There are a lot of people standing in what looks like Ruel Vincent van Djik’s bedroom. The 20-year-old popstar is sitting on a desk chair in the middle of an orange rug, while makeup artists fuss over his foppish blond hair and his manager hovers nearby. The room’s main fixture is a walnut wood bookcase, populated by a metronome, Ruel’s ARIA Awards, an Orange guitar amplifier and a Paul McCartney lyric book. The wallpaper features music icons like Elvis with their eyes taped over (to avoid being pinged for copyright).
“Is there anything more we can do to prove that we’re in my house?” Ruel asks.
Not much, it seems – a crew member holds up a photo of Ruel’s actual bedroom, confirming that the space we’re in is nigh-on identical. The replica room is in the middle of a gargantuan soundstage at Docklands Studios in Melbourne, and takes up a fraction of the space – Hollywood film productions that shoot here often transform it to its very corners, but Ruel wants the soundstage to eventually become apparent. He and longtime creative director Jeremy Koren, known as Grey Ghost, have two days to shoot all the visuals for his debut album ‘4th Wall’. In the pre-recorded album announcement stream, one of the walls of this room is going to fall down to literally break the fourth wall. The wunderkind wants the world to know who he really is.
NME first speaks to Ruel in his alabaster white dressing room while he gets made up – the only quiet time he would have for the next 48 hours. He’s basketballer height, sporting the kind of drip that wouldn’t look out of place at NBA season opening night. Koren walks in and out to confer on various outfits for the day: Mason’s or Louis Vuitton?
“This makeup routine is going to take six hours. Explaining the album will also take six hours,” Ruel jokes.
‘4th Wall’ (its title stylised emphatically in all caps) is inspired by scenes from Ruel’s favourite films – primarily The Truman Show and Fight Club. The singer watched them for the first time on a plane on the way to a writing trip in Bali, and was so excited he watched them again on arrival. (Ruel even tried and failed to get Jim Carrey to narrate the album.) ‘4th Wall’ imagines Ruel finding out his entire life is a lie, being filmed for someone else’s entertainment.
“You run out of the soundstage, you get in the car and you start driving through country roads, just trying to get out of wherever you are. And then in that drive, all the album’s songs are playing on the radio,” he explains.
Ruel has not lived an ordinary life since his father, an ad agency owner, sent a demo of him aged 12 covering James Bay’s ‘Let It Go’ to his future manager, who then passed it on to his future producer M-Phazes. In the succeeding years, Ruel has toured the world multiple times over, released three EPs, won ARIA Awards, and built a global fan base that knows the words to all of his songs.
If that sounds overwhelming for a teenager, it is.
“I kind of disassociate myself from the things I do on tour,” Ruel admits. “If I’m talking to fans, I try to take myself out of it. I see it as another character, just to not drive myself crazy. And that feeling is quite similar to what I’m trying to convey on this concept.”
Did he feel trapped in the life he’d chosen before he was even an adult?
“I was still really enjoying every part; I’m not saying I was trapped. But it was definitely hard to know what I actually wanted,” Ruel says, sipping an energy drink between some facial hair trims.
“When COVID hit, I was back home [in Sydney] and doing what I would do if I was a regular teenager. I was with my friends, not really doing music. I went to Schoolies with a bunch of my mates, that was amazing. I had a full detox break and it gave me a different perspective on everything.”
Ruel’s reconciliation with his adolescence is reflected in 2021 single ‘GROWING UP IS _____’: “Sleep with friends, break a heart / Question everything you thought / Split a pill, smoke a dart / Growin’ up is weird / Fall in love for a year, and then I disappear”. Ruel reconnected with his love of sport, signing up to basketball and soccer leagues. (“There’s no escape like pelting a ball.”) He also had the time to make music on his own terms, without being surrounded by co-writers and constricted by deadlines.
“It was Jeff Buckley-like, ‘Sketches [For My Sweetheart The Drunk]’-inspired, kind of Phoebe Bridgers, Elliott Smith. It was very fucking sad – me on guitar and finding the saddest chords I could find and then whining over them for 45 minutes,” Ruel says, more than a little self-deprecating.
