On the Metro ride from the city to the sea, ghosts emerge in the distance. Relics of a lost industry pepper the horizon as the urban landscape makes way for rural and then slowly back again. Giant cranes, once responsible for building some of the largest ships in the world, lie dormant and rusting under constant assault from the North Sea air. The sea looms into sight as the Tyne runs its course, one lonely fishing boat returning to the shore with its catch. Walking through North Shields to meet our cover star early one Saturday morning, the town is springing to life. These are the streets, the estates, the pubs and bars that have added so much texture and colour to ‘Hypersonic Missiles’. This is Sam’s town.
These have been strangely tense times for Sam Fender recently. A series of festival cancellations in the early part of summer rang alarm bells, but this week has brought good news. The threat of serious and permanent damage to his vocal cords appears to have subsided, and recovery is well underway. Armed constantly with a kazoo to aid rehabilitation, and now under a strict new diet (lots of avocados, no beer, two glasses of red wine max), the race is on to get gig-fit for a busy summer. Looking good for the enforced health kick, Sam admits that the recent news has lifted him out of some real moments of despair, though nerves about the impending reaction to his debut album still linger.
Much of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is torn from the pages of life in North Shields, familiar moments of high drama captured and frozen in time by a songwriter with a keen eye (and ear) for the tiny detail. The town itself, sitting at the mouth of the Tyne, is like hundreds of other seaside spots up and down the country. It’s the sort of town where, to quote his track ‘Leave Fast’, you either do just that or stay forever.
“I suppose it’s just a blue-collar town, same as most coastal areas,” explains Sam of the place he’s lived his whole life. “There’s a mad juxtaposition between the Shields estates and Tynemouth, which is this tiny blue Tory section, posh and outrageously beautiful. We’ve got some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, really idyllic, but then you’ve got the dead bars and clubs of places like Whitley Bay. It was like the hot place to go, it used to be heaving, and now nobody fucking goes there. It’s all died out.”
With his father a player in the local music club scene in the 1970s, it might seem like no surprise that Sam followed in his footsteps. But it was one musical introduction in particular that first lit the fire that still burns today, a first encounter with someone who he needs no excuse to rave about at length.
“My brother used to drive me down to Manchester for auditions and stuff when I was 15,” begins Sam. “One day I was in the car, and he asked me if I’d heard of Bruce Springsteen. I was like, ‘who?’ So he put on ‘Born To Run’, and it was like baaaam bam-bam-bam-bam, and I just couldn’t stop fucking listening. I just kept putting it back on; I hammered it. It was the best song I’d ever heard in my life, and it probably still is. He was my age when he wrote that, living on the beach in this tiny little house with a piano in.”
It began a love affair that remains to this day. “I love him; I just love him. All of his stories, all of the characters, you somehow feel like you can be them, even the crazy ones.”
Like all great music, it brought comfort and solace in the darkest periods of life, tracks like ‘Meeting Across The River’ making him feel like he wasn’t alone. “There was a time in my life when my mum was skint, and we were struggling to pay for rent. It was dark, she was very depressed, and I was only 17. There were times then when I was thinking, what the fuck do I do? And I contemplated doing some bad things to try and get a lot more money. Just because I was sick of living like that, and seeing my mum like that.”
His affinity with classic blue-collar rock still holds true. “I’m not from New Jersey or anything, but all of the imagery of the seaside town obviously rings true around here. Any seaside town really, I feel like a lot of them are rundown because a lot of the attractions are gone.”
Not a natural writer at first, Sam’s storytelling craft was honed in a surprising fashion. “I always had the imagination; I just didn’t know what to do with it. When I was a kid, I was always creating my own Star Wars stories in my head. Fan fiction essentially, but I’d be playing in my house on my own. I’d be swinging this lightsaber around, creating all these mad Jedi’s in my head,” he laughs. “All their backstories, who their master was and everything. Total. Little. Dork.
