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Talk of the Tyne: Sam Fender on the personal story behind his stunning second album

At 27, Sam Fender's brand of indie rock has seen him sell 100,000 records and net a Brit Award, yet his feet remain firmly on the ground. Read his Rolling Stone UK cover interview in full

By Chris Catchpole

Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK
Sam Fender will headline the Friday night. (Picture: Damon Baker/Rolling Stone UK)

Success can sometimes be hard to quantify for an artist. For Sam Fender, it’s not his Brit Award or that his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, topped the UK charts two years ago. It’s not selling over 100,000 records or playing shows to tens of thousands of adoring fans. No, for this 27-year-old singer, success can be measured in units of glistening white porcelain. 

“Three baths and four toilets!” Fender hoots as he shows RS around the new house he’s just bought himself, “I’ve fucking made it!”

Fender only moved in a couple of months ago and the front gate still has the previous owner’s name set in metal along either side. “I’m thinking of getting rid of that and just having ‘daft’ ‘cunt’ on there,” he gestures with a grin. “The neighbours won’t be happy, but they’ll know who lives here.”

As with every home he’s ever known, Fender’s new place is in North Shields, a former fishing town eight miles from Newcastle. It’s only a five-minute drive from the council estate he and his mum used to live in, but as he proudly points out, deliberately over-emphasising his accent so that ‘houses’ rhymes with ‘oozes’: “I went down to the posh houses!”

“I love my home. I love Shields,” he continues. “I’m really chuffed, right, because it’s a posh house, but I’ve still got an NE29 postcode, so I feel like a [Geordie tough nut] radgee.”

Sam Fender’s hometown isn’t just an integral part of his story, it is his story. The sound of an artist with a head full of dreams and a heart heavy from growing up in a town left to rust, Hypersonic Missiles transposed the anthemic, blue-collar rock of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band to the boarded-up shopfronts and street corners of the North East of England. Fender’s songs were filled with the characters and stories of those living and dying around him: the old boys drinking their afternoons away and warning the young songwriter to get out while he still had a chance, the memories of his friends lost to suicide and the desperate need for Saturday night to deliver a moment’s respite from life’s laborious grind. They spoke to people who may have grown up far from an NE postcode, but who could instantly relate to feeling trapped by their surroundings.

Out next month, the follow-up, Seventeen Going Under, manages to outplay its predecessor at every move. The songs are better, the choruses bigger and his writing has developed a new nuance. This time, Fender has turned his gaze inwards, looking at himself and his own story. With an honesty bordering on self-lacerating, the songs talk frankly about his fight to escape his circumstances growing up, of carrying the baggage of his past and his battles with his own sense of self-worth. Fender’s own personal darkness at the edge of town is present throughout, but, ultimately, it’s a record about not falling down when life lands punches on you.

“It’s a celebration of life after hardship,” he summarises. “It’s a celebration of surviving.”

Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK
Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Damon Baker)

Fender’s parents split up when he was 13 and he went to live with his mum, an NHS nurse, in a council flat on Verne Road, just around the corner from his current house. He’s quick to stress that his early home life was a happy and stable one. Or “cush”, as he puts it.

“Me dad was an electrician, he had a good job. We had good Christmases,” he says. “I’m always uncomfortable about trying to play the tiny violin, the northern poor boy. I don’t ever want to be that because my life’s been fucking amazing. It’s had a lot of ups and downs and I’m very thankful for both of them because the downs are the things that made me appreciate everything else. It’s the thing that gives me drive.”

Fender’s father had been an amateur musician, as had his older brother. His dad’s experience witnessing the devastation Thatcherism wrought on the town’s community made him staunchly left-wing, and he instilled in his two sons to be grateful of their position in life.

“He remembers what happened when Thatcher closed everything down. He lost friends – lads taking their lives. Boys in their early 20s not having a job. There’s hundreds of stories like that, lads just offing themselves,” Fender says. “The irony is I grew up in the fall-out of it. I grew [up] with suicides because of the lack of opportunity and you can tie a lot of that back to that time.”

Listening to Fender talk about his dad – “a hard cunt” – it’s clear he still idolises his old man. “He could have been the best frontman in any fucking band but he was trying to make a living and provide for his kids,” he says. “It haunted him, the financial pressures of being a young, working-class lad in the ’80s.” Fender recalls how when he would get beaten up at school his dad would take him out into the back garden with a set of boxing gloves and pads. “He’d go, ‘Right, hit this as hard as you can. The next time you go into school, if you think someone is going to hit you, you hit them first and don’t fucking stop punching them until they’re on the deck,’” he remembers with a laugh. “I went back into school the next day and BAM! Got hit. What did I do? Fuck all.”

Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone
Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Damon Baker)

Fender’s athletic build and broad shoulders make you feel if he did take a pop at you now, you’d be on the deck within seconds. When I arrived earlier, he insisted I had a go on the press-up clamps he uses to stay in shape. I managed four reps before collapsing onto his kitchen floor, a panting, wobbly-armed wreck. By his own admission, though, the singer is “a fucking softie”.

“I cried at Marley & Me, do you know what I mean?” he says, by way of an explanation. A soft spot for rom-coms is one thing, but beneath Fender’s exterior shell of amiable bonhomie is a deeply sensitive, vulnerable soul. Though on paper things couldn’t be going better for him, he’s constantly wrestling with crippling self-esteem issues and the mistaken belief that he’s just a chancer from the local estate who accidentally gatecrashed the fame and success party.

A week prior to our interview, Fender was in London having his photos taken for his Rolling Stone cover story. In between shots he was cracking jokes and doing impressions (including a note-perfect Tony Soprano) to keep everyone entertained. The consummate class clown. However, eating a sandwich in a cafe around the corner ten minutes afterwards, he was another person entirely. Visibly anxious and barely talking above a whisper, tears streamed down his face as he recalled his mum not being able to afford the family Christmas presents when they fell on hard times.

Play Seventeen Going Under’s title track and you hear the story of the singer’s struggles as a young adult set over five minutes of glorious, life-affirming rock and roll. Within the song’s fist-pumping rush, one line in particular stands out: the stark image of Fender coming home to find his mum on the floor in tears, a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in her hand. It’s a moment in his life that Fender has since come to realise was pivotal.

“17 was the age that me mam had [chronic illness] fibromyalgia, she was quite depressed and I could see her being hounded by the DWP. She’d worked all her life as a nurse, never ever missed a day of work, she had her own place by the time she was 19, total hero, hard worker and was treated by the DWP like a fucking benefit-cheating scumbag,” he remembers, his voice quivering with anger. “That was the age where I started having to grow up. I was old enough to know what was going on and it upset us. It was horrible to see her like that, to see the way she was being treated, but I wasn’t old enough to be able to financially help her. That’s when my rose-tinted glasses fell off.”

Fender has set up two deckchairs out the back of his house for us to sit in. He positions one facing the sun and whips his t-shirt off to soak up a rare burst of August sunshine. When he recalls how the government treated his mum he gets increasingly animated and leans forward in his seat.

“I’ll never forgive them and I’ll never ever forgive the Tories. They are fucking scoundrels. And the incompetence of them at the moment, as well, it’s like the worst Tory party you’ve ever seen. Boris Johnson? How the fuck is he there!? You look at that guy’s life and he’s been a charlatan from day one. I don’t think for one minute he has ever stopped and realised how lucky he is. I don’t think he’ll ever understand what his privileges gave him. He’s completely unaware and that is terrifying when you’ve got somebody like that who makes all the decisions,” Fender fumes. “The COVID death toll is a perfect example of what his incompetence is.”

The latest single to be taken from Seventeen Going Under is called Aye. Over pounding drums and a narky guitar drone, it’s a withering broadside against the one per cent who “hate the poor” and “double down on misery” to keep the rest of the population fighting among themselves. Surprisingly for someone with fairly dyed-in-the-wool left-wing views, the song ends with Fender refusing to take sides any more. Though he was a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the singer feels disillusioned with party politics, has opted out of the “cesspit” of online debate and says his only allegiance now is to “people”.

“The left wing have abandoned the class argument. The moment you make the working classes aware that the power’s in their hands and that if we actually do mobilise, we’re the most powerful people in the country then the Etonians will be fucked. They would never get in again. But instead we’re divided by these culture wars,” he says. “The papers purposely put the most divisive headlines in to rile up working-class people and get them pissed off against the wrong people. The right wing are loving watching white working-class people getting up in arms about BLM because that stops us being unified. It’s divide and conquer. They’ve managed to keep that going for fucking years and that’s why pricks like Boris Johnson are still running the country.”

He gets up to walk round the kitchen. “Does that make any sense? Because I don’t know what I’m talking about, I get into the politics stuff and it gets too… I’m not very good at doing the Frank Turner thing, do you know what I mean?”

Fame and success have never sat well with Sam Fender. With the pressures of home life playing on his mind as a teenager he flunked his A levels and found himself working in a call centre while pulling pints in local North Shields pub, The Lowlights Tavern, to make ends meet. He’d always been writing songs and playing open-mic nights when he could, but one evening, completely by chance, Ben Howard’s manager Owain Davies walked into The Lowlights for a drink. They got talking, Fender played him a few songs and Davies agreed to take him on. A chance to break out of his surroundings and help his mum financially had landed on his lap so he pedalled frantically towards commercial success. Styling himself in the vein of en vogue acoustic troubadours like George Ezra, Fender self-consciously wrote “shitty love songs” in a bid to make it but wasn’t getting anywhere. Then, when he was 20, he was struck down with a serious illness that brought everything to a standstill. He still won’t elaborate on the nature of his illness, but the subsequent two years spent on sickness benefits allowed him the time to take stock, think about what he was doing and write songs that actually reflected his surroundings and where he came from. Sam Fender as a songwriter was born, but to this day the nature of how opportunity came knocking plays on his mind and feeds an insatiable – and totally irrational – sense of imposter syndrome.

“If Owain hadn’t walked into The Lowlights that evening, I wouldn’t be here. That plays into the feeling that I got here by complete fucking accident,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because of where I’m from, but I sometimes have an inferiority complex about being from the North East – even though it’s the best place on earth. I get so insecure, especially when I come down to London, I feel so out of place. Especially with the fame and stuff. I feel like there’s this inner voice that’s always going: ‘You’re a fucking dork, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be here.’ I obviously *shouldn’t* have that because we’re smashing it.”

Knowing that the aspiring musicians in his own family and countless other artists from struggling backgrounds haven’t had the breaks he did not only contributes to that sense of being an imposter, but it also drills home the inequalities for anyone like him trying to break into music.

“When I meet musicians who are from quite affluent backgrounds, I find it hard not to have some sort of prejudice. I don’t want to, but I can feel a chip on my shoulder,” he admits.“It’s because the kids from where I’m from don’t get the money. If I didn’t have a manager that found us and put money into us and if I didn’t have the time when I was ill to write and not have to work two fucking day jobs, I don’t think I’d be here. Think of all the other fucking amazing, real artists who’ve got genuine, everyday problems to write about that people will latch onto that are just sat there, but instead we’ve got fucking wet-lettuce cunts writing songs that are just so fucking shit. The vast majority of what we hear, what’s force-fed to us, is from these toffs that have got fuck all to say. It’s boring. It’s not real life.”

At the end of 2019, Sam Fender finally came off tour. In a little over three years, his life had changed beyond all recognition. When he came back to North Shields, both his parents had moved out of the area, he no longer had a home and he’d lost all sense of who he was as a person. He was, to put it bluntly, “fucked”.

“I couldn’t come to terms with what had happened. I couldn’t make head nor tail of who I was or what I was doing,” he recalls. “I felt like I was losing my mind.”

For the first time in his life, Fender went into therapy. He’d always been prone to a bit of soul-searching and self-analysis, but as he raked over his childhood during sessions, he realised that memories and events he’d dismissed as nothing had actually, for better or worse, provided the architecture of his personality. As a songwriter, he’d purposefully shied away from looking at himself too closely, partly to avoid “sounding like a miserable cunt” and partly to avoid playing the poor, northern, working-class lad card.

“You don’t want to sound like a fucking charity case, do you?” he reasons. “That’s a stereotype as well. I’ve had people going, ‘Ahhh poor Northerner…’ It’s, like, no, I’m not trying to do that, but actually, aye, we’ve got the highest level of child poverty in working families in the fucking country here. So, when I write my songs, it’s going to be about where I’m from. To do it honestly you’ve got to tell the truth and that is the truth that a lot of people are uncomfortable to hear. People are uncomfortable to hear that other people aren’t doing as well as them.”

When the pandemic hit, Fender was sent a shielding letter and was forced to isolate on his own for three months. He’d always found his inspiration for songs in pub chat and local gossip; real-life stories and shared memories overheard when he was working shifts at The Lowlights or catching up with friends and family. Faced with only the four walls of a rented flat for inspiration, he continued the process of looking inwards and the songs that make up Seventeen Going Under came pouring out of him. The album’s 11 tracks plot a course through Fender’s life, touching upon his attempts to break free from his surroundings (Gettin’ Started), his relationship with his dad (Spit of You), his drinking (Last to Make It Home) and the insidious pressures of toxic masculinity that have driven many of his friends and other young men in North Shields to take their own lives (Paradigms).

The album’s most affecting moment, however, comes on the closing track, The Dying Light. A piano-led ballad set in “a world of waifs and strays” filled with the ghosts of those who have passed too soon. As the song builds to its soaring ending, Fender sings powerfully about not letting the darkness overcome him, about remembering all the people who love and care about him and not giving up on life. It’s a triumphant, deeply moving coda to the story.

“It’s supposed to be an acceptance that it’s all right to be what you are, it’s all right to not be what you think you should be and it’s all right to need and accept help,” he reflects. “I want it to be a celebration, but I also want it to be lamenting those who aren’t here. I want it to be the moment that you light a candle for all the ones that didn’t make the night.”

In its opening bars, the song also makes reference to Fender’s breakthrough single, Dead Boys: a bleak, heartbreaking account of the spiralling numbers of male suicides in North Shields. It’s a subject Fender has always been passionately vocal about and he’s open about having suicidal thoughts himself during some his darkest moments.

“I’ve had quite a few over the years. I think that’s what drew us to write about it in the first place, because I was losing mates to it, but at the same time, behind closed doors, I was going, ‘Fuck me, I’ve had those thoughts.’” he says. “The terrifying thing about it is a lot of us have had those thoughts and you’re only a few bad things away from being in that place.” 

Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK
Sam Fender poses for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Damon Baker)

Click onto Sam Fender’s website and you can read an open letter the singer recently wrote to his 17-year-old self. It’s a touching and self-deprecating pep talk to the lost lad “smoking shite baccy” and flunking out of college in which he assures his younger self to stick with music and not give up hope.

“You may feel alone currently but you will realise that your stories, when put to music, open up a side of you that actually helps people. A lot of these stories were originally about you but they belong to everyone,” he writes. “They will be screamed back at you – from clubs and dive bars, even arenas. Some kid, 17, probably going through a boatload of similar shit that you experienced, will be front and centre, screaming those stories as if it’s their last night on earth.” Fender says he wants his new album to inspire people from towns like North Shields and let them know they don’t have to be the product of their surroundings or their past. Two days after we speak, he takes to the stage at Reading Festival. Among his rapturously received, victory lap of a set, Seventeen Going Under provides the sky-scraping highlight. Fender looks out from the stage with an almost sheepish smile and sees thousands of kids singing along to every single word. If only his 17-year-old self could see them; screaming his story back at him as if it was their last night on earth.