Sam Fender, One of England's Biggest Stars, Is Ready to Break America

·6 min read
Sam Fender
Sam Fender

Charlotte Patmore Sam Fender

Sam Fender's lyrics are plenty quotable, but right now, the musician isn't talking hypersonic missiles or being 17 and going under — he's quoting the Netflix comedy I Think You Should Leave.

"It's interesting, the ghosts…" he says over Zoom in his best Tim Robinson voice, before explaining himself: "At the moment, I don't know. I'm just going through a phase of watching really dumb comedies."

If you were Fender, the Geordie singer-songwriter whose tales of hometown heartache and working-class struggle have catapulted him to superstar status in his native England practically overnight, you'd likely want to turn your brain off and take in mindless sketch comedy, too.

Just days earlier, he played the biggest gig of his career, singing songs he wrote in his bedroom for a crowd of 40,000 people in London's Finsbury Park, and in a few months, he'll celebrate the one-year anniversary of his second album Seventeen Going Under, which topped the British charts and helped him win a BRIT Award (essentially an across-the-pond Grammy) for Best Rock/Alternative Act.

Now, however, he's ready for a bigger challenge: cracking America. Fender, 28, will kick off a sold-out North American tour Saturday that'll hit major cities like New York and Los Angeles, and he's slated to stick around a bit longer in the States to serve as the opening act on Florence and the Machine's fall tour.

"It's incredible what's happened over here, but for it to be on the other side of the pond almost has more meaning," he says. "A lot of these stories, the songs that I'm writing about are quite — I thought they were probably a bit too specifically sort of Northeastern English. But they've transcended to the people in the south, and they've transcended across the water and it makes sense over there."

Though deeply autobiographical, it's no surprise that Fender's music has resonated with fans far outside the borders of his native North Shields. He's long drawn comparisons to his idol Bruce Springsteen not just for his robust saxophone breaks, but for the ways in which his lyrics depict the plight of the blue collar worker.

In "Seventeen Going Under," he expresses his disdain for Britain's Department for Work and Pensions, who hounded his mother after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and struggled to keep up with the bills. The song also tackles toxic masculinity head-on with lyrics about shedding tears and a cathartic climax in which he belts, "God, the kid looks so sad." "The Dying Light," meanwhile, sheds light on male suicide. He wrote many of the songs after starting therapy during a lonely, isolating pandemic lockdown that forced him to look inwards.

Sam Fender
Sam Fender

Jack Whitefield Sam Fender

"I kind of hoped it would resonate and I hoped that I'd be able to tour America and I hoped that I'd be able to sell out venues across the country, but not the level that it's got to," he says. "It's bizarre. It's just bizarre."

"Bizarre" is certainly an apt word for the ways in which Fender's life has evolved since the release of Seventeen Going Under, because with great success comes great attention — something the musician, who describes himself as actually "quite nervous and quite shy," has learned all too well.

To talk to the star is to talk to someone who still seems awestruck by the ways in which his "normal" life (i.e., the time spent quoting The Sopranos with friends, which he does, frequently, or reading books about "sociopaths and psychopaths," which he also does, frequently) has been upended by fame.

"I feel like Sam Fender to me now sounds like freakin' McDonald's or KFC or Google," he says. "Almost like my name kind of feels like it's lost its identity. But the person who I am, just Sam, hasn't changed at all. I feel just the same as I did when I was 17. Maybe it's a lot, actually weirdly, more anxious now, but not as angry."

He continues: "The anxiety is insane. I feel like every single word that comes out of my mouth is going to be f—ing scrutinized… I kind of always had this thing in my head, I think when I was a young lad and I was full of insecurity and I was bullied and I had all these things that I had issue with within myself, I always thought that I would be able to fix that by just f—ing smashing it as a guitarist and singer. And if I had a band and I made it and I became successful, I kind of always thought that that would just f—ing close the lid on all of that. But the reality is, if anything, it freaking amplifies it. It makes you even more insecure."

Fender says he's spent the last year learning ways to better protect his mental health (among them? Keeping most of his opinions offline), and has found a friend and confidante in The 1975 frontman Matty Healy.

"He's been really incredible and sort of helped us through some sort of more struggling, some more worrying parts of this job, which are terrifying, and things that are just a bit more stressful than I expected," he says. "He's been really, really good and gives us a lot of advice."

Looking ahead, the singer says his third album, for which he's already written "a lot" of songs, will be rooted in mental health and storytelling based on his Geordie roots, just as Seventeen Going Under was.

"[SGU] opened up Pandora's Box. I have such a wealth of ideas from that time in my life," he says. "But it's [now] more from the perspective of where I am now, I suppose. Not as in the perspective of 'now I'm a successful musician,' but like, as in just me being older. I'm in the latter half of my 20s now."

His current schedule will keep him on the road through November, and then he's ready to hit the brakes, albeit briefly, in order to well, live a little, before picking up touring again.

"I was saying this to the label, I was kind of like, 'I need to live a bit more, because I'm not at the moment,'" he says. "I was like, 'My life is constantly touring and doing stuff for this.' And it really kind of gets to the point where it does get uninspiring. I had a lot of things to write about at the beginning of the year, which I've already done, but now it's kind of like, I think I need a bit of time to just be a f—ng person."

And how about once he's been a person? What comes next after that?

"I don't know…break America? Is that not the goal for everyone?" he asks. "I'm just so wrapped up in it at the moment that it's impossible for us to even know what we really want. I just know we're going to turn up and do our best and try and take it as far as we possibly can."

Sam Fender will play Toronto on Saturday, Los Angeles on Aug. 5, New York City on Aug. 9, Portland on Sept. 22, Seattle on Sept. 24 and Vancouver on Sept. 25. You can buy tickets here.