For the first time in his career, Nate Ruess is on his own. Following stints with the Format and fun., the singer is preparing the release of his solo debut Grand Romantic, out next week via Fueled by Ramen. From songs that sample old fun. lyrics (“AhHa”) to features from musical heroes Jeff Tweedy and Beck, Grand Romantic is the end of an era that catapulted Ruess’ band into the Top 40 and the launch of one he is helming all on his own.
Part subdued and part theatrical, the LP’s creation and subject matter was influenced by a serious romance with designer Charlotte Ronson. Many of the album’s lyrics deal with love and commitment, and Ruess takes a deeply personal look at his own life in the process. Before and after a train ride from Paris to London, he spoke with Rolling Stone about each song, picking apart how they were created and what they mean to the new Nate Ruess.
1. “Grand Romantic (Intro)”
That song used to be a whole different thing when we first started the album. I always had that melody, and I figured it would be a whole bunch of interludes throughout the album. As we started to work through and record strings for the song “Grand Romantic,” I started freestyling over it. We always had that big choir.
We had finished the album, and we decided that we didn’t need any interludes. It felt pretentious to do, and it already felt like adding too many tracks. I like to keep albums usually at 10 [songs], and we ended up with 12. Interludes would’ve brought it up to 14, and it would’ve felt a little too conceptual. We finished the album without the intro, and “AhHa” didn’t feel like it set up the album properly. It was the very last day before we had to turn in the master, and we were up until 5 o’clock in the morning recording in my house and rearranging that intro. It was supposed to be turned in three hours later. We just reached a wall at the end of the night, and I woke up in a panic and called my engineer and said “Can you please do whatever you can to make this sound better?”
Between him mixing and mastering it, I love the intro. If you listen, you can hear James Gadson. He’s this legendary drummer who played on all the Bill Withers songs. [Producer] Jeff [Bhasker] had recorded him playing drums for the Beck song, and he just got all these great James Gadson, 70-year-old drummer beats. You can hear the drummer singing and one guy talking, and that’s James, which is pretty exciting.
I wrote “AhHa” about two or three years ago, and I always knew that I wanted it to be the first song on whatever the next album I’d make would be. I was on tour with fun., and I think Some Nights was pretty big at the time in the States. I was laying in my bunk, and somehow I started hearing this laughing. I thought it would be interesting to freestyle over the laughing. A lot of the stuff I’m singing on the song is from the first take and off the top of my head. Not only melodically, but lyrically. I went into the studio by myself and recorded the laughing. I did eight different voices of me laughing, and then just started singing over it. Because I heard this song as an evil twin to “Some Nights,” I heard this song as an outro to “Some Nights” but a prequel to my new music.
3. “Nothing Without Love”
I wanted “AhHa” to knock you off your socks then for you to feel like you’re catching a breath before “Nothing Without Love.” So it starts out with just piano and voice, and then it beats you over the head. Whether it was going to be a fun. album or not, “AhHa” was going to be the song that put the Some Nights era to bed, and I thought that for an album called Grand Romantic, the song “Nothing Without Love” would be this grand launching board for what feels like the rest of the album. “AhHa” feels the most foreign to me, but I wanted “Nothing Without Love” to feel like this big, grand statement. The few songs that happen after that touch on a similar subject of falling in love, but I really wanted it to be this thing that kicks off Grand Romantic.
4. “Take It Back”
It’s an interesting track because I usually hear a song in my head and then work on it after I’ve already finished it. I usually don’t take chords that other people play and then put lyrics and melody over it. One day, Emile [Haynie] played the music to “Take It Back,” and I was just blown away about it and started singing something on the spot. I made some adjustments over the next few days, only hearing Emile’s version once. It was my second take at the end of the night a few days later — I was a little drunk — and that’s the version you hear. I hadn’t written any lyrics other than “take it back.” It was all freestyle, trying to do my best Van Morrison impression and just trying to add a little bit of soul to the track.
I had talked, actually, to Rolling Stone about how much I loved this one particular Wilco track. Wilco’s probably my favorite band from the last 15, 20 years. I said something in Rolling Stone, and Jeff Tweedy got wind of it and reached out a couple years ago asking if I wanted to write a song with him. Unfortunately, I never had any time but as soon as this song came along, we had this big gap where I wanted him to play a guitar solo. We reached out, and he was kind enough to play that solo. I was worried because Jeff and Emile were not as well-versed in Wilco as I am, but they both melted when they heard it. I was so proud and didn’t want to change a thing about it. [Tweedy’s] guitar playing and songwriting has meant so much to me. It was really special to have him on the track.
5. “You Light My Fire”
That song is a very specific style. It makes me think of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” or even Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” There are so many reference points. I figured we needed a song with pace, and so I just randomly came up with that song. I don’t know why I sang “You light my fire”; it was kind of funny. Jeff’s first thought was “We can’t do this! That’s the Doors’ lyric.” I had never really listened to the Doors before, so I was like “Ah, sure we can! People have lit a fire before. I’m sure it’s not big deal.” I made sure to reference the Doors in the lyrics. I thought it’d be nice to give a little shout out and acknowledge their lyric.
6. “What This World Is Coming To”
I wanted Beck for “You Light My Fire,” and wanted to work with him for obvious reasons. I had done a duet with P!nk, so a male-female duet felt like “Okay, that’s been done.” I wanted to do a male duet, and I thought we’d both be a little more Midnite Vultures-y. I reached out prior to any of the Grammys stuff, and he is so cool and agreed to do it.
