I’m met by the twenty-year-old Ruel, or as the ‘4th Wall Authority’ described him to the crowd before each concert, “twenty year old male, six-foot-five [the crowd goes absolutely wild], blonde hair, green eyes…” In the cinematic universe he creates, especially in his debut album, 4th Wall, he is a character, but one that is not any less real to him as a person. We talk about how emotions that are latent in his ‘real life’ come out in his music, like wind-up toys as the clock strikes twelve. He’s even been surprised by audience reactions to his songs, as if he only just experienced his emotions once the crowd mirrored them back to him. But when he comes back home, that world falls away from him, he slides right back into a place that is ‘just how he left it’, and the clock starts fresh. His same friends, his same family, his same stretch of ocean, and his same football pitches are there and they all power up like weights and springs, clockwork.
Home, everything and everyone in it, is the weight that anchors him. And no matter how far he goes, he knows he’ll be able to spring back into shape, just as he was. Ruel, or at least ‘real life Ruel’, lives so wholeheartedly in the present that as we chat, it feels almost strange to bring up even the very near past or the very near future. The amount of times people have called him a ‘normal guy’, despite his very abnormal life, feels overused to the point of having no meaning, however it feels like there's no truer way of describing him. We end our chat about 3am thoughts, exploring Whoville, and being home, and he is likely on his way to surf or play football. We wait as he recharges his ‘real self’ as his ‘artist self’ sits ready to be switched on. All in due time.
Hi Ruel, it’s early for you right? I consider 9am early but I’m a night person. Are you an early riser?
It’s not bad! I think it’s the culture here but if it’s 9am and you’re not doing something, you’re doing something wrong.
Oh wow. We have that here too, but I think the tides are shifting a bit - no more early riser superiority. [laughs] It’s also Halloween soon, do you celebrate there?
It’s not massive at all. It started becoming a thing maybe ten or fifteen years ago in Australia. When I was a kid, from ages seven to twelve, I celebrated Halloween. But there were only very specific neighbourhoods that would actually be doing it. It would only be one or two streets that would actually have decorations and give out candy.
Here, I would say everyone gives out candy, but it’s a mission to find the rich neighbourhoods who give out the best candy. Do you remember your best Halloween?
Yeah, there was one Halloween where I remember absolutely slaying the outfit. I was Slenderman. At eleven years old, I was already six-foot-one [laughs] and really, really skinny. I remember getting a white morphsuit and putting a tux over it, and getting these weird gloves and full dress shoes. I was just walking around looking like a full Slenderman and it was great. I scared so many people.
[laughs] I mean, if you’re that tall at eleven, why not take advantage?
It was made for me. I want to do that again another year if I’m in America. Here, if you’re past fifteen and have a Halloween party, you’re five years old. In America, I feel like there's a lot more adults dressing up for Halloween.
Yeah, you’re right. Here people go crazy for Halloween - it’s almost weird if you don’t have a party or at least go to a party for Halloween.
My knowledge of Halloween is from The Office. [laughs] Is that what everyone does in America - they just dress up and do a bunch of weird shit?
[laughs] Exactly. On this theme, is there a time of the year when you always feel nostalgic? I think around the holidays a lot of people think about celebrating when they were younger.
It’s got to be this time of year. It’s my birthday right before Halloween, so being in late October as an eight-year-old, for me, was like, oh my god this is the best week ever, I get to have my birthday and then a couple days later I get to dress up, run around the street, and demand sweets from people. [laughs] Like, this is the best shit ever. It’s spring as well - it’s a great time in Australia right now, where it’s not too hot but there’s a few really nice days and you can still go to the beach.
[laughs] I’m still picturing a six-foot-one eleven year old Ruel in a Slenderman costume wreaking havoc on the neighbourhood. Are you doing anything for your birthday?
I have my 21st birthday party tomorrow. It doesn’t really mean anything here. Everyone always does something for it but it doesn’t actually change anything in my life. Eighteen is the big year - that’s when you get to drink and that’s when you get your licence. [laughs] They give it to you at the same time.
[laughs] When you phrase it like that, that’s terrifying!
[laughs] At least when I come to America next year, I’ll be able to go to a bar.
