THE latest E.P. from Ruben features three upbeat tracks that…
look at a man engulfed by his own desires. Deal with the Devil is a look inside a human conflicted by lusts, disciplines and release. In a way, the three-track release is a concept of resisting desires, succumbing to them and then assessing the aftermath – knowing it is okay to be flawed. Ruben talks about his music: he is someone often compared to songwriting heavyweights such as Neil Tennant. He mentions his affection for Pet Shop Boys and how songwriters like John Grant have helped him through some uncertain periods. I was eager to know how his future was being mapped – I learn Reuben has just got a place in London – and how Deal with the Devil compared with his previous E.P., Only the Young. Ruben lets me into his creative process and offers up some wise words for any new artists coming through.
Hi, Ruben. How are you? How has your week been?
Hi, Sam. I’ve been good, thanks. It’s been a busy week as I’ve been performing my new material around London – but it’s been satisfying.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
Sure. I am a Synthpop artist that writes and produces my own material. My music is up-tempo (well, most of it) and may make you want to dance. But, if you listen to the lyrics, I’m often channelling a very sad or disturbing story or theme.
Deal with the Devil is your new E.P. What can you tell us about the new release and the significance of that title?
This E.P. is a story set across the three tracks.
I recently turned twenty-five and decided it was time to confront aspects of my personality that I was never very comfortable with.
The idea of “making a deal with the Devil” is really a metaphor for accepting the flawed traits in yourself – that’s the significance behind the track name. However, when I wrote it, I did imagine myself in a smoky Texas bar having a whisky with the man himself – but my intention for the song is it to have more of a metaphorical meaning.
As the E.P. continues on, the story documents a man’s fall into his dark desires and he ends up becoming engulfed by them. It’s a social commentary on the way we live our lives too: eating too much, swiping left or right to find a lover. Everything is so instant and quick and we have way too much, so I wanted to comment on that. Eventually, he comes out the other end with a better understanding of himself and he realises that no one is either a “saint or a sinner” – but that we all live in that grey area in-between.
That’s the conclusion I came to within myself and it helped me be more comfortable with the character that I am. It’s called being human and that’s ok. The production is up-tempo Synthpop with stomping beats. My intention was to get people dancing. I love how catchy and direct the title is (which is why I used it).
It seems like a bolder and more developed work than Only the Young. What, would you say, are the main differences between the two E.P.s?
Yes, I agree. With Only the Young (my first EP), I had written those songs over the course of a year. They were strands of different ideas and themes that I had in my head which I put together to create that body of work. However, with Deal with the Devil, once I had written the title track, all the other songs came to me as well. It was as if that whole theme of facing your fears had already formed – so I just kept writing and the tracks came to me very quickly. I think because I was more clear and concise with my overall message; the music became more developed and clear. I didn’t want to do a ballad like my last E.P. so I was adamant that it would all be up-tempo too.
I like – in Deal with the Devil – songs Cocaine Cowboy and Saints & Sinners. They sound like pretty raw tracks. What is the inspiration behind both?
With Cocaine Cowboy, I caught the end of a documentary which had that title in it. It instantly struck me. I liked the alliteration; it was catchy. So, I ran to my piano and started hammering out some ideas. I knew I wanted to write about this stereotypical macho-type: one that has all the woman, who’s a man about town – but he’s drowning in his own desires, too.
With Saints & Sinners, I wanted a track that embodied the question “Who are we?‘. I wanted a title that was alluring and would get people engaged. So, Saints & Sinners came to me. This is the only song on the E.P. that took a long time to get right. The lyrics and melodies for the others came very quickly. But with this one, I kept coming back to it and changing everything.
The themes that run in it are about my ability to never be satisfied with decisions I make (head and heart have always told me different things) and it’s also me questioning life and my morality (speed with me through empty streets at 3 A.M. just to see how quickly real life feels pretend).
I believe the tracks are a bit autobiographical. You said you wanted to represent the worst sides of yourself in the E.P. What compelled that decision to be so open and revealing?
I suppose you could say I’ve developed a style of writing where I am super-honest and raw with what I’m saying but I package it in a way where people don’t instantly get it. I know some people don’t really ‘listen’ when they listen to music. But, if you ‘listen’ to what I’m saying there’s a lot of truth and a lot of autobiographical accounts in there. I was compelled, to be honest, because music is therapy for me – and I need to put my emotions into something constructive. This stops me from feeling like a victim to my problems. I also encourage anyone out there who has similar problems to turn their hand to some sort of art form be it painting, making music; dancing. Anything to help you channel that frustrating energy can make a big difference.
On Deal with the Devil, you worked with Matt Knight at Greystoke Studios. What was it like having him mix and master the E.P.?
Simply put: Matt is a genius. He engineered my last E.P. too. When I bring him a produced track he takes one listen and then instantly starts getting ideas on how to ‘polish it off’. His brain works at a million-miles-an-hour and it’s fascinating to watch. We clicked pretty much the second we met and I knew my music was in good hands with him.