The Grammys happened, and I heard him play that song with Chris Martin and thought that the way their two voices sounded together was amazing. It’s a little Morning Phase-y and Sea Change-esque. I have a tough time going between Midnite Vultures and Sea Change, as far as my favorite Beck album. One day, I was just in the shower and started singing “What This World Is Coming To.” His voice is obviously much lower than mine, and it would give me the chance to be the higher voice. I just knew from a production standpoint that it would only strengthen the song.
I reached out a week after the Grammys, and he was still so down to work together. I played him the song, and he was floored. I kept asking him if he wanted to change the lyrics and he said, “No, I think this is perfect.” We spent a couple of days in the studio together, and there was a lot of back-and-forth. It’s just amazing to see him play guitar and see how much he can do with music.
I was just so happy to see Beck respond to the music because he’s someone I grew up idolizing. Beck is the epitome of cool, so it made me feel really cool for a little bit. I’m still riding high on that one.
7. “Great Big Storm”
Jeff Lynne [of ELO] has always been a massive inspiration for me. [The comparison] makes sense because of the structure and strings and stuff like that. I’ll take any comparison to ELO, even it wasn’t intentional.
I really wanted to make a song like “One More Try” by George Michael, and as I started writing it, I just went into the studio by myself and recorded the vocals on ProTools and then sent it off to [producer] Jeff Bhasker. He was writing with Shania Twain or something like that, but he got really, really inspired to make it.
The production is pretty phenomenal in that song because it feels almost like karaoke music behind this big, huge vocal ballad. I’ve always been slightly obsessed with country music and have always wanted to do something that sounded a little bit country, so I threw a country harmony on it. I can’t help but think that some of it was inspired by Jeff being in the studio with Shania Twain, which I think is awesome. I mean we’ve got these big like Mutt Lange types of drums, and its really great.
[The perspective is from] two different characters. When I sing in a high voice I’m singing from the other person in the relationship.
9. “It Only Gets Much Worse”
I was once again in the shower and I don’t know what compelled me to just start singing, “It only gets much worse.” That one’s a cool one, more so because I really wanted to make sure that the lyrics were particularly great and I wanted to dig as deeply as possible. It took about two minutes to write the song, but I didn’t have the lyrics yet. Knowing that we were just going to get an amazing string arrangement from Roger Manning, I knew that I wanted great lyrics.
My friend Sloane Crosley is an author, and she happened to have been in town in Los Angeles. So I was like, “If I pay you to stay an extra day, will you sit with me and help me write this song?” Probably my biggest thing is that I just have a tough time sitting down and really committing to writing lyrics. So, she sat there with me and we took an entire day and wrote the lyrics to that song. I’m really proud, because you know I think the first verse is seen through as a kid and the second verse is as an adult going through relationship problems. It’s not the most positive message. but I feel as though I’ve written some songs that have had a positive message, so I should be able to get away with one that’s really, really pessimistic.
10. “Grand Romantic”
I had an older demo of a song called “Grand Romantic” that had the “I wanted you so bad” part going into the “Grand Romantic” part, which was much more circus-y. And that was supposed to end the album. This was supposed to end the album, but I didn’t like the verses that I had wrote, and I didn’t like the style that the song was going in. So we were just going to cut up that whole “Grand Romantic” song and turn it into just interludes throughout the album.
Jeff just did an amazing string arrangement, and to me it had a Van Morrison vibe to it. That part where I say, “I just wanted you so bad” was supposed to be much shorter and was a bridge in the original “Grand Romantic,” and then Jeff had stretched it out and turned it into this beautiful piece of music so I just freestyled over it with my best Van Morrison impression.
This song is probably my favorite on the album because I talk about Van Morrison so much and how much he means to me, and none of my songs ever sound like Van Morrison songs, but he’s always the person I listen to and then want to turn around and write music. I just felt like that’s a very Van Morrison moment. [The album] does kind of end with the “Grand Romantic.” I think the song puts that thing to bed. I wanted to wrap up the “Grand Romantic” aspect. I think it starts with “AhHa” putting Some Nights to bed and “Nothing Without Love” launching the Grand Romantic thing. The album to an extent ends with the “Grand Romantic,” but then it then goes into “Harsh Lights” and “Brightside,” which I think are two songs that actually wrap up the overall feeling, opposed to a general feeling.
11. “Harsh Light”
[When I wrote it] I might have just been upset about people writing songs about being wronged. I think it was about myself being upset. I started writing that song with my bass player. I started writing that chorus, and at the time I was also listening to a shit ton of[Mott the Hoople’s] “All the Young Dudes.” I always had wanted to do my own version of “All the Young Dudes,” and I don’t know what compelled me to sing, “We’ve all got scars,” but I might have just been singing to myself like, “Get over it, dude. We’ve all been wronged before.” If you look at “Grand Romantic” and it ends like an ending to a relationship, then you go over to “Harsh Light,” and you’re just hell-bent on getting over it, even if it just means drinking the night away.
One day we were just in the studio and Jeff started playing this old funky keyboard that just made honking noises; it played old records back. It’s kind of like a Mellotron. I don’t even know what the name of the keyboard was. But I just remembered hearing that and freaking out. I ran straight into the studio and fortunately there was a microphone in that room, and the engineers just rolled the tape while I made up a lot of that, “I wish that I was on the brightside, my friends and I.” I made all that stuff up on the spot as Jeff was playing and we were both moved by the sound of it.
For me, I think Mercury Rev was my big inspiration for it. We turned around and had Roger Manning from Jellyfish do just one of the most incredible string arrangements that I’ve heard in a really long time. There’s just something about the song that — along with “Take it Back” and “Grand Romantic” — my third favorite song at the moment. I think I wrote this as if I was singing to someone and I was dead. Completely unintentionally, it kind of harkens back to the Beck song when I sang, “I think I’m going to shine in the afterlife,” and I feel like that is my version of shining in the afterlife.