Three years ago, when singer-songwriter Sam Fender was struggling mentally and emotionally in his small town of North Shields, England, he never could have predicted how much his life would soon change. He’s since won the Critics' Choice trophy at the 2019 Brit Awards (putting him in an elite category with past winners like Adele, Ellie Goulding, and Sam Smith); scored a No. 1 album in the U.K. with his full-length debut, Hypersonic Missiles; and become the protégé of none other than Sir Elton John, who has described him as “a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty” and invited him to perform at this year’s Elton John AIDS Foundation’s annual Oscar party.
“What I take away from it all is how loving a man he is,” Fender says of his friendship with John. “Elton's been looking after me and keeping an eye on me. When I was struggling, like I had a rough time over Christmas, he's just been really, really supportive and just such a wonderful, wonderful mentor.”
But it seems that Fender has paid it forward, with his everyman anthems having a profound effect — particularly “Dead Boys,” the track that first caught Elton’s ear. The harrowing song, about the prevalence of suicide among young men in small-town, working-class Britain, has resonated with many facing the same hardships that Fender once dealt with, and it has for sure saved at least one life.
“I did this radio show called 5 Live and I was talking [about “Dead Boys”] to the presenter, Nihal, on BBC 5,” Fender recalls to Yahoo Entertainment. “And then six months after that conversation, we got an email from this guy who said he'd basically tried and tried to combat his mental health and combat the notion that he felt worthless. And one day just decided to kill himself and got in his car — he was going to run his car off the road. He found a spot where he could drive his car off the road, but as he was driving, 5 Live was on and he heard the interview, and he heard me and Nihal talking. And it was the catalyst that made him go seek help. He pulled the car over. He basically sat on the side of the road and contemplated what to do, and listened to the conversation. He just sat on the side of the road crying for about three hours. And then he drove back to his wife, told her what he was planning on doing, told her what was happening, and he went and got help and got on.
“Now he's happy. He has kids as well,” Fender continues. “He came and met me and Nihal, and we had an interview and it was really surreal. To be honest, I didn't really know what to say to him, because I'm not a hero; I'm not a therapist or a doctor. I'm definitely not going to overestimate the clout of my job; I'm primarily just an entertainer, that's what musicians do. But he was saying that split moment, that moment of acknowledgement, saved him. And that was f***ing crazy. There's been quite a few little things like that, but that's the one that stays with me.”
To kick off May’s Mental Health Awareness Month, Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Fender about the real-life tragedies and political climate that inspired “Dead Boys,” his own mental health battles, and why he feels the need to always speak out. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Yahoo Entertainment: When Elton John introduced you at his Oscar party, onstage he said when he first heard “Dead Boys,” it blew him away. It’s a very intense and personal song. Can you tell me about it?
Sam Fender: Well, I lost a friend due to suicide, and then another person who I knew, also to suicide. So it was two people in my hometown, very prominent characters in the small music scene in our little Northeastern bubble. They were two such very beautiful, very wonderful, just awe-inspiring, normal people that you did not see it coming. It really shook a lot of people, including myself. I actually was very close to one of them in particular; I wrote songs in his house. So it was pretty heavy. I couldn't write about it for a long time, because it was too painful.
So I wrote that song a year and a bit later, and then I didn't really want to release it, because I didn't want to be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy of losing a friend. But then I played it to my fans and my colleagues, and they would say things like, "My dad killed himself." And I never knew. It just further accentuated the notion that we don't really talk about this stuff. And then because of that, I became more sensitive to it, and I started noticing in the papers that there were quite a few suicides in my hometown — and they were all boys, pretty much.
It was just constant. There was two brothers in one week. A 20-year-old walked out into the street. It was just f***ing horrible, man. There were a couple of kids there who had gone to my school. It freaked me out. And then I read that [suicide] was the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the U.K. — higher than cancer, than car accidents, everything. And that really put the willies up me, because it was 84 men a week in the U.K., and that is pretty staggering considering that the U.K. is a fifth of the size of Texas.
Why do you feel this has been so prevalent in Britain?
I think it has something to do with the archaic "boys don't cry," "stiff upper lip," "keep calm and carry on" sort of thing. But also, I think it's to do with austerity — the austerity measures that are being put in place by the Tory government. I think the Tory government prioritizes GDP over the welfare of our people, which in my eyes is picking numbers over people, which is I think is ridiculous. I know everybody wants to be competitive in the name of capitalism or whatever, but it's gone too far.