It was enough material for an entire album, one he hopes to put out one day, but “a little too raw”. Once COVID restrictions eased, Ruel shuttled off to write most of ‘4th Wall’ in Los Angeles with a new philosophy.
“When I was writing the first two EPs, I would go into sessions and sit back and just say yes to every other idea. I’d let the session flow a little too easily, to make it easier for everyone else and to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” he explains. “But then when I went back to LA, I turned into a full studio prick… it was good for music but I feel I was less enjoyable to write with.”
“I tried to make every song something that I hadn’t heard before”
He also developed new preferences: Ruel grew to resent the high-gloss beats that made him famous on early hit singles ‘Painkiller’ and ‘Dazed & Confused’. “I kind of hate writing R&B songs now… when I write a song like that, with those chords and melodies, I cringe,” he says.
That might seem like a problem, considering M-Phazes, Ruel’s producer for his entire career so far, has made his entire body of work in that vein. But Ruel says Phazes’ work with Noah Cyrus and her Nashville country lane made the producer open to new forms. Ruel and M-Phazes’ production touchstones became the power pop of Weezer, and the “classic songwriting” of Jeff Buckley and the Beatles.
The new Ruel sound debuts for a crowd on day two of the shoot. NME walks in to a drastically different set – a retro Saab convertible has been “crashed” into a tall sky blue curtain, at the back of a forest filled with plastic jurassic ferns and tissue paper leaves. Smoke pours into the car from a white hose. A producer says it barely goes over 15 kilometres an hour, the right indicator doesn’t work, and they can’t leave the headlights on for long without the battery dying. They still have to return it to someone off Facebook Marketplace by the end of the day.
Ruel stands at the front of the set. He’s there to record an acoustic version of ‘End Scene’, the final song on the album, but we’re running an hour behind schedule. That leaves him only 10 minutes to play the actual music.
‘End Scene’ begins with wispy chords and hushed vocals, before bursting into a raspy, tremulous chorus. “I still remember, who we were, who we were, there’s blood on your sweater, I can’t get up… When did we stop giving a fuck about losing our minds? Remember I jumped out of the car to prove I was alive”.
The high notes prove troublesome to summon on demand – “Fuck my voice!” Ruel mutters – but everyone on set falls silent at the intensity of the emotion. It ends with a falsetto howl that Black Francis would be proud of.
The next day over breakfast in Fitzroy, Ruel explains away the bleakness of the lyrics as an analogue for the climax of Fight Club.
“It’s two people realising it’s the end of something and they’ve felt like they’ve lost their ways of being fun, they stopped enjoying being bad. It’s Bonnie and Clyde,” he says. “They’ve stopped enjoying committing crime and now they’re just like, ‘What the fuck happened to us? We saw a beautiful end but this is just fucking depressing’.”
“If I’m talking to fans, I try to take myself out of it. I see it as another character, just to not drive myself crazy”
The studio cut is just as sparse – no drums, just a squirming mono-synth line that flits in and out. It’s markedly different from the first three singles ‘SOMEONE ELSE’S PROBLEM’, ‘YOU AGAINST YOURSELF’ and ‘GROWING UP IS _____’, which you could be forgiven for thinking were Ruel-as-usual.
“I didn’t want to come out the gates with some full art wank… and isolate my fans like that,” he says. “I wanted to bridge the gap a little bit, which was why I chose those singles. But the album as a whole is the sound I’m working towards.”
The last draft of ‘4th Wall’ NME hears manages to turn sorrowful singer-songwriter, balls-to-the-wall rock, and even country music into a coherent mix. Acoustic guitar, fuzz bass and piano – courtesy of “the craziest L.A. players” M-Phazes could get – have turfed out samples and Ableton presets as Ruel’s instrumental constants.
The Phoebe Bridgers and Elliot Smith spirit of Ruel’s bedroom pandemic record lives on in its hi-fi big brother. In fact, Ruel went as far as writing songs with Bridgers collaborator Ethan Gruska and playing a rubber bridge guitar that can be heard on her album ‘Punisher’.
The songs on ‘4th Wall’ are forlorn, bitter and angry – with little sign of the bright eyes the young singer has flashed at the world so far. Ruel was determined not to let the studio and the growing pool of people working on the record totally distance it from its melancholic roots.