“I did the same with Lord of the Rings; I’d draw all the maps and play games with my mates. I got horrendously bullied for it, but it was so worth it. I remember playing with my lightsaber once, and some kids from our school came round the corner, I chucked it under a car and was like ‘Hiya! Nothing going on here!’ As soon as they were gone, I was like, right, get my lightsaber back out. Swoosh.”
With the help of teachers, the writing ability that is so impressive now slowly came to the fore though there is still a sense of Sam not quite believing it. “It still took me a while to get it. And I’m still not a great writer in the ‘classic’ sense; if I sat an English exam today, I’d probably fail it. I’m probably not a good writer, really.”
The evidence says otherwise. Amongst a collection of keenly-observed vignettes and short stories, ‘The Borders’ is simply sensational in its themes of domestic violence and what follows from it. Breathtaking in its matter-of-fact description of moments of extreme violence, it marks Sam out as a first-rate story-teller and will likely define him and his unique voice for years to come. Former singles ‘Dead Boys’ and ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ discuss male suicide and violence in the Middle East, ‘Two People’ paints a startlingly eloquent picture of love gone wrong in a small town, while ‘You’re Not The Only One’ paints a candid picture of a close friend suffering from mental health issues following tragedies in his personal life.
“The first time I met him, I asked him what he liked doing, and he said ‘I just like setting to fire to things’, and I said ‘cool’. That’s where we started, I hit it off with him then at an early age, and we’ve been best mates since,” reminisces Sam with a smile before explaining how some of the personal traumas have affected him. “He’s one of those people who doesn’t fucking talk until it’s a bit too late, he just explodes. So that song is about him coming out of that stage.”
There is no denying that some songs have struck a little too close to the bone, however. There is a noticeable sadness when he talks about the reaction that ‘Poundshop Kardashian’ received in some quarters, a track that was described variously as vile or misogynistic.
“I didn’t want it to be interpreted like it was by a lot of people, so I guess that goes to show that maybe I should have… you can sit and mull over things all day. I could have gone back and revised the lyrics to make it not…” His voice trails away, but it’s clear that what transpired was not what he intended. “I was never that sure about it as a song anyway; it was one of those where I wrote it, and the label said we’ll put it on an EP.
“It’s weird though because it became a crowd favourite. It’s not one of my favourite songs by a long stretch, and now I think it’ll probably just slip away. I’ll probably never play it again.”
This time around, his nervousness now rests on one track in particular, ‘White Privilege’, written as a series of characters. Provocatively jumping into Brexit, it takes aim at all sides with mention of smug liberal arrogance, right-wing bigots, echo chamber social media and the mainstream media feeding lies to the public. In short, it has the potential to offend everybody, and he knows it.
“I am nervous because it is provocative. But writing it as a character gives me the freedom to do that.” Diving straight in, he continues. “It’s not just that you’ve got idiots like Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins stirring up crap and making people think that that’s the problem with the country, blaming immigrants. If you tell people enough times that immigrants are stealing their jobs, then it’s gonna become true [in their minds]. But there’s also this real contempt for people who have a different opinion, some real condescending bastards out there on the left too.”
Warming to his theme, he continues. “Even if some people believe in Robinson, I don’t call them a fucking idiot or a racist prick. I’ll ask them, why? Ask them, have a conversation with them. There’s this arrogance sometimes – imagine if you genuinely believed in him, you genuinely believe immigrants are stealing your job, and then imagine someone coming over and saying you’re a fucking racist because of that. It should all just be about trying to understand peoples’ concerns, and a lot of left-wing people don’t, they just immediately call people thick. They might be clearly ignorant, they might be thick, but that doesn’t give people the right to call them it. Stuff like that is naturally pushing working class people to the right.”
Shaking his head at the needlessness of it all, he finishes simply. “I think there are a lot of people that are more interested in fighting against people, instead of redirecting it, being smug because they’re more highly educated.”
