Rag’n’Bone Man: ‘Every cool venue I used to go to is now gone’
The music business has changed since Rory Graham hit big with Human – and so has he
Rory Graham aka Rag’n’Bone Man: ‘I don’t want to be famous, to be honest... I love playing music. And I love creating music. The in-between bits – they can f*** off, basically’
Early last year Rory Graham, aka chart-topping blues singer Rag’n’Bone Man, packed his bags and flew to Nashville. He was going to the capital of country music to work on material for his forthcoming second album, Life by Misadventure. But the trip, which coincided with the onset of the pandemic, also put distance between Graham and his life in the UK. And that time away led to a stark realisation, which he sings about on recent single, Fall in Love Again.
“I’d come out of a long-term relationship and was starting a new one,” the hulking, tattooed and hugely matey vocalist says from his home studio in Sussex in southeast England. “While I was out there I realised that was wrong. I wasn’t ready for another relationship. That’s what the song is about – realising you’re probably better off by yourself.”
He’d recently split from his wife, with whom he had tied the knot after 10 years together. They had a son, Reuben, in 2017, a few months after Graham had clocked up mega-hit Human. It was a confusing period and he doesn’t skimp on the gory details in Life by Misadventure, released on May 7th. It’s about your wildest dreams coming true as your life falls apart.
It’s one of those songs I do get tired of playing. I know why it did what it did. It didn’t sound like anything that was around at that time
“I don’t want to be famous, to be honest,” he says. “It’s weird for me. I love playing music. And I love creating music. The in-between bits – they can f*** off, basically. The red carpets, the celebrity after-parties – all that s***. It’s nonsense.”
Human’s success caught him by surprise. Built around his mighty oak of a blues voice, the song is both ragged and raw yet lacquered in a shiny pop gloss. It is essentially what The White Stripes might have sounded like had Simon Cowell got his hands on them early in their career. And it was everywhere. Friends would call from Australia to say it was on the radio all the time and they were sick of hearing it. Graham knew how they felt.
“It’s one of those songs I do get tired of playing,” he says. “Everybody does with those songs. I still hear it now. I know why it did what it did. It didn’t sound like anything that was around at that time. Sometimes it’s about having the right song at the right time. It stood out.”
Life By Misadventure stands out, too, in that it is nothing like Human or the album of the same name which he released in early 2017. The milieu is big-hearted, tear-streaked bloke-pop, somewhere along the continuum between Ed Sheeran and Dermot Kennedy.
“I had it in my head that I was going to make a hip-hop neo-soul record,” he says. “And then I thought, ‘hang on – I’ve kind of already done that. This isn’t doing anything for me.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to pick up a guitar and go to Nashville.’ And that’s what I did.”
The project is unashamedly autobiographical. Opener Fireflies is a love letter to his son, inspired by the luminescent insects he saw fluttering in the dark in Tennessee (“If Rueben saw them he would think they were magic”).
He wrestles demons too. Graham sings about his failed marriage (Alone), his hatred of fame (Anywhere Away from Here, a duet with P!nk), even the scourge of gentrification (All You Ever Wanted).
“It’s the last 10 years of my life. It’s about coming to terms with who I am as a person. And talking to my younger self, and to my son, about mistakes I’ve made. I’m not trying to make people dig into this record for meanings. It’s pretty much there on a plate.”
Becoming a father for the first time while your career is going interstellar is not for the faint-hearted, he reports. With so much to deal with, his relationship with long-term girlfriend Beth Rouy became strained.
They exchanged vows at a registry office in 2019. Graham wore a camouflage tracksuit with pink trimmings and a gold chain, Rouy a “teal and white cat-themed” tracksuit, inspired by their pet moggie Patricia. Yet rather than marriage improving the situation, things only got worse and the couple separated that November. History was repeating for Graham, whose own parents had split when he was young.
He has his regrets, of course. However, he is proud, too, of being there for his son when music could have taken him elsewhere.
“Part of the reason my music didn’t completely take off in America is the fact I had my child in 2017,” he says. “It was expected of me to go out to America and do months of promo, as you have to if you want to break the US. It was more important to me to spend time with my son, who was just born, than go. I guess it was a missed opportunity. But you never get that time back.”
Graham was born in 1985 in Uckfield, Sussex, 32 miles north of Brighton. A teenage tearaway, he was expelled from school at 15. He spent the following year tending a vegetable patch as part of a Prince’s Trust self-development programme for unemployed 16-to-25 year olds. Later, he worked as a full-time carer looking after people with autism and Down syndrome (his older sister has Down syndrome).
“The most important thing with doing that job is how you communicate,” he says. “The people I worked with, everybody communicates differently. It definitely makes you a more open person.”
He was also nurturing his skills as an MC, fronting a drum ’n’ bass collective under the stage name Rag ‘N’ Bonez. Yet it was his singing voice, a cask-aged baritone heaving with emotion, that turned heads. So that is what he focused on. The following decade was spent living out of a tour van, playing to two men and a dog week in, week out.
People are always going to nit-pick. Music is subjective. If some people don’t like it, I don’t care. I don’t like Drake. That doesn’t mean Drake is bad
“It was a slog. I was making a living by the skin of my teeth. I was touring the length of the country, getting paid 80 quid a night. But I wouldn’t change anything. It makes you more grateful when people eventually take notice.”
Human was his first release with Columbia. Co-penned with producer Jamie Hartman, who has subsequently written with Spice Girl Emma Bunton and One Directioner Louis Tomlinson, it went to number one in 16 countries. One rare exception was Ireland, where it stalled at number eight.
Overnight fame was, alas, followed by an immediate backlash. “Graham’s gritted-honey vocals smack as much of Michael Bolton as Ben E King,” went one review. “Bland, identikit retro soul” complained another. He was learning the hard way that success paints a target on your back.
“I don’t really read any of my reviews,” he says. “The people that review music – I don’t know. Is it really a job any more? I don’t know, man. I’ve read reviews of my live show and it’s pretty hilarious, to be honest. I remember someone saying musically it was great but he couldn’t dance.”
He shakes his head. “Well, that’s because I’m not a f***king dancer. People are always going to nit-pick. Music is subjective. If some people don’t like it, I don’t care. If you don’t like it then it’s not for you. I don’t like Drake. That doesn’t mean Drake is bad. It just means it’s not for me.”
Where are these young bands going to play if none of these places exist any more? A lot of the venues were culturally important
One of the most striking tracks on the new record is All You Ever Wanted, in which he laments the devastating impact of gentrification on the arts.
“It’s a city of a thousand heartbeats/No room for another soul,” he sings. “Same building on a different street/But nobody knows”. The message will resonate in Ireland, where venues and art centres are shuttering faster than the polar caps are melting.
“Every cool venue I used to go to is now gone,” he says. “It’s a block of flats or some cool burger place. Where are these young bands going to play if none of these places exist any more? A lot of the venues were culturally important.”
Those rooms, pokey and reeking of beer, were where he learnt his craft. Which meant that, when success came, he’d put in the hours and could handle the demands.
“The music industry is very different now. There are a lot of artists that went from their bedroom to the O2 [in London]. And I don’t know if I could deal with that.
He feels these younger musicians are losing out – as are audiences.
“Sometimes you see people live and maybe you’re a little disappointed with the performance. That might be because they haven’t got any experience. To go from nothing to playing to 10,000 people must be pretty daunting.”
Life by Misadventure is released May 7