Ruel: “I was listening to a lot of sad music, thinking, ‘What am I even doing?’ I felt a bit useless”

Australia’s youngest global pop star leaps into adulthood with his bold new EP, ‘Bright Lights, Red Eyes’

Ruel van Dijk seems to be doing everything right. In 2017, Elton John called the soulful Sydney-based pop star and singer-songwriter “the most amazing voice that I’ve ever heard from a male singer at 14 years of age”. In 2018, Ruel became the youngest solo artist ever to win an ARIA Award, for Breakthrough Artist. Last year, he sold out shows in theatres across Australia, including the Sydney Opera House, and clubs across the US and Europe. Ruel has been earmarked for global stardom since his early teens – and he only turns 18 tomorrow.

With his third EP, ‘Bright Lights, Red Eyes’, freshly released, it would be easy to say that Ruel’s success is already assured. But he’s unfazed, at least for now: “I don’t feel like I’ve hit that point where I’m like, ‘Okay, this is my life now’. I can still have a pretty normal day if I go to the mall. It’s not too hectic. I’m in a pretty good sweet spot right now, actually.”

The truth is, the two subjects that inevitably come up in every conversation about Ruel – his age and the hype around him – are by far the least interesting things about him as a person and an artist. In a few years’ time, neither will be relevant. We’ll simply be talking about the music: a seamless blend of vulnerable lyrics, jazzy guitars, and both classic and alternative R&B, sung by a richly textured voice. Forget what you’ve heard – Ruel’s story has only just begun.

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Ruel on the cover of NME Australia #11

Speaking to NME over Zoom from his home studio in Sydney, Ruel sounds every bit as relaxed as he is when he’s singing. He’s clearly done enough interviews in the last few years that he sounds practiced, though not rehearsed – but not so many that the novelty of dissecting your emotions with a stranger has worn off.

Since his last round of press for 2019’s ‘Free Time’ EP, he’s grown out his middle-part hair and sprouted an impressive moustache. He seems even taller, too – indeed, “Ruel being super tall” is a familiar meme to his fans. He’s still boyishly handsome; but for a touch of morning restlessness, you might not guess he’s a teenager. He shifts and leans back in his chair between answers, toying with his headphones like he might just decide to get up and leave – politely, of course. He has the energy of a performer who has been cooped up inside for too long.

When we ask how his year’s been, Ruel laughs, “Obviously, 2020 didn’t go to plan. I was already supposed to have gone around the world twice by now. And I was going to write my album in Los Angeles. I had a studio, and had found some cool people that I wanted to work with. Then COVID struck, and I got sent straight home. And I was like, ‘Uh-oh, this is going to take a little longer!’”

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

Ruel van Dijk was born in London in 2002 to a Dutch father and British mother, and the family moved to Sydney in 2006. His first memory of music is listening to James Morrison, the English singer-songwriter whose debut album ‘Undiscovered’ broke through big that year. Ruel’s eyes light up as he recalls hearing Morrison’s song ‘The Letter’: “I was four. I don’t know why, but before I went to school, I was writing a letter, and I put it in someone’s postbox. We were listening to the song in the car on the way there, and I was like, ‘He’s speaking to me!’”

When Ruel was 12, his father sent a demo of him singing James Bay’s ‘Let It Go’ to M-Phazes, the Australian pop and hip-hop producer who’d become his mentor. The two collaborated on Ruel’s debut single ‘Golden Years’, but it was their cover of Jack Garratt’s ‘Weathered’, on triple j’s Like A Version, that made people sit up and take notice. In the live video, the boyish Ruel confronts his mortality with the mettle of a wizened bluesman, singing: “Will you keep me young? Oh, when my heart stops beating / And my blood turns cold…” It was a rare, chill-inducing performance.

It led to a bidding war between US labels, which RCA Records ultimately won. A quick one-two punch of EPs, 2018’s ‘Ready’ and 2019’s ‘Free Time’, soon followed, where Ruel alternated between the triple j-friendly indie-electronic-blues sound he’d started out with on ‘Golden Years’, and more sombre piano ballads. It was on the lighter singles where he truly shone, like ‘Painkiller’, ‘Face To Face’ and ‘Free Time’ – which combined street-smart, busker-style electric guitars with the laid-back charm of his earliest influence, Morrison.

