Sam Fender Vs. The World

After sharing his takes on humanity and himself, the British singer-songwriter is ready to take on the world
(Credit: Jack Whitefield)

“I think a lot of people try to force positivity out of it. Quite frankly, I thought it was horrible,” Sam Fender says when asked about the time he spent alone during lockdown. Sure, those months proved to be fertile ground for the self-examination threading together his second album Seventeen Going Under, but he’s not suggesting all of his time was spent on introspection and inspired songwriting. In fact, at one point during our video call, he clearly differentiates himself from people who walked out of lockdown claiming they’d survived on “quinoa the whole time,” jokingly retorting “Fuck off, no you didn’t. I ate chicken burgers, drank loads of beer, and took loads of drugs.” But all quips aside, shit was bad.

“It fucked up a lot of people’s lives and a lot of people’s mental health. I sound like I’m being a pessimist.” Cracking a quick joke about his lyrics, he adds, “And if you listen to my music you’d probably think I am a pessimist,” before laying out the somber details. “I lost two friends who died during the course of it, one was to suicide and the other to addiction. I sometimes think, ‘Would they still be here if it wasn’t for lockdown?’ Probably, maybe? That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Addressing tough topics in a way that makes them palatable seems to not only be a trademark of Fender’s conversation style, but also his music. In 2019, he released his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, grabbing a No. 1 spot on the UK charts, the Critics’ Choice award at the BRITs, and comparisons to his idol, Bruce Springsteen by Rolling Stone and NME, thanks to singing lyrics on political issues, societal discourse, and his working-class upbringing in North Shields, England, over lush guitar-led orchestration. Songs like the menacing, “Play God”, the euphoric, “Hypersonic Missiles”, and the living obituary, “Dead Boys”, where Fender gave voice to the male suicide epidemic in his hometown, quickly resonated with fans. Like he once said, while referencing the place he grew up, the album was “a bit gritty, but full of heart.”

Fender went inward while writing his latest album because he had nowhere else to go. Forced to shield at home due to a health condition, he spent three months completely alone. His own life story came flooding back to him when he started therapy during that time, untangling early events he’d previously seen as inconsequential, reminding himself of the seismic shifts he’d encountered at the age of 17. “I was old enough to understand what was going on, but I wasn’t old enough to do anything about it,” he recalls. At the time, Fender’s mother, who’d developed fibromyalgia, a chronic condition which causes pain throughout the body, was unable to work, while receiving letters and summons from the Department for Work and Pensions, attempting to force her back to work despite her illness. It was a frustrating time for Fender, who was too young to assist financially, failing in school, and experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety without understanding what they were. “I used to always think something was wrong with my stomach,” he shares, “but obviously, it was anxiety.”

 

Sam Fender
(Credit: Jack Whitefield)

 

He may have not understood it then, but Seventeen Going Under is full of hindsight. Unlike many artists, who created quieter stripped-back albums in the solitude of quarantine, Fender’s third record is somehow unapologetically intimate and boldly anthemic. In the title track, Fender sings “See I spent my teens enraged / Spiraling in silence /And I armed myself with a grin /‘Cause I was always the fuckin’ joker,” over upbeat guitar melodies and swelling saxophone. The album’s bruising lyrics and driving momentum continue this way, buoyed by the sonic levity of arrangements, like in “Get You Down”, where Fender highlights how insecurities infiltrate and unravel relationships by the time the strings come in at the bridge, you relate. “Spit Of You” sees him finding connection and reflection as he recognizes himself in his father.

In “Long Way Off” and “Aye,” Fender again turns his focus on politics, but unlike his previous album, where he shouted about Brexit, privileged whites and liberal arrogance, he doesn’t lean on black or white thinking, but settles somewhere in the gray. “​​I’m quite automatically left-wing and liberal and whatever,” Fender says of his new perspective, adding that it came by way of “being annoyed at my own camp.” Despite his diatribes on the human condition, judging by his current lyricism and self-effacing nature, it seems the person he’s giving the hardest time to is himself. “I was just a fucking kid who was angry at the world,” Fender says of the political slant of songs that made up his first album Hypersonic Missiles, adding that’s what happens when “you give a 23-year-old kid a record deal and he’s a little woke idiot.” But even when he’s making a statement, or revisiting the dark topic of male suicide, like in the album’s epilogue, “The Dying Light”, there’s still a fair measure of hope.

It’s worth noting that the industry would likely accept radio-friendly pop songs from Fender, or at least ones that don’t broach topics like societal unrest, suicide, and “White Privilege.” But the reason he won’t write those songs is simple. “You got to sing them every night. There are songs from the first album, which I’m not really keen on,” he shares before I interrupt to ask which one. “‘Call Me Lover,’” he confirms with a shake of his head. “I hate that song. I wrote it when I was like 19, and it’s a pop song, and I’ve never played it, because if I play it I’m gonna have to play it every night. So I just make sure that whatever I write now, I’m going to be happy to sing for two years solid.”

 

Sam Fender
(Credit: Jack Whitefield)

 

Though he doesn’t shy away from any topic, Fender is keenly aware of how his words might be twisted, relaying that the most divisive parts of his interviews are often reworked into headlines. This may explain why at one point during our interview, he stopped himself before referring to Piers Morgan by a particularly unflattering adjective, instead shifting the conversation to his frustration over cancel culture being “completely devoid of redemption.” Two years ago while discussing his admiration for the Boss during the premiere of Springsteen’s film, Western Stars, Fender said he couldn’t compare himself to Bruce, before referring to himself as the quote, “shit version of Springsteen.” The next day, a Sky News headline read “Sam Fender Says Springsteen Comparisons Are Stupid.” It’s not the first, or likely last, time it’ll happen. “I said to a journalist once, I’m going to move to America for a bit and do some recording in New York and the headline was ‘Sam Fender’s Going To Quit The UK In Favor Of US Chart Success,’” Fender says, taking a moment before deadpanning, “just quit the country completely.”

Fender does, however, plan to record in New York next year, something he intended to do at Electric Lady Studios before the pandemic changed his plans. But, in spite of what headlines may insinuate, it seems one of the draws of America may not be fame, but anonymity. “Over here we sold like 86,000 tickets in a day for the tour, it’s gone ballistic, all these big arenas,” Fender says, furrowing his brow, appearing to shift from excitement to overwhelm. “I can’t go anywhere in my hometown. I can’t walk anywhere in London without selfies constantly, it’s gone mental. That’s part of the reason why I want to move to New York, because nobody knows me.”

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