It’s easy to get Sam Fender to talk. In interviews, the studious 25-year-old listens intently and duly considers each answer, his steely eyes all the while penetrating you but giving nothing away. Get him on a subject he likes, and his impassioned responses are delivered with a disarming intensity, often filled with as much scorn and gravity as his hard-hitting, socially conscious songs would have you expect. Yes, holding a conversation with Sam is simple - it’s pinning him down that is the real challenge.
Back in March, the singer-songwriter was one of the hot tips at South By South West in Austin, Texas, and such was the demand for his time there that Clash were unable to squeeze into his schedule. A packed summer followed, with sold-out UK dates prefacing a string of international festivals (including a support slot for Neil Young and Bob Dylan in London’s Hyde Park), until finally, in the first week of September, a three-hour window in London was made to make our shoot happen.
“The workload has increased massively,” Sam admits, as he contemplates the months gone by, and the efforts he’s put in to live up to the attention lavished upon him as the winner of the Brit Awards Critics Choice last December. It’s a punishing task for any lesser man, but this North Shields lad is instilled with a deep-rooted work ethic inherited from his parents that sustains his commitment and vision.
Sam wears: Suit by Prada at Matches, Polo neck by Uniqlo, Belt by CAPO, Shoes by Burberry x Gosha
“For 10 years I lived in a tiny flat in a council estate with my mother, and we were both on benefits and housing benefits,” he says, explaining how they moved in together after his parents’ divorce. “I went from having quite a comfortable family home with the classic dynamic of the mam, the dad, and my big brother, and we had good Christmases and we sat round a table and ate food together and talked about our days and what was going on at school, to then watching my mam struggle to pay rent and have the DWP breathing down her neck, making her go to tribunals when she had fibromyalgia and various other problems which were stopping her from working her as much as they wanted her to. And it made me go, ‘Hang on, she’s getting hounded. They’re breathing down her neck when these bastard corporations aren’t paying their fucking taxes, who have found some sort of legal loophole in which they can not pay full tax…” he rails. “I guess I never wanted to be in a place where I was struggling for money again, because I hated it.”
The journey from that point, to being discovered in his hometown by Ben Howard’s manager, to eventually signing to Polydor, to now, with his debut album ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ just weeks from release, may not have been as uncomplicated as that truncated timeline would suggest - most recently, Sam suffered serious problems with his voice caused by acid reflux, which saw the cancellation of his Glastonbury appearance and required him to embark on a reparative diet (“I swear that the constant diet of kebabs and shit just doesn’t help after a while,” he laughs, “so I’ve had to trade the kebabs in for the salads and avocados now”) - but it was all undertaken with an unshakeable dedication to the cause that meant quitting was never an option.
“Since I was 13,” he enthuses, “music was the only thing that ever gave me any identity or self-worth or solace from the things that I was dealing with as a young ’un. It was the only thing that calmed us down when I was angry. It was the only thing that made it feel okay for us to get upset in a safe place, so I could sit and get upset without feeling embarrassed. I just knew at 13 that that was it. I was like, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ Because it was the only thing I could do - I was shit at everything else.”
Sam wears: Cardigan by Albam, Polo neck by Uniqlo
‘Hypersonic Missiles’, therefore, is not just a debut album: it’s a tangible manifestation of the salvation that has nourished and sustained Sam Fender all this time.
Written over the course of the last five or six years, the songs within are a potent representation of Fender’s evolution as an artist. “I think it really showcases where I’m going and where I’ve been,” he says, but while he’s understandably more invested in the newer tracks, which are more relevant to the person he is today, his fears of an incohesive record (he likens it to a “chocolate selection box of Sam Fender”) are unfounded.
His earliest single, ‘Play God’, a dark study of a dystopian despot, is included, as is breakout track ‘Dead Boys’, which tackled mental health and the suicide epidemic in young men. Then there are the storming radio hits - ‘That Sound’, which recounts Fender’s consolatory need for music, and the title track: an unforgiving tirade at today’s chaotic political climate. ‘The Borders’ and ‘White Privelege’, meanwhile, were the last to be added - the latter a remarkably caustic condemnation of the collapse of our democratic society (“My generation was duped / The youthful left out of the loop,” he sings, “Lies on both side of the fence left me completely bereft”) made all the more impactful by its stripped-back delivery.
Politically astute, and the mouthpiece for an increasingly disaffected generation united by mistrust, Sam’s gigs are a confluence point for the likeminded to vent their frustrations, but he’s in no rush to become a figurehead for the movement - “I can’t sit on Question Time talking to these cunts,” he says, following the mention of “fucking divvy Boris” and “fucking Nigel Farage”, “but I know they’re cunts.”
He’s far from reticent; it’s just that Sam, like many of us, can’t see a solution. “I’ve no answers,” he confesses in ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, “only questions”. It’s a lyric that reminds me of the final scene in Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, in which Dylan is incensed by a newspaper’s referral to him as an “anarchist”, since he too does not present answers. “It’s insane how little history changes, isn’t it?” Sam scoffs.”
Sam wears: Jacket by Our Legacy at Matches, Cardigan by Prada at Mr Porter
“I didn’t set out to start a revolution,” he asserts. “I’m not politically eloquent enough to do that, and I’m also not going to over-estimate the clout of my job. I’m a fucking songwriter, I’m an entertainer; we’re not heroes. The teachers and the doctors and the paramedics and nurses, they’re the heroes. But, when a song connects and it makes people’s day better, or it stops them from driving their car off a bridge - which is what happened with ‘Dead Boys’: some guy was gonna run his car off the road and kill himself, then he heard ‘Dead Boys’ and he heard me talking about it on the radio and that stopped him. When things like that happen, I’m like, ‘Wow, maybe this actually has a bit more clout than I thought it did, and maybe this isn’t as vacuous as I thought it was.’ That is wonderful. When them things happen, when songs connect in that way, it’s like actually, fucking hell, as corny as it sounds, the power of music is fucking incredible. And that is something that I am buzzing about, and that’s what I’ve learned from this so far: there is a lot of good that can come from this. So yeah, I’m going to carry on following the tradition of not coming up with any answers and just be an anarchist.”
“Fuck it,” he shrugs, “I’m an anarchist.”
Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Elliott Morgan
Fashion: Jake Hunte
Fashion Assistant: Stormy Haughton
Sam wears: Jacket by Mr P at Mr Porter, Jumper by Prada at Matches, Necklace by Isabel Songui
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