Ruel, with his dry-as-dust sense of humour and wide, easy smile, is the perfect picture of quintessential Australian chill. Grounded and laidback, he’s a man who lives in the moment yet his refusal to plan his life or set goals is neither instilled by his Sydney upbringing nor an adherence to a ‘que sera sera’ school of thinking. Rather, it’s become merely a pointless exercise.
interview by Taylor Glasby
photographer ELLIOTT MORGAN fashion DAVEY SUTTON grooming BRADY LEA photographer assistant CARLOS DURO fashion assistant ALEX TRILLO groomingusing shakeup cosmetics
The 19 year old, London-born singer-songwriter is five years into his career and has been on the road for at least three of them. “I’ve had schedules laid out for a whole year and every single one changes so fast,” Ruel laughs. “I don’t look that far ahead and don’t want to. I feel like it sets me up for failure.” The furthest he can think about is one week. He’s in Europe doing a whirlwind pop-up tour peppered with attending a few Fashion Week shows. “I thought I was going to go to Paris after Milan, then LA, then Asia, then home. But that’s all changed. You have no idea what you’re doing. Basking in Milan’s still strong Autumn sunshine, Ruel’s diet since arriving has been pizza and pasta. Life is good. A few days ago he was in London, studio lights beating down on his six-feet-four build as a hair stylist wrestled with a single strand that refused to fall perfectly onto the singer’s forehead. Ruel’s quiet patience, when you look closer, is actually him having mentally checked out. Once camera-ready, life flickers back into his eyes and he laughs. “In there,” he says, pointing to his head, “I’m just asleep.” It’s not just down to jet-lag. One of his keys to preserving his mental wellbeing is an ability to disassociate. Ruel, the singer, is kept separate from Ruel van Dijk, the man. He doesn’t like to read about himself online. He’s never bought into the hype around him, although there’s plenty of it: “I don’t want to believe anything people are saying, apart from the people around me and who know me,” he says. The public’s fixations with his bodily proportions, hair and visage – similar to the gushing verbiage devoted to Harry Styles or Timothée Chalamet – is something he tries to ignore. “It comes back to the disassociation, I don’t like to think about it all too much.” Sometimes, being a pop star, he thinks, is just a little bit absurd. Ruel’s ascension to fame came with his first single, “Golden Years” (2017), released when he was 14, his voice beyond his years.
” I don’t look that far ahead and don’t want to. I feel like it sets me up for failure. “ruel
With songs rooted in gospel-tinged blue-eyed soul, Ruel racked up hundreds of millions of plays on Spotify alone, was co-signed by Elton John and supported Shawn Mendes on tour. The press heralded him as the next superstar, a Justin Bieber from Down Under, and three EP’s – Ready (2018), Free Time (2019), Bright Lights, Red Eyes (2020) – kept his star ascending faster than Ruel was prepared for. When COVID shut down the world in 2020, Ruel went home. “I was meant to be touring that whole year and writing my album but I was like, ‘Ok, none of this is happening, I’m just going to be here indefinitely’. Thank god it slowed down when it did because I don’t know if I could have handled it if it got any bigger,” he admits. “I was on this steady incline; the numbers would go up, there’d be more fans, more and more eyes on me. It got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m good here, I don’t want any more or else I’m going to freak out. I don’t know if I can handle life any more than this’. It was incredibly therapeutic being at home, reflecting and relaxing and getting in touch with mates.” That feeling lasted for six months before a fear of what was going to come next crept in. Ruel missed touring. His friends had purpose, be it their jobs or school. For several weeks, he lurked about, feeling useless, then sat down and began writing songs. Writing by himself, he found, was like “therapy without a therapist, I need someone else in the room to tell me if my ideas are shit or get their perspective on my life experience,” he laughs. There was a boon to this solitariness: “Having no one else to rely on made me get better at writing. The melodies and lyrics I was drawn to all changed. I needed those songs to get to where I am now,” he says. “I really got into The 1975 a couple of years ago, I was playing the same festival as them, and it’s very Gen Z of me, but that was my way into Elliott Smith and Phoebe Bridgers, and who they were inspired by, and I went into this folky world I’ve never really delved into. That music made me feel more than any music has made me feel. I started wanting to switch up how I wrote music, to feel more and that’s where the debut album’s come from.” Ruel’s original inspirations were R&B, rap and pop-soul – “That was all the music I listened to between 12 and 16, and that’s what came out [in his own work],” he says – but the past two years has been a musical and personal transition period. “I’m more calm, level-headed, and more certain,” he asserts. “I was struggling so much. I wanted to call my [upcoming] debut album Uncertainty in Dutch because I was so unsure of what I liked and wanted in everything. But now I love how I’ve found what I wanted and now whenever I’m in a session, I can articulate it a lot better than I used to.” This summer’s “You Against Yourself” and 2021’s “Growing Up Is ____” are marked steps away from his earlier work – pop earworms made just as much for heady festival singalongs as a private identity crisis. The latter’s lyrics are sharply perceptive even in the face of being overwhelmed: “Growin’ up is weird, sleep with friends, break a heart, Question everything you thought”. One of Ruel’s most frequent phrases is ‘It’s weird’, a kind of shorthand for thoughts and experiences more existentially vast than can be captured by a single interview. “It’s weird,” Ruel says of coming of age under the gaze of a massive audience. “Touring for the first year or so I felt like I grew up super quickly, ‘cos my team is twenty or so years older than me.
