Rag 'n' Bone Man on overnight success: 'People do not know what to make of me'
After his song Human, co-produced by Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, became a massive hit, Rag 'n' Bone Man tells Laura Harding about the pressures of overnight success, why he shuns the limelight and his plans for the future.
A few weeks ago Rag 'n' Bone Man appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' US chat show. He had never seen the programme and had no idea what to expect, so he says the daytime vibe "weirded him out". But the very fact he was there at all shows just how far the 32-year-old from Uckfield in East Sussex has come in a very short time.
This time last year the singer-songwriter was finely tuning his special combination of blues, soul, gospel, folk and hip-hop from the fringes of the music industry, unaware of the huge success that was just around the corner.
He had released a couple of EPs and made it onto BBC Radio 1's In New Music We Trust playlist, but was far from a household name.
But then his brooding, smoky single Human was released in July 2016, a musical juggernaut that became so ubiquitous it seemed to be playing in every shop and scoring every TV show trailer for the rest of the year. It was even performed on The X Factor.
It reached number two in the UK charts and hit number one in Austria, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. It was certified gold in Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Now, fresh off a plane from a successful string of performances at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, a triumphant show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and that appearance on Ellen, success in America seems within reach too.
At 6ft 5in and heavily bearded and tattooed, Rory Graham (his real name) cuts an imposing figure, but seems thoughtful and sometimes rather overwhelmed by the attention he is receiving.
He thinks some people are shocked when they see him for the first time, not expecting those bluesy songs to come from someone who looks like him.
"I don't think people know what to make of me," he says. "They look at me and they are a bit confused. That's been a theme for a while.
"I've just been in America, where people came to my show on word of mouth and didn't know what to expect.
"People have a hard time with the way I look and the way I sound. They say, 'I didn't expect you to look like that'.
"I understand how people conjure up an image and that isn't what they see. I don't really know how to react... I know it's not a compliment."
While he's clearly chuffed by the awards that have been bestowed on him - he scored the Critics' Choice Award at the Brits, as well as the British Breakthrough Act prize - the star has found his new fame a trickier prospect.
"It's overwhelming at different points," he says. "I find the situation very difficult. I don't think I was ever prepared for that. I take every day as it comes.
"Around the Brits, I had reporters at my mum's house, and it's bit different for me now. I think I can go anywhere, but really you have to pick and choose.
"I've got locals in Brighton where I know no one would bother me. I've been going to them for 15 years and nobody cares, but in London it's suddenly everybody is looking at me."
Graham is trying to live as normal a life as possible. "I do the shows and I just go home... I'm not out at parties and I'm not in the bubble," he says.
But that normality could be a distant memory if he realises his big ambitions. "I want to play Carnegie Hall and Radio City, just because of the history," he admits. "They are dream places.
"I keep thinking about that and playing Shepherd's Bush and how I felt about that two or three years ago. I don't see them as being out of reach now."
He's back on tour now, which is what he says he loves doing, and festival season is his favourite time of year.
He will be popping up at Glastonbury, Isle of Wight, Wildlife in Brighton, Lovebox in London and Bestival in Dorset, as well as a string of other festivals.
"I love hopping off the bus, hopefully seeing other bands," Graham says. "Last year I played Wildlife and realised we were playing before De La Soul. It was unbelievable."
He's also keen to work on new music, having dropped his debut album, also called Human, in February.
It was crafted with producers including Jonny Coffer, who worked on Beyonce's Lemonade, and Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, and the result was Human debuting at number one in the album charts and staying in the top five ever since.
"I took a week off last month and went to a studio," he says. "I've been writing on the road with my keys player and I wanted to put them down. I have a really clear idea of what I want my next album to sound like.
"The idea is I want it to be a collaborative record. I have heroes like Organised Noise I want to work with and I'm listening to Ivy Soul, who I would like to work with.
"I said I wanted to do something with Stormzy about two years ago and I still do. I haven't really had time yet, but as I work on new material if there is something up his street I would definitely send it to him.
"I also want to get back into some more rap music. I want to make some more hip-hop music. I was in a group called Rum Committee, so it would be nice to do something with them under that banner."
We might have only just seen the start of what Rag 'n' Bone Man is capable of.
- Rag 'n' Bone Man's debut album, Human, is out now. He will play a number of UK festivals this summer including Wild Life, Sundown, Bestival and Lovebox