How Nate Ruess Became Pop's Most Unlikely Pop Star

(Radio.com) The lighting of Electric Lady Studios gives everything in its interior an autumnal blush, including Nate Ruess, as he approaches a microphone at the front of the room. A cap throws his features into a fingernail of shadow that's occasionally penetrated by his glassy eyes. He thanks individuals from his record company, Fueled by Ramen, for allowing him to carefully shape his debut record Grand Romantic, which at this point, in mid-May, a little over a month before its release date, he's still micro-adjusting on his phone.

'It's in a folder that I've named 'my baby'," he says, and his smile briefly overwhelms his face. He gathered Grand Romantic together from various sources: Many of the songs were theoretically intended for the next album by his band fun., including 'Harsh Light," which fun. performed on The Tonight Show last year. At Electric Lady, he sings the first single from the record 'Nothing Without Love." Ruess doesn't particularly need the microphone; his voice saturates a room.

I saw him do this once, three years ago, when fun. were just about to release Some Nights. Ruess, Jack Antonoff, and Andrew Dost performed three songs from the record, unamplified, from a pit in the center of a bar in the Lower East Side. Ruess' voice is bright and depthless, like a concentrated beam of light, but also conversational and crowded with syllables. He grew up singing in punk bands, where one's voice is only as capable as the amount of information packed into it. Ruess has often been compared to Freddie Mercury, and like him, his voice can endure impressive aerial flights. It can also be compellingly processed by Autotune into ribbony vowels, as it was on fun.'s 'Stars," Ruess' digressive tribute to Kanye West's 'Runaway."

Where the arrangements on Some Nights could be dense, there's a more holistic approach to the Grand Romantic's sound design. Ruess' taste in arrangements tends toward the prismatic; even on something as restrained as his duet with Beck, 'What This World is Coming To," the guitars sound silvery and embossed, as if standing in relief against Jeff Bhasker's cottony percussion. 'Great Big Storm" is total technicolor Ruess, drums and strings vectoring through the track in extremely focused blooms, like animated sculpture. The songs swing through moods and sounds--desire, heartbreak, inebriation, hip-hop, Elton John, ELO. If it's remotely coherent it's because of Ruess' unifying voice, but also his lyrics, which express a characteristic intimacy and vulnerability he's cultivated for his entire career.

Ruess was raised in Arizona, where at age 19 he started a band with his friend Sam Means called The Format. Elektra signed them, and their first album, 2003's Interventions and Lullabies was an indie rock record executed with the precision and insulation of chamber music. Then Elektra folded and The Format were briefly absorbed into Atlantic Records, who dropped them after hearing the demos for their second record, Dog Problems.

Dog Problems is a gorgeous, compressed mosaic of a record, one that telegraphs Ruess' direction with fun. and certain songs on Grand Romantic. It draws the Beach Boys, Electric Light Orchestra, and Weezer into a rich continuum, and through these harmonic lenses Ruess sketches the end of a relationship and the end of a recording contract.

And so The Format broke up in 2008, and Ruess formed fun. with Antonoff and Dost. Their first album, Aim & Ignite, largely advances the power pop aesthetic of Dog Problems, and like that record it was arranged by power pop forefather Robert Joseph Manning, Jr of Jellyfish., and produced by Steven McDonald of Redd Kross. Its closing track, 'Take Your Time (Coming Home)," absorbs the pulse and gallop of Paul Simon's Graceland, and over this Ruess sings, 'I'm through with causing a scene," which deliberately resembles the chorus of The Format's 'First Single" ('So let's cause a scene/ clap our hands and stomp our feet" ). Read more here.

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