Everyone fears getting older; the sagging cheeks, the anxieties around money, marriage, dying alone — bleak, I know. But 19-year-old British-Australian singer, Ruel, has come to terms with it early on.
Ruel’s single Growing Up Is____ was a glimpse into the artist exploring these 3am, staring-at-the-ceiling questions. What will growing up look like? How should I feel about it? And the answer is much more of an astute response to these worries than most 19-year-olds can offer. Quite simply, it’s inevitable, Ruel says. Just like death. So there’s no point in worrying about it.
The singer says that he’s gone even more existential in regards to the questions that he asks himself whilst laying in bed, more so about how the earth is on fire and there’s not a lot that’s being done to stop it. And all of those questions seep into his songwriting. However, Ruel explains that he feels like he should tone it down for his fans, even though he finds writing from a darker place much easier.
But Ruel’s latest release, LET THE GRASS GROW, dives deep into a discussion he had with writer PJ Harding about the state of the world and the unaddressed climate crisis that seems to sit both at the forefront of our minds, and at the back, at the same time.
“When I was writing this song with @pjhardingmusic we were talking about the things that keep us up at night. We went on to talk about what direction we think the world was heading in, which was a pretty complex concept to fit into a song. This is my take on that feeling, to ME the song’s theme is really just to not force nature and let everything natural happen to us. It’s dark, but it’s a real thought I have quite often,” the singer wrote on Instagram.
We spoke to Ruel about what goes on in his mind, growing up with fame, and how he wants to be seen as an artist…
Taking it way back, why did you want to get into music?
I guess I’ve always been obsessed with it. From when I was like five or six, I wanted to buy CDs, go to shows, sing, play the guitar, learn how to do it well. I never thought that it was going to work out, I was always like, ‘this is a great hobby’, and if it did work out, that would be amazing and I’d take the first opportunity. But it just wasn’t in my head because I knew the odds of it working out. I remember being eight or nine and putting covers on YouTube and them not getting over 100 views and I’d see another kid getting 100,000 views doing the same shit. I was like, ‘why! This is never going to work’. When I was thirteen, I got this opportunity and I took it. I’ve been working as hard ever since to make sure I don’t let it go to waste.
Thirteen is quite a young age. How did it feel at the time to be doing all of that stuff and trying to make it?
At that point, I was just writing music and in the development stage with my label and manager. I think they saw that I loved to sing and loved to learn, and I wanted to be better. That was fine. It was more when I was fifteen, when I started touring, and that’s when I got really hectic schedules, fans, and that was all very overwhelming. But I had a good team around me, family around me to make sure I didn’t freak out. I got through unscathed.
Yeah, because there’s of course always a worry that these pressures and the hectic nature of it all can take its toll..
I just thought I was sheltered from that. I feel I got what I wanted out of my childhood as well. I went back to school in between tours. Then I left around year eleven. Still, I would do the same things when I came back to Sydney, like go and see my mates and we’d do all the regular stuff that kids would do. And that was only two years ago, which is weird. I’m very grateful that I got through those hard years without the music industry suffocating me.
Did you ever feel that it was a balancing act that on the one hand it was this amazing thing racking up a load of followers, but on the other, you were dealing with all the shit that kids that age do?
I didn’t really think of it as if the followers were determining how famous or that they were validating me. That stuff comes and goes. It’s just about what’s happening in the moment. I was going to different territories, so more people were seeing my face, and then my fans were making multiple fan accounts. That stuff, the hype, was really hectic, and before covid with all the touring, I loved it because I had a great team around me. I love my band. I miss it.
During those years, who were your biggest inspirations?
It always changes dramatically because my tastes change dramatically all the time. I always loved James Morrison, the Undiscovered album that came out in 2006. I was four-years-old and that was the first thing that I wanted to sing and learn, and I wanted to play the guitar. I made myself sing like his husk, because I already had a weird, croaky voice when I spoke. That kind of came through into my older years and I started getting lessons. Lots of James Blake, Frank Ocean… I love the newer stuff, like Rex Orange County, Jorja Smith…
You started putting covers out when you were thirteen, but when was the moment that you thought you really needed to start penning your own thoughts?
I always wrote songs when I was really young. They were all dreadful. Everyone always says [their early work] was really shit, but these are really bad, with no sense of potential. When I met my manager, he found one of those covers, and he asked if I wanted to write my own music. He put me in a room with PJ Harding, his name was Thief at the time, and he was the most lovely human being ever. I went in as 12/13-years-old, I’d never been into a studio, and we started coming up with ideas. I had no idea how to incorporate metaphors in lyrics and structure a song, but I would come up with melodies and stuff like that. The first two songs I wrote were with him, and they came out a couple of years later when I was ready to start promoting and touring.
Are there main events or certain experiences in your life that you look back on when you’re writing?
I look back on all the major parts of my life. I’m constantly looking for inspiration, especially the last two years, which has been pretty void of it. I’ve not been able to think of anything new because not much has happened. I think back to when I first started falling in love, touring, even when I was getting tired but I really loved doing it, that sort of stuff I always go back to. I also love writing from other people’s perspective too, writing a story that my mate has told me and putting myself in their shoes. I like writing about movie scenes as well.
How do you stay creative at the moment?
It comes and goes, I feel creative and then I don’t. I’m just trying to feel creative. When something comes, I’ll put it down. When it doesn’t, I’ll do something else, I’ll think about the visuals of the next song, or strategising the tour. I really love focusing on merchandise and visuals now too, making sure everything comes hand in hand.
Do you find yourself picking apart certain headspaces that can be inspiring for you? Growing Up Is.. – there’s an element of anxiety to it, for example.
