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Sam Fender: I'm not the next Bruce Springsteen

In a landscape dominated by bands playing identikit guitar music, Sam Fender's hyper-conscious songs stand out. He speaks to Alex Green about the trappings of fame and his plans to convert the hype into something more tangible

Staying true: Sam Fender is happy to release his type of music
Staying true: Sam Fender is happy to release his type of music

Sam Fender's blistering guitar playing and searing commentary on all manner of topics have put him and his home town on the map. The last few months have been a whirlwind for the 25-year-old from North Shields.

"I'm not the next Bruce Springsteen - hype can be a dangerous thing," he tells me on the eve of the release of his now-number one debut album, Hypersonic Missiles.

It's no exaggeration to say winning the Critics' Choice prize (previous recipients include Adele and Florence Welch) at the Brit Awards in February set him on this trajectory.

"It's definitely been like an adrenaline shot since that," he gushes.

Fender and his band used to perform to a few hundred fans each night, before he was spotted performing in a pub in his home town by Ben Howard's manager.

Now he has the pulling power to sell 40,000 tickets to a European tour in an hour. He characterises this disruption as "four or five months of complete change" but the truth is that is was a little more taxing than that.

Fender's gruelling tour schedule almost ended his career before it had even begun.

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On doctor's orders he pulled out of an envied afternoon set at Glastonbury festival just two days before.

He subsequently cancelled a string of tour dates. The cause? A serious vocal cord haemorrhage.

"I was really lucky in that I stopped at the right time," he says. "Had I have gone on any longer I could have really permanently damaged myself. But luckily I recovered."

"Since then it's kind of been golden. I'm very lucky," he adds, optimistically.

More than lucky, some might say. When he finally returned to the stage in July, it was to support two of the biggest names in music: Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

The folk-rock behemoths teamed up for a one-off gig in London's Hyde Park, and Fender was there to support them. "It was ridiculous," he says simply.

Sam Fender
Sam Fender

He is at pains to make clear that drink and cigarettes had nothing to do with his illness.

"I was never a big smoker or drinker anyway. It wasn't really that that did it," he explains.

And it's hard not to believe him. Before his illness, Fender's touring schedule could only be described as Herculean.

Last year he played some 170 gigs, he says, and this year he has already played about 100.

Fender speaks in great, winding sentences with an easy eloquence. One moment he's talking a mile a minute. The next he is pausing to address some burning issue.

He's been much touted by critics for the subjects he deals with in his songs, topics you wouldn't hear many of his indie-rock contemporaries tackling head on.

Dead Boys addresses the suicide of a close friend (and the epidemic of male mental health) while Two People explores domestic abuse using tangled, shifting lyrics.

"It can be cathartic but it can also be quite exposing," he says after a pause.

Is it tough to write about issues so close to the bone?

"I tend to write my songs about other people or fictional characters loosely based on real people in my life - or based upon myself," he replies.

"I tend not to make it directly about myself and that separation allows it to be... it makes me comfortable to sing about it because then it's not 100% gospel or 100% my life.

"It's an adaptation of my life.

"Sometimes it's hard.... Sometimes it's hard to sing Dead Boys on stage because I lost a friend to suicide. Then I know I'm singing it for him. It doesn't mean that I don't enjoy it and that it's not a good thing."

Despite some good work by charities and celebrities in recent years to put male mental health in the spotlight (see Justin Bieber, Stormzy and James Arthur) the topic still feels taboo.

But Fender has seen real, positive results. He tells me about a man who was planning to kill himself by crashing his car but while driving he heard the singer giving an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live about Dead Boys.

He turned the car around and drove home before seeking help. Later he emailed Fender to tell him what happened.

"That guy who decided not to kill himself that day because he heard Dead Boys and he heard an interview with me...

"That will always be the best thing that has ever happened in my career," he says with a fierce conviction.

"It doesn't matter how many records I sell or how many shows I sell out, that is just amazing."

Critics have flocked to compare Fender to Bruce Springsteen.

It's an easy comparison - he's an avid fan of The Boss and his tracks are known to feature an occasional saxophone or rolling, cacophonous drum beat.

But he's loathe to accept the comparison.

"I'm certainly not the next Bruce Springsteen," he says with audible exasperation.

"Bruce Springsteen has done 19 studio albums. He's a genius. He's one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.

"I've not even released my debut album and people are already comparing us to him."

Similarly he shrugs off any comparison to Manchester rockers Oasis.

"There is no next Oasis. There was Oasis. The whole comparison thing just makes me...

"People always go, 'Oh, what does he sound like?' and stuff like that. Just f****** listen to it."

Fender, however, cannot deny that his success comes at a time when guitar music is on the wane, displaced by US rap, soul, hip hop and dance.

Not that he has an issue with this. When he's not on stage or in the studio, he's listening to rap.

"I don't think it really matters what sort of music is in the charts as long as the song is good. That's all that matters.

"A good song transcends its genre. A good song can be played by anybody. A good song can be played on a piano or...

"You could turn a hip hop song into a rock song if you wanted to.

"A good song is a good song."

Fender proved his point in February by covering Ariana Grande's Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored for BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge, transforming it into "a total Smiths emo song".

But despite the hype around his debut, the anxiety and illness, Fender is determined to enjoy the ride.

"I am learning ways to cope," he says.

"I think the best way to look at it is, 'Yes, it's pressure, but for Christ's sake, it's amazing'.

"You never know when this thing is going to end."

Sam Fender's debut album Hypersonic Missiles is out on Polydor now.

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