Two years ago, pop icon Sir Elton John joked about quitting music after listening to Australian singer-songwriter Ruel. “You have the most amazing voice I’ve ever heard from a male singer at 14 years of age, and it’s quite incredible. It’s astonishing someone so young can write something so good. I give up,” John told listeners after he played one of Ruel’s songs on a British radio show.
We spoke to the now-16-year-old rising star on March 22 ahead of his Hong Kong debut at Kitec in Kowloon Bay. Shortly before his concert, we sat down with Ruel to talk about how he writes songs, and what’s it’s like to be a professional musician.
After being greeted by “heaps of fans”at the airport, Ruel told us he was looking forward to to performing in front of a Hong Kong crowd for the first time. “I don’t know what to expect; I’ve never been to China before but hopefully it’s energetic and loud,” said the teenager, who’s sporting his signature curtains – a middle-parted hairstyle.
Long before he was discovered by Australian music producer M-Phazes, Ruel was honing his craft by writing down ideas in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid-themed notebook and practising his strumming skills. “I was nine or 10 when I wrote my first song. I’d write about traumatic things that I’ve never gone through, such as the things I saw on TV,” says Ruel.
Having won the Breakout Artist award at last year’s Aria Awards, Australia’s biggest music event, the Don’t Tell Me singer is en route to become pop’s next biggest icon. His success so far is a testament to not only his songwriting skills, but his strong work ethic.
“[My co-writers and I] can finish a song in less than an hour, but tweaking things in the production process takes weeks,” he says. “It might just be a note in a chord; you always want to make it different and stand out from the rest,” he adds.
A true perfectionist, Ruel says some of the songs never feel finished to him, even after they’ve been released into the big wide world. “I’m always like: ‘Ahh I wish I could change this bit or that bit’, always wanting to make small corrections and adjustments” he explains.
Nowadays, he’s a frequent flier, often travelling between the US city of Los Angeles and London in Britain for writing trips, where he can bounce ideas off of other writers. Instead of waiting for that bolt of inspiration to hit, Ruel says he does a lot of preparation for each of these writing sessions.
“Before going into the room, I’d come up with 20 to 30 concepts or ideas, and then we’d start matching them to different chords and lyrics,” he says. While he might be wise beyond his years and performing sold-out shows every other night, there are still some aspects of adolescence he can’t escape.
“My voice has changed quite a lot over the past two years, I can’t sing some of my songs in their original keys – I now have to sing Don’t Tell Me a whole octave down,” he laughs.
His schedule alternates between three weeks of touring and three weeks of writing. He says he’s yet to learn how to do both at the same time. “I’m so jealous of my friends who can write on tour – but there was once when I was jet-lagged and wrote a song at 3am,”
From Ruel, to Billie Eilish, to Shawn Mendes, more and more Gen Z artists are taking the music industry by storm. “We see the world from a different perspective; if anyone’s listening, they should be listening to the youth,” he says. “We do have a lot of power and control over social media, so we need to use it wisely.”