When you’ve admired someone for a considerable period, and you listen to their music and watch their interviews, actually meeting them in person can seem overwhelming, and frankly, daunting. I’m new to the game, so getting the opportunity to interview Sam Fender on a rainy Monday evening in Paris was a big deal.
The show itself, at La Cigale (a venue that has hosted greats, from Eric Clapton to Radiohead, Johnny Hallyday and Oasis), was a triumph. An electric atmosphere reverberated from the first chord of the warmup act The Pale Whites, an indie rock band hailing from Sam’s own Newcastle, whose set charged the room with magnetic energy.
Fender’s personality shone throughout the concert as he chatted between songs and spoke as if he were still playing at family birthday parties or at the small pubs where he once started out. It is clear that interacting with his fans is a big part of his enjoyment of the show, despite some rowdy Brits in the crowd. He and the band even played and sung Happy Birthday to a lucky girl in the audience, albeit in a humorously begrudging way. Eschewing the typical first encore, second encore charade, Fender said gracefully after 7 or 8 songs, “this is the time where we pretend to fuck off”, before, obviously, not fucking off and performing Play God, a clear favourite of the French. How the band interacted with each other on stage made it blindingly clear that they have been friends for a long time, there was flawed synchronicity about the performance, which for the first night of the EU tour was impressive and exciting to watch.
Despite just returning from a bout of laryngitis and a haemorrhaged vocal chord which meant he couldn’t play at Glastonbury last year, the smooth quality of his voice and the effortlessness of the high notes had all the earmarks of a veteran rock star. Granted, you can tell that he is still excited by the prospect of every new venue; each time the capacity increases, he remains humbled and enthralled by the possibilities of longevity. This was personified by the incredibly charming, beaming smile that he couldn’t contain every time he stepped back from the microphone. It resembled genuine modesty. He rounded off the performance by confidently covering Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, which if you didn’t know better, could have easily been one of his own songs.
Springsteen, he tells me later, is someone that he is always drawn back to. When I ask who he is listening to at the moment, and assuredly prompt Bruce, he says “well no, Bruce Springsteen is always there. I always revisit [him], but I’ve kind of hammered [him] to death.” So right now, he is actually “on a stable diet of Big Thief and Pinegrove.” He implores us to listen to his good friend, Joanna Sternberg and her song “This Is Not Who I Want To Be, if you want to cry your eyes out.”
The conversation flowed smoothly for nearly an hour, and despite being distracted by his cheekbones, which are even more cutting in person, we managed to cover the broadest range of topics from Brandon Flowers’s pizza toppings to the detrimental effect that the Tory government is having on the North East of England. The speed and ease in which he could flit between topics, partly fuelled, I’m sure, by after-show adrenaline, was staggering. One minute, he would be talking about how he can understand the fraught appeal of political caricatures like Nigel Farage, the next, quickly segued into a story about how a boy at his school used to steal from Morrisons and sell his stash for half price at school. Despite the seemingly haphazardness of these stories, he came across as eloquent and informed when talking about things that he was passionate about.
He spoke briefly but candidly about his illness that prevented him from playing some big shows and forced him to cancel the final leg of his tour last year. As a result, he has made his tour schedule and working life a bit less crazy this time around, with six shows in the EU leg, as opposed to the 170 that they did in his first year of touring.
Getting onto the more serious stuff, he says that he would have loved to have dinner with Orson Welles because “he’s a pisshead and loved food… people always pick rockstars, but rockstars are shit ‘cos they’re all smackheads and don’t like eating food.” And he’d eat anything Italian, or rather “anything with fuckin’ loads of garlic in.” Kendrick Lamar and Joni Mitchell are two artists he fantasises about collaborating with. Lamar because his music is so far removed from Fender’s current sound and Mitchell because, well… it’s Joni Mitchell!
He dreams of playing St. James’ Park in Newcastle, the home of his local football team, but says modestly he doesn’t know if they’ll get there or not. “ I think it will either happen or it won’t, we are either gonna keep going that way, or it’s just gonna fucking whatever… to be fair where we’ve gone so far, I’m happy as fuck with. It’s crazy.”
Over the last ten minutes, I asked that despite his somewhat critical thoughts about millennials and the current state of the world that he highlights in songs such as ‘White Privilege’ and ‘Poundland Kardashian’, whether he has seen anything recently that has given him hope that not everything has gone to shit. This prompted the more enlightening part of the interview where he praised his fans and the younger generations and their ability to see through any past prejudices. He blames cancel culture and the parlance of wokeness for hindering progress, as he said honestly, “imagine not being able to set a foot wrong in your twenties,” without the risk of being cancelled. Making mistakes is the only way to learn, and he admits that he, like everyone else, is still learning. What gives him hope is the ability that we still have to talk, without hiding behind a screen, to people with differing opinions to ourselves, and find some common ground; a practice that is becoming less and less common. But all is not lost, his infectious interest and enthusiasm for life informs his lyrics and creates his powerful and relatable sound, and this is only going to get better.