Happiest when nursing a cold pint at his local pub, The Low Lights Tavern in North Shields, Sam Fender is far from your average celebrity. After a whirlwind two years of endless touring, a Number One album in the form of massive debut ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ and a Brits’ Critics Choice Award win – the gong catapulted previous winners, the likes of Adele and Florence and the Machine, to an international status – it’s a lot to take in for a lad whose heart belongs to the simplicities of a normal life.
“I don’t like fame,” the 26-year-old tells NME in the aftermath of playing the UK’s first major socially distanced gigs at the Virgin Money Unity Arena in his hometown. “I don’t write about that because I try to stay away from it. Whenever there was after parties, like at The Brits, I just couldn’t be arsed most of the time”.
Well, with all the interest his groundbreaking shows – part of the series that will also include the likes of The Libertines and Supergrass – have generated, he’d better get used to being in the spotlight for some time longer. NME sat down with Fender to talk those incendiary gigs, his upcoming second album and getting pestered for selfies in North Shields.
How have you found the last few months in lockdown?
“I think I’ve found it exactly the same as other people – the first month of it was really nice because we were just going full tilt for three years on tour and we had it in our heads, like most people, that this lockdown would just be for a couple of months and then we’d be going straight back to it. When the news came that we wouldn’t be playing again until 2021, it was fucking heartbreaking because it happened a day before we were about to start the arena tour. We were supposed to fly to New York and record at Electric Lady Studios. Instead I’ve basically been in North Shields getting pestered for selfies!”
That must be nice?
“If I’m deadly honest, I don’t like that side of it at all. I can’t really go anywhere and it was bizarre. Lockdown was like being on benefits but having money, so it was really dangerous because it was just drinking all the time and falling into bad habits and being daft. I’m happy to be out of it and back in the studio; it’s not quite the same as recording it in New York, like, but we did the first record in North Shields. It’s just a shame I’m not going to be darting around looking for my Mr. Big…”
Did you manage to find any inspiration for new music whilst being cooped up inside?
“It’s a fucking funeral, the second album. It’s morbid. I had about 40 songs anyway. I wrote a lot of the songs from the first album when I was 18 – I was a baby – and it took me years to record and release those. [My band and I had] been getting chased by labels for years before we signed, so I had this back catalogue of tunes that nobody’s really heard; I’m recording all of them and whittling through to find the stuff that I’m really happy with.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve written recently has been a lot more introspective, and a bit more Americana-y. With the first record, it’s mirroring a lot of the stuff that I was listening to when I was a teenager – I was just Springsteen mad back then. There’s still a bit of Springsteen on the second one, always, but there’s also bits of Joni Mitchell, War on Drugs, Pinegrove and Big Thief. All the American shite!”
After a heavy amount of touring, how did you find taking a pause from it all?
“I hadn’t gone a month without a gig since I was about 14. I was in a band then and I never stopped gigging, whether it was a buskers’ night or whatever; I was always trying to get myself out there and practice my craft. To not play live for the best part of five months is bizarre. I never realised how much I lean on it. When you’re creative, you lean on it for your mental health. There’s always the writing and recording side, but that communal thing of being on stage and hearing songs that you wrote when you were hungover and pure depressed as fuck being sang back to you is the most cathartic, uplifting experience.
“It’s nice to be back but I’m scared [socially distanced shows will be] like methadone for the heroin addict. If we can prove that this works and keep doing this then that’s fantastic, but if not then I’ll be waiting until April next year so it’ll be another long stint on the PlayStation.”
How does it feel to have opened the UK’s first set of socially distanced concerts – and in your hometown?
“I’m so proud of it. I’m proud that it’s our region that’s done it and proud that it’s the Geordies that are the trailblazers. I hope that it can keep going because people are dying for live music and I’m happy to play in whatever capacity we possibly can until this all blows over. There was only 2500 people in a space that would usually fit 20,000 and it still felt enormous because people were screaming louder than they usually would and they needed it. It’s wonderful, so I hope we can keep it going.”
How are you finding the industry’s new normal and is it making you more creative in the way you connect with your fans?
“If I’m honest, not really. I didn’t handle any of the lockdown stuff well. I went very inward and became quite pessimistic and it took its toll on my head. Now that we’re getting back in the studio and I’ve got my ducks in a row; I’m excited to get back out there. I did a little bit on TikTok, but it scares me. I got sucked into the Tiktok machine for a while; people told me you have to ‘like’ things to get the algorithm to work but I just don’t have the patience for that and I just want things to not cringe me out straight away! I find it all terrifying so I didn’t come up with anything particularly to engage with fans. I hope in 2021 we’re gigging again, because I don’t know how much longer I can sit in the house.”
Tell us more about this second album, then…
“I think, so far, it’s a much more cohesive piece of work. For me, this feels like my first album. [‘Hypersonic Missiles’] was a collection of songs over five years, so it’s not sonically cohesive for me. It has songs like ‘The Borders’ and ‘Two People’ that I love and I’m proud of, but the record itself felt more like a ‘Greatest Hits’ before I’d even had any hits!
“Lyrically, the first one was more looking outwards, and this one’s very much about myself and North Shields and about my friends and family, it’s very much about home. It’s not even about fame; I don’t write about that because I try to stay away from it. I do think the second album is miles better than the first one, though.”