His vocals are dramatic, his lyrics theatrical. Nate Ruess, front man of indie balladeers fun., seems born to perform.
His parents, who raised Nate on a farm in Arizona, were by no means thespians. But while they tilled fields, Nate’s uncle John Ruess was cutting a groove in the rockiest show business terrain of all— Broadway.
“Having an uncle who was involved professionally in the arts was particularly important because I never had to convince my family, a working class one, that it was a ‘sustainable’ way of living,” Ruess tells Time Out, adding that he has fond memories of viewing the elder performer’s stints on Les Miserables, Showboat, and The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Weber. “It really shaped who I am as a vocalist and as a performer, and I still go to him for not just vocal advice, but career advice to this day. My uncle was very important in making me think that I could sing. I always figured that I had to be able to sing because it was in my blood.”
At first, those vocal gifts seemed like anything but a given. While in high school Ruess tried to jam with cliquey classmates who, more often than not, closed him out.
“They would tell me I couldn't sing in tune, or that I needed to get vocal lessons. But I loved being involved in music so much that it never made me want to quit, it just made me want to work harder and strive to be better than everyone else. I think without their words of discouragement I wouldn't be where I am now.”
And that current position is enviable, to say the least.
In 2012 fun. broke out in a huge way. Their single ‘We Are Young’, had a seemingly immortal stay atop the Billboard Hot 100 throughout most of the spring season. That commercial triumph is all the more impressive because fun. seized it on their own terms. It’s not mindlessly dancey, or driven by bland power chords, unlike most of today’s chart toppers. Instead Ruess opens the hit with a lilting musical monologue that would’ve fit right in on any of his uncle’s Broadway numbers, delivering darkly quirky lines like, “my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State.” That’s followed by a dramatic shift in tone and pace – a thunderous chorus about burning “brighter than the sun”.
It’s inescapably catchy, turning up on everything from an episode of Glee to Superbowl TV spots. That’s a long way to come, especially for a former farm boy who couldn’t convince anyone that he could sing. Ruess insists he’ll never forget that drearier period.
“I remember watching my parents work so hard in order to support my sister and I, and while they are amazing parents, having a 'standard' job was something I was never interested in,” Ruess says, adding that his own nine-to-five’s were numbing. “Working at a law firm while I was aiming to go to college certainly put me on the fast track to wanting to make it in music. What I didn't realize is that the work ethic my parents instilled in me would have to come out in my music and the way I approach my day, otherwise I would never have been as ambitious as I am."