Sam Ryder has just cemented a genuinely stellar 2022 by storming to number one with his debut album ‘There’s Nothing But Space, Man!’. For the 33-year-old from Maldon in Essex, this chart-topping success must have felt even sweeter following a couple of near misses earlier in the year. After finishing second Eurovision in May with his Elton-esque pop gem ‘Space Man’ – the UK’s best result since 1998 – he was narrowly held off number one by Harry Styles’ ubiquitous ‘As It Was’. So finally, Ryder is getting his moment as the indisputable top dog.
Actually, since Eurovision made him an instant national hero – three weeks later, he sang ‘Space Man’ at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Concert – it’s become common to see Ryder described as ‘puppyish’. It’s a convenient shorthand, perhaps, for the infectious energy he brings to everything he does. When NME asks about his pre-fame career as co-owner of a vegan café, he raves: “Man, I made some of the best cold-pressed juice I’ve ever had!” Endless Summer, a zesty blend of orange, carrot and ginger, was apparently an especially strong seller.
But soon after Ryder arrives at his NME shoot and greets everyone in the room with a bear hug, it becomes clear that “puppyish” isn’t quite right. Puppies have a tendency to apply their energy indiscriminately, whereas Ryder has the purposeful focus of a seasoned pro. He reckons he’s only had five days off all year, but with a number one album in his eyeline, he isn’t about to slow down now. Five days later, when he achieves his goal, he makes sure to emphasise that it was a true team effort “that couldn’t have been done without so many fabulous, amazing, optimistic legends.”
Because he’s been working like a dog, the Christmas break is a particularly big deal for Ryder this year. He certainly throws himself into NME‘s festive-themed shoot with all the enthusiasm and exuberance he displayed during his Eurovision campaign, gamely draping tinsel around his neck and flashing beaming smiles that almost seem to compete with the fairy lights. At one point, he apologises for accidentally striking “a David Brent pose” – don’t worry Sam, that one won’t make the cut. And throughout the interview, he’s positive and unselfconsciously friendly without ever being saccharine. “My uncle passed away a few years ago and my favourite thing about Christmas was always trying to annoy him as much as possible,” he says in a rare melancholy moment. “But we’ve got two new nephews in the family now, and that creates a new kind of magic…”
Ryder’s huge 2022 breakthrough has been propelled by his infectious energy and fundamental niceness – come on, who doesn’t like Sam Ryder? – but it’s also the result of a lengthy and varied musical apprenticeship. ‘There’s Nothing But Space, Man!’ is an album of big-hearted pop-rock anthems – “If butterflies can use their wings to turn the wind to hurricanes,” he sings on ‘Tiny Riot’, “you and I can break the chains” – but Ryder started out as a proper metalhead. He can remember singing S Club 7’s ‘Reach’ at a school assembly when he was seven and “getting absolutely rinsed for it”, but his musical journey began in earnest when he picked up a guitar as a teenager.
By this point, he wasn’t just listening to the “prestigious legacy artists” his parents raised him on – Queen, Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire – but also going to Sum 41 gigs. In what sounds almost comically like an act of God, he got into Iron Maiden after finding one of their CDs on the floor of a bus. “What’s even weirder,” he recalls, “is that I went to Catholic school and I was on a school trip to a nunnery when I found it!” Track four on that discarded CD, ‘The Evil That Men Do’, remains one of his favourite Maiden songs to this day.
When he was 16, Ryder’s first proper band The Morning After began to establish a presence on the local music scene. He describes their sound as “Iron Maiden wannabe… not as good”, before pivoting to a more characteristic positive. “It was really fun,” he continues. “I have such fond memories of, like, thinking I was writing these songs that were going to change the world but [which] really weren’t. But that’s an important part of being in a band. I think when you’re that young, you’ve got to have that belief that you’re doing something good.”
Actually, The Morning After did well enough to play Download Festival, albeit “on the smallest stage [and] right at the start of the day”. But this proved to be their high watermark and as band members came and went, Ryder also drifted into “playing in other bands”. He spent two or three years as a member of Canadian rock band Blessed by a Broken Heart, but describes his subsequent stint as frontman of Texan outfit Close Your Eyes as more formative. “I was a singer, songwriter [and] really part of those guys,” he says. “And it was a hardcore punk band, which was something totally new for me.”
“I’m not interested in trying to impress anyone with my journey”
So, how on earth did Sam Ryder end up fronting a hardcore punk band from Texas? “I heard they needed a singer so I sent them a clip of me singing,” he says matter-of-factly. “In that scene, there are so many singers who are really great at screaming – you know, the hardcore punk vocals. I wasn’t necessarily great at that, but I was good at clean singing.” And that made you stand out? “Yeah, because there weren’t as many strong clean singers on the scene. And I just thought, ‘I’ll deal with the screaming thing as and when it comes!'”
In a way, this is classic Sam Ryder: funny and self-effacing, but tenacious at the same time. After all, less ambitious singers would have balked at the idea of “constantly going back and forth between Essex and Texas” to make it work. Ryder released one album with the band, 2013’s ‘Line In The Sand’, but his abiding memory of Close Your Eyes is playing the Vans Warped Tour in 2014. While cross-crossing North America with dozens of other bands including Less Than Jake, Enter Shikari and Bowling for Soup, Ryder stood out not just for his “clean singing”.
“I was the only person on that tour who managed to shower every single day,” he says proudly, pointing out that being “the freshest kid on the Warped Tour” involved plenty of ingenuity. “The showers on that tour – they’re the grossest thing on earth, you don’t want to go near them,” he says. “So instead, I’d walk the perimeter of the stadium [we were playing at] and try to find a little faucet or a tap. I’d be rooting up the sprinkler system if I had to!”
Ryder shares this story with a beaming smile on his face, but also admits that he was “a bit like a golden retriever” during this era “and lost with it”. Now, eight years later, having reinvented himself as the solo artist who ended the UK’s Eurovision woes, he believes he’s just as “excitable and enthusiastic”, but also “a much calmer person”. What changed?
“Eurovision is about so much more than that three minutes on stage”
“I’m older,” he says quickly before pausing for thought. “And I understand now that the perception other people have of you isn’t really important. It’s how you go about life and carry yourself [that matters]”. This point was impressed on Ryder when he sang ‘Somebody To Love’ with Queen and Foo Fighters at September’s Taylor Hawkins tribute concert at Wembley Stadium “Those guys are all rock legends,” he says, “but they were all so lovely and generous with their time and energy”.
When he looks back at his younger self, Ryder believes he was too caught up in making career choices that would “look cool” and “impress people”. “But now,” he says, “I’m not interested in trying to impress anyone with my journey. I’d rather use my energy to encourage people that aren’t where they want to be on their journey.”
Ryder’s own journey hit a road bump in 2014 when he left Close Your Eyes after realising he was “more comfortable being a fan of heavy metal and punk music than making it”. He returned to the UK and worked for a short time in construction with his dad. Ryder is probably the only person alive who can claim to have helped build the new Wembley Stadium – “in the loosest sense, I hung a couple of doors!” – and then performed there. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” he says of sharing such an iconic stage with his heroes.
Construction didn’t really suit Ryder, so his next step was to open a vegan café with his girlfriend while building a new career as a wedding singer. It must have felt like a step back for a musician who had performed at Download and on the Vans Warped Tour, but in typical Ryder fashion, he puts a positive spin on it. “I’d play a wedding, finish at two in the morning, then go to the café to make the juice for the day,” he recalls. “The wedding business was going really well and I was enjoying it.”
Ryder hadn’t given up on making his own music – he was still writing songs – but at this stage, wedding gigs were his only live work. The turning point came at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 when he cannily identified TikTok’s potential as a music-sharing platform. As @samhairwolfryder, he began sharing cover versions recorded in his garden shed and built a massive fanbase – he now more than 14 million followers.
In May 2020, Sia shared Ryder’s cover of her song ‘Elastic Heart’ after being sent it by Justin Bieber. Soon afterwards, Ryder signed a major label record deal with Parlophone, home to Coldplay and Gorillaz. “It’s funny,” he says today, “because I was singing with the same ability as I had been two or three years earlier. And the songs I’d been writing [in those two or three years] were just as good. But when one person with a platform gets on board – like Sia – it changes the temperature. All of a sudden I was ‘someone to look out for’. It’s a really fickle thing.”
“Performing with Queen and Foo Fighters? Those guys are all rock legends”
The temperature changed so much that in January of this year, Ryder was scouted for Eurovision by TaP Music, the global management company behind Lana Del Rey and London Grammar. The BBC had brought TaP on board to reverse the UK’s fortunes at the contest after an abominable run culminating in two consecutive last-place finishes. Ryder’s gut instinct was to say yes because he’s a massive Eurovision fan: watching Finnish heavy metal band Lordi win in 2006 is a cherished memory. But though his “heart was all-in”, he still had to ask himself the obvious question: “What if I come last as well?”
Ryder pushed aside these doubts by telling himself that he had nothing to lose. “The more I thought about it, the more I realised I was at the perfect point in my journey to throw all my chips on the table,” he says today. Because he felt as though the music industry was “only just letting me in the door”, he wasn’t about to “start tiptoeing around on eggshells – I had to go for it”.
At the same time, Ryder was becoming acutely aware that TikTok’s potential to level up his career was slowly ebbing away – mainly because every up-and-coming artist was now using it as a launchpad. “So it was either I keep doing [TikTok] or I go for this big open goal that everyone’s too scared to aim for,” he says. “And I just figured that if it all went wrong [at Eurovision], I was happy doing weddings before and I could literally go back and smash it again.”
Ryder knew he had a fantastic song in ‘Space Man’, a soaring, ’70s-style ballad that shows off his awesome vocal range – he had co-written it around 18 months earlier with Ed Sheeran collaborator Amy Wadge. However, he points out that today smashing Eurovision is about “so much more than that three minutes on stage”. “It’s about respecting this institution,” he says earnestly. “It’s been around for longer than anything else on television and the viewership speaks for itself.”
“I understand now that the perception other people have of you isn’t really important.”
That’s a very fair point: this year’s Grand Final was watched by 161 million people worldwide including nine million in the UK. “How have we come to a point where we actually have the audacity to say that this thing is naff and cheesy?” he says with a sigh. “It might be bombastic and a bit barmy sometimes, but to not see the opportunity in it is actively disrespectful. If Eurovision is uncool, I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m the uncoolest guy in music because I love it.”
Ryder’s superb second-place finish behind Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra, the overwhelming sentimental favourites for obvious reasons, wasn’t just a game-changer for his own career. “He did more than fly the flag, he changed attitudes,” says Daniel Rosney, who covers Eurovision for BBC News. “Time and time again he refused to buy into the negative narrative that the UK always does badly. He proved with a great song and fantastic staging people will vote for us. It’s exciting to see, because of him, what artists will consider being involved in the future – that otherwise would have dismissed it.”
Having handled one long-running institution with care, the BBC has entrusted Ryder with another: its big New Year’s Eve show. He has already taped Sam Ryder’s All Star New Year’s Eve to air either side of midnight in two 30-minute instalments. When Ryder says his show is “inspired by the way Queen approached Live Aid”, it sounds uncharacteristically grandiose, but it turns out that actually, he’s just understood the assignment. Again. “They were the only band on the [Live Aid] lineup who weren’t trying to promote something,” he says. “It was about fan service, not self-service, and bringing everyone together for a moment in time that transcended them and their catalogue.”
To that end, Ryder has packed his NYE party with covers of “songs that span generations and demographics” – expect everything from Elton John to Beyoncé – and crowd-pleasing duets. He’ll sing ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ with The Darkness’ Justin Hawkins and channel Bryan Adams by joining Melanie C for ‘When You’re Gone’. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he says, “you’ll find something in this show to enjoy.”
It’s an approach that says a lot about Sam Ryder. Having stormed through the door at Eurovision after spending more than 15 years trying to prize it open, he isn’t about to mess anything up. When NME asks what he wants people to think when they hear his name, Ryder makes himself the butt of the joke – “Golden retriever? Massive mouth?” – before getting serious. “I actually think it would be dangerously arrogant for me to try and answer that, because I’d be trying to control something that’s out of my control. All I can do is focus on doing my best work.” He may have taken us to space, man, but Sam Ryder’s feet remain firmly on the ground.
Sam Ryder’s debut album ‘There’s Nothing But Space, Man!’ is out now