Ruel’s refined that sound on ‘As Long As You Care’, the lead single and opening track from the ‘Bright Lights, Red Eyes’ EP. It’s his hookiest pop song to date, but for the first time, there’s the warmth of ’60s soul, with a crisp Motown thwack thanks to M-Phazes’ drums. Ruel’s written a few songs about the touring life, but this is his most emotionally precise, at once a thank-you and an apology to his fans: “I’m sorry, but my brain is fried / I haven’t seen your face in miles and miles…

He explains the chorus, from which the EP gets its title: “‘Bright lights’ obviously refers to when you’re at the venue, walking around and doing meet-and-greets… It’s a lot of shouting and fun. And then the ‘red eyes’ – you’re always tired, catching pretty gruelling red-eye flights. It just summed up my life when I was writing those songs.”

The music video for ‘As Long As You Care’ opens with a laugh-out-loud image: as Ruel sings “I’m sun-dried / My lips are high on overdrive”, his face is superimposed on a piece of sun-dried tomato, and then picked up and eaten. Directed by Grey Ghost, the video depicts a family in lockdown in a ’70s-era house. Ruel plays himself as a bored teenager, but also a range of characters on TV.

“Everyone’s self-isolating with their families at home… Then the future comes early for that era. They’re all watching TV, and I’m in every show, whether it’s American Bandstand, or Adam West-style Batman… We filmed a few seconds each of all these crazy scenes.” Invigorated by what he sees, the everyday Ruel picks up a guitar and jams along, finding joy in himself. It’s a simple, elegant metaphor for how artists and fans inspire each other.

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

The ‘As Long As You Care’ video inspired RuelVision, a 24-hour livestream of comedic skits and music videos that’s one of the more ridiculous and committed ways that any artist has used a major label’s promo budget. The videos run the gamut from the conventional – performances and karaoke videos – to the ridiculous: ASMR, game shows, awkward interviews, mock newscasts, fishcams, Play School parodies, bedtime stories… all of them starring Ruel himself. Always eager to please, he exclaims, “I hadn’t released music in so long! We wanted to come back with a bang and overload the fans. Let’s give them something that will last.”

Ruel returned from LA to Sydney in March, but spent over a month in Melbourne planning and shooting the RuelVision skits – smack in the middle of the city’s strict COVID lockdown. “At first we were writing the skits, and just figuring out the logistics. Everything with the crew was socially distanced. Then for the next three weeks, we were shooting non-stop every day, for 12 hours.” Such is the life of the modern pop star – even the gags sound like hard work.

Once it became clear that working on his debut album was no longer an option, Ruel and his team came up with an unexpected third EP, drawing on five songs that had already been written in Paris last year. Ironically, it took a trio of Australians away from home – Ruel, M-Phazes and ‘The Middle’ songwriter Sarah Aarons – to come up with Ruel’s best material yet.

“When I’m songwriting, I like to expand the biggest emotion”

“The EP was all written in June last year, in this crazy Airbnb mansion,” he recalls. “You can actually see it in the cover art – it’s me and Sarah Aarons outside it. We were there for a week and a half, and I had to film a music video for ‘Face To Face’, go to shows and press around Fashion Week, and it was also in a heatwave. It was, like, 40 degrees in Paris.

“It was a very stressful week, but every time I got to the house, we’d just go in there and write something. We just had a guitar and a little MIDI keyboard, and we wrote five songs in about three days, each in under an hour.”

In the end, not having an album turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “I’m really happy these songs are together, and got their chance to shine in their own little Paris package.”

‘Distance’, the EP’s second track, is a deeply articulate song about not being able to express your feelings to someone. It might be the most emotive vocal we’ve ever heard from Ruel – especially the stunning falsetto he unveils in the bridge. Over clean electric guitar, he croons, gently holding in his pain: “You’re right there / But I won’t say that I’m standin’, I’m right here / When I see you I panic / So scared of the way it might pan out…

‘Distance’ feels so naturally candid, like the work of a lifelong singer-songwriter, that it’s surprising to hear how its writers fumbled their way towards it. “A lot of these songs came from finding nice chords, with me just mumbling some melodies into a mic with no lyrics. When you’re saying gibberish, you’re still almost saying words. If we didn’t have a concept, or couldn’t think of one, we did find it through the gibberish.”

“Someone would come up with a line, then once we had that line, we’d branch off that, and branch off that, and then we’d have a verse. And we’d be like – okay, we can develop a story from here. That’s definitely what we did with ‘Distance’.”

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

Ruel’s skipped the coming-of-age stage of his career and gone straight into making intricately crafted, mature pop music. And yet on the EP’s third track, ‘Courage’, over propulsive piano and gospel-inflected backing vocals, Ruel sings about feeling so inadequate that he dreams of having the courage to give up… and leave his career behind.