Well, anyway, congratulations on finishing your tour! I would imagine that the overstimulation of the tour makes it feel really weird when it’s over. How do you feel having finished?
I drop back in pretty quickly. It’s like clockwork at this point, but every time I get off a massive tour, as soon as I get home, I get sick for a week. I get home, I fly into Sydney, I get into my bed and I’m just like, [mimics coughing] what the hell? Everything that my body has been pushing off - because it knows it can’t get sick for that time - just all comes out when I finally get to relax. So that’s always an annoying first week. Then after that I get into my relaxed home routine - surfing, seeing friends, going out for dinner, playing football - all the stuff I used to do.
It’s funny because I feel like if it were me, I would need to shut myself away somewhere after having that much overstimulation on tour. But it sounds like you are very much the opposite.
Yeah I need to. On tour, you’re hanging around a lot of people, but I still crave that. When I finish tour, the last thing I want to do is hibernate. All I want to do is a ton of things that have nothing to do with work or music. That’s why I play a lot of sports and go surfing a lot. None of my friends are in the industry at all - they’re all just school friends.
You mention staying away from music/work in your free time. I’ve always wondered if artists in the music industry feel like it impacts the way they listen to other people’s music. In general, music feels magical to the audience that consumes it, but being a part of the industry, does that break the 4th wall (pun intended) for you as a consumer of music?
I think any artist will tell you that they listen to music a bit differently from a regular consumer because they will give all their opinions on all the minor details. They might be like, oh I like the chord they used in this bridge - shit that if you say in a car with a bunch of people who aren’t in the industry they’d think you’re such a douchebag. [laughs] So I kind of keep that to myself. When I listen to music with my friends, I keep my mouth shut. A lot of my friends will be like, ‘Do you like this song?’ and I’ll be like ‘Uhh…yeah, it’s cool’. That’s literally the most I’ll dissect a song. I’m a lot more judgy when I listen to music, like, I wouldn’t use that melody there.
You did a lot of covers on tour like ‘Invisible String’ by Taylor Swift and ‘Sparks’ by Coldplay. What music are you listening to now?
I’m listening to the new Sampha album - that’s amazing. I’m listening to Paolo Nutini quite a lot. A lot of Jeff Buckley. I love the new Troye Sivan record. The new Sufjan Stephens album is great. There is a lot of great music coming out right now.
I agree. Over the past month or so there has been such amazing music. While touring, you obviously miss your family and friends, so I’m interested in knowing what the most unexpected or mundane thing you miss about home is when you tour?
Hmm…honestly, I’m not a massive misser of things if I know I’m going to see it again. [voice trails off] This is gonna sound kind of psycho, but I’ve been away from my family for a few months at a time, even when I was a kid, and I would never really get homesick from them because I knew I would see them again. [I miss] stuff like the water. I’ve grown up by the ocean so much, and when you’re on tour, very rarely do you get to go swim in the ocean and breathe the fresh air in that meditative state. I miss that more than anything. I crave it when I’m on tour.
It sounds like you’re a very in the moment person.
Yeah, I tend not to think about a lot. [laughs] It’s a blessing and a curse. Ignorance is bliss sort of thing. I definitely like to take every day as it comes - I tend to not think too far in the future because it freaks me out. I used to do that quite a lot at the start of my career and it was not good for me worrying about what might happen. Especially with my career, you really absolutely never know. There’s no way you can predict what happens in this industry. It’s trying to plan ahead at all, like, okay I want to be in Japan in a couple months for a week or I want to go on a holiday with my family, and I’ll set that in stone, but a few days before something will come up that’s just unmissable. If I prepared my whole month around this one thing and it doesn’t happen, then it obviously makes me depressed so I tend not to plan super far ahead.
It’s funny you bring this up because when I listen to 4th Wall, the main thing I hear in it is a future-fearing mentality. So I’m almost surprised by you being someone who now sort of shuts that out. If I just had the album to listen to, I would guess that you think about the future all the time.
It all comes out in my music, honestly. When I’m writing, all that truth comes out. You’re right - most songs are about the different anxieties of starting a new relationship and trying to figure out either why I feel like I’m not good enough or why I feel like the other person is not good enough. It’s interesting that it’s like what I try to avoid in my real life is legit what I write about most of the time.
