Reuben Bullock never aspired to be a musician. As a child, in fact, he was fairly certain he couldn’t even sing. “I decided I didn’t have a voice when I was young,” he admits. “I didn’t sing along with the radio, I couldn’t sing around a campfire.”
But Bullock, who now fronts the critically acclaimed alt-rock band Reuben and the Dark, never struggled with finding a voice in his writing. He first began fervently scribbling poetry as a teenager, driven to get things down on paper – and yet still largely unwilling to share his work with audiences.
“I’d be working these brutal jobs and would go and take bathroom breaks and go sit with my notebook, scrambling to get all this stuff out,” he recalls. “And I always had this feeling of, ‘Why am I doing it? Am I supposed to share this?’ It was confusing.”
At 21, his older brother gave him an acoustic guitar and Bullock taught himself to play during a stint teaching English in Thailand. He learned two chords and promptly wrote 20 songs. “This is it,” he remembers thinking. “This is where all those words go.”
“A lot of life goes into these songs… a lot of pent-up things, from being young.”
That’s also when Bullock realized he would need to figure out how to sing if he wanted to do those words justice. While he describes his first attempts as “airy and soft”, he also remembers a breakthrough moment when he finally belted out a tune at full volume. “It freed me,” he says simply.
It’s about as close as Bullock, who grew up the son of a preacher, gets to delving into his past, or to the source of his suppressed voice – a childhood in which he moved from town to town across North America, ultimately leading to a rebellion against religion – though he eludes to it as a source of inspiration for his writing.
“A lot of life goes into these songs… a lot of pent-up things, from being young,” he says. “There have definitely been some troubling times.”
In a sense, singing also became a way of rebelling against his earlier self, much in the way that skateboarding, in which he competed at a semi-professional level, had been for him before he found music. Driven to overcome his own fears about singing or playing in front of people, Bullock spent two years performing at open mic sessions nearly five days a week at venues around Calgary, the town he calls home. “I did it over and over and over again until it started feeling right,” he says. “But it was a huge source of anxiety for me.”
When Bullock first put a band together to back him when he recorded his debut solo album, Pulling Up Arrows, in 2009, he admits it was for two reasons: the first, because he found it easier to perform if he was sharing the stage with other people; but secondly, because he realized that musically, he wanted to make something that was bigger than himself, “not just one guy playing a song he wrote.”
In 2012, he released his second solo album, Man Made Lakes, backed by the band (his brother, Distance Bullock on percussion and cello, multi-instrumentalist Shea Alain, and bassist Scott Munro) that would ultimately begin performing with him as Reuben and the Dark (though the band has since gone through a number of incarnations).
It was that album that first caught the attention of Mairead Nash, manager of the U.K. indie rock band Florence and the Machine. Nash was in Mexico, and happened into a coffee shop where one of Bullock’s friends was working. “He was playing my CD at the time,” Bullock explains, “and she liked the song she heard so she asked about it.”
Through that chance encounter, Bullock ended up connecting with Chris Hayden, Florence and the Machine’s drummer. The pair played a number of “really funny club shows” in Mexico as duo and forged a strong bond. Not long after, Bullock travelled to London, where he and Hayden began working on songs that would eventually end up on Funeral Sky, which Hayden produced with contributions from professional songwriter Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Nicki Minaj) and Jim Abiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele). The album, the first under the moniker Reuben and the Dark, was released in May 2014 on the Arts & Crafts label.
And while it has been a rapid trajectory, Bullock is clear that he’s not taking anything for granted. “I try to be grateful all the time,” he says of the journey so far. Now 30, he admits that he still finds it a little surreal to play shows where the audience sings his own lyrics back to him. “Every time it happens, I have a hard time getting through the song without cracking a smile, especially if I make eye contact with someone singing in the audience,” he laughs. “Part of me just wants to go out there and give them a hug.”
“The songs have to move you, so they can move someone else.”
Bullock, whose music appeared in a 2015 Travel Alberta commercial, as well as in an episode of the Netflix series Between, says he also makes a point of meeting his fans after performances. “It’s what really keeps me going,” he says. “Being a touring musician is a tiring existence, especially if you don’t have those rewards. So I feel super lucky to have the kind of feedback we get.”
But as challenging of life on the road can be, it is certainly eased by the fact that Bullock’s wife, Kaelen Ohm, is also a member of his band, playing guitar, keyboards, and singing. Indeed, he credits Ohm with helping him mentally prepare for performing in front of larger and larger audiences, like the crowd he encountered recently at Toronto’s Massey Hall while supporting Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy on his North American tour.
“I have adopted a new philosophy that my wife shared with me, which is to assume that people love you before you’ve been given a reason to think otherwise,” says Bullock. “You assume an audience wants to listen to you. I used to step out and assume that I have to prove myself with my songs. Now I walk out onto the stage and think people want to listen and I want to sing.”
It’s an approach that seems to be working. While his latest single, “Heart in Two.” released for his most recent tour, will surely net him even more fans (Funeral Sky was listed on now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 campaign playlist), Bullock, who recently relocated temporarily to Toronto to expand his network, remains focused on being present for his audiences, and focused on honing his craft as a writer.
“I’m really trying to figure out how to write the songs that I’m supposed to write,” Bullock says thoughtfully, as he prepares for a last-minute trip to Mexico in search of a well-deserved rest. “Because I know what I really want to do – it’s the one thing I have figured out. It’s right in front of me. It’s a guitar in my hand.”
No matter what comes next, Bullock says he’ll continue writing songs that feel personally meaningful and that also resonate with other people. “The songs have to move you, so they can move someone else,” he says simply. “My goal right now is to really commit to this and see it through. The whole thing has been such a gift.”