Dismissing any idea of being seen as a figurehead or spokesman for a generation, he admits to finding the whole online world unsavoury and anxiety-inducing these days. “Everyone reads everything in black and white; it’s like [The 1975’s] Matt Healy says. ‘Like context in a modern debate, I just took it out’. That is the truth; there is no context anymore. People just jump on a bandwagon, whatever they think it is or what they immediately see, that’s what it is.
“Everybody’s offended, nit-picking all the time. You’ve got people arguing for non-binary gender rights, which I’m all for, and then you’ve got people [Piers Morgan, Twitter fans] saying that Manchester should be called Personchester? Really abstract, silly arguments.”
Admitting to being more guarded in interviews than when he started out, he states: “Definitely, but that comes with the territory, and learning the job. I came into this a naive kid and made a few mistakes along the way.”
As a pop-slash-rock star from the north, Sam has noticed a difference in how he is treated and described in the media. “Everyone likes to play that ‘poor working class boy’ thing, but for the first 14 years of my life when my parents were together, we were pretty cushty. Probably the last ten years you could consider me that, we were on the breadline for those years. I sometimes cringe when people say I’m working class though.”
Patronised for his accent, he points out that people from Newcastle are regularly ridiculed. “I am able to laugh at it, but it is strange. People take the piss out of the Geordie accent all of the time. At the BRITs, Jack Whitehall came in and obviously didn’t know what I’d said so just went ‘Why aye man!’ I get it, but it instantly makes you look like some indecipherable bumbling idiot, do you know what I mean? I actually really like him, but a lot of people say that.
“I guess it’s probably been accentuated because Geordies are everywhere on reality TV. Geordie Shore probably put Geordies on the map again, even if it is in a slightly negative way at times, so when I come around, and I’m doing my music, people are like ‘oh he’s one of them crazy sounding mad bastards from the north east’.”
Thinking about it further, Sam expands. “There’s probably more of a focus on your class if you’re northern. But if you’re a working-class kid growing up in London, I think it must be harder. My cousin lives in Camden, and it’s tough, he’d been mugged three times by the time he was 13. That’s fucking mental.
“In Newcastle, I’ve been clouted, I’ve had my head kicked in and had unlucky things happen to me, but probably very normal things to happen to a kid anywhere. In a normal place, there are dickheads, and you will be bullied by some of them, it’s all part of life. But being mugged three times by the time you’re 13 is mental.”
It’s just not socially that it comes to play a part, as Sam has also noticed a difference in music opportunities too. “In London, there’s probably music projects and things, a million different colleges or art colleges. Up here, there’s fuck all for the music. Like, fuck all. My brother’s busker nights were the span of my musical career through all of my teenage life. I was staring out to sea and wondering what there was over there.”
Eventually, the big noise from the north was heard in London, where labels scurried to sign him up in a manner that ‘That Sound’ describes scathingly as ‘loaded vampires’ buttering Sam up. “That was the industry, before I got signed. We were getting our fucking heads chewed off all the time, every night. You can tell they’re on gear, chewing your ears off. Desperate to get that next three-year contract signed, desperate to keep their jobs essentially.”
Back home, the green-eyed beast has also raised its head, but Sam laughs it off. “Everyone knew who I was anyway because I was a lad about town!” Generally, though, fame hasn’t changed things at home too much. “I fucking love it. It’s my place. I used to work down in a pub down there,” he smiles as he points down the hill. “Everybody in there still treats me like Sam. They still call me names, slap me with a newspaper, and they’ll always do that. It’s always gonna be my town, and it’s always gonna be my people.”
Talk turns to the future. Surprisingly, Sam is still not entirely happy with his debut. “I think there was a lot of looking out and pointing at things [on it], being a bit aggressive. Which is fine, I wrote it when I was 19-20, so you’re gonna have a bit of teenage angst in it. It’s naive, and that’s the beauty of it. The second one is going to be much grander, more like ‘The Borders’.”
