Having been part of the music industry for around fifteen years, Nate Ruess certainly has an understanding for how it all works. With release of 'We Are Young' in 2012 through his band Fun., he gained commercial success with a song that took the world by storm. Now he's reached the perfect time to release a solo album, ahead of which he sat down with Contact Music. While talking to us, he gave us some great insight into his work with Beck, learning about "damage control" on personal songs, and awards for songwriting.
Hey, Nate - how are you doing today?
I'm great! Chilling out in London feels good. Just about to do sound-checks because I'm playing at Wilton's Music Hall later.
Your debut solo album, 'Grand Romantic', is set for release next week - what led you to undertake a solo project?
Y'know, I quite enjoy challenge. When we released 'Some Nights' I didn't really expect all the success we had and I was able to check off a lot of goals that I didn't even know I had. After that we were in-between phase with albums, I just thought it would be great to do a solo project because I'd been in a band for fifteen years. Now just felt like the perfect time.
You worked with Jeff Bhasker on the record, he produced a few tracks on 'Some Nights', was he your first choice of producer?
Oh yeah, of course. I'd worked with Jeff and the other producer, Emile Haynie, before. Jeff was a co-writer on 'Some Nights', co-writing the songs with Pink and Eminem together, so we have this inescapable relationship together. For a while, I thought about trying out a different producer, but - not even from a production standpoint - from a song writing standpoint, I think he's my kindred spirit.
Did everything go smoothly?
Yeah, it went great. What's cool about it is that when we made 'Some Nights', we were close, but it was much more about working, whereas on this album, I really got to know him and he got to know me as a human being. We'd always been friends, but I feel that we walked out of this as the best of friends. That's a really special thing for me.
All your music, seems well polished, was that something you intentionally aimed for with Grand Romantic?
No, because I started out with something I thought was going to be bigger and more polished, and I actually found that by the end of the album, we were working on songs that were much more stripped down. I think we front-loaded it, and I'm glad that we did, because it allowed for the back-half of the album to take stuff away and feature my voice even more and focus on the lyrics and the melody.
So this must be a very personal 'Nate' album, then?
I would say so - I feel that I always make songs that are personal. As much as I try to sit at a coffee shop and see the person next to me and think 'what are they going through?', I'm too much of a narcissist and I'm hyper-focussed on my own problems. It's interesting, because I don't look back too often, but I think of albums as a chance to look back and look at mistakes and things like that.
It mustn't have been easy putting yourself out there?
Yeah, at this point, because I just learned. I used to have ex-girlfriends who'd be asking 'Is that about me? Is that about me? Is that about me?' and I had to explain 'nah, that was about someone else,' or 'I just made that up'. I certainly learned necessary damage control and it became easy to write personal things; I much prefer it, as well, because it's the only time for me to spend some real time with my true feelings.
You recently documented your struggle with depression, is writing quite a cathartic process for you?
I guess; I guess it has to be. I never really realised it until more recently, just knowing how much the songs on this album meant to me. No matter what the album, when you're out and you're touring, you're going to have to play it over and over again. What's interesting as a songwriter is that they take shape and they're really transferable, and I think. They're supposed to be, though; they're not supposed to be so specific that the listener can't internalise them, and I've definitely found that the more I perform the songs, the more that they take a different shape. I like that, because I think that maybe the listener will feel the same things.
Your track 'What This World is Coming To' features Beck - what drew you to working with him?
He's just always been someone that I've looked up to, as a solo artist. I love his ability to continuously make albums, and he's a bit of a shape-shifter, and to pull that off, you really have to have a good reference point and be a fan of music. I like to think of myself as a fan of music more than anything; when I sit down to write music, I never think about who I'm specifically trying to channel, and it just comes from this backlog of songs that I obsessively listen to over the last 30 years of my life.
Once you stop putting yourself in a genre, it can be really freeing; Beck was one of those people that I learned that from early on, just as a fan of his music. I wanted a chance to work with him, I wanted to do a duet, but I'd done a duet on the Pink song, so I wanted to do a male duet. I've got a high voice, he's got a low voice, and I'm weirdly into country music, and it just fit with the song that I'd written.
