Brit Awards Critics' Choice Winner Sam Fender On New Album, Shedding Light On Mental Health Through Music

Jack Whitefield
Sam Fender

English singer-songwriter Sam Fender is the latest to earn the Critics' Choice honor at the Brit Awards. The award is given to the artist anticipated to be the next breakthrough star, with the likes of Adele and Sam Smith among previous recipients.

Now, all eyes are on Fender, though he is far from an overnight success. The North Shields native has been writing songs and performing gigs for around a decade, despite only being 24 years old. Not only is his music richly textured with raw vulnerability, but he's also using lyrics to spark conversations about toxic masculinity and mental health, a topic he felt compelled to write about after losing a friend to suicide. 

With the title track of his November 2018 EP Dead Boys, he speaks candidly about male suicide rates in the U.K., repeating the lyric, “We close our eyes/ Learn our pain/ Nobody ever could explain/ All the dead boys in our hometown.” Says Fender: "I'm just going to keep on writing songs that matter."

With the arrival of his debut full-length album later this summer and stateside performances at Austin's South by Southwest festival and Lollapalooza, Fender continues to be one to watch. Below, the rapidly-ascending artist talks about creating a dialogue around mental health and recording his debut album in a studio he built in his hometown.

How did you first get into music?

My dad was a club musician. He was always playing guitar and playing loads of soul records and '60s rock'n'roll. Whenever he used to cook, he used to play Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, The Kinks and the Spencer Davis Group -- a lot of really earthy things. Then my older brother got me Jeff Buckley’s Grace on CD when I was 14, and that changed my perspective on what it is to be a singer-songwriter. I fell in love with that fearlessness of being able to be a few different things and not worry about it.

What is your writing process like?

Recently, I've been writing the lyrics first, because I really enjoy just writing poetry or just writing freeform. We live in a world where there's a hell of a lot to be writing about right now. I'm never going to overestimate the clout of my job. But we are on a platform and I think most people want to do good for their planet and for their community and for the people around them. When you have these moments where a song connects with people and creates a conversation, it's quite a humbling experience, because it's like, "Maybe there is a little bit more weight to this job than I thought there ever was before." Which was wonderful that that happened with “Dead Boys."

What was it like to see the response to "Dead Boys"?

I was really hesitant to release that song, because I didn't want to be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy of losing a friend. But because of that, kids have come forward. There's one guy who we got an email from when I did BBC 5's live radio show in Manchester. Some guy was actually on his way to kill himself, and he stopped the car because he heard me and Nihal talking on 5 Live. We spoke about how men don't talk [about mental health]. He heard the song and the conversation, and he went back and sent this huge email about how he turned the car around. I'm just here to put out some good tunes. But when that happens it's incredible. It does make your job ever more rewarding.

Is it your goal to create a dialogue around these issues?

I'm more asking questions then I am talking about the answer. A lot of my songs are just posing questions, because I'm on a journey to find the answers myself. That is probably what my album is going to have a lot of -- a kid in his early '20s going, "Fucking hell, how do i wrap my head around all of this?" I want to figure this whole fucking thing out before I have kids of my own.

What has it been like to work on your first album?

It was intense. It's my first-ever album, so I was pretty scared. It was long hours and a lot of stressing and getting frustrated with myself and losing my rag. It all came together quite quickly because all of the songs were there. The album is incredibly mixed. Sonically, it's got a lot of different flavors. It really shows the journey from when I was part [-time] working in a bar and didn't really know what the fuck I was doing and living with my mom, just me and my mother in our little small flat in North Shields. And just going from there to where we are now, sat in the back of a tour bus just like, "what the hell is going on?" I feel it has chronicled that time.

Tell me about the recording process.

I did most of the instrumentation. I do for most of the recordings, but only because I'm a control freak. But they've [his band] all added little bits here and there. My best friend Tom [Ungerer] is my producer. We didn't go with any big shot producer. Some record labels were trying to make us do that and we were just like no way. Then we signed with Polydor who let us do it the way we wanted to do it and that's been amazing. It's been such a wonderful experience to be able to do everything ourselves. It's so good. And now loads of famous people are asking him to produce their stuff. It's really helped his career as well which is wonderful. All these other people were trying to tell me to go somewhere else. I was like, "All these big amazing producers would have had to start somewhere." They would have had to record one album that did well for them to kick start their career, and I believe Tom's got it in him to be that guy.

Where did you record?

We did it in our own studio. We built the studio in North Shield, my hometown. We used the money that we got over from labels and stuff my manager put together, and we built the studio. I recorded my whole album there in my hometown. It's fucking incredible, it's great, because I don't get any red light syndrome. I don't feel any sort of pressure. I just go in there and do it. I used to get red light syndrome, and I would be trying to sing too hard when we did recordings in a big studio. I'd be like, "Fuck, it's costing like 3,000 pounds a day" -- or something ridiculous like that -- and "I've got to get this vocal take done or we're fucked."

How has winning the Brit Awards Critics' Choice changed things for you?

It's nuts. [My] following on Instagram just shot up thousands the other day. That was insanity. All the gigs are instantly bigger. We're playing 2,000 cap venues and stuff, which is nuts compared to when we were only doing a hundred half a year ago. It's happened very quick. Just the interactions being mental. What always will be weird is kids asking for photos. I just had three there outside the bus and I was just like, this is surreal. The fans over here are really incredible. Especially when it's not your city. And the following is so mixed as well. You've got all the really young teenagers at the front and then the older teenagers slightly back, then it's [people in their] '20s and '30s and then '40s. And in the back I've seen some people attend and be like, "I'm 70 and I fucking love your tunes." And I'm like, this is so good. It's amazing because it's really nice to see such a mad mass of people. I'm just going to keep on writing songs that matter if I can.