Preparing to tour his debut album, the next big thing in pop talks Springsteen, sticking to his guns and the illness that nearly killed him
Sam Fender has come home. Not for long – he is off on tour imminently, in support of his recent number one album, Hypersonic Missiles. But right now, here he is, in a café in his home town of North Shields, taking refuge at a corner table, and speaking with all the coiled intensity of one whose life has undergone a radical transformation and is still trying to make sense of it.
“I can’t go anywhere round here,” he says. “It’s insane: the whole town recognises me, everyone wants selfies. People are proud of me, so that’s nice. There are about 18,000 people here, so all I have to do is 18,000 selfies, then it’ll calm down some.”
But the 25-year-old considers a lot of today’s earnest singer-songwriter types to be privately educated nice boys who have only been able to invest the necessary time in pursuit of pop stardom thanks to their parents’ benevolence and bank balances. Fender had none of that.
“I’m a normal guy, I speak in layman’s terms, and people relate to that, I think.” He adds that his trajectory is now inspiring many. “It proves that you don’t have to be rich to make it, proof that you can still do this organically.”
He spent years on the pub circuit before landing a deal, and when that deal did come, he refused to collaborate with co-writers – as is the norm for many of today’s singers – and wrote his own songs by himself. He also got an old friend, Bramwell Bronte, to produce them, rather than hire, say, Mark Ronson, a handsome quiff with clout.
“A lot of these kids these days, they don’t write their own songs. Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with that,” he says, “some of the best songs in the world are co-written, but I’m proud to say that I’ve done all this by myself. And Bramwell, he was technically a nobody, because nobody had heard of him, but now he’s produced my album, and it’s sold well, so…” He laughs. “Got to stick to your guns, man.”
‘Listening to Springsteen helped me find my own voice’
Fender grew up in North Shields, the coastal town eight miles outside Newcastle, with his parents before they separated, and then with his mother alone. He liked the place, but always craved more. It was his older brother who one day introduced him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, and after that nothing was ever quite the same again.
“I’d not heard anything like him before,” Fender says. “I loved the theatricality of it all, how dramatic he was. I really connected to the lyrics, all these songs about wanting to escape a rundown seaside town. That resonated. After school, a lot of my mates got jobs, settled down. I didn’t want that for myself, and listening to Springsteen helped me find my own voice.”
He started to write songs in thrall to his musical hero, but reimagined them to fit his frame of reference. One early song, “Poundshop Kardashians”, took to task those who seek shallow fame via reality TV shows such as Geordie Shore, while a later one, “Dead Boys”, focused on high suicide rates among young males in the North of England. This track would later see him interviewed on Channel 4 News, Fender suddenly a spokesman on the topic. “It’s not as if I’m an expert,” he’s quick to point out. “I just write what I see.”
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Throughout much of Hypersonic Missiles, you get the sense of a young man with a tight “v” stamped permanently on his brow. His songs are full of yearning and serious earnestness.
They frequently drip with Springsteen-isms, and not just in the occasional parping saxophone. “Tonight, these streets are heaving with young hearts on the chase”, he sings on “You’re Not the Only One”.
The overall effect is as compelling as it is thrilling, and unusually widescreen for a debut. He sounds like he was born to do this, but for a while during his teens, Fender thought he might become an actor. He had the looks, and the Top Man pout proved malleable. “I don’t know about you,” he says, “but a lot of the time I don’t want to be me, so I always liked the escapism that acting offered.”
Though he went on to land a few parts – on TV shows like Vera and CBBC series Wolfblood – he grew exasperated by spending money he didn’t have on London-bound train tickets in order to attend auditions for roles for which, as he was all too frequently told upon arrival, he was either too old, too tall, or somehow else not quite right. So he gave it up, and concentrated on music. “I could play tapas bars round here for £150 a pop – a big earner for us at the time,” he points out.
He was spotted by his manager when he was 18. This surprised him, “because back then I was shite”. Nevertheless, he landed support slots on the tours of other hopeful newcomers: George Ezra, Catfish and the Bottlemen and Hozier.
“They all went on to explode, while I didn’t. I was chewing my face off in frustration, I was that desperate to make it like they had, to write pop songs because I thought people might like them. Then I realised that if I’m going to fail, then I may as well fail on my own terms, with songs I really believed in.”
Hypersonic Missiles, then, is the result of Fender’s tunnel vision. Earlier this year, he won the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits, and in September his debut album went straight in at number one. His winter UK tour has mostly sold out. “This is all beyond dream territory for me,” he admits.
A few years ago, the singer was struck down by a severe illness that could have killed him. While he has previously brought this to public attention, he suggests he isn’t yet ready to discuss its details.
‘I’m going through a phase of abstinence right now’
“Look, I’m not going to capitalise on what happened, because there’s a guilt in being a survivor. I just know that I’m lucky that I’m still here, that I’m still alive, and that I’ve got good prospects. There are people who’ve gone through a hell of a lot worse.”
He sounds rattled as he says this, but then it’s been some time since Sam Fender has had anything like equilibrium. He has had a thrilling year, clearly, but it has also unsettled him.
“I’m going through a phase of abstinence right now,” he confides. “I have to cut things out so I can keep my head straight, because there have already been so many highs and lows, and I don’t need chemicals to make things any worse. I’m just trying to take it all in. And I’ve not taken anything in yet.”