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23-year-old Reneé Rapp launches her solo career with EP: 'Everything to Everyone'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Confession - sometimes, when I'm bored, I watch clips from the Jimmy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's a musical theater competition for high schoolers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RENEE RAPP: (Singing) And all the king's horses and all the king's men will never put poor Charlie together again.

SHAPIRO: That's Renee Rapp's winning performance from 2018. She was 18 years old. And since then, she's had a career to rival any of the great divas. She made her Broadway debut the following year starring as Regina George in "Mean Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAPP: (As Regina George, singing) Face it, you used me. You saw the sexy clothes, my supermodel pose. What did you know?

SHAPIRO: Now she's starring in the hit HBO series "The Sex Lives Of College Girls," which is in its second season.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS")

RAPP: (As Leighton Murray) I'm still seeing Tori. Stephanie's out. August is in. If Monica sends one more gif, she's out. Hot bangs girl from the student center flossed in front of me, so she's out.

SHAPIRO: And she just finished up a sold-out tour for her debut solo album, "Everything To Everyone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLORADO")

RAPP: (Singing) 'Cause maybe there I'd like myself, work on my mental health, might even feel compelled to sing karaoke.

SHAPIRO: Renee Rapp, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm amazed you found time for us with everything else.

RAPP: (Laughter) Thank you. I - listen, happy to make time for this. I'm very excited to be here.

SHAPIRO: You have such a long list of titles next to your name, but you've said you always wanted to pursue a career in music, that that was the No. 1 goal.

RAPP: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So why did you pursue acting first?

RAPP: So essentially what happened is, like, ever since I was, you know, born or, like, had a thought, I kind of always knew that, like, being an artist and being a musician and a songwriter was exactly what I wanted to do. And I was very determined to do whatever I had to to get to this point. And I was always on stage. My mom would sometimes put me in local musicals in my hometown. And I didn't love it, but I was like, this is a great opportunity for me to perform. I just always related to, like, pop artists and pop music more. And, like, Beyonce was more interesting to me than, like, "Merrily We Roll Along," personally.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you're saying that starring in a Broadway musical was, for you, a means to an end.

RAPP: Well, so, no. It was...

SHAPIRO: It was a stepping stone.

RAPP: It wasn't - it was, to be honest. At first, like, that's exactly what I wanted it to be. I basically switched to an arts school halfway through high school so that I could hopefully compete at the Jimmys, get seen by agents, get a job, work on Broadway, move to New York and do music. That was, like, my master plan.

SHAPIRO: I've heard some musical theater performers say they found it hard to cross over and be taken seriously as TV actors or as recording artists. Did you encounter any of that?

RAPP: I think I did when I was younger. But I think, like, I am someone who - like, I wear my everything on my sleeve. So I think I kind of hopefully make it very hard for people not to take me seriously because I'm quite aggressive, and I'm quite delusional.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's a potent combination.

RAPP: Yeah (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO WELL")

RAPP: (Singing) I get so sick of myself, can't stop overthinking. I heard you're happy somewhere else. But I don't forget too well.

SHAPIRO: Well, another thing that strikes me is that, like, you have your own fan base that you've built. You've got more than a million followers on TikTok.

RAPP: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The minute you announced your tour, it sold out immediately, in part because you don't have to wait for a producer, a record label, a venue to turn the PR machine into gear and generate interest.

RAPP: Yeah. I'm very spoiled. I think, like - I feel like I'm the biggest fan of my fan base. They're very loyal, and I think we, like, found a lot of comfort in each other. It's an amazing experience, and it honestly has become very familial.

SHAPIRO: You released your first single, "Tattoos," in June of last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TATTOOS")

RAPP: (Singing) Fifteen and 16, I had to be strong. Twenty-two, I'm still scared of it all.

SHAPIRO: Why did you want this to be the song that launched your solo music career?

RAPP: To be honest, it was the first song that I felt good enough about to, like, really post on social media. I don't think I ever thought I would put it out though. It just gained traction in a way that I had kind of always dreamt of. Once I had numbers online that were easily digestible to people who are in music, they were like, oh, people do actually want to listen to this.

SHAPIRO: It almost sounds like having this relationship with your fans allows the process of writing and releasing music to be more of a two-way street than the cliche go into a studio, record an album, then release it to the world and see how it lands.

RAPP: Completely. I've been trying to get signed to a major label since I was 16. And every single time that I had meetings when I was a kid, it was always like, mmm, we don't really understand you. Mmm, we don't really feel like people care. But that traction on that video ended up getting me signed.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

RAPP: So, like, my fans got me signed. Like, I attribute my career to them. That changed my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TATTOOS")

RAPP: (Singing) Knowing that you could just let me go. And I'll just be lonely, missing holding your hand when we're half asleep.

SHAPIRO: You often play roles of sort of queen bees...

RAPP: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Like, privileged young women...

RAPP: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Exercising their power.

RAPP: Yes (laughter).

SHAPIRO: How does that compare to your childhood in North Carolina?

RAPP: I think it does in a lot of ways. Especially with Leighton, my character on "College Girls," like, I see so many parallels to me as a kid when I was growing up.

SHAPIRO: Describe that kid.

RAPP: I think that kid was really, really, really judgmental of everything that she was. I would hear a lot of, like, homophobic things or, like, very, like, ignorant comments, things like that. And I was also such a perpetuator of those things. I was so homophobic to myself to the point where, like, I wouldn't come out to anybody. And I'd be, like, kind of judgmental when I would, like, be seeing someone who wasn't a man, or I wouldn't be in, like, a heteronormative relationship. I did that. And so does Leighton.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SEX LIVES OF COLLEGE GIRLS")

RAPP: (As Leighton Murray) I don't want being gay to be my identity. I like my identity. I don't want to be the gay Kappa girl or the lesbian cousin. I don't want to be other.

It made me face a lot of stuff that I did not want to. And so not only did I become, like, way more comfortable with who I am, I also, like, saw a lot of, like, the ugly parts of myself I didn't want to see and then had to address.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE KITCHEN")

RAPP: (Singing) When I walk in the kitchen, my heart hits the floor.

SHAPIRO: You've said that "In The Kitchen" is your favorite song you've written.

RAPP: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: It's also your most streamed song. What do you think makes it so meaningful to you and your fans?

RAPP: That song, to me, feels like I, like, shed a skin that people knew me from - right? - because everyone knew me - who did know me - from a Broadway time, from a very specific relationship, from a very specific way I presented myself. And a lot of that had to do with, like, me trying to make myself smaller to, like, make someone else comfortable. But when I wrote "In The Kitchen," that was like, I have had enough of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE KITCHEN")

RAPP: (Singing) Deleted the playlist, but I still hear all your favorite melodies - strangers to lovers to enemies. So I'll dance with your ghost in the living room, and I'll play the piano alone.

I was no longer going to, like, limit myself for someone else's happiness. Like, I was going to do it for myself.

SHAPIRO: Renee Rapp, it's been so great talking with you. Thank you.

RAPP: You, too. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her debut solo EP is called "Everything To Everyone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE KITCHEN")

RAPP: (Singing) Done me a favor and packed up your clothes. Falling in love, no, it ain't for the weak. So don't try this at home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.