From his euphoric vocals in chart-topping songs like “Some Nights” and “We Are Young,” as the lead singer of fun., Nate Ruess’s distinctively expressive voice has elevated his tracks to instant anthems. With 13 years in the music industry behind him, Ruess is transitioning into a solo career with his debut album Grand Romantic, a record that has him at his most honest, tackling emotional highs and lows. Borrowing similar themes from fun.’s breakout album, Some Nights, and taking a bolder approach to his songwriting, Ruess’s album is a testament to risk-taking and falling in love. We caught up with Ruess to discuss breaking out on his own, his very specific songwriting process, and his time onstage with Paul McCartney.
How would you describe the aesthetic of Grand Romantic?
I guess to me it kind of starts out hot and heavy and in love—and I think appropriately in love, but more so appreciative. It’s almost like a sigh of relief, like “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” And I’m in this situation where I actually feel good. And I think that that’s where a lot of the bigger, more uptempo songs are, and towards the end it becomes more, for lack of a better word, organic and slightly sad. I like to think that it ends on a bittersweet note.
I noticed it starts with this manic laughter in “AhHa” and then it moves to some poignant ballads in the end. What was your emotional experience like when you were writing the album?
It was freaky. It was all over the map. It was extremes because when I write an album, I always have a beginning and an end and a middle, and I always know what I’m doing. I’ll usually have everything ready about a month before we go in the studio, but this was so much more on-the-fly working. My headspace was so manic. The songwriting was manic and I never had a chance to listen to everything together until it was finally finished. And it was a crazy fucking ride. It was really special for me because the first time I heard it I couldn’t help but just start bawling because I was just so happy with it.
How does the songwriting process differ when you’re a solo artist versus when you’re in a band?
I think that the songwriting process doesn’t change too much other than the people who are in the room when work starts getting done and it gets recorded. But I start with the song in my head, and then I work out lyrics—at least a basic template for the song—the melody. I hear a lot of instruments. I don’t play anything so I hear a whole song in my head, and then it’s about who you’re with in the room—the way that they interpret it, the things that they add. So it’s been that way. That’s been my songwriting process for about 13 years.
You mentioned that you got the idea for “Nothing Without Love” in the shower. Is that normal for your songwriting experience?
Yeah, I wrote “We Are Young” in the car. It’s either a gift or a curse that I write songs, because they can come at any point. Even today on the treadmill I was like, boom, I have another song. I had to jump off the thing and start recording. It’s for better or for worse. I’ve learned how to use it, because at first I got really precious about exactly what was in my head and I got so frustrated about if it didn’t sound like that as soon as it started being played and recorded. And I think over the last five years I’ve gotten better at being like, “You know what, it’s something special in your head but it can be even better when you get more people involved in it.”
You also have a song on the album with Beck—are there any other artists you’d love to collaborate with?
I think about that, and through Beck I was able to. About a month ago he asked me to come to Cleveland and play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with him. He was doing a Lou Reed song and he asked if I’d come up on the stage and sing with him. And then at the end they were like, “Everybody’s gonna come up on the stage and sing with Paul McCartney and Ringo.” And I was like, “holy fuck.” I had a nice little corner to get into and I was like, okay, I got to collaborate with Brian Wilson, Eminem, and P!nk, and anytime people would ask me that question, I’d always say Paul McCartney. And I’m not going to push my chances. At least I got to share a stage with him, whether he knew it or not. I’ll take that.
Where there any specific artists or bands that you listened to a lot while making this album?
I actually, for the first time, listened to the roughs that we had worked on all day. I would wake up and go on my run and listen to it over and over again, trying to figure out what would stick. I stopped about four or five years ago getting specific with songs, like if my head is an iPod and I’ve got all these songs in my head and I’m able to pull from things when I’m not even paying attention. I’m proud that happened for me as a songwriter. I stopped just being so like, “Oh this needs to sound like Queen,” or “This needs to sound like this.” It’s not why—it just is.
How would you define who or what a “grand romantic” is?
That’s a good question. I like to think that as a grand romantic, it’s a very high and low type of thing with maybe a little in the middle. Because if you’re the guy showing up at the doorstep with a bunch of flowers and all those things and you’re willing to write a song, then you also have to be willing to fail and acknowledge the super-low moments. For me, that’s what I wanted to do. I felt like I spent the past ten or so years treading water from an emotional standpoint and so I really wanted to go back to someone who just utilizes their feelings. I’m kind of a robot.