IN THIS PHOTO: Sam Fender/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
ONE of the themes of 2018 music is...
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
artists who are stepping away from the parable of love and concentrating on something that is much more political and less personal. Whether talking about the government and its role today or the perils and struggles of the working-class existence; artists such as Shame, IDLES and Anna Calvi have covered feminism, discrimination and modern-day masculinity in a very striking and fresh way. I am not sure whether I have seen a year with so many explosive, eye-opening and long-lasting records. A lot of stuff that looks at love and relationships sounds subjective and does not really linger in the mind. I think this year has been a lot stronger than last regarding these important and observational albums – something we all needed to see. Among the artists who are turning heads with their raw and observational work is Sam Fender. His name was new to me earlier this year and, given the attention he has garnered and the rise he has enjoyed; we will be hearing a lot more from him in 2019. Fender has just won the Brits Critics’ Choice Award and it caps a rather busy year! Previous winners have varied in terms of their longevity and popularity – Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and Jack Garratt have fared less well than Florence + the Machine – but Fender looks like an artist who has a lot more about him. The issue with the less-celebrated artists I have mentioned is the fact there is not a lot about them.
Maybe Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s voice is good but his lyrics and music lack originality and widespread appeal; Jack Garratt is a fantastic composer but that is about it. Sam Fender has a striking voice, a great and deep set of lyrics that are smart and primed for the times. Here is how the BBC documented his award:
“Sam Fender has been announced as the winner of the Brits critics’ choice award, the industry-voted prize previously won by Adele, Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding.
The prize is presented ahead of the Brit awards on 20 February. Figures in the media and music industry are asked to nominate artists they believe will enjoy future success but who haven’t yet scored a UK Top 40 album. Fender was nominated on a shortlist alongside R&B singer Mahalia and singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi.
Fender specialises in energetic, glossy garage-rock topped with his soulful vocals, the lyrics tending towards social commentary about masculinity, depression and vice; songs such as Poundshop Kardashians and Millennial lament the lack of options for Britain’s youth.
He has built a sizeable fanbase already through a string of nine singles in 2017 and 2018, along with a heavy touring schedule. He said he was “truly humbled” to win, adding: “We’ve played literally hundreds of shows this year, and we’re going to go even harder in 2019 … To everyone who’s taken a punt on me so far, thank you”.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
It might seem like a Brits Critics Choice Award might be a poisoned chalice but that is not the fault of the committee. I think the last couple of years have not been as strong as 2018 and, considering the talent that has come through; it is especially honourable to get such a nod. Many might say Fender will lose relevance and force if the political landscape changes and things improve. Things are not going to improve for us anytime soon (if at all) and subjects he is writing about right now – such as celebrities and government surveillance – are always around and always providing inspiration. His Dead Boys EP was released last month and received a lot of praise. Not as many people came out to review the E.P. as you’d hope – maybe there is that sense of reservation and elitism when it comes to new artists – but here is what When the Horn Blows wrote:
“After is ‘That Sound’, the most recent single released, a song about how music was always his escape; despite ‘loaded vampires... sniff[ing] up residue’, and ‘green eyed beasts’, that sound — ie. music — kept him afloat. Music “pulls me out of the shit every time”, he says; it keeps him in line and focussed. If that’s the reason he is able to keep releasing new music, long may it last. The song starts slowly, with a thirty second instrumental intro, before Sam’s voice joins the fray...
The chorus of ‘That Sound’ is probably the most aggressive musically and the most anthemic lyrically; ‘it’s the only thing that keeps me grounded’ transitioning into a somehow endearing cacophony of instruments which is wholeheartedly made for live performances.
Finally, ‘Leave Fast’. Different to the already released version, this version is thirty-seven seconds longer, yet retains the intimately acoustic nature of the single version. It comes across as an almost love song to his hometown of North Shields, a place that he obviously cares about, but the song acknowledges the ‘mass of filth and rubbish’, the empty ‘shells of old nightclubs’ and ‘watching people die in the cold’. The lyrics bring the hometown to life and, despite using his music to escape, which resulted in “butchered A-levels”, as he puts it, the song reflects a sense of nostalgia, revisiting the town that he once felt “trapped” in, yet loved nonetheless.
The song, for the most part features his vocals over a guitar: live, it’s played without the band, and is the perfect song to show off his powerful, soulful voice, which are usually overshadowed by the overarching music. The extra thirty-odd seconds comes in the form of an almost contemplative strumming of an electric guitar, which only adds to the overall nostalgia of the piece and seems to round it off perfectly, both the song and the EP as a whole.
