When you hear fun.’s frontman Nate Ruess split the word “fire” into three booming syllables on the band’s hit seize-the-night anthem “We Are Young,” it’s hard to imagine that, long before the song made its way to the TV choir of Glee, Ruess’ friends were telling him that he just couldn’t sing. And not to give too much credit to his detractors, but if it weren’t for them he probably would have never really found his voice. Good thing, because it’s a big one.
Ruess was playing in punk bands back in Arizona and “a lot of people told me I couldn’t sing,” he says, calling from D.C. in the middle of a two-night run. He’s supposed to be on vocal rest, but he’s taken a few minutes to step out of the silence. “Or they said ‘I think you need vocal lessons.’ I’m not one to take lessons, so I decided that the only way I was going to learn how to sing, if what they were saying was true, was to go in my car and put on any sort of music from a vocalist that might be really hard to mimic, turn it on as loud as possible and try to hit all those notes.”
After the meteoric success of both “We are Young” and fun.’s second album, Some Nights, Ruess no longer has to sing to his dashboard. But back then, he’d belt bands like Queen, Counting Crows and Weezer, and “from singing all those different things I came upon the voice I inherently had.” That voice is the anchor for fun.’s catchy, dramatic and sometimes intentionally over-the-top songs that blend a Freddie Mercury howl, an indie-pop romp and musical-theater choruses. Ruess’ uncle, John Reuss, was on Broadway, and he’s always loved that sound. It’s a similar obsession with Paul McCartney and Van Morrison that has allowed fun. to round out the theatrics into radio-friendly hits.
Ruess formed his first band The Format at 19, which was signed and subsequently dropped by Atlantic records in the midst of making their second album. He’d moved to New York, kept writing and didn’t see any point of turning back. Actually, he didn’t see any other options at all. “I was down and out,” he says, “but this is the only thing I love and know how to do … I wasn’t ready to stop.”
He’d crossed paths with bandmates Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost through their former outfits Steel Train and Anathallo, respectively, and thought they could work well together, do something a little less indie-pop and bigger, more bombastic, even gospel. They formed fun. in 2008, gathering a steady following touring with Jacks Mannequin and Paramore, but nothing could quite prepare them for the surge that came after “We Are Young” was covered on Glee. Soon the song was on a Super Bowl commercial and atop the Billboard charts.
Even though he doesn’t play an instrument, Ruess has always had melodies floating around in his head. They’re usually ticked over into songs by his surroundings, like a chemical reaction. “It’s as simple as finding something on the street and then writing a jingle,” he says. “If I’m driving and I have my turn signal on and it’s rhythmic, maybe I just write a song to that.”
It happened similarly on “We Are Young,” in his former recital room, a.k.a. the car. “We’d just gotten back from a songwriting trip where I was showing the guys some stuff I was working on. I think right about then it was really starting to cook,” he says. The chorus popped into his head, which he sang in a meeting with Kanye West’s producer Jeff Bhasker. The band was trying to woo him to infuse a more hip-hop sound into the album, and had been getting nowhere. Bhasker was sold. They went into the studio the next day.
There’s a lot of pressure that comes after having a hit, but Ruess isn’t worried. He’s writing on the road, and has 15-20 good melodies stashed in his iPod. “I don’t feel pressure other than from myself to find inspiration,” he says. “At this point, I know who I am as a songwriter when it’s all stripped away.” He talks about the still-fresh thrill of hearing the song on the radio, before signing off to be silent. Tonight will be more relaxed: the previous show was livestreamed for NPR, which he found cool but nerve-wracking. Livestream or not, fun. finally has the spotlight, and they’re not giving it up.
“There’s an audience for everybody – that’s the weird thing about these times,” says the man whose days of singing alone in his car are in the rearview mirror, summing up his band and the world he’s making music in all at once.