Did he work on the writing and production, or was he just lending his voice?
No, he's lending his guitar as well. To watch Beck play a guitar solo is a pretty incredible thing. I originally laid down the guitar solo just with my voice and cranked up the distortion, and he loved it and just wanted to play it over the top. Lately he's been going around with an acoustic, but when he busts out the electric guitar it's a pretty phenomenal thing.
Do you have a favourite Beck album?
Yeah, I'm a 'Midnight Vultures' guy myself. When I reached out and asked if he wanted to do something together, I thought it would be on a track that was a little more like that and more up-tempo. I've always been a fan of 'Sea Change' and I thought 'Modern Guilt' was a good record, but I didn't want to give him more of that, because he'd just been touring with that for a whole year, but I just wrote a song that I thought was perfect for the both of us. It wasn't like 'Midnight Vultures', unfortunately, but it was what it was, and I'm quite proud of that.
Did you feel a pressure to release something very different to the type of songs you write as Fun?
No, in any records I make - either in my band or solo - I like to find something new and evolve on any album, so there was no pressure on me other than trying to make the album that I wanted to make. There was no discussion with anyone other than myself.
It must be helpful to start a solo career with an existing fanbase?
I would think so. There're definitely challenges because people have pre-conceived notions about every aspect of it, but I've noticed when playing live that all those things go out the window. I always put on shows that I believe people can come and step away from their world for a second and just have a good time, and whether they see me live in Fun or solo, it definitely puts people on their feet.
What do you think to Jack's Bleachers record?
I think it's fantastic. He's such a nonstop creative, and I'm not like that: I punch in and punch out. When I create an album, I obviously go all-in, but in the time between that I have to step away. Jack is relentless, though, and it's incredible. I think it's all great - 'I Wanna Get Better' is a great track. He was working on it even while we were on tour, which I was amazed by.
You're set to receive the 'Hal David Starlight Award' from the Songwriters Hall of Fame - is that going to affect how you move forward with your career?
It's pretty exciting for me, because I'm a songwriter and that's what I consider myself more than an entertainer or a vocalist. To be nominated for this award is the ultimate and the most in line with who I am and what I'm trying to accomplish, so I'm pretty jazzed about being there next week. Will it affect how I move forward? No. 10 years from now, I'm hoping that they wonder 'Why the hell did we give him an award? He just dropped off the face of the Earth'.
Are you wanting to keep up the solo work after this release, or are you wanting to get back together with Fun?
I think I'm just gonna figure out what I'm gonna do with my life in general. I'm leaving all possibilities open and in the meantime and I'm just hyper-focused on this and having the time of my life. I gotta go to school at some point, though. Or I'd love to have a family. Doing this since I was a teenager, I'm obviously very grateful, but I'm starting to look at the grass on the other side.
Before I let you go, we've got a few quick fire questions for you: What's your favourite cartoon whilst you were growing up?
'Gummi Bears'. I dunno if that was a hit over in the UK, but 'Gummi Bears' was my jam growing up. It had a great theme song. Any time I think about childhood cartoons, that's the first one that comes up.
What was the last album you bought?
I purchased 'The Best of The Cranberries'. It's hit after hit! It's freakin' phenomenal! I need to cover a Cranberries song sometime soon, but her voice makes it impossible.
Do you have a motto?
Not that I know of. Probably just 'happy to wake up'.
What sound or noise do you love?
I never get tired of an air horn. In, like hip hop songs or dance music and stuff, of course.
Do you have any collections?
I once had a comic book collection, but no longer. That was about it, though; I'm the anti-hoarder. I throw everything away now, but I think it was the 'Uncanny X-Men' I collected.
What's your favourite Book?
'Catcher in the Rye'. It's relatable. Me and all my angsty outsider friends used to love it.
Where can we hear from you next?
I'm off back to the United States before heading to Japan, and then I'll probably stop back over in the UK somewhere along the line. It's up-in-the-air right now, but I'm going on holiday with my girlfriend and her family so we're stopping here a couple of weeks before we head out.
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