Sam Fender: “Lefty is now a slander in working-class cities” | Sam Fender

In 2011, Sam Fender He was, by his own admission, a “little guy” who had dropped out of A-Levels in his hometown of North Shields, where he lived with his mother in an apartment with black mold on the walls. A decade later, he’s become one of the UK’s best and most successful singer-songwriters: his 2019 debut album Hypersonic Missiles went to number one, won a British award, and his talent for writing songs for 21st-century discontent made him fall short of delight. Peers like Ed Sheeran and George Ezra. His second album Seventeen Going Under, a superb record that directs the voice of Bruce Springsteen and the war on drugs to examine his family, his youth and vulnerability, was released in October.

How was the epidemic for you?

I handled it like everyone else did: very appallingly. I didn’t take care of myself. I wasn’t one of those people who started a fitness regimen on TikTok. I had to warm up, so I was on my own for the first three months. I drank, overeat, and played a lot of video games. I was so miserable in the end.

Your new album is more inspired by your life than ever before.

A lot of my lyrics used to come from pub music. Someone at the end of the pub, complaining about the other half – I would have finished the story. There are a lot of loud-mouthed Jordi drug dealers, the most cautious drug dealers on the planet, and I’m going to get a lot of details from that. Since I didn’t have things to point out and write about during lockdown, I began to look inside, and think: There are enough things from my private life. Why don’t I write about any of it?

My mother was a nurse who gave birth to almost half the children in North Shields. she Suffered from fibromyalgiaWhich affected her mental health and ability to work. I had a feeling of powerlessness. You don’t have a job, you’re only 17; a lot of [the title track, Seventeen Going Under] It came from.

Dad and I can drink beer and talk about music until the cows come home, but when it comes to making a complaint, it always ends up in a screaming match. One of my first memories is that he accidentally jammed my finger in the door. He was so angry with himself but couldn’t express it, he shut the wall under the stairs. I sat there crying because I cut my finger, and crying more because I watched my dad kick home. We are laughing now. Things have really turned around. We’re going to have these conversations about toxic masculinity and my dad will say, ‘I never taught you such a thing, did I?’

There is a very touching lyrical story about him kissing his mother’s forehead when she died, and you fantasize about doing the same to him one day.

I was screaming [when she died] – I’ve never seen him like this. I saw him as a son and saw his loss. You are giving your parents a hard time because of course they will do things that upset and hurt you. But raising a child is hard, especially when there are divorce and money issues. There were things that happened that I felt bad about, but a lot of it was my fault for never saying what I wanted to say. You don’t know how to connect these things when you grow up in Shields.

You mentioned drug dealing in the opening songs – did you have to do it yourself?

Put it this way: There was a time when I was 18 years old and working with some very shady characters. Not at the bar I used to work at – I had a different job that led us to meet some very charming but very naughty people. They ended up going missing and being charged, but I wasn’t involved in anything illegal, I was on the sidelines. Once I hit my mid-twenties, I felt like I could write about everything in a way that wasn’t exactly boring.

I have also written about politics – Yeah, from the new album, it’s probably the grittiest song I’ve ever written.

Because of the left-right polarity, I don’t feel like I have an identity with politicians on both sides. The left wing has abandoned the working classes, and with so much left – I don’t want to sound like Piers Morgan when I say this – I feel like there are a lot of stupid fights and deception, especially online. But I hate conservatives passionately. I grew up hating them, and I still hate them, and I always will. They clearly know who they represent and they don’t represent people like us. A quarter of the children of working families in my area suffer from poverty. Nobody raises their neck towards the northeast. The sentence in Aye – “I don’t have time for so few” – is the one thing that will always be my main concern on this planet, the huge disparity between the 1% and the rest of the world. These culture wars are valid wars to be fought – there is a lot of bigotry, a lot of racism and homophobia. But in order to take out the Conservative Party, you have to start representing the working class of this country.

The right sits and laughs, sweeping every election. Blythe Valley went up here. It is a shipbuilding city. This is madness. Working-class people here think the Conservatives are on their side – which shows just how completely the left has fucked itself. She’s got into an argument with people saying Jeremy Corbyn is naive, making the Daily Mail headlines vomit that he’s a terrorism sympathizer. I like: How? Tell me in your own words. And they say, “Ah, you’re only one of them left.” “Leftie” is now a slander in working-class cities – what happened there? It bothers me that we are in a place where the media has so much control over these men who have tasted their whole lives in a system that would benefit them if there was someone like Corbyn.

You seem really annoyed with some of these new songs.

Things that changed my life like becoming famous and having money all happened at once and I didn’t feel like I deserved any of them. I was full of self-hatred with Massive Impostor SyndromeAnd then I started hating myself more because I was like, “Why am I so miserable when these wonderful things happen?”

