By Gus Turner
Our mid-teens greet us with a slate of familiar milestones: super sweet 16s, quinceañeras, a first car. But for 16-year-old singer-songwriter Ruel, the normal traditions of teenage life are quickly becoming sidelined for an unusual set of priorities: a record deal with a major label, a ballooning fanbase of more than a million followers, and a worldwide tour taking him across three continents to perform his second EP, Free Time. The Australian artist's most recent project, released via RCA on September 13, is a seven-song showcase that partnered him with songwriters like Tobias Jesso Jr., Nick Long (Bebe Rexha, King Princess), and Sarah Aarons (Zedd, Alessia Cara). Following 2018's Ready EP, it's an accomplished reflection of Ruel's stated influences, contemporary touchstones, and his own, growing voice — a warm tenor that calls to mind Justin Bieber's Purpose, the tenderness of Shawn Mendes, and Frank Ocean's gentle touch.
Based in Sydney, where he was raised, Ruel (born Ruel Vincent van Dijk) has been singing from a young age — 3 or 4, he says — and playing guitar since he was eight. In 2015, a chance business connection between his father — an advertising executive — and the Australian writer and producer M-Phazes launched his career at the time his peers would've just been finishing up primary school. After Ruel's father sent over a recording of his son covering James Bay's "Let It Go," M-Phazes — who's worked with Madonna, Demi Lovato, and Kyle — eventually led Ruel to RCA.
On the ballad-heavy Ready, Ruel lamented waning friendships ("Younger") and celebrated the wobbly-kneed bliss of a new crush ("Dazed & Confused"); meanwhile, Free Time shoulders regret, heartbreak, and even a little FOMO ("Hard Sometimes"), as he hones in on the uneasy balance between pursuing his dream and staying close with his friends back home.
That dream, however, is rapidly becoming Ruel's reality. As he embarks on his tour's North American leg — where he'll be playing two sold-out shows a night in cities like Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles — the "Face to Face" singer spoke with MTV News about Free Time, his rapid rise, and the beginnings of his forthcoming full-length debut.
MTV News: As you were starting to make Free Time, was there anything that you set out to change from Ready? How would you describe the difference between the two?
Ruel: I have grown a lot since Ready. I guess my ability to write has gotten better. I've really wanted to have my influences come across more. [For] Ready, I was in the sessions, I was writing the songs, but I didn't have a creative direction. So I was really just saying yes to anything anyone else was saying. I was like, yeah, let's do that. Then I'd just write to something that still related to me, but musically, I didn't really know that I wanted. On Free Time, when I was writing it, I just had a lot more creative direction. I was directing the sessions. When it came to production as well, I was a lot more involved in that and exactly what songs that I wanted.
MTV News: You've come so far in such a short period of time. Are there ever moments where you're wishing that the trajectory you're on would settle down a bit? "Hard Sometimes" seems to point at that.
Ruel: To me, songwriting is exaggerating to an extent. On that song, yeah, I was feeling down. I was feeling like I was in the middle of tour and I was just missing my friends a little bit and I just wanted to capture that one, little, small feeling and make it into one big thing because that's what I like to do so much. I like to take the very small and try making it into something that could be relatable to large amounts of people.
MTV News: When did you realize, like, "Oh, music: This is something that I can do." Was it at a show? Or did it happen in a different environment?
Ruel: It was really when I made "Don't Tell Me." We got the final cut back — it was being produced by M-Phazes — and recorded it. And that was the first time I was like, this actually sounds really good. I'm proud of it. I felt so shocked that something could come out like that. It was so raw and it was coming from me.
In a live setting, I feel like the biggest show that I played ever — well, back then, it was the biggest show — I played at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney in my hometown. That was like 2,500 people. That was the time, I walked out onstage — it was so huge for me. I could see my friends all in the front row. A little crazy, a bunch of crazy things, and then at the end of the show, my manager came out with a plaque saying that my song "Younger" just went gold. It all just was very, very emotional. That was definitely the time I was like, ahh, it all started with these people.
MTV News: There are so many younger stars like yourself leading pop right now: Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Shawn Mendes, Khalid, just to name a few. Is there anyone in particular out there who you're looking to as an inspiration for your own career? Anyone you'd see yourself even collaborating with?
Ruel: I'm a huge fan of Tyler, the Creator, and how he came to be and how he proper created an empire with Odd Future, and then just went up from there. I feel like his development as an artist, and every album he puts out, I feel like he just keeps getting better and better and more layered. I just feel like everything he does, everything he touches is gold. I am huge fan of him and would love to collaborate with him one day.
Looking at someone's career, I feel like the best way to kind of do it is Billie Eilish. I reckon she has done it to perfection, like her rise. I feel like her team just nailed it, and she nailed it. All the songs that she put out were just so great. Her image is so strong. I feel like, yeah, it's definitely a lot to be inspired by.
MTV News: Free Time and Ready are substantial EPs, but do you have a plan for a full-length soon? Was there anything that got left behind in these sessions that you really want to go back to?
Ruel: Next year, I am definitely aiming for an album. 2020. I've already written, like, five songs for it I really want to put in there. I went to Paris with Sarah Aarons and in three days, we just wrote, like, five songs. And every single one of them I love so much, and I want all of them to be on the next record. It's a different sound to Free Time, but I already feel like it’s where I want to go next.
MTV News: How would you describe that creative direction? Was there anything about Paris you found particularly inspiring?
Ruel: It was probably something in the Parisian air. We were in this crazy Airbnb that we got. I don't like to write in studios, especially when I'm first writing. I like to work, like, on a sofa in the living room with just a computer there... It just feels way more comfortable. And the more comfortable you are, the better you write.
And since Sarah and I have got such a strong relationship, and we know each other so well now, it was just, you know, settled down. I feel like we just knew exactly what each other wanted. We've written these great songs. Yeah, I don't know how to describe it or put it in a genre but it's definitely different and something I would like to explore.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.