Sam Fender says he considered dealing drugs, before music offered a way out

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, The star has just completed a series of dates that were originally scheduled for 2020

After a year of cancelled gigs, Sam Fender has discovered that going back on tour is a lot like going back to school: you're going to get sick.

Crammed into a tour bus with his band last month, the germs had a field day. By the time they reached London's Brixton Academy, Fender had a nasty bout of laryngitis.

He was advised to cancel the show. But, having postponed it twice already due to the pandemic, he refused.

"My doctor asked what I wanted to do," he told the audience. "I told him to give us all the steroids in the world.

"And now? I'm absolutely tripping."

A week later, the 27-year-old is still croaky of voice, and wrapped in a duvet as he Zooms the BBC from his bedroom in North Shields.

The steroids have prolonged his cold, he explains, but he's eager to talk about his new album, Seventeen Going Under.

It's the follow-up to his chart-topping debut, Hypersonic Missiles, whose songs of 21st Century malaise earned the singer-songwriter a Brit Award and a gold disc that hangs in his toilet.

But while that record was inspired by "pub craic" and the characters he met in his 淘派apptown, North Shields, lockdown forced him to become more introspective for album number two.

"I was doing therapy at the time, talking about my childhood and my parents and all of that," he says. "That gave us the tools to articulate what happened as I was growing up, and how it affected us."

He ended up recording 60 songs, whittling them down to a compact 11 for the album, which he describes as "a coming-of-age movie" about his turbulent transition from adolescence to full adulthood in England's North-East.

Furious and achingly personal, it's full of fist fights, embryonic love, disdain for authority and life on the breadline, all set to a pseudo-Springsteen production that thrums with saxophone solos, muscular guitars and dramatic drums.

The title track captures Fender at 17, desperately trying to help his mother after she'd developed fibromyalgia and been forced out of work.

"I'd come 淘派app and she'd be in a right mess," he recalls. "Upset, on the stairs, with letters from the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] and court summons and having to go to tribunals."

"This is a woman who'd worked for 40 years as a nurse in the NHS, and the one time she gets ill, they hounded [her]. They don't go after the people with hedge funds in the Cayman Islands, they go after people like my mam. They go after the disabled.

"I was old enough to understand what was going on, but I wasn't old enough to be able to help her with the rent, or even to have an idea of what to do."

Figure caption, Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

As he relates in the song, Fender even considered dealing drugs to help make ends meet.

"A lot my mates were selling weed. Some of them were shifting coke and it did really good for them," he says. "It's messed up [but] I understood the attraction of it."

It was only a family intervention that stopped him.

"One night, I mentioned it to my mam and she bawled her eyes out," he recalls. "Just bawled her eyes out. She felt awful, like, 'Why do you feel you need to do that?' It really upset her."

Ultimately, the family got back on their feet with a little help from a concerned uncle. Today, Fender's mum is back at work as a disabled care worker.

"She's a ball of compassion," he says with unmistakable pride.

That left him to pursue his passion for music. Fender had been given his first guitar when he was eight, as a divorce present from his father, and it gave him a sense of purpose when school became unbearable.

"Not trying to play a tiny violin solo, but I sucked at sport, I was a little fat kid, and I used to get proper bullied," he recalls. "I used to get called, 'Sam Fender the gay boy bender', every single day."

Image source, Charlotte Patmore
Image caption, The singer recorded his new album in North Shields and Westmeath, Ireland, on a diet of "12 pints of Guinness a day"

But when he reached high school, he was invited to join a band by a group of older kids and his life changed.

"It was the best thing I'd ever done. I felt like I was a part of a gang. And we were crap. We were absolutely dreadful. But I remember walking 淘派app thinking, 'We are going to be the biggest band in the world.'"

Once he got the bug, he says, "I was just relentless. I screwed up school, I screwed up my A-Levels, and I did it because of music.

"Everything suffered because I loved playing guitar, and everything suffered because I wanted to be in a band.

"I'd sit and fantasise about getting me mam out of the flat. I'd fantasise about saying, 'I'm sorting you out now, mam', and that drove us on.