“Fashion makes me happy, it doesn’t feel like work at all .”ruel
When COVID happened I went back to my normal life, I was 18 but acting like a 15 year old, just surfing and playing football every day. I kinda forgot that I had a job, I was having a childhood, maybe the bits that I missed. It hasn’t been a slow, gradual maturity, I just flip between what I’ve got to be and what personality suits each environment, even though they’re all still me.” When his life began getting hectic pre-COVID, Ruel says, “There were definitely times where I saw the schedule and would have a bit of a freak out, like ‘I dunno if I can do this, what the hell?’ It was weird, when things got really hard, I had to use humour to get over it and laugh about it. I’d also go into autopilot, which is not super healthy but since then I’ve found healthier ways [to cope]”. And TikTok, he thinks, “is a weird thing because it’s proven that social media only really works if you’re showing who you are, not what you do. But I found it a lot easier to cope on social media when it was simply what I do. Maybe I don’t want them to see this part of me, because it’s me and it’s the one thing I have. I’ve gotten over that a little bit because, like, who really cares, but it is strange.” TikTok presents another artistic conundrum – the insta-hit. As a wunderkind there was, he recalls, pressure from record executives to produce that globally loved record, to live up to the hype. Ruel’s approach was always to “try and make good music and not to think about that when I write because that just waters it down and people can tell.” In the current, turbo-charged age of virality, Ruel’s focus is on keeping his pace steady. “When people get that massive hit on TikTok, the song becomes bigger than them, people listen to it and have no idea who the artist is. A lot of the time, the artist is stuck trying to replicate that [hit]. When the next song doesn’t work, people lose interest even quicker. That’s scary.” Still, there are more pressing things occupying his mind. That his debut album is imminent thrills him – “I got to my phone’s notes and the tracklist is there. The final versions are coming through and it’s becoming a lot more real. I feel very proud of it” – and alongside it he’ll leave his teens behind. For those who accomplish much before adulthood, their youth is perpetually singled out in conversation. Ruel, for the most part, didn’t mind. “At the time, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is sick’. But now, everyone is 12.” He laughs. “The biggest new artists have all been 16 or 17, and I like how it’s not a huge thing anymore.” Nevertheless, being able to move beyond the general goggle-eyed disbelief is welcome. “I’m glad to not have that constantly tied to me,” he adds. “I’m kinda happy I’m out of the whole ‘What? He’s what??’ reaction.” And secondly, there’s his return, at last, to playing live shows. Thanks to a “terrifying” start via busking, any nascent stage anxiety has been long-vanquished although it took time to master the hallmarks of a good show, of “being very present and acknowledging what’s happening in front of you”. But, more than ever, he’s folding his love of style into his primary artform. “Fashion makes me happy, it doesn’t feel like work at all,” he says. “Osstage, I’m a mix of subtle and classic but stage outfits are a completely different game. I’ll wear whatever I think is insane but cool.” Lately he’s been mixing classic tailoring with the flamboyant, like a wide-legged cobalt blue suit with a lace shirt. It creates, arguably, one of the most effective divisions between person and performer, as such, it’s no wonder Ruel has such an affinity with the process. “You go into a different character. You’re like, ‘It’s showtime, baby’,” he says. “I’m ready to give a performance, and you get a whole different show. It’s like Halloween, you can be someone else.”