Sam Fender has been named the winner of the Brits Critics’ Choice award for 2019 – an achievement which comes after a phenomenal year of sold-out shows, a major label signing, and a little support from Elton John.
Fender was shortlisted alongside Mahalia and Lewis Capaldi, and it seems it is taking him some time to get used to being announced as the winner.
Speaking to Sky News, there are a lot of mentions of it being “totally mad” and “weird”, and that he’s not quite sure “how this all happened”.
“If I say ‘genuinely overwhelmed’ one more time I’m going to slap myself,” he says. “We didn’t even expect to get nominated. Then they told us that we’d won, which is ridiculous, so ridiculous.”
How did he celebrate when he found out?
“We were in a taxi driving back to my manager’s house [when I found out]. I was driving past my old school, which was very strange, and the label rang, and he put them on loudspeaker and then he was just like, you’ve got it mate, you’ve got it. I just started screaming. I was punching all the seats in the taxi going completely mad.
“Then I went back to my manager’s house and got absolutely smashed.”
The annual Critics’ Choice gong is seen as a real predictor of the future stars of British music.
To be part of a select group with the likes of Adele and the other previous winners – which also includes Jessie J, Emeli Sande, Tom Odell, James Bay, Jack Garratt, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man and last year’s recipient, Jorja Smith – is “pretty crazy”, he says.
“They’re all pop giants, massive singers. Adele and Sam Smith are like A grade, top-of-the-top vocalists. Plus, I’m alternative guitar, alt-rock guitar music, and I don’t think that’s been in the Critics’ Choice yet so it’s quite refreshing I think to be given this.
“I’m very, very humbled; to be given that platform, to be put on that stage, it’s such a huge thing. I really don’t know how it’s happened. It’s mad, totally mad.”
Fender’s candid lyrics tell stories of social and generational significance, drawn from his experiences growing up in the North East.
He released his first single, Play God, in March 2017 – which ended up garnering him a high-profile fan in Elton John, who championed him on his Apple Music Beats 1 Radio show, Elton John’s Rocket Hour.
“Nobody knew who we were and he’d heard Play God, my first single,” says Fender. “Elton John, he’s a legend, one of the most influential artists of his time and it’s just absolutely incredible.
“My mam remembers the first time she heard Elton John. My mam and dad are in their 60s, so they grew up in the ’70s when Elton was at his prime, so it’s a very, very surreal experience for me.
“He Facetimed us, and it was like, ‘what the hell?’ He was just so wonderfully complimentary about everything that I’ve done and was really supportive.”
While Fender says he tries not to listen too much to other people’s opinions, good or bad, when it comes to Elton John, he’s happy to take them on board.
“I think the bigger this gets, the more negative and positive stuff you get,” he says. “I think the most important thing is you’ve got to switch off because there’ll always be people saying you’re brilliant and there’ll always be people saying you’re rubbish. The reality is, none of it matters because it’s all opinion.
“You shouldn’t listen to either of them. If you start believing in your own hype, you’ll become an a******* and start writing rubbish songs, and if you start thinking that you’re rubbish constantly you’ll not want to do it anymore.
“But when Elton John says that you’re good, I’m like, all right, I’ll believe him because he’s Elton John. It is really kind of reassuring that someone like that likes your stuff. It’s nuts.”
After months of gigging, Fender signed to Polydor in the summer and is now working on his debut album.
“That’s the most important thing. I need to make sure that all the songs I put on it are something I’m really proud of. I write all my own songs, so if it goes wrong, I don’t co-write anything, it’s all going to fall on me.”
Gigging has been “relentless”, he says, but worth it, and he’s enjoying every second. He might be Sam Fender, solo artist, but it is always “we” and “us” when he talks about his shows, and winning the award, too.
“I’ve got a band that I tour with and they’re not session musicians, they’re my friends,” he says. “My guitarist is my best mate. I’ve been in a band with them for the last year and we’ve just done hundreds of shows…
“I feel like we’ve not been shy of work, we really went for it. It nearly killed us… there’s been sometimes getting to the end of tours and… my larynx feels like it’s going to come out my throat.
“It’s been a crazy, crazy year. I released my first single a year and a half ago and now this. It’s just… what the hell’s going on? It’s proper mad.”
Fender’s music comes from the heart, and it resonates with fans. Dead Boys, a song from his debut EP of the same name, is about male suicide, and has taken on new meaning as a springboard for discussions about mental health.
“It’s a song about my mate who took his life and I wrote it purely as a reaction to that. I didn’t know whether to release it for a long time as I was scared that it would be seen as capitalising on a tragedy, and it’s not been like that at all, it’s been wonderful.
“There’s been a lot of people talking about it, talking about male suicide, and it’s inadvertently become this sort of anthem for mental health, which I’m really surprised and proud of.
“I think it’s good that it’s raised this conversation and… there’s been people who have said it’s helped them in some way. That’s something I never expected but it’s done it’s job, I think. That’s more than I ever could have hoped it could have done. It came from a real place.”
Fender says he is incredibly proud when he hears how his music has connected with fans.
“People come up and they’ve got these really emotional stories about how the music’s connected with them and…
“Okay, I’m never going to be one of those people who overestimates the clout of their job. Musicians, we’re not doctors, we’re not saving people’s lives, we’re not going out and changing the world, we’re not coming up with cancer cures, we’re not any of that.
“They’re the real heroes of the world… but you have these little moments where a song connects with a kid or with somebody, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a kid or an adult, and they go, ‘it helped us’.
“When you feel that weight it adds clout to the job that I never expected would be there and it’s a wonderful experience. It’s beautiful to be a part of that.
“To share a common conversation with a bunch of people in a room – something that I wrote hungover in my boxers – and there’s a bunch of kids or a room full of people just singing and feeling united about something, it’s nice.”
So, Elton John, Polydor, Brits Critics’ Choice – what’s next?
“I would like to release the best album I possibly could and I would love to – never ever, it’s never going to happen, I know it won’t happen – but I would love to sing on a Kendrick Lamar track, or something ridiculous like that.” He motions towards the ceiling. “That would be ‘up there’ goals.”
He’s also a huge Bruce Springsteen fan – but isn’t sure he could handle coming face to face with The Boss.
“I would cry if I met Bruce Springsteen, man. I don’t think I’d be able to handle it. So no, I couldn’t do it. Stay away, Bruce – unless you want to see us crying.”
:: The Brit Awards 2019 will be broadcast live on Wednesday 20 February