Overall, a genuinely tremendous body of work”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
There might be cynics who feel there is a sense of bandwagon-jumping talking about male suicide, toxic masculinity and the Government – given the fact quite a few bands are covering similar ground. I feel issues like male suicide have always been important and in everyone’s mind but few artists have been bold enough to articulate the subject. Given the rise in suicide rates and the fraction within the country right now; modern artists need to realise a responsibility and document what is happening. I am not saying every single musicians needs to cover every angle in terms of modern life and politics but, as Fender has shown, there is great potency and pride to be summoned from opening the eyes and providing a very personal and charged account of things that are important. How often do we hear that and how many other artists will follow Fender’s example?! We cannot ignore what is going on in the world and I do think music has a clear responsibility and duty to provide some take.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Whitefield
In terms of the man behind the music; we have this very real and working-class lad that sort of reminds me of Liam and Noel Gallagher. That is not to suggest Fender swaggers around and takes shots at Damon Albarn: our manis not one to hold back regarding the ‘competition’ and how he perceives the world. That is quite rare in an industry that is becoming more calculated and ‘safe’. We have few artists who are bold and show a very candid spirit. His background and upbringing, as this interview shows, is vitally important:
“North Shields, the fishing port where the 23-year-old still lives on a council estate with his mother, boasts a great beach, decent surfing and a characterful pub, the Low Lights Tavern, where he was working and occasionally performing when Brit Award-winning singer-songwriter Ben Howard’s manager happened to walk in and ask for his number. He’s clearly proud of the town, though you might not know it from his songs...
Leave Fast tells of broken fridges, torn-up sofas and boy racers, and urges escape over a mournful guitar strum. Friday Fighting has the kind of thumping beat and chugging guitars that tends to excite packs of lads at chucking-out time, but you can tell Fender disapproves from his use of the phrase “toxic masculinity” in the lyrics. Dead Boys, which looks like his breakthrough hit, having been performed on Later… With Jools Holland last month and named Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s Hottest Record in the World, is a howl of disbelief at the spread of suicide among young men. It was prompted by the deaths of two of his friends, and its intense video won’t be forgotten quickly.
“It’s getting bigger, which is exciting and terrifying in equal measure,” he says. Asked what he was hoping for when he first started playing in bands at the age of 16, he replies: “Somewhere along the lines of what’s going on now — the ability to live a life doing this as my sole job, which I now do.”
Bruce Springsteen is his idol, which you can hear in his strident guitar work and ability to distill small-town grit and make poetry. The last time he saw The Boss in concert, he cried. It’s too early for him to envisage himself as an arena filler too, but the current day job certainly beats the alternatives”.
In this BBC interview; Fender talks about the modern cult of self-obsession and a certain musician he is not too keen on:
“...And don't get him started on Ed Sheeran.
"I admire what he's done - the fact that he's sold out Wembley with acoustic guitars. I just find his music incredibly beige.
"I don't trust songs that can be played at a kid's party and a club at the same time. I just don't think it's right," the North Shields songwriter says, getting into his stride.
"There's something reptilian about that."
"We're stuck on Instagram, and everyone's guilty of it. Everyone's completely obsessed with themselves," he says, clarifying that he includes himself in that bracket.
"I'm hopelessly addicted to Instagram," he says candidly. "To the dopamine hits of when one post gets more likes than the others. I'm aware of it, so try and make a conscious effort to cut down."
To little avail, it would seem, since after a year touring and appearing on the festival circuit his profile is on the rise - meaning his habit of personally answering messages from fans is starting to get out of hand.
"I'm going to have to stop answering fans eventually, because it's just getting too much," he says. "It used to only be a little bit of time a day, but now it's taking up the whole day. It's nuts".
I know there is a lot of pressure that comes with getting any industry nod and people, naturally, will have their notepads and callipers out next year; making sure this young prodigy lives up to all the hypes and his next steps are something akin to The Beatles’ debut! Whilst I think there is too much of the unrealistic expectation; many artists that have been tipped for success have lacked that spark and real drive – something you cannot say about Sam Fender. It has been a packed and busy music year but, as I said, artists discussing mental-health and politics is on the rise. I feel it is important to have the balance of important and personal in order to evolve the industry and inspire the next generation. If we are flooded with the same wishy-washy stories of rejection and lust then that is not going to resonate. Artists who are getting the biggest critical pat on the back are those who talk honestly and bravely about issues that are important and not often covered in music. It is early days for Fender but there are assets and aspects that work in his favour. He is not your usual guarded and soft artist who needs to please everyone and there is a definite spark about him. The music is varied and interesting – so that offers mobility when it comes to a debut album. He has a working-class background so can easily articulate the struggles faced and, in a mainstream that is still largely middle-class; his voice is much-needed and fresh. Given the success of acts like IDLES; Fender can gain vicarious and associated fandom and I feel he will make a charge as we look towards a fresh year. It has been a successful and hectic one for Fender – he says he has performed hundreds of time this year – and, with new plaudit and focus at his feet, 2019 is going to be a massive one...
FOR the North Shields lad!