Nate Ruess: From Indie Singer to Pop Superstar

Margy examines the wild and unusual career of Nate Ruess.


Everyone is familiar with the rock ballad We Are Young. It has been blasting through radios and blaring through i-pod headphones, almost becoming America’s theme song. However, have you ever wondered who the mastermind behind this ballad is? Well of course it’s Fun. ,though, who wrote it? Who sings the song? Nate Ruess is the mastermind behind Fun. but before his single became number one on the charts, he was a little known singer from Arizona that didn’t know how to play an instrument.

Ruess first became inspired to sing from his uncle who was on Broadway in musicals such as Les Miserables. Ruess began his career, though, in Arizona, starting with his high school band Nevergonnascore. His first performance was in the bass player’s bedroom playing a bunch of Blink-182 covers. Despite this, his peers said he lacked the skills to make it professionally. Ruess told American Songwriter, “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.” This worked. After Nevergonnascore, Ruess moved onto The Format, his first attempt at making his music widespread.

He formed The Format at 19 with his best friend, Sam Means. On October 21, 2003, The Format released their first album, entitled Interventions + Lullabies. They had garnered much attention and then were signed to Atlantic Records. However, after working on their second album, Dog Problems, they were dropped. This wasn’t the end of Ruess’s problems. Ruess’s friend stated he “didn’t want to do this anymore.” The Format had suddenly broken up. But this setback didn’t stop him. Ruess moved to New York, kept writing, and didn’t see any point of turning back. Also in the interview with American Songwriter, Ruess stated “I was down and out,” he said, “but this is the only thing I love and know how to do … I wasn’t ready to stop.”

The First Single by The Format:

Fate had it for him. He eventually crossed paths with Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, former members of Steel Train and Anathallo. And out of this meeting, the band fun. was formed. In an interview Nate Ruess said, “When my last band was no more, I just knew that I wanted to work with those two (Andrew and Jack) specifically. They were the first and only two people that I called. I had toured with them in the past and had such a great friendship with them, and I admired them as musicians and as songwriters. So I figured if I was going to go down, I was going to go down in a blaze of glory(laughs), and they would go with me.” Their first album Aim and Ignite was not a success but it was still popular. Hoping to make it with their second album, they went to the talents of Jeff Bhasker, the producer of Kayne West and Beyonce. Nate clearly remembers getting a ten minute meeting with Bhasker and singing Bhasker the chorus of We Are Young. After that little performance in a Manhattan hotel, Ruess and his band have moved to bigger stages and a huge fanbase, including a song performed by Glee.

Be Calm by Fun. (early days of the band):

Despite having the same singer, The Format and Fun. are completely different, musically. The Format is more indie based, with guitar heard throughout. This band is not pop based; there are no auto-tuned parts or anything “electronic” sounding. It is purely an indie band. With Fun., Nate Ruess has changed the sound, intentionally. Ruess, Antonoff, and Dost wanted the Some Nights album to be more pop inspired. In fact, they were inspired by Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “I really only listened to hip-hop when making Some Nights, but I didn’t use it as inspiration until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out.  It’s hip-hop production with real theatricality,” Ruess said. But some aren’t into Nate Ruess’s transformation from indie to pop band. They consider his move “selling out.” Does it matter that Ruess changed his sound to appeal to a wider audience? Does it matter that Ruess wrote Some Nights with a pop inspired sound because he, himself, was inspired by a pop album? That’s for you to decide.

Nate Ruess is still the same guy. Despite his huge success, he still doesn’t play an instrument and writes songs in an interesting way. “I don’t know how to play an instrument because I’m lazy, so I just write everything in my head and try my best to explain it to either one of those guys (Jack and Andrew). Usually it varies on whether or not it starts on a guitar or piano, and then they will help me work through it and get my idea across,” Ruess said in an interview. There’s a lot of pressure that comes from having a single become number one, but Ruess isn’t feeling it. He’s just taking his success one step at a time and enjoying the ride.




-Margy Groshong

Contact Margy at


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