“I want people to see the mindset I had while writing it,” he says.
“I wrote a lot of really sad songs. And then I was like, OK, how can I find a different energy that [still] isn’t happy? I found using the emotion of anger was a cooler way of getting more energy and making it still feel like you can have a good time to it.”
The film references which inspired the album’s concept also awoke in Ruel a more expansive method of songwriting. Working on one track, he envisioned it as the score for a movie that didn’t exist – a three-act composition that surprises you at every turn. “Cinematic was the word,” he puts it.
“I want people to feel like at least one of the songs made them think of something in a different way. Because I tried to make every song something that I hadn’t heard before.”
Ruel didn’t grow up thinking he would be a musician – not that he had time to grow up before making that decision at 14.
“I was trying as hard [at music] as I was making it into the first basketball team,” he says. “I was probably even more committed to being an athlete… but soon as that opportunity [to do music] came around, I was like, fuck, I’m not gonna let this slide.”
Ruel only picked up the guitar for the first time at 11, attending School of Rock camps which taught him (reluctantly) how to play Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ in full. That was enough to start busking at the Manly Corso, a busy pedestrian mall, which he says killed his stage fright.
“There was so much competition between other 14-year-old blond surfer dudes with a guitar,” Ruel recalls. “One guy would always show up at the same time as me, and we’d have a Mexican standoff over who was going to get the best spot. We made a lot of money off tourists getting off the ferry!”
Once the buzz over Ruel’s voice in the M-Phazes track ‘Golden Years’ began, his parents and management worked to protect him from media scrutiny. Ruel’s face wasn’t made public for the first year of his musical career, until he was carefully unveiled with M-Phazes’ appearance in Like A Version.
“Every decision from a 14-year-old should be second-guessed. Every single one,” Ruel says now. “I was looking a lot at my parents, because I knew they would not put me into something that they thought would be dangerous for me. And they kept me in school, obviously, until I felt old enough to be like, ‘No, I don’t actually need this anymore’.”
Seven years later, Ruel is a veteran of the music industry at age 20. He’s matured at warp speed, and finds it difficult not to get ahead of himself occasionally. During the pandemic, he almost bought a house “because everyone was doing it”.
“I just gave up because it was too hard. Looking back at it now, I would have lost so much fucking money,” Ruel laughs. “I don’t set myself goals ever. I just do everything when it comes and feels right.”
And Ruel is sharpening his instincts on when to say no.
“I think I’ll always write. Performing? I probably won’t be touring for the rest of my life”
“[Moving to] Los Angeles would be massively beneficial,” he acknowledges. “Everytime I go there, stuff happens for me – I end up in the studio with Brockhampton or Khalid. But I would just hate to do that. That would be putting my career over my mental health.”
He can even see himself quitting touring, à la the Fab Four in the late ’60s, albeit well into the future.
“I think I’ll always write. Performing? I probably won’t be touring for the rest of my life. I think that I might have a limit to that maybe, in my 30s. I feel like that part of it is a really tough lifestyle,” Ruel muses.
Despite a myriad of tours ahead, the only thing Ruel wants to focus on right now is ‘4th Wall’. The young star still believes in the intrinsic importance of a debut album as an artist’s manifesto. Ruel wrote and rewrote most of the songs on the record three or four times, put them on the tracklist, took them off and then put them back on again.
“Some of [the singles] didn’t feel super in line with where they ended up. I don’t know if I was trying to please someone else or myself,” Ruel says. “I’ve been working on the album for what feels like three years now. And I’m 20 now so that’s a solid chunk of my life.”
“I’ve had three different finished albums that I’ve had to either start again or go back to LA and write a bunch more singles… for reasons. It’s been incredibly frustrating to be honest, but I’m so stoked that there’s an end in sight, because I’ve never come this close.”
Multiple people wander into the dressing room.
“How much longer do you need? Ruel is required,” an assistant says.
Ruel smooths his hair back, crunches a Red Bull can and dunks it into a bin.
Ruel’s ‘4th Wall’ is out March 3 via Recess Records/RCA Records