In the midst of a sprawl of council estates and terraced houses that snake down the high street on the way east to the Tynemouth coast, there’s a square patch of parched grass with goalposts at each end. Before his guitar offered an escape route from North Shields, Sam Fender would roll around its cracked pavements with nothing much to do and nowhere to go. Invariably, he’d be kicking a ball around or smoking cigarettes, always with a song in his head.
“I love my hometown, but when I was growing up I did feel trapped,” he begins. “I felt suffocated, it was claustrophobic.” Fender couldn’t stand the inertia, and turned to his guitar rather than his A-Levels to find a way past it. A sense of abandon informs his urgent, heartfelt, already essential rock‘n’roll songs, which tell stories of a life on the fringes.
“I grew up in a place where there are lots of kids that came from families that didn’t work, and then they didn’t work,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear involved when you grow up in a town like that, fear that you’re not going to make something of yourself. I mean actually having a life and seeing places, I never wanted to be stuck there. I butchered my A Levels ‘cause I was too busy being an idiot and playing the guitar. I ended up working in the pub for two or three years and I had no direction really, I didn’t know how I could get me music off the ground. It looked almost inevitable that I’d be stuck there…”
Now, Fender has no reason to be afraid. Last year, the taut noise of his introductory singles Friday Fighting and Start Again sparked a breakthrough, and the rolling stone is now gathering momentum down an endless hill. He snuck into the BBC Sound Of 2018 poll and has spent the past twelve months either on stage, cramped in a van on the road with his three-piece band, or experimenting with sound in his self-built studio in an old warehouse space within stumbling distance of where he grew up.
To see Sam Fender live is to see an artist who really f’kin means it. When he delivers his songs, with that cavernous, direct-to-the-back-of-the-room-and-through-the-wall vocal he’s playing it like his life depends upon it. Off stage he’s a joker, a looming, magnetic, Damon Albarn before he turned so serious, cheeky-chappy presence, but up there he evokes the spirit and energy of his hero, The Boss. Not so much heart-on-sleeve, as heart-with-pin-removed-and-lobbed-into-the-pit-sized explosive. Having opened for a plethora of bigger names (from Catfish & The Bottlemen to Hozier to Jake Bugg to Michael Kiwanuka), the stage is where his story is told.
There’s an edge to Fender’s songs that can also make him tremble. The surging, urgent Dead Boys deals explicitly with male suicide and mental health issues, and has caused outpourings of emotion among a growing band of followers. All of Sam’s songs tend to feature a resonance and socially-aware, socially-pertinent message. It’s what helps to define him, and makes him leap-frog the endless slew of winsome singer-songwriters that sound fine, but have precisely nothing to say for themselves.
Dead Boys takes pride of place as the opening and title track on Fender’s forthcoming debut EP, and is quickly followed by the clamour of Spice, named after the titular legal high that has wreaked havoc up and down Britain in recent years. “It’s about a boy who was really talented, clever and ended up destroying his life because of legal highs,” he says. “There are so many kids across Britain who have ruined their lives and ended up homeless because of spice. It’s terrifying.”
The song strikes a chord, scraping close to the bone, and Fender’s explanation does similar. “With nothing to do and being out of work and out of any inspiration to do anything, people just want to be in oblivion,” he says.
Leave Fast is slower, plaintive chords allowing lines about boy racers, sand dunes and shitty pubs to bring the stark images of Fender’s hometown to life. “It’s my hometown so I know it like the back of my hand. My writing has to be about what I know, but it’s also what I care about. These are things that affected me to the point where I wanted to say something.”
The spiky riffing on Poundshop Kardashians finds Fender struggling to make sense of vacuous celebrity and the throwaway nature of vast swathes of modern culture.
“I’m ranting about the stupid stuff we idolise in the western world, but feeling helpless because I’m not smart enough to pose an argument for its destruction,” he explains. “I’m panicking all the time. I just don’t understand the world we live in and I think a lot of people feel like that.”
That last point has allowed Sam Fender into the hearts of many. He’s speaking frankly to a confused generation. His vivid stories make his messages loud and clear. This music doesn’t come easy.
“My songs come from a very real place, a lad from the North-East of England writing about what’s in front of his face,” he says. “I never will claim to be an expert about the issues I talk about, but I will try and talk about them.”
One thing Fender can claim to be an expert on is North Shields, the area that has shaped his gnarled, addictive songs more than anything else. “It’s a very proud place. My dad was a club musician, and worked as an electrician and various other jobs. He played social clubs for years, people I grew up with were grafting through the week in different jobs and playing gigs at the weekend,” Fender says. “They were part of a big community and industry that got destroyed in the ‘80s, so I grew up when everything was dismantled.”
The Dead Boys EP finds space for a thank you to music itself. His next gambit, the seismic That Sound, wriggles and bangs through a melody that supports the big-hearted idea that music keeps Sam Fender on the straight and narrow. It’s always been his only viable option.
“It pulls me out of the shit every time,” he says. “It’s the only reason I’m doing this, it’s the only thing I can do. Let’s go do it.”