Ruel Isn’t Interested In Being The Next Teen Pop Sensation
"I'm so young and by the time I'm 20, I might not even want to do this any more."
“Now I’m an asshole, and it works way better,” Ruel Vincent van Dijk says, before laughing. He makes a couple of jokes like this — the kind that journalists can easily take out of context, the kind that most major-label artists have been trained to no longer say.
Ruel is talking about the difference between working on his debut EP Ready and its follow-up, the seven-track Free Time, which arrives this Friday. A lot has certainly happened since. In the fifteen months between releases, Ruel has won an ARIA for Best Breakthrough Talent, sold out the Opera House twice, and toured internationally, performing to fans so passionate one gave him their last baby tooth on a necklace (“It’s definitely somewhere. I don’t remember throwing it out”).
Not to diminish the necklace, but the first two are particularly noteworthy — at 16 years old, Ruel’s the youngest person to both headline Sydney’s most prestigious venue and take out that award. Accolades and breaking records definitely feel good, but Ruel doesn’t joke he’s an ‘asshole’ because of more attention.
“When I was writing Ready I was just going into songwriting,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just would think of something and then start writing about it, and the music I wasn’t that great at, so I’d leave that to the other people in the room….[For this EP], I took the reins on everything and had other people help me in very specific things, telling them what to do, instead of just being at the back of the room.”
He might be more assertive, but it’s hard to imagine Ruel to be anything other than polite. Meeting in Sony Music’s Sydney office, we’re stuck together in a boardroom; at the beginning of our chat, he angles a packet of Doritos towards me without saying anything, just so I can reach them, if I want.
You can hear the difference on Free Time. Ruel’s voice, already gravelly and deep with a timbre far beyond his years, has only improved further, matched on the EP with lived-in lyrics and subtlety complex R&B, where mentor M-Phazes’ production is more of a distinct character.
Ruel cites Frank Ocean and James Blake as influences, and like those artists’ best works, there’s a natural atmospheric quality throughout Free Time that Ready relied upon its field-recording from Ruel’s own home on ‘intro’ to create. Where Ready was built to showing Ruel was one to watch, Free Time is more self-assured, a work by an artist more interested in creating than proving.
Boys Do Cry
Ruel was 12 years old when his father, who runs an ad agency in Sydney, played his son’s cover of James Bay’s ‘Let It Go’ to Nate Flagrant, a DJ and artist manager he was working with. Flagrant passed it on to one of Australia’s most prominent producers M-Phazes (Demi Lovato, Eminem, Madonna), who was floored by his voice. Phazes has been his mentor ever since, producing both EPs.
Ready was named after a line in ‘Don’t Tell Me’, Ruel’s first single and a song he first wrote when he was 12, when his family wouldn’t take his feelings for a girl seriously. Hearing his voice, far-removed from the pre-voice break sheen of Bieber’s ‘Baby’, you believe it. We love a wunderkind story, and a lot has been written about Ruel’s age, but he isn’t trying to be a voice of a generation.
Ruel’s voice, already gravelly and deep with a timbre far beyond his years, has only improved further, matched on the EP with lived-in lyrics.
“When I write songs, I always try to make it so you can relate honestly as a teenager or adult,” he says. “That why I like to write with people that are a lot older than me, to get that perspective and to get that point of view on the concepts that I bring to the sessions.”
“For example, [with] ‘Don’t Tell Me’, that line, ‘Don’t tell me when I’m ready for love‘, when you hear it, the first thing you probably think is, ‘Oh, he’s a young guy and people are telling him that he can’t feel things because he’s young’. But also, maybe you’re 45 and you’ve just come out of a relationship, and it wasn’t good for you, and someone says, ‘Oh, no. Don’t go back into another relationship. You’re not ready for love’. But if you feel like you are, then you are.”
Free Time opens with an ode to being emotional. ‘Don’t Cry’ is a ballad about realising there’s a limit to supporting someone who is overstepping the line, no matter how much that hurts to admit — especially when boys are told to suppress their feelings and remain stoic, if not cold. It closes with the title track, a song about boredom while touring, and thoughts that linger. It’s hard to keep that healthy, he admits.
“The weird thing about touring is that you’re the centre of attention — the most attention you could possibly get — when you’re on stage, or doing interviews, or meet and greets,” says Ruel. “Then when you go to your hotel it just snaps to nothing. You’re alone in your hotel room. It just goes from one polar opposite to the other. It’s kind of scary.”
The day we meet, Justin Bieber has posted a huge message on Instagram, essentially apologising for his bad boy behaviour for much of this decade. “[It] is an insane pressure and responsibility put on a child who’s [sic] brain, emotions, frontal lobes (decision making) aren’t developed yet,” he wrote. “…Everyone did everything for me so I never even learned the fundamentals of responsibility…. by 20, I made every bad decision you could have thought of…”.
Ruel didn’t need the post to be aware of the pitfalls of fame — and while he’s not quite at a Bieber level, he feels supported by the team around him. Fans can be a little too enthusiastic, too: in the music video for ‘Face To Face’, Ruel plays a pop star’s stalker, a somewhat polite reminder to respect his space.
“As soon as I start thinking about shit too much, and start overthinking, and I start feeling, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be alone right now’, I just don’t,” he says. “I just call whoever’s on my team, just like, ‘Hey, you want to go get something to eat? You want to go have a walk around the city? You want to go do something?’. No matter where we are, no matter what time it is, I’m always just trying to not be alone if I don’t want to be.”
It’s also why Ruel and his team took their time deciding which record deal to sign, before landing on a three-album deal with Sony imprint RCA.
“I’m so young and by the time I’m 20, I might not even want to do this any more,” he says. “Right now I’m loving it, and I wouldn’t change any of it, and wouldn’t want to give it up for anything, but I don’t know, you change so much in your teenage years. I feel like that’s where most of your change is. That’s where you kind of figure out who you want to be. By the time you’re 21, that’s pretty much who you are going to be for the rest of your life.”
“When you get strapped into those 10 album deals that go on until you’re 45, it’s just dangerous. It’s so dangerous, anything could happen! Your team at RCA could leave, the people that you like could leave. And then, you’re still tied into that deal.”
Things, after all, have already changed so much. All but one of Free Time‘s songs were written in the past year: the skeletons of ‘Unsaid’ existed years ago, but when he revisited it, the song became something very different.
“I wrote it about a girl breaking up with me and wishing I could say all these things to this person before they left,” he says. “Then, years passed. [After] my friend’s issues with mental illness, and he passed away, I revisited the song and rewrote a lot of the lyrics. [I] kept all the melodies and the chords the same, but just rewrote some of the lyrics to make it fit. It took a whole other life…it had further feeling and meaning.”
Ruel tells me his perspective on Ready has already changed, how strange it is to sing songs filled with feelings from four-five years ago.
“[But that’s] exactly what the fans want to hear, the old ones, the ones that came first, the big ones,” he says. “[Sometimes] the lyrics aren’t even lyrics to me, It isn’t even a song anymore. It’s just sounds because it’s so familiar… [but then] I talk to fans. The thing that really touches me the most is when people say they related to this song. And yeah, no matter if I wrote that song this year or four years ago, I can still be like, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember feeling like that. We can relate on that’.”
Ruel’s Free Time EP is out now. His September/October headline tour will stop at Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland, Hobart and Sydney, before Ruel returns in November to support Shawn Mendez in Brisbane this November.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder