The sea shanty phenomenon has been ubiquitous this year, as TikTokkers get their Captain Birdseye on. Royal Mail worker Nathan Evans became a viral hit on the social media app in December and now, after quitting his day-job and inking a record deal with Universal Music, he’s swashbuckling his way up the charts. His version of ‘Wellerman’, a traditional sailor song originally from New Zealand, is currently at Number Two midweek on the Official Singles Chart.
Speaking via Zoom from his home in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire in Scotland, the 26-year-old tells NME why everybody’s suddenly raising their cutlasses in the air – and waving ‘em like they just don’t care.
Ahoy Nathan! How’s it going?
“It’s been an amazing whirlwind. I never in a million years thought this would happen. When I uploaded my first sea shanty, I knew people wanted more because I kept getting comments saying: ‘Sing more!’. I thought it was unbelievable that folk wanted to listen to it and didn’t think it would lead to a chart hit.”
So how did you discover sea shanties?
“I was taking suggestions for songs to cover and somebody left a comment last July asking for ‘Leave Her Johnny’, which is a sea shanty. I went away and did a bit of research and sang it and that’s where it all started. I hadn’t heard many sea shanties until then, but more comments came in: ‘Can you do ‘Drunken Sailor’? Can you do ‘The Scotsman’? Can you do ‘The Wellerman’? When I uploaded onto TikTok, people were using the duet function to join in. It’s the fact it’s so feel-good, it makes you clap your hands, stamp your feet and you can join in. That’s what’s pushed it so high.”
John Legend said he was a fan of yours, and there’s been an abundance of artists – from All Time Low to Jimmy Fallon and Goldie Lookin Chain – attempting their own watery bangers. Any big names been in touch?
“Not yet! But that might be due to COVID-19, so hopefully in the future when we’re back out doing our own thing, I can get some collaborations going. But it’s easy to make your own – all you need is a harmony and a bang of a drum!”
What kind of music are you into? Who, ideally, would you like a co-sign with?
“Personally, I’m into Ed Sheeran, Declan McKenna, and Lewis Capaldi. But if somebody was to say: ‘You need to put a sea shanty out as your next single’, I’d be up for that – because I know it’s going to make people smile, laugh, and it will bring joy. If I had to pick someone to collaborate with, it would be Ed Sheeran at Number One.”
You recently left your job as a postman. Are you going to make enough money to not regret jacking it in?
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I quit last Friday and on the Monday I was getting messages coming in about people wanting to sign me, and offers from TV and radio shows, so I thought this is a once in a lifetime opportunity I can’t pass up. I’m positive – people might think this is a one-off viral thing, but I know I can sing, play guitar and piano and write music, so I was just waiting for a chance for people to hear me. There’s nothing to stop me proving myself now. But I think the sea shanty craze has a bit longer to go.”
Any theories as to what the hell the sea shanty craze is all about? Is it the call of the wild, a sense of adventure, the freedom of the wide-open – everything we’re missing as we sit at home and get furious on Twitter?
“I think it’s that it’s like one big unity, a big friendship and community where everybody joins in and everybody sings along. It’s the sense that everybody’s been stuck in for so long on their own in this Groundhog Day that everybody being together is what people are loving at the minute.”
Tell us a bit about your musical background pre-shanties…
“I’ve been singing ever since I was able to, and playing guitar since I was 8. I’d sing and make music at every given opportunity. My mum and dad were karaoke entertainers and when I got older, I’d go along with my guitar and play a couple of songs at the end. [Leonard Cohen’s] ‘Hallelujah’ was my go-to karaoke song. Will I turn it into a sea shanty? Nah, I wouldn’t ruin it like that? I wouldn’t touch it! I’ve always written my own music, but it was when I joined TikTok and started posting consistently that I got my break.”
Now you’ve signed a record deal with Polydor, what can we expect from your debut album? Will it be wall-to-wall – or port-to-starboard – sea shanties, or will you be showcasing other genres?
“I’m not sure yet. We’ll need to wait and see. I’m focused on this single first and hopefully we can get a Number One of this. That would be a dream and then I’ll work out the album. We’re riding this wave and then hopefully by the end of the year you’ll hear some new stuff.”
What would be your bucket-list moments? Would you like to play Glastonbury? Should we dig out the nautical apparel for some festival appearances?
“Everybody jumping around with pirate hats on and plastic swords would be fantastic. I’d love to play Glastonbury or TRNSMT. I’m still dazed by everything to be honest. It’s all happened so quickly, it genuinely feels like I’m talking about someone else.”
Any chance of the album launch taking place on a boat?
“Fun fact: I actually get seasick, so maybe I’ll skip that!”
– Nathan Evans’ ‘Wellerman’ and ‘Wellerman (220Kid & Billen Ted Remix)’ are out now