The singer-songwriter releases 'The Grand Romantic,' a short film based around his solo debut record from earlier this year, and talks to Noisey about why love is an endless pit of creativity.
Photo by Norman Seef
It makes sense that Nate Ruess would name his debut solo record Grand Romantic, which released earlier this year. Here's a dude that's built his career on singing about love—which, sure, is probably the most tackled idea in the history of creating art—but the conviction with which the 33-year-old approaches the subject is one that's often so genuinely raw and honest, it stands out. It also helps that Ruess, who popularity rose to unexpected levels with his band fun. and their smash hit and Grammy-winning "Some Nights" (before that, he was part of the bleeding heart emo band The Format), is pretty much incapable of writing about any other subject. In fact, he'd probably be even more popular if he was around back in the heyday of singer-songwriters—right there next to your Kris Kristoffersons, your Waylon Jennings, your Billy Joels.
And now, to capitalize on the themes of his debut solo record—and the fact that this guy is and old soul trapped in the year 2015, Ruess has released a short film to pair with the album, which you can watch below in four parts. In it, he stars as a very Nate Ruess-type character trying to record his solo record about love that's dealing with the music indusry of 40 years ago. He says it's not autobiographical, but.... yeah, like all great art, there must be truth in here. To get the scoop on what he's attempting to do with the short film, Noisey spoke with Reuss to talk The Grand Romantic and why he just can't leave that dang L word alone.
Noisey: What’s the motivation behind a short flim to pair with the album?
I was excited because I had such a good time with Anthony Mandler, the director, when we had done “Some Nights” and the “Carry On” video. Then we did the “Nothing Without Love” video, and we had a good time. He and I got to a point where we just worked so well together and I trust him in ways that I usually don’t trust many other people let alone in a creative aspect. So we both got approached by Apple, I guess they appreciated what Anthony and I had done together. They were just saying “We’re launching Apple music and we want to do something unique and interesting that maybe people don’t usually get to see from the musical side of it, would you guys be interested in coming up with some sort of short film?” At that point Apple had heard a lot of songs off of Grand Romantic and they were all about the album, so had Anthony, so he and I sat down and got together a few times. We started conceptualizing, but when it comes to Anthony, even with the “Nothing Without Love” video, I didn’t even read the treatment. I sat down with Anthony, he listened to the song, he loved it and he just started saying a bunch of stuff, and I said, “Whatever Anthony, I just love what we do together.” It’s some of the most stressful work that I do but it’s the most rewarding. So for us to sit down and start conceptualizing about it being a short film, it’s not like we were gonna try to do something too crazy but we wanted to give the songs a little bit of justice, and for myself, put myself into a different light other than what people are used to seeing or reading in interviews or hearing in the music, but doing a weird quirky version of how I can be sometimes. I think Anthony knows who I am and how I can be at this point. And I think Anthony wanted the opportunity, he’s made a lot of amazing music videos, so not to stray too far from that realm, but also try to challenge us a little more.
What does making a film like this let you do that you can’t do with music?
Just the acting side. I would never act. I think a lot of musicians or people in the arts think it’s something they can naturally do. It’s not something I ever thought that I could do, [laughs], I can barely read, so memorizing lines is definitely not for me. But the good thing was I kinda had to be a little bit of myself,. I’m not so sure I would play things maybe the same way that my character did, but I didn’t have to really challenge myself but at the same time I got to try something entirely new and it was interesting. My producer and I found it as a nice exciting challenge outside of making the album to do.
What are you getting across thematically that maybe the record doesn’t do.
It continues to build on that romantic aspect. That there’s a human being behind the songs; that’s something that I always try to attack anyways, but not only that there’s a human being, but I like to think of myself—particularly in writing but also as a person—that I’m as much like everyone else as possible and like no one else. This allows that to happen. It shows, a little bit, as irritable as I can be, but also the type of loner that I generally see myself as. It’s interesting to be in such a social, as a musician and at this point in my life a more mainstream musician; it’s an interesting juxtaposition for an anti-social.
Speaking as someone who isn’t maybe too social, what was it like being thrust into the realm of this insane popularity after "Some Nights" exploded?
