It would be nerve-racking for any unsigned, up-and-coming young singer to have to perform private showcases to overseas record label executives in sterile boardrooms, knowing these performances might dictate their future in music.
Now imagine you’re doing these having only just reached your teens, and one of those for whom you’ve been asked to do a private showcase is superstar producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars).
Ruel auditioned for The Voice Kids and didn’t get in. Now he has a record deal with Sony Music.
That was the scenario 15-year-old Sydney alt-soul singer Ruel (real name Ruel van Dijk) faced recently, and it is one for which he admits he was ill-prepared.
“Playing for three or four people in a boardroom, standing a foot away from them with a guitar, and singing three songs with them just looking at you and nodding their heads up and down – that’s really strange and really uncomfortable,” he says. “It was really daunting and I was really nervous for the first ones, but I eventually warmed up to them.”
That adaptability is a fair indication of the sunny teenager’s unflappable and mature nature. Speaking to Fairfax between the end of his year 10 school day and the daily chore of homework, Ruel comes across as unruffled, polite and funny.
Born in Britain and raised in Australia to a British mother and a Dutch-born, New Zealand-raised father, Ruel was playing guitar at eight.
Three years ago, his father, Ralph – who runs an ad agency in Sydney – worked on a campaign with Melbourne DJ and artist-manager Nate Flagrant. Ralph played Flagrant a demo of his then 12-year-old son covering James Bay’s Let It Go.
Flagrant was impressed enough to pass the demo on to Mark Landon, aka M-Phazes, the formerly Melbourne, now LA-based producer of Eminem, Kimbra and Daniel Johns.
“[I liked] his tone, the way he sang, the way his voice broke up on certain words,“ recalls Landon. “He had this raspyness that just set him apart from anyone I’d heard before. It was like you could hear the meaning behind every word he sang.”
Since then, and with Ruel’s family’s support, Flagrant and Landon have been slowly working with Ruel to nurture and develop his talent, undertaking songwriting, recording, vocal coaching and general preparation for the spotlight.
“It would be easy for people to pin him down as the ‘teen idol’ type,” says Landon, “and that can come off as corny. We needed people to take him seriously and look at him as a credible artist.”
I first heard about him when he was that 12-year-old kid, and I finally caught him performing live as support for the American R'n'B singer Gallant in April 2017. I was blown away by his smoky voice and confident yet still maturing stage presence.
Shortly afterwards, he made his debut on the M-Phazes single Golden Years and performed Jack Garratt’s Weathered on Like a Version to major buzz.
After a US label bidding war, he signed an international three-album deal with RCA-Sony. Ruel says the terms of the deal were a big factor in his signing to RCA – not because it was a multiple-album deal, but because it means he isn’t locked into anything for too long.
“My manager Nate didn’t want to send me down for a 20-year deal so the rest of my life was completely devoted to music,” Ruel says. “By the time I’m 20, it might not be working out any more and I might not enjoy it as much. Worse comes, I’ll have a get-out-of-jail-free card!”
In the past year, Ruel has undertaken writing and recording sessions in LA, supported Khalid on his Australian tour, had his song Don’t Tell Me used on a Beats by Dre commercial, and undertaken two tours of Japan. He’s also performed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, played his debut headline show last month at Sydney’s Metro Theatre, and met Elton John when he was in Australia.
Now his debut six-track EP Ready, produced by M-Phazes, is out. The picks of the tracks are the cutting-edge blues-pop production and earworm chorus of Dazed and Confused and the emotive soul ballad Don’t Tell Me.
“I’ve learnt to love super-weird sounds,” Ruel says. “He [Landon] just puts very subtle, very small little sounds in there that not many people might pick up. I’ve just learned to love weird shit.”
Ready is out now through RCA/Sony. Ruel performs two shows at Northcote Social Club on Saturday, July 7 (the matinee show is sold out). Details: eventbrite.com
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