"I've got ADHD, as you might be able to tell, and when you get hyper-focused in ADHD, it's like a superpower."

Pursuing music also helped him feel closer to his father, Alan, who'd been a guitarist in clubs around Newcastle.

"My brother's nine years older than I am, and he would go out gigging and drinking with my dad, and I was always the little kid in the background," he says.

"I was always in such awe of the two of them that, for me, music was a rite of passage. I had to be good at it, because I wanted my dad and my brother to think I was cool."

'Declaration of love'

Fender's faltering relationship with his father is the focal point of another track on Seventeen Going Under, Spit Of You.

One of the album's more contemplative songs, it discusses how men find it hard to express their feelings, as Fender agonises: "I can talk to anyone / I can't talk to you."

After his parents divorced, he explains, "Me and my dad had a period of time where we didn't communicate properly.

"He moved to a different country and I only saw him a handful of times. And it came to a head eventually. One night, drunk, I kind of said everything I needed to say. It ended up being this massive argument and the two of us screaming at each other, but it actually subsequently has made our relationship so much better."

Figure caption, Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

The second verse describes how Fender's perspective changed after his grandmother died.

"He kissed her forehead and said goodbye to her, and that was one of the most heart-breaking things ever. For the first time, I saw him as a son - and it just made me realise how little time you have and how fast things go by.

"In the end, the song's a declaration of love if anything."

In the heart-wrenching video, Fender's dad is played by Line Of Duty and This Is England star Stephen Graham - a fact the singer still can't wrap his head around.

"Mate, what an honour," he says.

"I was totally out of my comfort zone. I did a little bit of acting when I was a kid [he was in the first episode of ITV crime drama Vera] but I haven't done nothing since I was 17. So I was really, really, really nervous - but I took to it like a duck on water.

"Acting is like passing a ball - you're reacting to the person next to you, and he's one of the best actors this country's ever seen, so it was just the most incredible experience."

Cultural battles

Family is at the heart of the record, but Fender also makes diversions into politics.

Long Way Off addresses the divisions that led to the storming of the US Capitol in January, while Aye rips into a political system that, to his mind, has abandoned the working class.

"I don't have time for the very few / They never had time for me and you," he spits over an unrelenting guitar riff.

"I've been left wing since I was a kid - but I think that the left wing, to an extent, have alienated their grassroots supporters," he says.

"The conversation isn't really about working class people anymore, it's about a multitude of things. And they're important things that need to be discussed - the cultural battles that we're fighting, for LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter. There's sexism and misogyny in our police forces.

"It's serious stuff but the problem is that it's kind of detracted from a lot of the grassroots people. A lot of really good working class people are being picked up by the right, because they feel like nobody's listening to them."

Image source, Charlotte Patmore
Image caption, Fender has just announced his biggest-ever UK tour, culminating in an open-air show at Manchester's Castlefield Bowl

The singer is disillusioned himself. In the last few lines of Aye, he disavows any political or personal affiliations, chanting: "I'm not a patriot anymore / I'm not a singer anymore / I'm not a liberal anymore / I'm not anything or anyone."

"Aye is about me going, 'I'm done with all of this'," he says.

"I feel like there is a section of society - the 1%, shall we call them - that are pulling the strings and it's going to be like that for the rest of time. And it's kind of hopeless."

The problem, as he sees it, is the increasing polarisation of political discourse, which makes debate and compromise all but impossible.

"Everyone's assigned to a team," he says. "Everybody's like, 'You're in that box and I'm in this box and I hate you for it.'

"It's impossible to have a discussion with anyone because everything's taken out of context. Even what you put in this article will be taken out of context by so many people."

To emphasise his point, he pulls up a message he received last week from a kid in North Shields.

"You're definitely an industry plant," he reads from his phone screen. "Who's behind you? I assume some sort of organisation associated with the far left, seeing as you have all these annoying copy-and-paste celebrity bollocks views."

"I get a lot of that," he says. But if that's the price for voicing his opinions, he's unrepentant.

"Celebrity bollocks views - that's going to be the name of the third album."

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