I’ve been a little conscious of trying not to be so “woe is me,” because I think I came out of all that stuff a better person, a much happier person. Realizing, getting recognition on the mainstream, having that level of success—it did a lot of great things for me but at the end of the day it didn’t change the person I am, which is someone who isn’t motivated by that. I don’t really use social media. I don’t do things for likes. It’s tough but then I look back and I look at a song, and the time when I wrote it, and I didn’t write the song to be a massive single so that makes it so much sweeter. I think people naturally think, “Oh well if we’re all listening to it then this has to be a person that we all have to like,” and I don’t think that that’s the case. I don’t think I have to be likeable; I just have to be relatable as an artist. I got into music so that people can relate to me not so that people can like me. That’s a little bit tough, because I see myself as a people pleasing type of person; I’m not rude and I don’t want to let people down, but at the same time I’m also just like, I’m not some sort of big personality. I don’t have any aspirations to be viewed by everybody and liked by everybody. Fortunately my parents raised me to be a gracious person, and to be a good person, but I’m not trying to translate that into any sort of big spotlight. I make mistakes so much in life and so many of my songs are about the mistakes that I make and not being perfect and I think there’s a relatable quality to that. It’s weird, when everybody and their brother is stopping you and talking to you about it. I used to think that there was some sort of small market for people who were feeling the way that I did, then you realize, like, “Wow, this is crazy! We’re all a little depressed.”
Was there a moment you realized all of this?
I think that’s always been the case for me but I’ve felt it more. I feel like it’s at a point where it’s driving home as I’ve continued to move on over the last few years. I like to think that what I’m doing is sincere and it’s not so that I can be the most liked guy in the world. It’s so that people have someone that they feel that they can share with. I know a lot of people that I’ve shared my most intimate experiences with or whatever, sometimes I don’t like them, sometimes they don’t like me [laughs]. But I also feel like the theme, the movie, Anthony understands my personality. I don’t walk into the room like this big personality who’s begging for your attention.
Is the film autobiographical?
I interpret it as a way to put the songs forward and interpret it in a different light, just give somebody something to watch. I came away very happy with it, which is great because I had no idea what to expect and those types of things can go in so many different directions, and what happens if you’re over budget and under time? I was just impressed with what everybody was like on the set, being out of my realm or my world, more so them, more so Anthony being able to cut the corners from having to scrap four or five scenes because we just didn’t have time to do it, cutting the corners and him finding what I think was the real meat of it. Also trying to make it watchable without forcing it down your throat.
I’d imagine this is another way to tell the story of the record.
Yeah, absolutely. When you name a record The Grand Romantic and it’s such a relationship-based album, it opens up for a lot of, for relationship-based visuals. It’s funny because it’s something that feels so cliché that I literally could never escape, all I want to listen to are love songs too. It’s not like I’m trying to sell something that’s so based on the heart and then I’m turning around and listening to political punk. I’m still the guy who has love on my mind all the time.
When you’re writing, is it difficult to tackle the same subject—love?
It’s organic. It keeps me motivated. It keeps me writing music. I listen to Van Morrison and they’re all love songs, you know, they’re all, it’s interesting, they can be so self-reflecting and only touch on an ounce of love but they end up saying that the bottom line is that you need this relationship or that you’re focused on this relationship. When I listen to Van Morrison I automatically want to write music, or sit down and look back about a relationship r something like that. To me it’s crazy because it doesn’t get old. I keep trying to every time to say “OK, give up on this love thing, start going somewhere else…” but it’s crazy how much I don’t want to. I really truly don’t want to. I’ve still got emotions; I’ve had probably like a dozen songs that are pretty much the same theme but finding different ways to say it. And I’m always amazing by the different words that I can find to kind of describe it. Even as a songwriter, I’m lying 50-60 percent of the time. I’m putting myself in other people’s shoes, but with the same feeling.
I don’t think you’re alone that the majority of music and great art is about love. What is it about that human emotion that keeps people coming back and continually writing about it?
I have no fucking clue. I really have no fucking clue. I sometimes wish that it wasn’t the case and then there’s a part of me that is just so thankful for it. Maybe it’s just necessary; it’s strange. It just feels so necessary for everybody. I would dare say nine out of ten people, that’s the subject that they want to hear. I’m not doing it for other people, I’m just one of those people.
Watch The Grand Romantic in full here.
Eric Sundermann is from Iowa, which is also where Nate Ruess is from, so they both obviously love corn. Follow him on Twitter.