Laughing, he clarifies. “No, I genuinely think it’s alright. It’s okay. It’s got a couple of stinkers on it, for me.” Whenever he says this, any bandmate in his vicinity shakes their head. “‘Call Me Lover’, it was originally super dark, but the label didn’t like it. They were like, nah, you’ve lost the pop song. I thought my mix was much better, but they said no.”
Playing the original mix, it’s hard to disagree with Sam, the driving mix fitting in more naturally with the heartland rock found elsewhere on ‘Hypersonic Missiles’. But quibbles aside, is the battle between Sam and Lewis Capaldi at the BRIT Awards this year set to continue into 2020? “Hahaha, fuck knows! I’m not expecting to win anything next time.”
Even as a BRITs winner, Sam occupies a fairly unique place in music but is honest about where he fits in. “I think I’ve been shoehorned into the pop world, and they’ll keep me there as long as it gets them more record sales,” he smiles. “But whatever, it’s an alright place to be. I get to write songs that I believe in. Hipsters automatically assume if you’re on Radio 1, then you must be shit. It’s like people are too scared to put their stamp on you or stand by you, or too scared to say you’re mint as they’re waiting for someone like Pitchfork to say I’m cool. They need to see four stars before they can buy it. But I’m here, pushing songs about mental health or male suicide, and it gets played on Radio 1 to millions of people, and that’s a triumph. I’m lucky in that I’m mainstream without having to act like it.”
Proud of what it means getting these messages out, he continues. “It’s getting played to people who don’t have time to find music because they’re too busy. The single mothers and stuff like that, real people. These people aren’t wearing woolly hats and sitting outside St Martins University, smoking a rollie and listening to Pitchfork’s Top 100 Music Playlist. Because they don’t have time, they’ve got kids to raise, jobs to go to. So they get spoon-fed Ed Sheeran, and now they’re getting spoon-fed ‘Dead Boys’ too and maybe that’s a good thing?”
Pop beef fans can stand down, there’s nothing to see here, as that isn’t his intention with the Ginger Prince. “There’s nothing wrong with Ed, and there’s nothing wrong with easy-listening pop music. If it’s making people happy, then that’s fucking great. He’s just too successful, and I’m never gonna get a Number 1 as long as he exists!” he laughs. “Goddamn you, Ed! But seriously, it’s a good thing, and I probably do straddle that line between pop and indie. But fuck me, so did Arctic Monkeys! Everybody did. People are like, oh my god, guitar music on Radio 1, what the fuck’s going wrong? It’s like, were you not around eight years ago?”
Like most supposed ‘overnight’ sensations, there were many years of gigging and gut-busting to get here, but now he has, fame has seemed to come quicker than expected. “I never wanted to be niche and cool; I just wanted to write songs I could believe in. And I want to play them to as many people as I can.”
Good job too, as ticket sales in his home town on the first day alone equated to a staggering 10% of the population of Newcastle paying their hard-earned cash to watch him this year. “It’s absolutely daft. We thought it’d be a couple of years to get here, maybe three. It’s great; it’s nuts, it’s exciting. I am so scared,” he laughs. Nervous too about the album reaction, he is similarly honest. “I always go, ‘I don’t give a fuck what people say’, but I do. I act like I don’t give a fuck, but I do. I just want it just to be received well. I’m like any artist, I want to be liked, and I want to be seen as relatively credible. I want to be like one of my heroes.”
After our interview, we walk with Sam round North Shields as he introduces us to the local sights and environment that have shaped his world. Everywhere we go, he is asked the same questions with concern etched on the faces of those asking. “How are you doing? How’s the voice?” He is told that by one pub punter that he must be famous now, as he was playing in Next. There is genuine warmth, which turns into hilarious double takes and hushed conversations from starstruck onlookers as we venture up the coast to sample his favourite ice cream parlour (official Dork rating – 5-star, total banger). Sam is in his element throughout, a man at ease with the world.
“Leave fast or stay forever?” he asks rhetorically at one point. “I chose to stay.” And why not. It’s his town, after all.
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Sam Fender’s debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is out 13th September.
Words: Jamie MacMillan