whatever reason last year — not even that song in particular, but other songs on that record [Dreaming My Dreams]… I don’t know, he sounds pretty vulnerable. But I think it’s literally because his drug use and drinking was quite heavy when he was recording it, so it feels very just like languid and sad, which I was responding to quite a bit. But I know what you mean, though.

Lauren: I mean, I’m not sure I even know what I mean. I’ve just haven’t really connected, or maybe spent the time getting to know him. And I feel like everyone and their dog tells me that I would love him and that he’s one of the greatest songwriters, and I just haven’t quite got there yet. But I feel like some musicians, I’m, like, saving for myself. I have that with Joni Mitchell, where I know her hits and I know some records, but I haven’t dove deep into her repertoire, because I feel like there will be a time for it.

Bria: Absolutely. I think about the things the exact same way. The more people tell me to listen to somebody, the more I don’t want to. 

Lauren: Totally. I feel the same way. A bit stubborn, maybe, where you’re like, I want to come to it naturally

Bria: Totally. Which is nice, like, Oh, I’ll get there when I get there. Also, I got sent your record and I fucking love it.

Lauren: Oh, I’m glad. 

Bria: The duet that you do with Tenci [“Annabelle & MaryAnne”], that fucked me up.

Lauren: That song is actually about Ali Vanderkruyk, about our friendship. It’s close to my heart. I definitely wanted to have a lot of love songs that weren’t about romantic love, and I feel like that one is very clearly that. I think it’s important to sing about different kinds of love, and also about love itself. Can’t get away from it. I think I’m always going to sing about love.

Bria: I mean, that’s also kind of what I felt like Cuntry Covers was about. So much of the project revolved around Duncan and Jamie [McCuaig] and I being together and working on it together. It’s like this really unifying spiritual thing for all of us. But then I was also going through intense heartbreak, so I feel like that was very prevalent in the recording.

Lauren: You can hear in your voice when you resonate with something so deeply. And also when it feels like you own the song now — like when somebody does a cover of something and it’s kind of no longer a cover, and you’re like, “No, this is yours as well in a different way.” I feel like that is what I really heard from the latest single. I can’t wait for the rest. How did you choose the songs? Was it the three of you or was it mostly you?

Bria: I think I would get overly excited if I heard a song — Duncan and I have this shared playlist, so I’d be, like, driving and texting like, “We gotta try this one!” So we would add to a shared playlist, and then when we were together, we would try certain songs out, and if it didn’t happen really easily we would just scrap it and move on. Obviously a lot of them are country songs, but a lot of them aren’t. I think if we had decided to call the EP something else besides Cuntry Covers, I wouldn’t be having the same kind of conversations about country music with people — which is fine. But it’s just interesting, because the way we came up with the title was kind of a joke. But with your record, what I liked about it was that there’s like a lot of like — “Willow” is a cover as well, right?

Lauren: That’s mine.

Bria: That’s yours!? 

Lauren: Yeah. 

Bria: What song did we sing together that you were like, “Oh, this is a cover?”

Lauren: We sang “Natural Thing To Do,” I think, which is a phenomenal song, by Larry Sparks.

Bria: Right. I was confused. But “Willow” has a very kind of waltzy country vibe to me that I like. But then there’s so much folk on your record, which I actually really, really, really like. And maybe you don’t like that.

Lauren: No, it’s interesting you say that, because “Willow” was one of the oldest songs on the record. I think it actually was written three or four years ago, and at the time, I feel like I was songwriting in a very structured way, which was rooted in country and bluegrass music. Very G-C-D, very verse-chorus-verse, which I love. It’s such a fun formula to work with, because you can create songs that feel very traditional very easily, I feel like. At the time, I felt like it was really easy to write in that way, but over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to stretch my songwriting and try different things, and I feel like I’m connecting with that more now, and being looser in the form.

Bria: I get tired of the same old chords, and the thing about country music is that you just kind of play the same chords over and over again, but the melodies change, the lyrics change, whatever. Was that something that you were feeling?

Lauren: Yeah, I felt limited by that structure, I think. And I think it’s so fun as a genre because it’s inclusive because of that form, and you can play with multiple people. But because the last couple of years I was playing very much solo in my room, I was like, Well, I can try different things, and there’s no one that has to kind of mould around me. And I also got bored of that structure. [Laughs.] So I was like, Let’s try and learn a different chord. Let’s try and add some new stuff in here.