Your music has a real sense of emotion and passion. It is rare to find an artist, away from the mainstream, that sounds as strong and intriguing. How did you get into music and when did it all start for you?
Thanks. I appreciate that. You could say I was always a vocal kid but an introverted-extrovert, I think. When I was at Primary School, I’d make plays during lunchtime with my friends and then show them to the class before home time. When I was at secondary school, I used my dad’s old camcorder and made ‘horror’ movies. At university, I took a Film degree but it wasn’t until 2015 that I was itching to try something new. So, in March of that year, I knocked on my dad’s door and asked him to teach me piano – he’s really good.
From there, I wrote pretty much every day for a year and taught myself what I needed to know. I’m just a storyteller trying to find the best medium to express myself and music has definitely done that for me.
The music you play is Electro.-Pop but seems to straddle decades in terms of influence. I hear bits of John Grant in your new material. Is he someone you’re influenced in?
John Grant is a huge inspiration for me. The Queen of Denmark is such a spectacular record with so much character and charm. I wish all mainstream music could carry such powerful messages.
Grant has a way with lyrics: they’re cunning and funny too but he also knows how to hit you in the gut and make you cry. I brought all of his albums just before Christmas and drove around the countryside listening to them. I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by him in the sense that I don’t want to copy his style of work. But I would say he inspires me to write clever lyrics that has wit to them.
Who are the artists and musicians you grew up listening to?
I remember being eleven: my mum was hoovering and she put on a retro Top of the Pops episode. That was the first time I saw Kate Bush dancing around on stage to Wuthering Heights and I was sold! She became this otherworldly figure for me: she helped me escape being bullied at school for being gay and having to worry about all the social pressures that came with teen life. She helped a lot.
My mum really shaped the performer I am today because she was the one who got me into the New Romantic era. So, growing up, I listened to Adam and the Ants, Duran Duran; Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys. Neil and Chris were and still are a huge inspiration to me. They were flamboyant, they were honest and they made music that made me want to dance. I owe them a lot.
You live just outside London. What is the music scene like where you are and is it difficult getting opportunities to perform in such a competitive industry?
It’s been really hard living in the country for so long – especially when you have a yearning to be where lights and noises and people are. I’ve often felt quite isolated and this has definitely come out in my music. I have tonnes of demos. that are super-super-depressing and talk about living in the middle of nowhere but no one’s ever going to hear those.
I’m lucky enough to be able to move so, as of April, I will be a Londoner!
I’m very excited. I’d say the hardest thing I’ve encountered so far is doing ‘Synthpop’. A lot of open-mic. establishments either don’t allow you to use a backing track or you get rolling eyes from musicians who think you aren’t a ‘real artist’. If I write every word and make all the music: surely you can’t discount me?! That’s been hard but you just have to have a strong sense of self and remember that you’re doing this because you love it – and because you have something to say.
Looking ahead, can we see you perform anywhere through 2017?
For sure. My week-long run of performing each night is just about to come to an end but I am very vocal on social media about where I’m going to be performing. So, if you follow me on those various platforms you’ll be sure to know where I’ll be. If you come, say “hi” after.
I like meeting new people.
If you had to select the three albums that have meant the most to you; which would they be and why?
Queen of Denmark – John Grant
I had this record (and especially the track, Marz) on repeat when I moved out for the first time. It was a bittersweet experience for me and I felt like Grant’s music understood that. It was fragile and calm when I needed it and then it was more aggressive and confrontational in other parts. It summed my life up. Superb work!
Froot – Marina and the Diamonds
Marina has a way with words that few others have. She wrote Froot alone and her lyrics about morality and asking the bigger questions have really resonated with me. Immortal came out a day before New Year’s Day but was the first song I heard of that New Year. It made me cry so much. She managed to cut right through to that really intimate area of my heart that’s scared of death and the part that makes me wonder “What will I leave behind?”. That whole album is epic!
Lionheart – Kate Bush
I remember playing this for the first time on vinyl and being completely blown away from start to finish. The voice, the imagery; the song content.
It felt like the music has grabbed my top and pulled me into the record player – with her and we were flying through this multicoloured world of magic and illusion.
This record (like the previous two) I could never get bored of. I just keep on coming back to it.
Who are the new artists you recommend we investigate?
Ciara Vizzard is an incredible talent! She has a golden voice that will hypnotise you. Go listen to her.
Have you any advice for songwriters coming through at the moment?
Yes. I’d say stick to your guns – metaphorically, of course. If you don’t stand for anything you will fall for everything. Be true to what you want to say and say it.
Finally, and for being a good sport, you can select any song you like and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
For its poetic and whimsical nature but also it’s beautiful and painful melodies: I’m going for John Grant’s Marz. Enjoy!