There is a line in Seventeen Going Under that I love. It’s one of my friend’s sayings: “I armed myself with a smile.” I’ve always played the role of the happy joker. But I grew up with very low self-esteem, even though I have enough ego to want to do [music]and used it as a treatment. But it got to the point where the music just wasn’t enough. I was dealing with abandonment issues. My parents separated when I was young and I lived with my parents, but then he and I stopped.

I was bullied at school because I had long hair and was sensitive. My father put boxing gloves on me to teach me how to punch. He would say, “If you think someone is going to hit you, hit them first!” But I could never do that, and I hated myself for not being able to. [Later] I overcompensated by lifting weights and going to the boxing gym and all that stuff to try and become something more like my dad. And the fact that I’ve never really resisted those kids who used to push us, or berate us constantly for years on end, it wears you out. I got to the point where I was in my twenties, I just started trying to fight people. I fired one of my best colleagues. I used to find myself tearing cabinet doors off the wall because of things that happened five years ago. And still nothing worked.

“Four years ago I was getting benefits”… I play live in August. Photo: Dave Bennett/Getty Images for White Claw Hard Seltzer

There was also an important person in my early life who committed suicide. You don’t realize these things affect you until you get older and you don’t know why you’re walking around with a hole in your stomach or why you’re pushing partners away. When I had a girlfriend, I realized that I couldn’t give myself up to people. I didn’t feel safe in a love relationship. I’m going to sabotage myself almost to take control of the situation, because that’s not the guy who hurt you, you’re letting go, and that makes you feel like you’re in control of the situation. Because you have such a fear of losing them.

We Gordez – we built a city on feeling angry and punching each other. This stays with you, and if you don’t sort it out, it looks like a tumor. I was also using every vice in the book to distract myself, and none of them worked. So I started therapy. I’m finally in a place I can understand, and the things I hated about myself are what I should celebrate – the fact that I’m an empathetic little kid is probably the best thing about me.

Yes – otherwise you wouldn’t have been writing songs like Dead Boys (from the debut of Hypersonic Missiles), which people said helped them deal with suicidal feelings.

I lost a good friend to suicide last year, and I’m not going to lie to you – due to lockdown, and even before, I’ve been in this kind of place myself. I’ve had moments where I was so low that I thought about it. I never got to the point where I actually did it, it was more than that: I can’t get out of how I feel. I don’t like suicide lightly – I’ve lost a lot of friends because of it, so I don’t want to be portrayed as a survivor. But I was at a point where I was so low that silly thoughts crossed my head. I didn’t think I’d be happy at all, and drank myself into oblivion. But I have great people around me who really care and get me out of my hole. Sometimes therapy is like a Pandora’s box – you pull things off and make you feel bad at first. You begin to understand yourself, and this can lead you to hate yourself even more. [The therapist] It was like: All the things you don’t love yourself for, you should be proud of — and that was pretty intense.

In the Mantra, she writes about another kind of malaise: fame.

When you’re famous, you enter these places where you’re surrounded by sociopaths sniffing at your back. Now I felt like I was famous and in a rock band I should play the part – but I just realized I was interested in holes.

Is this at the music industry parties?

Not only that, all that – other musicians… There are a lot of pokes in this industry, a lot of divas, and also others who want to stick to your tails. I don’t care where people are – I’ve met people from lavish and gorgeous backgrounds, but it’s only when I walk into a situation where everyone is of a better stature than me that I feel insecure, my imposter starts the syndrome and find it easier to get myself wrong in the room. You always feel like you don’t belong, and that led me to hang out with people who, no matter their class, were just social losers. The mantra was written when I was at rest. My throat was fucked, and I was riding a BMX across Redondo Beach, LA, and going: What happened to my life? Four years ago I was receiving subsidies – I need to keep my head up.

It’s encouraging to hear you sound so optimistic now.

I feel like I’ve regained my integrity, I’m more honest with myself about who I am, and about my weaknesses and strengths. I don’t hate myself that much. I’ve never given myself a time of day before, and I am now – it was great. I’m still learning, I’m still in the trenches at the moment, but I feel like there’s a clear target on the horizon. This record is all about growth, and the issues you go through into adulthood. The closing song, The Dying Light, is sad. “Those dead boys are always there, and there’s more every year,” but he ends with the celebration: “I’m damned if I give up tonight / I must stand up to the dying light. / To my mam and my dad and all my friends / To all who haven’t spent the night.” I have to go on – because I’ve been preaching that! It is for them, all the people who have messaged me, that man who has prevented himself from killing himself – they have realized that there is a purpose to this, and that there is beauty to be.

I’m not that big in America – although I’ll try to change that, like! – So the boys and I are thinking about doing a stint there for six months, and trying to write a third record. I have a lot of ideas that resulted from writing this one. I feel like I’m starting to close the chapter on this part of my life. I’m going to focus on not feeling like a bag of shit every single day.

Seventeen Going Under was released on October 8.

  • In the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted at 116123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Line is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, Crisis Support Service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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