On an early August-evening, sun ping-pongs off the skyline from the balcony where Nate Ruess stands, cupping his whiskey and palming his cigarette. He talks casually, with an appreciable daze incurred from a full day of photo shoots. The mood is relaxed, his sea blue eyes dart between his hands, his cigarette, and the view of the brown Hollywood Hills, which roll on endlessly. “I’m sorry, you just can’t beat the weather here,” he says, like someone would who now resides in the climate temperate New York. It’s true, the weather is immaculate. First impressions: he has a polite, refreshing candor and a subtle, mischievous charm that stems from a near lifetime of professional musicianing.
“Music, to me, has been a relationship, because it’s been something I’ve been in love with for pretty much my entire life,” Ruess reveals. “Lord knows I have my phases where I’m just tired of it, and I don’t want to be involved with it in any sort of way. Then I think about what I’ve learned from it, and how I can grow from it, and it inspires me to want to keep doing it.”
Born in rural Iowa, raised on a farm in Arizona, Ruess now splits his time between Los Angeles and New York. Much of his adolescence was spent in various punk bands and at the age of 19, he formed the band The Format with his longtime friend Sam Means. The band generated a healthy-sized cult following and, in 2003, gained mainstream success with their debut. The band parted ways in 2008 and immediately after Ruess formed a new band, the trio known as “fun.” who went on to become reigning patron saints of indie-pop. It was their second album Some Nights, in 2011, that sky-rocketed them to global popstars and earned them multiple Grammy awards. Ruess’ twelve years in the industry enabled this creation of his distinctive music, as well as the freedom to carve an equally unique path in life. Ruess was now writing songs with Eminem and Pink, resulting in the award-winning duet “Just Give Me a Reason” which became his first number-one single as a solo artist and his second overall.
Earlier this year, in addition to being guest adviser on The Voice, Ruess had started writing songs intended for the follow-up to Some Nights. But those songs–and his plans–quickly changed. The songs started flowing and taking a different shape than his previous work. Ruess could have brought them to his band mates Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, but he decided to keep them for himself. They were too personal. As easy as it would’ve been to capitalize on the momentum of the band’s success, he wasn’t willing to compromise the direction he felt he needed to go.
“It felt like on a lot of other albums I’ve done, even if I’m the one writing the lyrics, I’ve always narrated for other people or other situations,” Ruess confessed. “This [album] was entirely just me narrating my life. So there was a part of me that felt like, ‘Well, you’ve you’ve always been in bands, you’ve never had an opportunity to just go at it on your own.’ And I felt like I was connecting as much of myself to the lyrics as I ever have. I thought it was a great time to do something like that.”
So he branched off on his own and the solo record Grand Romantic was born. It may seem to some like this was his opportunity to break through the barrier of overwhelming success he’d received in his past projects, but to Ruess it was more than that. It was the chance to gain a better foothold, demonstrate his progression as a songwriter, showcase a wider range of emotions, and show off the depth of his musical rolodex.
Part subdued and part theatrical, the album’s subject matter was majorly influenced by his current romance and much of the album’s lyrics are associated with being in love, as Ruess takes a deeply personal look at his own life in the process. He hasn’t been vague on who he’s singing about. With liberal candor, he speaks about the woman who inspired them. When I ask Ruess about the profession of his girlfriend (not knowing at the time she’s famous fashion designer Charlotte Ronson), the seriously heartfelt expression on his face says what his press-savvy mouth cannot.
The album is filled with enough pop effervescence to give us that head-rushing feeling he must’ve had when he fell in love with Ronson. Happy, light-hearted dance-pop anthems anchored by his tenor, which sometimes sound not far from the Queen and Van Morrison influences he cites. “When I first started toying with the idea of a solo album, I was still thinking I was gonna make a fun. album, and I had just gone out to Ireland,” he says. “Van Morrison is someone who I couldn’t be any more obsessed with without really blatantly ripping him off. I went out to Ireland to try and get a little bit of inspiration from being where he was. I listened to his music every single day. Then I happened to have fallen in love at that exact same time, and Van Morrison makes the most beautiful love songs ever.”
But the album isn’t all butterflies and roses. Ruess approached all the differing sides of love. The album’s confessionals sound like hymns of love, along with coils of precariousness and underpinnings of heartache. “When I first started the album, I was thinking ‘I’m gonna make this album about falling in love.’ I think it’s something that’s generally missing in pop music today. I usually notice that when I’m making an album, I’m focusing more on the negative aspect of things. So I wanted to make something that felt like this full force of love. Then as I started to get into it and write more songs, I’d gotten over writing all these songs that were happy. I thought, I’m happy that I’m in this great place, but I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the sad songs and the sad moments,” Ruess explains. “So I did a lot of looking back at times when relationships were tough, and I realized that I had to add that element into it. Towards the end of the album, it kind of gets sad and then it levels off. I feel like that’s kinda the person that I’ve been forever, never mind the fact that I might be in a relationship right now.”