You’re mentioning ‘real life’ as if the musician part of you isn’t a part of that universe. Do you ever feel like the musician part of you is almost like a character or an alter ego?
I definitely feel like what I write about comes from a place of truth and what I believe in. I’m definitely not trying to make up shit on the spot, or make up a character, but at the same time, there is a certain level of me dissociating my ‘artist self’ from my ‘real self’. I think I’ve always done that - separating me as a brand from me as a human being. A lot of people get mixed up between that, especially on social media when people try to sell themselves for more than they do. It’s a strange time to be an artist - everyone is expecting to know exactly who you are, it’s not just enough to have the music. It needs to be so much more than that. They want to know every single part about you, what your personality is, what your thoughts and views and morals are on every situation. In the past, you could kind of keep that to yourself and just give the music. That was their insight into your real life.
Absolutely. In what ways do you think maybe you are most misunderstood in terms of public perception of you?
I don’t know because I’m also an open book at the same time. [laughs] I like to think I dissociate but at the same time I still give away quite a bit. Even like what you said before about the whole record being about my anxieties going into relationships, but I’m definitely not an anxious person, I would say. A lot of my music might create the assumption that I am a skittish person. But I feel like I’m kind of blessed without that, to be honest. My outlook on life is to take every day as it comes and I tend to be okay with that.
A lack of anxiety is definitely a blessing! So you don’t have anxiety, but I do want to ask about mental health in general because I love what you did with your newest song ‘The Weight’ in support of Lifeline Australia. If you are open to sharing at all, what are some things that you feel like takes care of your mental health?
With what I was saying before about why I started that dissociation thing, it’s not about changing personalities or keeping things from people about yourself. It’s more of a mental block. I see on social media things about me, whether they’re amazing or bad, I tend to think of it as a different person so I don’t take it in. Sometimes that’s bad because you want to take in the good things and accept these amazing compliments and accolades, but I think I put up that wall so I don’t start to believe it and turn into a dick. [laughs] And obviously it helps when the negative stuff comes through because I’ll be like, Ugh they’re being a dick to that guy Ruel, but luckily I’m not him. That’s something I’ve done since I was pretty young to help with my mental health. Also just distractions when I’m not working - doing something that has nothing to do with music which is competitive sport, for me.
Talking about social media, the way I view it, is that at least now, artists are sort of in control of their own narrative in some way. They can show their personality, they have a platform to defend themselves, they have more of a voice without it being solely through the media. What is your relationship with social media?
That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about it like that. I’ve always been the guy who is like, I wish I could be an artist around before social media, it’d be so much easier. But when you think about it, that means you don’t get to control the narrative. My relationship with social media is definitely a job though, I don’t feel natural picking up my phone and being like, ‘Hey guys! This is what I’m doing today!’ [mimics picking up his phone doing a peace sign] I feel very unnatural doing that kind of stuff. But at the same time, I have to tip my hat to how amazing it can be for new artists to get their name out there and for connecting with fans on that level. There’s never been a time where someone random in the world could like my music and if they comment on my post saying ‘Hey, I’m from Nepal and I love your music’ I could respond and be like, ‘Oh my god, that’s crazy, thanks so much!’ There is a full connection there. I think that is really special. I really cherish that.
That made me think of something Miley Cyrus said about fan connection in terms of performing live - she said, “Having every day be the relationship between you and other humans being ‘subject’ and ‘observer’ isn’t healthy for me.’" What are your thoughts on that live dynamic?
Yeah, I think it used to be that way for me. It would be like bang, bang, and I’m a full character. It would be so planned. Everything I would say in between each song would be the same thing I said the night before; [mocks himself] ‘You guys sound so great tonight’. It sounds so fake. That does still happen at the start of every tour when you’re focused on just making the music sound great, but once you have all that down and can play the show with your eyes closed, that’s when I really started to enjoy touring. I could go on stage, have fun, and talk to people. If someone is holding up a funny sign, I’ll be like, Ha let’s talk about this for a second. I can have normal human interactions on stage. Obviously I’ve got a microphone and I’m talking to thousands of people - that’s weird as hell - but it’s breaking down that fourth wall (pun intended) of that character that really helps and makes the show more fun. I think it’s also different because when you’re playing arenas/stadium shows, it’s really hard to break down that wall because you’re so far from everyone. But when you’re playing theatres, with a couple thousand people, it’s a lot easier to be intimate.
