“You can see the ghost of Thatcherism over there…” says Sam Fender, pointing across the water to a vacant shipyard, where once the shipbuilding industry was so healthy that vessels towered higher than the rows of houses on the shore. We’re on the waterfront in North Shields, just outside Newcastle, and our photographer is snapping away for Sam’s first NME cover shoot.
The singer-songwriter stares stonily into the lens as wafts of seaweed and fishing trawlers are carried by the northern coastal breeze. He’s already been stopped for a few pictures with fans, but remains eager to point out the impact that Tory leadership has had on his working-class town over the last few decades. “It’s been closed since the ’80s, from the ghost wasteland of the shipyards. You’ve got all the scars of Thatcherism from The Tyne all over to the pit villages in Durham.”
It’s as good an introduction as any to the outspoken musician, whose 2019 debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was a record for his sleepy hometown to be proud of – tackling themes that range from male suicide (the heartbreaking ‘Dead Boys’) to world tensions (and the “kids in Gaza” he eulogised on its soaring title track). He set weighty topics against blisteringly well-executed Americana with the fist-in-the-air euphoria of Bruce Springsteen’s colossal choruses and sax solos. Much like his hero, Sam smartly weaves his own political standpoint and personal circumstance into gripping anthems of a generation, which earned him the ‘Geordie Springsteen’ tag.
“I can’t exactly bat off those comparisons, can I?” he says back in his cosy recording studio nearby. “At the same time, I don’t feel worthy of that tag. The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘That’s fucking sick’, but you don’t want to be riding off the coattails of The Boss for the rest of your life. I can write my own songs, they’re different and my voice doesn’t sound anything like Springsteen’s. I don’t have his growl; I’m a little fairy when I sing.”
He may have toned down the Springsteen vibes slightly on his highly anticipated second album ‘Seventeen Going Under’, due later this year, but there are still plenty of chest-pounding anthems capable of making your hairs stand on end: “I much prefer Americana to the music we have in our country at the moment. I love the leftfield indie stuff like Fontaines D.C, Squid and Black Midi, but I love a chorus and melodic songs. I think the American alternative scene has that down with Pinegrove, Big Thief, The War On Drugs.”
‘Hypersonic Missiles’ thrummed with a small town frustration almost that every suburban teenager could surely relate to. This was most notable on ‘Leave Fast’, where he sang about the “boarded up windows on the promenade / The shells of old nightclubs” and “intoxicated people battling on the regular in a lazy Low Lights bar”, a reference to his beloved local. But album two sees him fully embrace North Shields, an ever-present backdrop to cherished memories and harrowing life events of his youth and surroundings.
It’s no coincidence that the 27-year-old has turned inwards and penned a record about his hometown while being stuck at home like the rest of the country: “I didn’t have anything to point at and I didn’t want to talk about the pandemic because nobody wants that – I never want to hear about it again. It was such a stagnant time that I had to go inwards and find something, because I was so uninspired by the lifetime we we’re living in.
“I’ve made my coming-of-age record and that was important for me – as I get older, these stories keep appearing; I’ve got so much to talk about. I wrote about growing up here. It’s about mental health and how things that happen as a child impact your self-esteem in later life. On the first record, I was pointing at stuff angrily, but the further I’ve gotten into my 20s, the more I’ve realised how little I know about anything. When you hit 25, you’re like: ‘I’m fucking clueless! I know nothing about the world.’ It was a humbling experience, growing up.”
Early last year, before the pandemic hit, Sam was set to jet off to New York pre-pandemic to record in the city’s infamous Electric Lady studios founded by Jimi Hendrix. “Looking back, I’m thankful that it happened,” he says. “If I went off to New York and did my second album there… it wouldn’t have been the same record. I will go and do the third one in NYC, come hell or high water – I’m fucking out of here!
“The forced return home really informed the direction [of the record]. I was on the crest of this insane wave; we’d sold out 84,000 tickets for the [‘Hypersonic Missiles] arena tour that we still haven’t played yet. I’m still waiting to hear when it’s going to be rescheduled. It’s incredibly frustrating; I’ve got loads of frustrated fans. That was all cancelled on the day of the lockdown. I thought it was only going to be a couple of months and that it would be another swine flu thing, but fool me – I was stuck in the house like everybody else.”
It’s not the first setback that Sam has dealt with in his career. In the summer of 2019, he was ready to make his Glastonbury Festival debut with a Friday afternoon set on the legendary John Peel Stage, a rite of passage for any emerging artist, but had to pull out due to a serious health issue with his vocal chords. The mood in the room shifts dramatically at the mention of this devastating period: “I don’t want to focus on that, to be honest, because it’s just negative news and it’s in the past.”