Bria: How do you pick which chords to learn?

Lauren: I like to learn other people’s songs and then steal.

Bria: [Laughs.] That’s what I do!

Lauren: Rob them blind. I’ll also just Google chords and then I’ll try them out, and I’m like, Well, that one’s hard, and this one’s easier, I’ll try the easier one. Or something will sound more interesting to me and I’ll just try and play around with that, and add it to the old repertoire. I really am limited in my guitar playing, so I’ve been trying to learn more. 

Bria: Do you write primarily on guitar?

Lauren: Exclusively, yeah. What about you?

Bria: Yes and no. It depends. Like with Cuntry Covers, we would often start with the guitar and then drum machine. I really like to feed off of rhythm, and I feel like that informs a lot of the melodies that I choose, or phrasing. I would love to make a record that all of it was just completely a drum machine, and that’s what informed whatever I was singing. Maybe it stems from when I played with FRIGS — the rhythm section was always something that kind of happened first, and then Duncan and I would play off lead vocals and guitar. 

I’ve been trying to write a little bit more on synths. But in the same way that you were saying, I just feel like you get fucking bored of playing guitar all the time and writing off that way. I’ve been trying to fuck with different tunings. 

Lauren: Yeah, that’s huge. Open E?

Bria: I was just scared of that for so long. 

Lauren: Same.

Bria: Now I just don’t want to play in standard tuning, and it feels like, Wow, I’m late to this. What were you scared of?

Lauren: Truly. I think for me, I was scared of the prospect of changing tunings while playing live, and that moment where you’re like, [Fumbles awkwardly].

Bria: But you’re so good at stage banter!

Lauren: Oh, bless you for saying that.

Bria: I was thinking about performing Cuntry Covers, which we’re doing, and I was like, Fuck, what am I going to say? And I was like, Who’s really good at that? You were the first person I thought of.

Lauren: I am shocked, because I truly blackout onstage. I have no idea what I say. I am terrified to play a show again. 

Bria: Really? 

Lauren: I think I’m going to be an absolute shrew. 

Bria: No!

Lauren: I played one show with my mom and her band a couple weeks ago, and I literally angled myself away from the audience, like they were looking at my shoulder. I was just so nervous. And I didn’t even have to speak — like, it’s going to be kind of a nightmare. 

Bria: It’s an adjustment. I mean, I didn’t feel nervous, really, about playing with Orville [Peck], because I’m not the main thing and I have instruments to protect me. But when I was in Rome [in early 2020] I played a show with my friend — we have this electronic music project called God’s Mom — and I was like, I haven’t done this in so long where I’m just singing with a backing track. And I’m in front of people who are seated, because we’re in Italy and technically you have to be seated. There was no instrument to protect my body and give me that one more barrier between me and the audience, and I was, like, shitting my pants. I put on this cute like suit for it, and then I was like, Fuck it, I’m gonna put on my camo ball cap because I don’t wanna see anyone. [Laughs.] 

Lauren: Literally. Just hide as much of yourself as you can.

Bria: There’s so many amazing harmonies on this record.

Lauren: I love a harm. I can’t get away from it. I think that’s my Achilles heel — I will always, always want a harmony.

Bria: I do this thing where like, I’ll be listening to music in the car or whatever, and if I’m singing along, I’m singing a harmony.

Lauren: Oh, one hundred percent. The most annoying thing, also, is me trying to figure out a harmony. And whoever with me is like, “Can you please?”

Bria: My brain won’t even allow myself to try the melody. It was just more fun.

Lauren: Yeah, it’s like a brain exercise. I am the exact same way. 

Bria: That is something that’s really nice about this record, all the harmonies. And you’re doing most of them, right?

Lauren: I do all of them except for that one song with Tenci. That’s also, I feel like, something that I use as a crutch. I mean, it’s my favorite thing in the world to sing with myself and figure out those parts, but I feel like it is so incredible when you can find another human person to sing with, and you get each other’s voices and you wrap around each other and it’s just fluid. I feel like I have a couple of people in my life where we know each other’s intuition, and can just sing anything.

Bria: I definitely missed that for a long time. It’s nice playing with Orville, because I just get to be the one who figures out how to wrap around him, and it feels very fun. We obviously sing together a lot, but I also like the element where I just get to be the backup singer and I figure out where to highlight where he needs to go. 

