Sam Fender: ‘I hope the next stop is a stadium tour. I’m fully ready to hit the U2 button’

Working-class northeast England shaped his music, and he won’t let success change him

The winner of the Best Album in the World and Best Album by a UK Artist at the recent NME Awards is looking decidedly unconcerned if a bit world-weary. The album in question is Sam Fender’s second, Seventeen Going Under, which was released in October 2021, and which has tied a rocket to his undercarriage and carried him skywards. This brace of awards arrives hot on the tail of his 2022 Brit Award for Best British Alternative/Rock Act, and although he’s grateful for any award that comes his way, he is more so for the Brit gong (“a complete surprise”) because the votes came not from media or critics but from his fan base. “It’s really humbling to see just how active the fan base is,” he says. “It just goes to show how much they want me to do well.”

Indeed they do, but there's something else at play here: that moment when the triumvirate of right time/right place/right message generates a reaction that no marketing strategies can hope to accelerate. Now 27, Fender had been knocking on doors from the age of 16. Influences fluctuated between Jeff Buckley and, perhaps more instructively, Bruce Springsteen, whose 1975 album, Born to Run, is central to Fender's worldview. What really grabbed the attention, however, was Fender's working-class North Shields backstory and the way he explored his upbringing, family life and social environment. In other words, his songs didn't just connect, they penetrated.

“That’s definite,” affirms Fender, who is plain-spoken, polite, unaffected and unapologetic. His 2019 debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, started the surge of attention, so much so that within six months of its release he was all set to play inaugural arena shows. “Being at that level in 2020, after just one album, was ridiculous.” While the pandemic called a halt to those, it fast-tracked work on Seventeen Going Under, which has far exceeded expectations in both commercial sales and fan endorsement. It is, he states, a lot more personal.

“During lockdown, I had so much time in my hometown that I ended up writing completely about growing up there, and the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in working-class northeast England. While what the songs are about is unanimous for many people who know the area, it’s an experience shared all over the world. The album and the songs have resonated more internationally, with a lot of feedback from America, Australia, all over the gaff. It’s as if some people don’t realise there are actually working-class towns all over the planet.”

He interrupts himself at this point to emphasise that the songs aren’t exclusively focused on working-class towns. “They are about growing up irrespective of whether or not you’re working-class. Regardless of what your economic background is, being a teenager is never easy or a smooth path, and I think that’s why the album has resonated with so many people.”

Relatable or not, I mention many interviews with him note that his preteen and teenage years weren’t necessarily filled with joy (family problems, parental separation, over-drinking, unemployment). Fender is quick (and right) to pick up on the wording.

“You say they ‘weren’t filled with joy’, but they were. In fact, they were filled with everything, real moments of mass joy and wonderful experiences. I’m certainly not going to sit here and play a tiny violin and say that I’ve had the worst life ever, because I haven’t. I’ve had a life, a normal life, and a normal life includes ups and downs. I had some massive highs and massive lows as a kid, and I think most people do – that’s the nature of life, of growing up, isn’t it?”

'I'm fully ready to hit the U2 button, me – f**k it, I'm doing it! ... That's what I dreamt of when I were a kid, for me to be a proper stadium rock star'

Big losses that took place during his teenage years, he says, carved out who he was and what he was to become. When he and his mother (who had to leave her long-term nursing job when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and mental health issues) were both unemployed, they were “skint and living in a flat that had black mould all over the walls. We couldn’t afford to pay the bills, but there were still many, many beautiful moments and happy times in that setting. I think the important thing as a writer is to capture the light and shade of that time. It wasn’t all bleak, and some of the happiest times of my life were when me and my mother were going through some of the roughest parts. I mention this because it’s important to me that I’m presented in the media as someone who isn’t saying my early life was awful, because it wasn’t.”

He says he hasn’t changed over the past two hugely successful years, irrespective of pandemic limitations, and that he is still, effectively, the same person who once worked all the hours he could grab in various local bars, restaurants, and call centres. “As Elton John told me [he laughs self-deprecatingly], it isn’t you that changes, it’s everybody around you. I stand by that because I still have the same nightmares and fears I had back in the day. The only difference now is that I’m not financially f**ked. Yes, of course, you have to keep check of what inflates the ego, but if anything, I’m more aware of that these days than when I was younger. So much so that it can give me crippling anxiety because I’m always checking myself to make sure I’m not being a dickhead.”

Are there ‘yes’ people around him? Plenty, he says, but “you have the fear that you might change so you have to streamline yourself. I’m lucky in that I’m in a band with my best mates, so my lads will soon give me a slap if I’m acting up. Also, North Shields is the sort of town that if you stepped out of line, they’d quickly pull you back down.”

Ego present, correct and suitably muted, this year and next will undoubtedly see Fender take even more strides towards increasing his fan base. His music might veer towards the traditional end of the anthemic rock music spectrum (think a darker shade of blue-collar Springsteen with a bit of brusque Oasis bravado) but his song narratives regularly hit home with hard-hitting directness (none more characterised by a lyric in The Dying Light on Seventeen Going Under: “This town is a world of waifs and strays, comedy giants, penniless heroes, dead men at the bar – I drank with them all”).

What’s next? Much more of the same, says Fender, noting that tickets for shows in even larger arenas this summer (including, on July 15th, London’s Finsbury Park, which has a capacity of 45,000) are doing the business.

“So what’s next?” It’s a rhetorical question, you had better believe it. “I’m gonna lash the hell out of it, and hope to God the next stop is a stadium tour. I’m fully ready to hit the U2 button, me – f**k it, I’m doing it! I wanna do it if I can. That’s what I dreamt of when I were a kid, for me to be a proper stadium rock star.”

Fender stares back at me, bleary-eyed and beaming. “Why the f**k not? Let’s go for it.”

Seventeen Going Under is on release through Polydor Records and is also available on streaming services. Sam Fender plays 3Arena, Dublin, on March 24th. He returns to Dublin as support to The Killers, who play Malahide Castle, Co Dublin, on June 14th/15th

MUSICIANS FROM THE NORTHEAST OF ENGLAND

Bryan Ferry
Ferry, born in Washington, Co Durham, in 1945, has enjoyed a hugely successful career, first as lead singer with Roxy Music and then as a solo artist. In 2005, GQ magazine honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement Award, proclaiming him as "pop's original art-school bobby-dazzler".

Sting
Gordon Sumner, born in Wallsend, Northumberland in 1951, fronted The Police during 1977-1984 (with a reunion tour 2007-2008). He launched his solo career in 1985 with The Dream of the Blue Turtle, and since then has released a further 14 albums, several of which added to his Grammy Award total of 17.

Neil Tennant
The Pet Shop Boys singer, born in North Shields in 1954, has been one of the most successful British songwriters of the past 40 years. Noted for their blend of introspective lyrics and upbeat dance rhythms, the duo is also noted for using one-word titles for all of their albums.

Paddy McAloon
McAloon, born in Witton Gilbert, Co Durham, in 1957, is best known not only as the primary songwriter (and now sole member) of Prefab Sprout but also one of Britain's most highly regarded (if commercially unappreciated) songwriters.

Cheryl Tweedy
Tweedy, born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1983, first achieved success with Girls Aloud, which lasted (including a three-year hiatus) from 2002 to 2013. She embarked on a solo career in 2009, becoming the first British female solo artist to have five No 1 singles in the UK charts.

Nadine Shah
Shah, born in Whitburn, South Tyneside, in 1986, moved to London aged 17 to become a jazz singer. In 2013 she released her acclaimed debut album, Love Your Dum and Mad; her third album, 2017's Holiday Destination, was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize award.

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