Do you prefer an intimate space then?
It depends. I prefer an intimate space if I’m doing fifty shows back-to-back. At the same time, the adrenaline and feeling you get playing to ten thousand people is times ten. The amount of energy in the room and sheer noise of people screaming your lyrics with smiles on their faces feels amazing. It’s the biggest adrenaline shot you’d ever have in your life. I love that feeling, but if you’re doing fifty of them back-to-back, it must get old. It’s like a drug and suddenly you want more adrenaline and you start to lose it. I could see that getting hard.
Right. And I know 4th Wall came out a while ago now, but I do want to ask about it in relation to touring. I imagine that it might feel like there’s the album you create, the album that comes out to the public, and the album you tour. Did the songs feel changed when performing them?
Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying. I think seeing the way fans react changes the way you feel about certain songs. There were some songs I was bored of - going into the tour, I was sort of sick of ‘Growing Up Is __’ because I had already done a tour around it. I was like, ugh this is one I’ll have to get through because I don’t feel much toward it. But for some reason, I ended up loving the song again. It became one of my favourites to perform. It would be that one song that the crowd would jump to. I think it was because it was three songs in as well, so it’s the crux of this big medley of an intro. That was really cool. There were also certain songs that I didn’t know were sad songs, but turns out they are because I’d see people singing them so loud, crying.
What were the songs you realised were sad?
‘Sitting in Traffic’ - I didn’t realise how many people in the front row would legit just be losing their mind over it. [laughs] That was a cool one and a very emotional song to sing.
Have you ever been to a concert that inspired you in terms of how you want to perform?
Yes! 100%. I went to a Tyler, The Creator show and the way he moved on stage and his presence really inspired me. He was dancing in a way, but it was also him just throwing his body around on time. It was letting the music take him. I think I took a little bit of that. One day I saw The 1975 and the way Matty Healy would talk to the crowd and break down that barrier made me think, Oh you can do that? You can just chat for a while and try to be funny even if no one thinks you’re being funny? I find that fun to do on stage. I saw Phoebe Bridgers on Halloween at the Greek Theatre a couple years ago. That was super inspiring in a way of stage production and her outfits. It felt like a theatre performance. And also how the crowd would scream just one lyric at the top of their lungs - it was the first time I saw that. The crowd would be silent, just watching, and then everyone would scream one line. It’s like that ‘Leave America’ line in Harry Styles’ song. For Phoebe Bridgers it was, ‘I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth’ - the whole crowd just erupted. I was like, Wow I need to make some lyrics that can do that.
You definitely did that in this album! I’ve come across a video of your concert on social media of people screaming one line. What line is it?
[laughs] Yeah, it was so premeditated. I wrote the lyric knowing it was the one I’d make them sing. It’s from ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Like You’. It’s purely, ‘Go fuck yourself and all of your friends’. I have that repeated for a long time. I knew they’d want to sing that loudly, and they did.
I want to also talk about a theme that I’ve found in terms of your music videos. You’ve described 4th Wall as cinematic and it’s inspired by a lot of films like The Truman Show and Fight Club. Both are quite dystopian and you do typically create some sort of dystopian universe in your music videos even before this album - for example, parasocial relationships in 'Face to Face', and an AI persona in 'Real Thing'. What do you think attracts you to these themes?
I think I’m attracted to high concept videos. Jeremy, my Creative Director, and I just go back and forth trying to come up with the one idea. It’s weird thinking about the older songs because I was so young, but for videos, we try to think of the biggest idea possible and see how we can pull it off and take every challenge as it comes. We’ve been doing that for a lot of the videos recently.
Yeah, when I watch your videos, to me a lot of them feel dystopian in the sense that they feel almost like a ‘what if the present problems we have in the world snowballed?’
Wow, that’s cool. I mean, I didn’t think of that. [both laugh] Fans will dissect a song and come up with this whole other meaning and it all makes sense but I had no idea. I’m like, Oh shit, yeah cool.