Lauren: You guys sing so well together. My favorite part of that show was when you had your solo moment. [Le Ren toured with Orville Peck in 2019.] It’s just so fun to hear you guys do true duets, because you both have such powerful voices. I think that’s also something that’s interesting about that project — generally somebody that is doing backup vocals, you don’t hear them as distinctly, but I feel like it’s impossible to not hear your voice and be like, “Excuse me, more of that, please.” I’ve been waiting for your solo project since then, so I’m so excited that it’s happening. 

Bria: [Laughs.] I didn’t think it was really going to be this kind of thing either. I don’t know how you came about yours, but mine was just like… I mean, Cuntry Covers is a fun project to do, but the stuff that Duncan and I have been working on that are originals are very different.

I have some questions written down for you.

Lauren: Fire away!

Bria: What is your favorite song in your record?

Lauren: I would say “May Hard Times Pass Us By.” It’s the last track. It’s just very close to my heart, and it was written for someone very specifically as a gift, or just as an expression of what we were going through at the time. It wasn’t meant to share with other people, so I feel like that was interesting to actually put it on the record. I felt a bit conflicted about that because I was like, This is so personal. But I’m glad that I did, because it still feels big for me.

Bria: Sometimes it’s empowering to be very personal, very publicly. 

Lauren: Yeah, it’s scary. 

Bria: It’s scary. But then there’s kind of like, Well, whatever. It doesn’t matter, this isn’t going to affect anybody, hopefully, negatively. 

Lauren: Yeah. Leave it all on the dance floor. What is your favorite cover?

Bria: The one that has the most emotional attachment for me is probably “Green Rocky Road,” just because of the way that one came together. It kind of unified and captured the whole time we had there working on it really well, and it was the most fun day of that summer, I think — and that’s all in the video. The footage is the day we recorded vocals and we just, like, smoked weed and had the nicest day.

Lauren: That’s so sweet. It’s also nice when you have memories attached with the actual recording process.

Bria: Yeah, because I find recording really fucking stressful most of the time. I don’t really love the recording process. I feel like what I like about music is its kind of ephemeral nature, when you’re improvising or performing. I like that a lot. 

Lauren: Totally. It’s scary. I feel like I get into a zone where I’m like, I want this to sound how it’s going to sound live, but I’m realizing more and more they are completely different things and you can play so much more in different ways with a recording. 

Bria: I’ve got another question for you. What the record name? I mean, I know what it is, but why did you choose that? 

Lauren: It’s called Leftovers because it’s a collection of songs that I’ve been writing over the last four years. I write very consistently and write a lot of songs just as exercises, so I kind of picked through all of those and made this collection. I think just that word — I mean, it reminds me of food. It reminds me of a meal that you had that was in a different form, and then you have it the next day and it tastes completely different. So I think it’s just like relevant themes from the past that are still present with me now.

Bria: I love that. 

Lauren: I also think it’s funny because a lot of people’s reading of the title has been, like, throwaway songs. But for me it’s the opposite, where these are actually the most important to me. It also sounds like an old man would have a record called that, you know, just like b-sides from the past. And it’s like my first album, which I think is funny.

Bria: Absolutely. I think it’s a very strong title for your first record. 

Lauren: I hope so. I have one final important question: Do you feel like there are any songs that are untouchable that you would like to cover, but you know you can’t go near it?

Bria: Oh, yeah. Yes. We tried covering Daniel Johnson’s “Some Things Last a Long Time,” and we tried all sorts of variations and whatever, and Duncan and I were like, “This isn’t working.”

t I feel like that’s kind of the thing — that recording I think was captured in a moment, and he’s such a specific kind of singer and performer and songwriter, that it was impossible for me to, like, not even recreate that, but also… I don’t know. It wasn’t something that I could put into myself and spit out my own way. That’s probably one that I feel like is untouchable. I mean, there’s so many. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: right, Agustin Farias) 

Bria is an intimate and incisive labor of love from multi-instrumentalists Bria Salmena and Duncan Hay Jennings. Salmena and Jennings have toured for years as members of Toronto four-piece FRIGS, whose 2018 debut Basic Behaviour was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. Making a mark in diverse genres from country to punk, both play as permanent members of Orville Peck’s band. Bria’s debut EP Cuntry Covers Vol. 1 is out September 24, 2021 via Sub Pop. 

(Photo Credit: Agustin Farias)