It’s almost over before it’s begun for me and Sam Fender, when I mistakenly refer to his North Shields home town as South Shields. The singer-guitarist does not care to be associated with the other side of the river, the birthplace of 2009 X Factor winner Joe McElderry and half of Little Mix, thanks very much.
North Shields, the fishing port where the 23-year-old still lives on a council estate with his mother, boasts a great beach, decent surfing and a characterful old pub, the Low Lights Tavern, where he was working and occasionally performing when Brit Award-winning singer-songwriter Ben Howard’s manager happened to walk in and ask for his number. He’s clearly very proud of the town, though you might not know it from his songs.
Leave Fast tells of broken fridges, torn up sofas and boy racers, and urges escape over a mournful guitar strum. Friday Fighting has the kind of thumping beat and chugging guitars that tends to excite packs of lads at chucking out time, but you can tell Fender disapproves from his use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” in the lyrics. Dead Boys, which looks like his breakthrough hit, having been performed on Later… With Jools Holland earlier this month and named Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s Hottest Record in the World, is a powerful howl of disbelief at the spread of suicide among young men. It was prompted by the deaths of two of his friends, and its intense video won’t be forgotten quickly. There’s a link to CALM, the suicide prevention charity, on the YouTube page.
“The song’s not an answer. It’s written purely from the perspective of a kid from the north-east who’s dealing with these things. The main emotion of it is the abject shock of losing someone and not seeing it coming,” he explains. “I didn’t write it with an agenda or to capitalise on a tragedy, and I’m not ever gonna say my music’s gonna change the world, but if it does reach out to somebody who’s in that position and helps to turn them around, then my job is done.”
In person Fender is an upbeat, energetic guy, happy with his roots and suspicious of musicians who relocate to London in search of success. We meet on the Southbank, but he’s only here for 24 hours to talk to me and be interviewed on Radio 1, then it’s straight back on the train.
“I feel like there’s still this very Dick Whittington idea of London, that the streets are paved with gold, and you’ll come down and make your fortune. You can do so much more with your money up there,” he tells me. With the cash from his major label record deal, signed four months ago after a bidding war, and an inevitable sponsorship deal with Fender guitars, he’s been able to set up his own recording studio back home. “If this all goes wrong I can stay in music and use that studio to do endless amounts of work.”
He doesn’t need to worry about things going wrong just yet anyway. His year began with a place on the longlist for the BBC’s Sound of 2018 poll, named a next big thing at a time when he had only made four songs public. Heavy gigging, including support slots with George Ezra and Catfish and the Bottlemen, has taken him up to this month, when he’ll release his debut EP, also called Dead Boys. He’s just sold out three nights on the trot at south London’s 320-capacity Omeara venue and announced a new show for 1700 at Electric Brixton for February.
“It’s definitely getting bigger, which is exciting and terrifying in equal measure,” he says. Asked what he was hoping for when he first started playing in bands at age 16, he replies: “Somewhere along the lines of what’s going on right now. Just the ability to live a life doing this as my sole job, which I now do.”
Bruce Springsteen is his musical idol, which you can hear in his strident guitar work and ability to distill small town grit and make poetry. The last time he saw The Boss in concert, he cried. It’s too early for him to envisage himself as an arena filler too, but the current day job certainly beats the alternatives.
After his A-levels were, as he puts it, “completely butchered”, he took a job in a call centre. Apparently there are lots of call centres round his way because people think the Geordie accent sounds friendly. “Even when a Geordie is trying to be nasty, it doesn’t sound that threatening.” But he was cold-calling people trying to flog a dodgy scheme to do with reclaiming liquidated debts, and it didn’t sit right, so he took the job in the pub instead.
He watched his dad coming home exhausted from teaching and didn’t fancy that either. Music was always the real plan. “I decided when I was 13 that it was what I wanted to do, and by the time I was 16 it was definitely what I was gonna do,” he says. “I knew it was a pretty unrealistic thing to aim for but I also knew I definitely wasn’t gonna be happy doing any of the other options I had lined up. I’d rather fail doing something that I want to do than succeed at something I hate.”
Songwriting is where all his energy went. “I’m relentless when it comes to writing and recording,” he says, revealing that he’s currently trying to whittle 17 songs down for a debut album pencilled in for next summer. His immediate surroundings have provided all the inspiration required, from the “plastic Action men and Poundshop Kardashians” who populate one new song to the gruesome zombies of Spice, which is about the once-legal synthetic cannabis that many are calling to be reclassified as a Class A drug.
But while some aspects of growing up where he did have been grim, and he meant the words of Leave Fast when he wrote them, there’s hope now too. “I’ve chronicled a time when I was 17, 18, utterly terrified that you’re not gonna get anywhere with whatever you want to do. It’s that fear and claustrophobia that I think comes to most people living in small towns at some point. But I am lucky, because I just knew that music was my thing.”
From unglamorous beginnings, he’s found his calling. Now the rest of the country, north and south, can hear that his journey has been worth it.
The Dead Boys EP is released on Nov 23 on Polydor. Sam Fender plays Nov 12-14, Omeara, SE1 (omearalondon.com) and Feb 28, Electric Brixton, SW2. electricbrixton.uk.com