It wasn’t meant to be taken literally. He confesses, “The concept wasn’t necessarily true at all. I didn’t really feel like I related to it. But it just felt like something people should hear anyway.”

In ‘Courage’, he’s not exactly playing a character; rather, he’s fantasising about an alternate timeline. “If I could do my life again, would I do it differently? I was home alone a lot in LA, because most of my writing sessions were getting cancelled. I was listening to a lot of really sad music, thinking, ‘What am I even doing? Why do I have a music career?’ I felt a bit useless. The chorus is about: ‘If I could try, I’d run away’. It’s pretty sad!

“Luckily, I don’t actually feel like that. When I’m songwriting, I like to expand the biggest emotion. And that’s the most intense emotion, when I’m sad. So I just nail in on that.”

“I never think about the future. I just go with the flow”

The second single, ‘Say It Over’, is pure, slow-burning soul, featuring the American alt-R&B singer Cautious Clay. “It’s another song where all these lyrics came through gibberish,” says Ruel, though it became an intimate ballad about a fading relationship. “Sarah Aarons actually wrote the whole verse when I was at a fashion show. She did the whole thing over those really simple, but sad electric guitar chords that she was fingerpicking. I remember coming back and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really, really great, and really sad’. And I had no idea what it was about.”

The song has two moments of magic. In its ‘visualiser’, Ruel performs the song with utter sincerity in a campy ’70s-styled costume, curly wig and all. Cautious Clay doesn’t appear – instead, the lights dim during his verse. In an unexpectedly tender moment, Ruel doesn’t lip-sync to Clay’s vocals – he just vibes, feeling the music. Nothing about it feels rehearsed or performed.

And secondly, ‘Say It Over’ ends with a fingerpicked guitar instrumental that perfectly captures its sense of regret. “I just thought it was a beautiful way to end the song. It’s just so strange. You don’t really notice that it’s changing key, but then when it goes into the next song, it’s in a completely different realm.” It’s the mark of an artist with true presence, that you can feel Ruel’s presence even when he’s not singing.

The moody ‘Up To Something’ reverses the roles of a song like Destiny’s Child’s ‘Say My Name’, ending the EP on a series of unresolved questions: “You’re numb on my skin / Can you speak a little louder? / Are you up to something?

It’s one of Ruel’s favourites on the EP, and one of the best productions of M-Phazes’ career, combining acoustic guitar with creeping dance rhythms. Their relationship has become less teacher-student, and more that of true peers and collaborators. Ruel says, “Every time we attack the first production for a song, I say to him, ‘Don’t be scared to jump out of my comfort zone’.”

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

It’s impossible to guess where Ruel will go next. ‘As Long As You Care’ opens the EP with a potential pop hit, but the other four tracks share just as much DNA with the bedroom-pop and R&B movement that’s burgeoning across the world. His closest peers aren’t big pop stars, but similarly introspective, self-made Gen Z artists – the likes of Clairo, Dominic Fike, Joji and Omar Apollo, whose recent duet with Ruel, ‘Want U Around’, is a D’Angelo-worthy slow jam that could make grown adults blush in public.

Could Ruel ever see himself lean closer to the left-field, like his oft-cited idols Frank Ocean and James Blake? Sooner than you might think.

“That’s what I’ve been doing a lot in quarantine. I’ve been writing a lot more… I wouldn’t say experimental, ’cause I don’t really know how to produce, and a lot of the sound comes with the production. But in terms of songwriting, melodies and chords, I’ve definitely been straying away from what I usually do. I’m scared to send them to my manager! Just let me flesh them out a bit more first.”

Ruel Bright Lights Red Eyes NME Australia cover October 2020
Credit: Tristan Stefan Edouard for NME

Ruel’s already proven his talents many times, but no 18-year-old artist should even be close to plateauing. In a few years’ time, we might reread this piece and marvel at how far he’s come. But Ruel himself won’t need to.

“People my age, when they get in the industry, can make it so hard on themselves. But I never really set goals. I never think about the future, which is weird. I don’t think about the past, either. I feel like I just go with the flow, and wherever I end up, that’s where I end up. I’m just gonna try my best to be happy.”

Ruel’s ‘Bright Lights, Red Eyes’ EP is out now

Creative Direction & Styling: Jeremy Koren (Grey Ghost)
Clothing: Louis Vuitton & Song For The Mute
Hair & Makeup: Rachel Carr