Despite Reuben and the Dark taking stage at the Grad Club this Saturday and many times prior, their frontman never planned on being a performer.
“I’m realizing what my own role is as a performer,” singer Reuben Bullock said. Prior to his success, he simply “wanted to play songs before [he] ended up on stage, entertaining people.”
Bullock started as a solo singer-songwriter, delivering intimate performances of his dark, introspective lyrics from stools on stages around his hometown of Calgary.
He described these initial, amateur performances as being similar to “reading a diary [and] strumming an acoustic guitar.” It was more of an outgrowth of the poetry he wrote in his free time when he was a budding competitive skateboarder than the full, stirring choruses Reuben and the Dark would later become known for.
Similarly, Bullock hadn’t even picked up a guitar until his early 20s. Instead, poetry came first — he discovered a knack for it in a Grade 10 English class when his work got a glowing review from his teacher. Despite his lack of technical knowledge, he found he could still deliver strong emotions through his writing.
“I learned I could get away without having a technical understanding of something if I could just write something that felt strong and powerful,” he said
“That lit a fire inside my mind.”
This poetic background remains central to Bullock’s songwriting, with Reuben and the Dark’s upcoming album, Arms of a Dream, drawing inspiration from a poem he wrote years ago.
As an album, it explores art and music as extensions of dreams, along with “learning from mistakes and growing.”
Bullock said he tries to channel these abstract, subconscious feelings into his songwriting. The result is brooding lyricism that still manages to avoid being overly bleak or emotionally taxing.
“You have a place you go to tap in and create,” Bullock said. “Mine tends to be from pain and from fear, from a sense of hopelessness and despair … What happens though is they end up taking form in things that feel like they’re beautiful and [where] there is hope.”
He explained the music becomes therapeutic because it engages feelings of being lost and challenges emotions. Instead of being dour reflections, the music grows into big, anthemic choruses that rise above their circumstances.
A similar thing happened when Bullock added a full band to his live show and made their collective first release with 2012’s Man Made Lakes. The music became more uplifting as it adopted a fuller sound with a multi-instrumentalist backing band.
“I felt like [being solo] took away from the songs. I kind of just wanted to hide behind a band and make a bunch of noise just to make it a show, to make it a spectacle, take the edge off.”
As a result, the live show took on a more musical quality, where it previously could seem like Bullock placed the weight of the show entirely on his own personality.
The formation of the group coincided with Bullock’s development as a performer. He learned to build a more meaningful relationship with his audience that went beyond the pure emotional rawness of his earlier shows.
“Before I had a strange punk rock approach to performing. I think because it was so personal I would just like bleed on the stage for people.”
Bullock said he would put himself through “torment” just to create an experience. He would leave a performance exhausted and sweating, almost crying only to disappear backstage and avoid conversation.
Now he understands his exchange with the audience differently.
“I’m writing all these songs to share them with people, to connect with people. I think what works is we’re opening ourselves up and playing our hearts out,” he said. “What ends up happening is this kind of beautiful energy just walking out of there. A sense of pulling some kind of joy from sad songs through live performance.”
This connection with fans extends beyond their concerts — Bullock said fans will often send him stories about the role his music played in their lives. He added someone will lose a loved one and play his song at the funeral while another will write to tell him they played that same song walking down the aisle.
“One will take it as a love song, and one will take it as a funeral song. That’s the best case where [the music is] being used for those real emotional purposes.”
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