I think anxiety is a thing that all teenagers have now, or have probably always had. That comes definitely subconsciously. I don’t make a conscious decision to do that. When I was writing it, I was listing off a bunch of things that my producer, myself and the writer I was in the room with, did as a kid. I started reeling them off and made a hook out of that. The storyline around it, I wanted it to have a simple but relatable story of someone moving out of town, but you miss them, you can’t fuck things up, but you kind of want to apologise but they’re not there to say it, which is definitely a cause of anxiety.
How do you feel about growing up?
How do you feel about growing up?
On the one hand it’s exciting, on the other I hate it.
It’s weird. I also don’t like how the word weird looks, so I just put the blank [in the title]. I wanted to leave it open to interpretation, because it’s not just weird, it’s also amazing, terrifying, depressing… It’s all these things.
Why is now the right time for that song? Technically, we’re always growing up…
I’ve written so many songs in the past couple of years that I haven’t put out. Lots of them have been very existential crises, who am I, what am I doing… And then lots of them have been simply love and breakup. I thought this one brought them all together. I’ve also written a lot of really depressing folk acoustic guitar songs. I wanted to come out with something that was a bit uplifting, but still had a dark, tortured story behind it. I think I wanted to come out the gates with this record.
Do you normally tap into the dark, tortured side of you, more than the happy side of you?
I definitely think it’s more interesting to write about. The happy side of me makes shit songs. It’s always good to try and have some variety and not make it all about how sad you are, because I’m quite a normal, easy going, centred person. I just like to write what sounds good, and what feels good. Or what feels like anything. I listen to sad music more than I listen to happy music; Phoebe Bridgers, Elliot Smith, more than I listen to rap, which is necessarily happy, but it makes you feel good. I like feeling that gut-wrenching emotion, no matter what mood I’m in.
Do you ever think we get over the fear of getting older?
I never had a fear of it. It’s not really a fear, because you can’t avoid it. It’s like death. So you might as well not be afraid of it. You can’t prevent it either. Getting older, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s silly to be afraid of it, it’s natural, it’s what it is. Everything’s got perks, but everything’s got a downside too. When you’re young, everything’s easygoing and a bit less stressful, there’s less responsibility, less weight, but you don’t have all that stuff. But it always balances out, no matter what age you are.
Looking forward, what other themes do you want to explore in your music?
I haven’t thought of them yet. I’m just going to keep exploring what inspires me to do more. I’ve gone really existential, so I feel like I need to reign it in a little bit for the next songs. I’m like, ‘why is the earth fucking burning?’ Which I think is important to write about definitely, but sometimes you can also make it a bit more specific, so I feel like maybe I should do that.
Are you feeling very existential at the moment?
I think everyone was during Covid. Everyone was spending so much time alone. Usually the only thing I thought about, going to bed with my eyes looking at the ceiling, was the girl that I liked. Now I have a girlfriend. Now that’s not the first thing on my mind, it’s existential thoughts, like what else can I think about for an hour before I fall asleep.
Is it ever the case that a lot of ideas for songs come to you when you’re laying in bed?
Definitely. Concepts always come when I’m about to fall asleep. I think of melodies when I’m in the car, or I’m in the shower. Like a really inconvenient place.
How do you want your music to develop?
I want it to always feel like me in that moment in time. I think it’s always going to develop because my tastes are always going to change and what I want to write is always going to change. But I also don’t want to lose sight of my audience, and I don’t just want to completely isolate them. For the Growing Up Is record, I didn’t want to put something out that would isolate my fans. I didn’t want to just completely switch up on everything. I’ve been putting out pop, soul / R&B music in the past four years, so I was like, let’s not go fully crazy. I wanted to write something that bridged in between.
There’s definitely a lot of pressure on artists at the moment to have to do more than put out music, right? I know that TikTok’s quite big for you. Is it something that you want to do, or something that you feel like you have to do?
It depends how you do it. TikTok, for example, I only just learnt how to use it. I was like, ‘I don’t want to use that, it’s just not me, it’s very one thing that I don’t think I can do well’. I just could never see myself coming up with ideas. I stayed away and ignored it. Instagram I found easy. Now, TikTok is such an immersive platform, you get every single bit of everyone’s personality. I think Matty Healey said it once, that social media should be what you do instead of who you are. At least for artists who have a following. I thought that was a really good philosophy, but now it’s getting harder to do that and keep people engaged.
How would you describe your journey to where you are now?
It’s been weird, I’ve gone through so many different stages of who I want to be perceived as. I never really got a proper chance to sit down and think about it until the past year. It’s been a strange, very precious journey because I feel I’ve learnt more than lots of other artists in the past years in terms of touring, in terms of what it looks like when you’re on a trajectory and when you’re not, and what stuff works, what stuff doesn’t. I’ve been very lucky to have this journey, and to see it as a moment of time now, instead of still being caught up in it all.
Why would you say that now is the right time for you and your music?
I’m just here, and I’m going to do it. So if you listen to it and like it, then keep listening. But if you don’t, then, good day. I don’t like to big myself up as a thing that needs to be heard right now and I’m the most important thing right now because I’m so cool. I’m giving an honest representation of what I like and the music I want to put out, and I’m very grateful for all the people that listen to my music and I can’t wait to see everyone. But there’s lots of that going around, so who knows.
How have you always wanted to be seen as an artist?
Just as someone who isn’t pigeonholed into one thing by people who are dismissive of you if you venture out of your comfort zone. There’s lots of artists that do the one trick pony thing, even though they can do other things, they do the thing that works a bunch of times and then they try something else and no one gives a shit anymore. That’s not what I want to be seen as. I want to play multiple different characters, cards or genres.
LET THE GRASS GROW is available to stream now.