“The further I’ve gotten into my 20s, the more I’ve realised how little I know”
Looking back now, he says, it was a tough decision, but ultimately the right thing to do: “We were doing so much at the time and I just burnt out. If you damage your vocal cords, you can’t take it lightly. If something happens like that and you keep going, you’ll fucking lose your career forever. I never want to end up behind the knife; I just refuse to put myself in that situation.”
The fact that his 2019 breakthrough ground to a halt again in COVID-decimated 2020 “was frustrating as fuck”, he says, “but I took solace in the fact that everyone was stopped in their tracks that time; it wasn’t just me.” This was in stark contrast to the singer’s experience of pulling the biggest moment of his music career in order to rest his vocal cords: “I didn’t talk for three weeks; I had to be silent and just watch Glastonbury on the TV, going, ‘This is completely dogshit’. But you can’t even say that out loud – you’re just saying it over in your head like a psycho. I’d take a pandemic over that any day.”
There was a brief flash of light when he headlined the opening night at the world’s first socially distanced arena, Newcastle’s Virgin Money Unity venue, to an audience of 2,500. Yet Sam’s not in the mood to wax lyrical about that, either. “It was amazing,” he says, “but it didn’t happen again.” A local lockdown in the North East brought the following shows – which would have featured Kaiser Chiefs and Declan McKenna – to a premature end in September: “It was another false start. We thought everything was going to get moving again but then we were just sat around [again].”
As for this reaction to the Government’s handling of the pandemic? It perhaps says it all that he’s selling face masks emblazoned with the words ‘2020 Shit Show’ and ‘Dystopian Nightmare Festival’ on his website. “I think everyone has said enough haven’t they?” Sam suggests. “I never want to see Boris Johnson’s or Matt Hancock’s face ever again. As soon as they come on the TV, I just turn it off.”
Political tension bubbles through ‘Seventeen Going Under’. Its second half boasts tracks such as ‘Long Way Off’, a brooding but colossal festival anthem brimming with angst and unease. “Standing on the side I never was the silent type,” Fender roars, “I heard a hundred million voices / sound the same both left and right / we’re still alone we are.” It’s gripping stuff; a Gallagher-level anthem ripe for pyro and pints held aloft.
Sam says the song is about feeling stranded amid political divisiveness here and in the US, epitomised when Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington back in January: “You’ve either got right-wing, racist idiots or you’ve got this elitist, upper-middle-class section of the left-wing, which completely alienates people like myself and people from my hometown.”
“The polarity between the left and the right has me feeling like I have no identity”
Closer to home, the last UK election, in 2019, saw the so-called ‘Red Wall’ crumble as working-class voters in the north defected from Labour to Tory. “The polarity between the left and the right has me feeling like I have no identity,” Sam says. “I’m obviously left-wing, but you lose hope don’t you? Left-wing politics has lost its main votership; it doesn’t look after working-class people the way that it used to. Blyth Valley voted Tory just north of here. Now, that is saying something! We’re in dire straits when a fucking shipbuilding town is voting for the Tories – it’s like foxes voting for the hunter.”
He’s even seen his own working-class friends peel to the blue side: “I’m like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I understand it, though. I’d never vote for the bastards because I fucking hate them and I know what they’re up to, but I get why people don’t feel any alliegiance to left-wing politics when they’re working-class.”
As ever though, Sam isn’t masquerading as an expert: “I’m not fucking Noam Chomsky, you know what I mean? I’m not going to dissect the whole political agenda of the Tories and figure it all out because I can’t. All I see is a big fucking shit sandwich – every day through my news feed – and it’s just, ‘Well: that’s what your dealing with.”
The singer is fond of describing North Shields as “a drinking town with a fishing problem”. Today he adds: “That’s been the backdrop of my life: all of these displaced working-class people. It’s a town that’s resilient that still has a strong sense of community. In a lot of big cities that’s dead. In London everything changes from postcode to postcode, but everything is quite uniform up here.”
When NME was awaiting Sam’s arrival outside the studio before the interview, a passerby clocked our photographer’s gear and asked, “Oh aye – are you waiting for Sam? We all know Sam – a good lad; very accommodating with nae airs or graces about him.” Another pointed to The Low Lights Tavern down the road, where Fender used to pull pints on the weekends: “He was a terrible barman, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. I think he got sacked about six times during his time there.”
Sam (who confesses of his bartending know-how: “He’s totally right!”) hit the local to celebrate when ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ won him a Critics’ Choice gong at the BRIT Awards in 2019, placing the trophy on the bar. “I owed The Low Lights one for being such a shit barman,” he says. “I wanted them to be proud of us because they fucking certainly wasn’t proud of us when I was around working there!”