Ruess’ freewheeling, all-eras-on-deck fun. aesthetic is retained on Grand Romantic—the many dimensions of love and its climaxes and crescendos was something he managed to engender into the album. “I had started to write all these happy songs. But I always try to write an album, not necessarily as a concept, but as something that you can listen to from front to back, and it does have arcs. I’ve been in a lot of long relationships in my life, and they always start like the sun is shining. I’m not trying to preplan my current relationship, I’m just being a realist as far as what could potentially go wrong. I think that it was important for me to have those down moments because, if you look at it as an individual and not as two people, you have to prepare yourself and you have to be able to overcome.”
It’s generally all sunshine in the beginning of a romance, but now that it’s been over a year with Ronson, Ruess is enjoying the indelible commitment he’s fostered. “The Honeymoon stage is what we’re all chasing, constantly. I think that can cause relationships to fail because suddenly that ends, and you’re not willing to work with that person to get past it, and you just want to get that feeling again,” says Ruess. “I mean, I’ve been guilty of that. I think most people are guilty of that. Maybe I could’ve explored the sticking-it-out aspect of relationships, but up until recently, I’ve made a life on cutting and running.”
Though Grand Romantic may sound similar to a fun. album, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes too much change is bad—just ask the climate. With stadium-sized anthems like “Nothing Without Love” as a worthy successor to “We Are Young” and quiet ruminations like “Take It Back,” a somber ballad punctuated with a guitar solo by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the fun. comparisons don’t bother Ruess.
“To me, it all kinda sounds a little bit the same because it’s just my weird, unique way of writing songs. So it’s fine if they want to compare it. If a critic is gonna compare it to the last stuff I did, I’m okay with that,” Ruess tells me emphatically. “I look at everything more so as the album that I’m making, not always about who you’re making it with. I mean, there are great things to that kind of continuity.”
Not that the segue to solo artist has been without its challenges. “It has its pluses and minuses, for sure,” he claims. “There’s just great things about being in a band. There’s a certain camaraderie, a certain people-picking-up-for-people when others can’t do it. So on one end, it’s been really hard to have to be present at all times. I’m the type of person that usually saves most of my presence and ideas for when I’m recording an album. When it comes to stuff like interviews and overall promotion, that’s one of the best times to be in a band. It can be really daunting as a solo artist, just the everyday life of working an album. But at the same time, I’m really having a great time doing it because it’s something that I’ve never gotten to do. After the success of Some Nights, I wanted to do something that felt really challenging that I’ve never done before.”
So what of the challenges? “The biggest challenge of going solo is re-branding yourself. It’s been a challenge to remove the [fun.] brand and try to familiarize people with who you are just with your voice and a totally different name. It’s something that I thought would be a bit easier, but it’s actually been challenging, and thus been more rewarding because of that,” Ruess admits. “I don’t think that I would’ve done something like this if I didn’t think that there was gonna be a challenge or I didn’t think there would be moments where I was sweating it or pushing myself to work harder.”
For the first time, Ruess isn’t worried about what happens next. Instead, he’s content to enjoy the now. His storied years as frontman resulted in the carefully curated solo artist and man he’s worked to become. “I think you see the mistakes that you’ve made in your life as you get older. If I can attribute all my success to something, it would be from everything that I’ve learned along the way,” he says. “Every single time that I’ve fallen. It’s so funny that we frown upon making mistakes in society. Personally, I’m so thankful for the years that I’ve been chalking up. It’s made me a better person. I can learn from my mistakes. I’m just very lucky to be in a situation with someone who has also been through all of that stuff too. In the past, I would always try to bail out or shut down at the first sign of any sort of problem, but I’ve stuck it out this time and I’m with someone who’s willing to do the same.”
With a solid partnership offstage, I ask the showman how he feels about taking the stage on his own during his upcoming tour. “I haven’t learned what it means to be Nate Ruess on stage yet, and I think that’s going to happen with time,” he says. “I’m the guy that’s been in a band for such a long time, but I’m having a great time on stage by myself. One of the reasons I wanted to make a solo album is because I love an artist like Sting, who was in a band, but turned around and made his solo career something different. The way he puts on a show–I feel like that’s something I’m still looking forward to learning. I’ve got this incredible backup band and as I get more shows being myself under my belt, I can evolve as a performer because I’ve kind of been the same guy on stage for the last ten years. I always want to do better, so I gotta find what it is that’s gonna be different about that.”
As far as solo creation stories go, Nate Ruess has just gotten going. And he’s far from being finished. “It hasn’t burned out on me yet, and that’s just refreshing because I’ve never had that experience with an album before. I still stand behind it no matter what happens with it. I’m taking this as the last album I might make in a really long time. I would feel happy listening to this and knowing that it’s the last thing I’ve done for a long time.”
story by Heather Seidler
photos by Tyler Shields
styled by Sonia Parvaneh
make up by Angie Peek
hair by Mariah Nicole
set assistant Gorge Villalpando