Fending off the demons

Funny and self-deprecating, Sam Fender doesn’t take himself too seriously. But the North East singer is deadly serious about his music and its power

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On 5 November 2018, one month before he was crowned Brits Critics’ Choice winner, Sam Fender appeared on Nihal Arthanayake’s show on BBC 5 Live to perform his breakthrough single Dead Boys, a stirring Jeff Buckley-esque song he’d written about a close friend who had taken his own life.

In the accompanying interview, Fender spoke movingly with Arthanayake about male suicide and the stigma surrounding mental health. Unbeknown to the two men, among those listening was a father of two, mired in the deep fog of depression and determined to kill himself. The song and conversation had a profound effect on him and in an email he sent to the DJ a few days later the listener credited Fender with pulling him “back from the brink of oblivion”, sparing “deep despair and grief to my young family”.

“That’s the best thing that has ever come out of my music,” says the visibly moved singer, recalling the incident. “That’s the biggest accolade I have ever had. I’d literally kick the Brit award into the sea if I could have that moment again. No gig or show or record sale will ever amount to the way that I felt the day I was told that.”

“We had little money and it was tough. So when I wrote songs I was desperate. You can hear it.”

A few months later, Fender met the anonymous listener at one of his gigs and heard directly how he’d help save his life. “I’m never going to over-estimate the clout of my job,” reflects the 25 year old, sat backstage at intimate Manchester music venue Gorilla, where he’ll later perform to a vociferous sold-out crowd. “I’m an entertainer. I’m not a revolutionary. I’m not politically astute enough or economically clever enough to go out and change the world and get everyone up in arms to take on the Tories. But when you’ve written a song that connects with people on such a level that it makes them turn a car around and go ‘I’m not going to kill myself today’, that’s wonderful. It restores my faith that my job isn’t completely soulless and vacuous.”

In today’s chart-dominated era of beige boy-next-door everymen clutching acoustic guitars, Fender stands apart like a Remainer at a Jacob Rees-Mogg tea party. Born and raised in North Shields, he’s been writing and performing his own songs since he was 13, although it’s only in the last few years that people outside his local area started paying attention.

Legend has it that he was discovered when Ben Howard’s manager walked into the local pub where he was working, the Low Lights Tavern, and took his number after Fender played him some of his own songs. A succession of critically acclaimed singles followed, fusing vaulting indie rock choruses with evocative kitchen-sink lyrics about working-class life, toxic masculinity, faceless politicians and social media addiction.

December’s Brits Critics’ Choice award – a prize previously won by Adele, Sam Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man no less – catapulted his career skywards. This week sees the release of Fender’s debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, a rousing, assured and, at times, brilliant work that channels the artist’s love of Bruce Springsteen, Oasis and Jeff Buckley into 13 evocative tunes born of a youthful desire to escape his own surroundings.

“I was desperate to do well. I fucked my A levels up. I was working in a pub. I had no trade or job prospects. I was on benefits and I was living in a flat with my mother, who wasn’t really working and was getting hounded by the DWP to go back to work. We had little money and it was tough. So when I wrote songs I was desperate. You can hear it.”

He professes to initially being nervous about releasing Dead Boys “because I didn’t want to be seen as capitalising on a tragedy”, but feels vindicated by the help it’s given people. “I did 200 gigs last year and it’s hard getting up onstage every night and singing the same songs. But it would be a lot harder getting up every night and singing something that doesn’t mean anything to you.”

Fender’s impassioned heart-on-sleeve songs are testament to how seriously he takes his music career, even if he doesn’t take himself particularly seriously. Far from being a self-pitying tortured artist, in person he’s funny, self-deprecating and entertainingly sweary company, in the habit of making catty asides about his chart peers and joking that his ultimate dream is to have two bulldogs called Mince and Dumplings, named after his favourite meal.

“I keep getting in trouble because I keep mouthing off and being an idiot. In print it never looks funny,” he says after one cutting remark about an A-list pop star that he immediately retracts.

He’s also keen to avoid being pigeon-holed as a poor, working-class northerner and voluntarily points out that the early years of his life were “relatively lower middle class” compared with his adolescence. “My mum was a nurse and my dad was an electrician and we lived in a terraced house in the posh end of Shields. Then my parents divorced and I moved in with my mum into a flat on a council estate. It got to the point where we were both on benefits and struggling to pay the rent. I was suddenly in this world where I just drank and smoked tabs all day. It was like a fall from grace.”

He draws a comparison between the light and shade of his upbringing with that of his hometown. “Shields is very much a juxtaposed place. On the one hand, a guy walks into a taxi rank with a machete through his face and a bag full of dead kittens. And then on the other hand, you’ve got this beautiful serene coastline.”

Nodding to Springsteen’s native New Jersey, he says the nearby seaside town of Whitley Bay is the “Geordie Asbury Park. It was amazing back in the 1940s and now it’s just full of rundown amusements and a bit shit.”

The suicide of an unnamed woman who he was close to as a young teen also had a profound impact on his formative years. “Me and my mum were the ones who discovered her. I was really heartbroken about that. Until then only grandparents and hamsters had died. Suddenly mortality became real. Life and death became concrete and no one is safe. It’s hard to wrap your head around people taking their own life at 13.”

A local children’s acting group run by Anne Orwin (Lou in Byker Grove) gave him a place of refuge and escape when he needed it most. “I loved it. It was like organised playing,” he enthusiastically recalls in his rich North Shields accent. “I was always a very imaginative young child but, because of my mum and dad’s divorce, I felt let down and angry. Annie saw that and taught me how to harness sadness and anger and turn it into art. I’m eternally grateful to her because I’ve exercised that ability in my music.”

Without it he believes he would have quickly gone off the rails, like so many people he grew up with. “Music is my salvation. It’s the thing that’s kept me on the straight and narrow,” he says, describing his own past problems with alcohol dependency and noting that “alcoholism in this country is seen as normal. No one bats an eyelid.”

For his part, Fender says that he no longer drinks on tour and wouldn’t hesitate to make his bandmates abstain if alcohol started to affect their performance. “If you stay up till four in the morning getting pissed and then make a mistake the next day, I’m going to blame the booze and I’m going to stop you from drinking. You’ve got to be a pro,” he states, showing some of the steely resolve that’s fuelled his rise. “If it goes tits up and it’s my fault, I can deal with that.
But if it’s anybody else’s fault, I’m not very forgiving.”

Looking back on the past 18 months, he says that he hasn’t had time to process all that’s happened to him. “If I stop and think about it I’ll lose my mind. I’ve just got to keep my eye on the ball for another six months and then I’ve got a month off. I’m going to get mortal drunk for a month straight, put on two stone and come back looking like Rag’n’Bone Man,” he vows, feigning indignation at his inability to stop having a pop at chart rivals. “Fuck’s sake,” he says with a mischievous smile. “I cannae stop.”

Hypersonic Missiles is out on 13 Sept on Polydor Records. Sam Fender plays Manchester Academy, 22 Nov, Liverpool Guild of Students, 23 Nov, O2 Academy Leeds, 28 Nov, and O2 Academy Sheffield, 19 Dec

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