Sam Fender, a songwriter caught between fame and his hometown


NORTH SHIELDS, England – Sam Fender, a singer-songwriter often referred to as the British answer to Bruce Springsteen, realized his life had changed for good on Halloween.

This year he bought “eight huge boxes” of chocolate for all the kids who might knock on his door in North Shields, a working-class town on the banks of the River Tyne in north-eastern England.

Fender expected the hideout to last all night, but it was gone almost instantly.

“Everyone in the neighborhood was like, ‘This is Sam Fender’s house, let’s go knocking! Parents of the tour or caterers were more inclined to take selfies with the star than candy, whether they knew her music or not. “It scared us a bit,” he said. “It was just crazy.”

Over the past year, Fender, 27, has grown into one of Britain’s biggest music stars, but has said he still doesn’t want to be “this guy “who’s too famous to answer his door on Halloween – a position that touches on a tension running through his new hit: how to be a star while being part of the local community that defines his songwriting.

His second pop-rock anthem album, “Seventeen Going Under”, released in October, quickly hit the top of the UK charts, as did his debut, and since then has sold out, an outdoor performance has announced. with a capacity of 45,000 people in London and charmed the British public by appearing Hangover on Morning TV.

For a few weeks this fall, the album’s title track sparked a TikTok trend because of the lyrics – “I was way too scared to hit it, but I’d hit it in the blink of an eye now” – which speak of suffering at the hands of domestic bullies and abusers.

All of this success had been built on the backs of North Shields, a depressed town of some 30,000 people in an area where 34% of children live in poverty, but which is also home, Fender said, to some of the “funniest, more loving, caring people you’ve ever met.

Fender places most of his songs in town, often referencing local pubs or brawls on the cool beaches nearby, and singing about his and his friends’ experiences including troubled childhoods, male suicides, and estrangement. generalized politics.

Owain Davies, the locally born Fender manager, said Fender’s songs were “emotional and powerful” but their subject matter allows them to “speak for a lot of people here – a lot of us” .

Now Fender is in a kind of limbo, unable to have a normal life in North Shields or Newcastle, the nearest town, as he tries to sail to glory, even if he desperately wants to. “I’m bouncing between two complete opposites and I’m in a stage now where I don’t feel like I belong to either of them,” Fender said, breaking eye contact only for bites of a chicken burger with a hearty mayonnaise that ‘he had ordered in his local pub.

The idea of ​​leaving home was difficult for an artist from the North East in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be difficult for someone from London, he explained, “We are tribal. Everything that feels good in Newcastle belongs to Newcastle.

In an era when many British music stars attended performing arts schools and came up ready to succeed, Fender’s journey to fame better exemplifies the barriers the class may still present. The class has long enlivened the music here, as a subject of song and badge of honor: The Clash made supporting workers’ rights part of its mission and the Sex Pistols made fun of the Queen; The Britpop battles of the 1990s pitted the middle class Blur against the working class Oasis, as the arty Pulp sang about upscale aliens slumming it with ordinary people.

After initially growing up on a middle-class street in North Shields, things got tough, Fender said, after his parents divorced when he was 8. As a teenager, he lived with his mother, a nurse who had to stop working because she suffered from fibromyalgia, a disease that causes pain and fatigue.

“We still had to beg, borrow and steal from anyone who could help,” Fender said.

At 18, Fender was working in a local pub supporting them both when Davies, the manager, arrived. At the encouragement of his boss, Fender performed the Beatles song “Get Back” followed by one of his own tracks.

Davies, recalling this moment in a phone interview, said he had already drunk several pints of beer but was still “totally struck by this incredible voice”. He immediately called to book some Fender-worthy shows.

“It feels like a Disney story when you tell it,” Fender said, adding, “Davies saved my life.”

What followed was far from a fairy tale of overnight success, however. Over the next several years, Fender continued to play concerts and write songs, “trying to figure out who I was,” he said.

Then, at age 20, he fell seriously ill (he won’t talk about the specifics of the illness) and sat in the hospital thinking, “If I have to die young, I want to make sure I wrote something worth listening to. “Soon he was writing songs about his life in North Shields.

This local focus has won him fans far away from Great Britain. Steven Van Zandt, a veteran member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who regularly plays Fender’s music on his US radio show, said in a phone interview that Fender “could have taken the easy route” thanks to his voice and his appearance. Instead, Fender chose to sing “those intensely personal songs of working class life that had no guarantee of success,” Van Zandt said, calling the move “courageous.”

Fender seemed elated that some of his heroes, including Springsteen, loved his music, but in an hour-long interview he returned to talking about his hometown over and over again. At one point, he mentioned a campaign he ran last year to stop the local council from charging people money for calling its homeless hotlines. After Fender turned to social media to complain about the problem, the council promised to make the lines free.

“Sometimes I feel like, ‘Am I really doing something this good? “” Said Fender. It was a rare moment when he felt he was, he said.

Fender insisted he would never leave North Shields behind and became visibly anxious when speaking about the possibility. But Halloween night and other similar experiences had shown him that maybe it was time to try and live somewhere else for at least a few months. Somewhere that doesn’t look like a “goldfish bowl,” he said, maybe New York, maybe London, somewhere that’s “the opposite of where I come “. The only thing certain was that his songs would not change.

“You can take a boy from Shields,” he said, “but you can’t take Shields from the boy. “


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