I feel like the Tory government tore the guts out of my hometown. It took away all of the industry in the ‘80s, and it continues to f***ing plunder the education system, and underfund the hospitals and schools, and underfund just the industry and public sector in general. And then they wonder why there's a generation of people who are jobless! And the living wage isn't good enough for people to live on, so a quarter of the children in the Northeast of England are living in poverty — and they're in working families. These aren't people that are slackers. These are families that are all working, where both parents are working. And they're still in poverty. It really grinds my gears.
And that will have an effect. When you grow up in those circumstances, it affects your self-esteem. When you grow up with nothing, you believe you deserve nothing. And that is the thing. That's the thing that's happening. And then I think the financial pressure of that, including whole “stiff upper lip” idea that men aren't supposed to talk about their problems… when they can't provide for their families, and they're not talking about it, it's a recipe for disaster.
This is the exact background you come from…
Yeah. Three years ago, I was living on welfare. I was on sickness benefits, which I guess is the equivalent of welfare in America, and me and my mother were struggling to get by. And then I was working in a bar and working odd jobs and stuff. I've also had other things going on with my health, which I haven't spoken about yet, and I'm not going to speak about for a while. But with what was going on in my life at the time, I had pretty low self-esteem.
How is your self-esteem now, after having all your success?
To be honest, to get where I am really shook me up. I had just a huge sense of imposter syndrome; it was all such a drastic change that it really freaked me out. I just didn't feel like I deserved it, and I went inwards. I think [success] can go two ways: It can either make you feel like you're the king of the world, or it can make you feel really, really exposed and quite vulnerable. And [the latter is] how it made me feel. I kept doubting everything and being like, “How the f*** am I here? How did I get this?”
F***ing hell, I lived in a small town, in a small flat, living off of the state, living off the government. My mum is a disabled care worker, and life was pretty f***ing static for many, many years. I was just going through the same rotations of getting up, working in the pub, being ill, trying to write songs, and seeing the same characters day in, day out. For years. I never, ever expected to get where I was. But now I've just got to go, "Look, Sam, you've f***ing worked for this. Go out and enjoy it, and don't be scared of it." I'm turning that around and I'm learning to, for want of a better word, love myself. And learning to be kinder to myself.
There's another track of yours that I want to ask about, “White Privilege.” What is that song’s story?
It's inspired by the political duality of today, in the U.K. especially. It's about my confusion with all of it. It sounds like the ramblings of a madman, to be honest. But there is some sense in it. A lot of it is my frustration with the duality between the left-wing and the right-wing. … There's a severe push to the right, but then simultaneously, there's this particular brand of snooty liberalism that is so arrogant and so condescending. It's just dire. I don't know how anybody has a conversation, because the way people talk to each other on the internet, they just call each other f***ing idiots all day long. So, it's kind of about that, and how I feel completely f***ing helpless.
It's interesting, because obviously a lot of things you write about are very specifically British, and even very regional, but so much of what you just said applies to America as well.
Yeah, the push to the right is incredibly similar [in the U.S.], and I guess the sneaky liberalism is too. … But I still have a lot of hope in the goodness of the British and American people. I have hope that the majority of our country is filled with people who mean well, and who want a better place for their children, a better future for the world. I believe that most people really don't want war, and don't want these f***ing horrible things and don't run businesses that are going to push people under the ground. I'm sure most people want that. I might be wrong and that may be incredibly naive of me, but I’d like to think that the majority of people out there aren't bastards.
There are some detractors who would argue that they don’t want their entertainers, their rock stars, to speak out the way you do. What do you have to say to them?
Well, the people who say, “Shut up and sing!” are normally people would just disagree with your opinion. [laughs] To put it quite frankly, I'm a musician, but I'm a f***ing human being first. And every human being is entitled to their opinion. Just because I maybe have a platform in which I can use it, doesn't mean my opinions any less valid. I find it annoying when [musicians] don't use their voice, to be honest, because you're reaching people that probably otherwise wouldn't look at politics, or wouldn't think to vote.
I personally feel like I wouldn't be doing myself any favors by being quiet, and I'd be letting my dad down. My dad is somebody who's always furiously raged against inequality in the Northeast, because he grew up when Margaret Thatcher tore all of the industry apart in Newcastle. … So I guess I have a duty to my ancestries to always stick up for the people of my hometown. I could write for the next 15, 20 years about the last 10 years, and I think it'll be a while before I detach myself from that. I will always be “Sam from Shields.” You can take a lad out of North Shields, but you can't take North Shields out of the lad.
So, do you feel artists in general have a duty to speak out?
I don't think they have a duty. “Duty” was the wrong word. But I think, quoting Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility."
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