Last year, Ren Harvieu was about to release her debut album when she sustained the back injury that threatened to leave her paralysed forever.
Today, as Ren, 21, supports her small delicate frame on a single crutch, hobbling up the pathway of an East London church venue, the after effects of the accident are still apparent.
Once settled inside in what passes for her dressing room, the little lady from Salford relates how some horseplay (not, at least on her part, alcohol fuelled) down by the River Thames took a disastrous turn. A pal leapt over a hedge, not realising Ren was crouched on the other side.
“I couldn’t really describe the pain,” she says. “I’d never even broken a bone before. There was a loud crack and... it was unbelievable. You kind of go in and out of consciousness. Then the ambulance arrived, I was given an injection and morphine became my best friend in the world.”
Her boyfriend, who accompanied her on the ambulance ride to the hospital, later told her she repeatedly sang the Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention classic Who Knows Where The Time Goes? on the journey. The two operations that followed each lasted 13 hours.
“But the weird thing was, they were convinced I was a drug addict,” says Ren, “because I wasn’t taking to any of the drugs. I don’t know why.
“When I came round from the operation I could remember everything, which is unusual. I’ve got some cool scars, though – shaped like a wishbone.”
After the operations, Ren was told that it was not just her mobility that could be affected, but the injury could have left her voice permanently damaged too.
“That complicated things,” she admits. “Then one day they wheeled me into this room on my own in a wheelchair. I started humming to myself and I could feel it was still there. If it was taken away I’d know because it’s such a part of me.
“My first trip out of the hospital was a day trip to do some recording. It was weird. No one knew what I was going to sound like. Then there was a big sigh of relief as it hadn’t affected my voice.”
After we speak, Ren takes the stage. She’s only performed in public 12 times, but the full range of her extraordinary vocal power leaves the audience stunned as the high-flown rapture of Forever In Blue sails high into the rafters.
Harvieu was 12 when she decided to make her singing debut in a school talent contest. A dreamy kid with two much older sisters – “kind of like having three mums” – and a folk singer father, she grew up besotted by music and movies, but had shown no previous inclination to perform. So her family were initially surprised by her decision.
“I sang Alicia Keys’ This Woman’s Work, a big grown-up song. I don’t know what made me do it. Someone else won though... she played the piano.”
Ren was discovered by her manager after putting demos recorded at a friend’s studio up on her MySpace site. She had quickly found that the local talent contest scene didn’t excite her.
“It was horrendous,” she grimaces. “It was the Salford version of X Factor with teenage girls in ballgowns singing Whitney Houston.
“Everything else in life was like a struggle to me, but singing seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”
Ren’s reputation soon spread far and wide. She’s spent time in Las Vegas planning a future collaboration with rap icon Nas and, when she was recovering in hospital, one of the first calls that came through was from The Smiths legend Johnny Marr.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ren laughs. “Someone came in and said Johnny Marr was on the phone. He said, ‘I love your music and would love to do something together at some point’. That cheered me up no end. It blew my head off.”
She’s already being touted as the sort of one-off talent destined to take the place of late label mate Amy Winehouse – a small girl with a big voice, capable of bringing her own unique spin to past influences.
“At one point I didn’t think I would get better,” she reflects. “I remember being completely doped up lying in hospital thinking the label will drop me, won’t they?
“But knowing the sort of future I could have I did a lot of visualisation – being onstage, singing. What else are you going to do in hospital except dream?
“If something like that happens to you it will always be with you. I see life in a completely different way now.
“You’re completely helpless – you can’t clean or feed yourself. It gives you a lot of perspective as a person.
“The doctor said, ‘I don’t think this girl will ever walk again’. He reckoned it was the worst injury he’d ever seen. But I pushed every day to get out of bed and do physio, and that’s why I can walk now.”
? Ren’s new single Through The Night is released on Monday.