Can you think of a moment for you that really felt like a “look straight into the camera” moment - like you could hear an audience reacting? Maybe from touring or just in general.
Hmm, that’s interesting. There were a few ‘pinch me’ moments, but nothing that felt wrong. There was a show in Philly I did and I wanted to get in the crowd. I asked everyone to get in a circle which I’ve seen other artists do before. I finished the whole set acoustically with just my mic stand and guitar. That was really cool to be that close and intimate.
Yeah I was going to ask you about any cinematic tour moments too - that sounds like one of them.
Yeah that was the coolest aerial photo ever. Also just exploring different places like mountains in Europe and rivers. I can have a day off in the middle of Austria and just walk around. That’s where you wake up and you’re like, Is this real? Why the fuck am I in Austria?
Any hidden gem places you explored?
My favourite place was the city of Bergen in Norway. It’s on the west coast and I was opening a festival there that afternoon. There was no one there and it was in the middle of this mountain with all these amazing tall pine trees and mountain goats everywhere. It didn’t get dark because it was in the middle of summer so at two in the morning you could still see the sun. It would go down and then come back up again. That was pretty magical. After I played my set, I climbed up the mountain and fed grass to wild mountain goats. There were all these colourful mushrooms everywhere. It felt like Whoville. I remember watching Bon Iver at eleven at night and the sun was still in the air and bright. It was amazing.
Wow, I want to go there now. I feel like a tour would consist of both extreme monotony in terms of your routine but also extreme variety with what you are just describing about waking up in a new place. For a fun ‘Would You Rather?’, would you rather every day be the same doing something you love or never know what will happen per day?
I mean, how long does it take for it to become something you don’t love anymore? But I’m not a big risk-taker. I’m not a gambling man. [laughs] So I think I’d take the thing I love every day.
Interesting. In ‘If And/Or When,’ I really like the lyric, ‘tired of writing in pencil, I'm inking you in.’ At this point in your music, what feels most inked in to you and what are some things that still feel written in pencil?
Yeah that’s one of my favourite lyrics on the album - full credit to Emma Rosen. When she wrote that I was like, You’re fucking kidding me. You just wrote the best lyric on the album and I was furious. [laughs] I think something that is written in pencil is my taste in terms of what I like to write. I don’t plan on ever keeping it the same. I would also love to have more certainty though on what I want. The things that feel the most inked in are just my love for creating in general. I really want to do this for as long as I can. I always want to feel inspired, and I’m kind of set on that. My goal isn’t to play stadiums or to get Grammys, it is to stay inspired and in love with what I’m doing.
On the theme of that song, what’s a “what if…” you feel comfortable sharing, that you tend to think about a lot?
A lot of my ‘What Ifs’ are so stupid. I had a football match the other day and I shot from outside the box and hit the post and I thought, What if that went in? What if that went in? [laughs] Then we won the game. That’s the kind of ‘what if’ I think about; That’s what keeps me up at night!
[laughs] At three in the morning, that’s what has you up?
Yeah, that’s the kind of three in the morning thought, like, How did I miss that? But if I was to get deeper, which I probably should, I overthink about new music and how people are going to receive it especially if I change anything up. I think about whether they’ll accept that type of music. That’s a fear I have, for sure. But if I think about it too much then I’m just going to make a watered down version of something I actually like.
I also think that with writing, nothing can be watered down, I think the more specific, the more universal something actually is.
I think any non-writer or label person who is trying to get a hit out of you will say, ‘You just have to find universal themes that everyone can relate to’. Bo Burnham has that joke, “I love your eyes and their blueish brownish greenish colour". [laughs] It's trying to be as vague as possible to include everyone in. But it’s always the complete opposite where you’re like, ‘I love this exact thing about you’ or ‘I was on this street, at this time, at this shop, doing this exact thing’ and those lyrics are always the most relatable.
Absolutely. It’s like Noah Kahan’s Stick Season being so specific but so incredibly universal.
On a final note, what are you happiest about at the moment?
I’m happy that I have time off to reflect and recharge. I love coming home and everything is just how I left it. It’s perfect. Then I’m most excited about writing again and figuring out what this next project is going to be. I have no idea yet and that’s the exciting part. I remember missing this part of the last album, of figuring everything out.