“Celebrity stuff freaks me out. I’d rather just live my life”
He’s clearly a key member of the local community, then. How did he see the pandemic impact on his family and friends – especially when the North East faced the toughest Tier Four lockdown restrictions last December? Sam pauses before bluntly saying: “I lost more mates; there was suicides again. Mental health was the biggest thing. We lost friends who had drunk too much.”
A track on the new record, ‘The Dying Light‘, is an epic sequel to ‘Dead Boys’, with the poignant last line of the album ringing out “for all the ones who didn’t make the night”. Sam, unable to truly distance himself from The Boss after all, explains: “It’s very Springsteen. It’s my ‘Jungleland’ or ‘Thunder Road’ – it’s got that ‘Born To Run’ feel; there’s strings and brass [and] it’s fucking massive. It’s a celebration. It’s a triumph over adversity.”
He stresses that it was vital for him to be in regular contact with his friendship circle through that traumatic time: “It becomes important when you lose friends to suicide… You realise it’s always the unlikely folks. We lost a friend to suicide at the beginning of last year and it was someone you’d never expect. It really hits home; it’s important to check in on your mates.”
Sam has alluded in previous interviews to a health condition that he’s not yet ready to fully disclose, and tells NME that he spent three months shielding at the beginning of the pandemic: “I was alone for three months and that was very tough… When you’re completely alone and isolated, it’s impossible. I spent a lot of time drinking and not really looking after myself and eating shit food, but I wrote a lot of good lyrics.”
There’s a certain resulting bleakness to some of his new songs, but Sam also wanted light to shine through. “It’s a darker record, but it’s a celebration of surviving and coming out the other end,” he explains. “It’s upbeat but the lyrics can be quite honest. It’s the most honest thing I’ve done.”
You might expect a young hometown hero to rail at having been denied the chance to capitalise on his burgeoning fame in the last year or so, but Sam insists, “I still have imposter syndrome,” adding: “I don’t feel like it’s happened… I’m walking around the street and people ask for photos and it just feels bizarre. I’m like, really? I feel like I haven’t come out of my shell yet.”
Sam has rarely been one to court celebrity, and revealed in 2019 that he’d turned down the chance to appear in an Ariana Grande video. “It was an honour but I would have just been known as that guy in the video,” he tells NME. “All of my mates would have been flipping their heads off, but I don’t think she would really want an out-of-shape, pale Geordie. I’d rather just live my life, because all of this celebrity stuff freaks [me] out, you know?”
He might have to get used to it: things can only get bigger with the arrival of the new album. “As a record I think this one is leagues ahead [of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’],” he says, “I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve ever done. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done in my life. I just hope people love it as much as I do. With the first album, a lot of those songs were written when I was 19, so I was over half of it [by the time it was released]. Whereas this one is where I’m at now.”
“This is a dark record, but it’s a celebration of surviving and coming out the other end”
Still, he adds: “At the same time, this record is probably going to piss a lot of people off.” He’s referring to a line in one of the more political tracks, ‘Aye’, where he returns to his most enduring bugbear, divisiveness, and claims that “the woke kids are just dickheads”. Sam’s no less forthcoming in person: “They fucking are, though! Some 22-year-old kid from Goldsmiths University sitting on his fucking high horse arguing with some working-class person on some comments section calling them an ‘idiot’ and a ‘bigot’? Nobody engages each other in a normal discussion [online] without calling each other a ‘thick cunt’.”
He’s eager to make this statement, though, come what may: “I don’t fucking care any more. I’m not really sure how the reaction is going to be. People used to say things online about me and I used to get quite hurt about it, but now I’m like, ‘Well, they’re not coming to my house’… [But] I get so angry. In Newcastle we say ‘pet’ and someone was trying to tell me that was fucking offensive towards women. You’re not going to delete my fucking colloquial identity. It’s not even gender-specific; we say it to men and women. My Grandma calls me ‘pet’! That brand of liberalism is fucking destroying the country. We could be getting Boris Johnson and all them pricks out of office if we stopped sweating over shit like that”.
Sam might be outspoken, but he’s self-aware, too. When we were talking politics earlier, he said: “I didn’t want to start on ‘cancel culture’ because I don’t want to sound like Piers Morgan [and] I fucking hate that cunt. But there is a degree of it which lacks redemption; people fuck up. Everyone is a flawed character. If you’re not admitting that you have flaws, then you’re a fucking psychopath. The left-wing seem to be that way and the right-wing are fucking worse than they’ve ever been. Politically I have just lost my shit.”
In all of this uncertainty, though, it seems a sure thing that Sam Fender will take his rightful crown – as soon as the world lets him – with the colossal ‘Seventeen Going Under’. “It’s going to be a hell of a return,” he insists. “I know the fans are still there, you know? So I’m not really worried – I’m ready to go out there and do my thing. Finally!”
Sam Fender’s ‘Seventeen Going Under’ is out October 8