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Sam Fender Vs. Himself

Ryan MacDonald of the Honest Heart Collective interviews the blue-collar songwriter about self-love, vulnerability, and Springsteen.

by Ryan MacDonald

My band, the Honest Heart Collective, was slated to play a gig at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern back in March of 2019. We pulled into the city a few days early to put some finishing touches on our forthcoming album, More Harm.  After the first session, the boys and I were wrapping up dinner when someone asked what our plans were for the evening.

“May as well see what’s happening at the ‘Shoe.”

Upon checking their gig listings for that night, I read a name I’d never heard before, but haven’t forgotten since. Less than 10 seconds into hearing Sam Fender’s “Dead Boys,” we unanimously decided to make our way down to the Horseshoe to catch his set. I’ve been a fan ever since.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Fender over Zoom to prep this article. We spoke about Seventeen Going Under, therapy, our blue-collar hometowns, Telecasters, and our shared love of Springsteen.

Fender released his sophomore masterpiece, Seventeen Going Under, on October 8, 2021, the very same day we put out our aforementioned record. Among other threads that the albums have in common, they’re both our most introspective works to date. There was a time when I’d use characters in fictional stories to disguise my own struggles within our songs, and it wasn’t until More Harm that I started to look inward in a more productive way. As songwriters, penning our vulnerabilities to paper is one of the most difficult exercises to perfect.

However, Fender seemingly achieves this with utmost ease. From its reminiscent opening title track to its cinematic closer, “The Dying Light,” Seventeen Going Under is a thought provoking, definitive study of ‘man versus self.’ That being said, it’s never a comfortable process sharing the depths of your being with an audience, and songwriters are sometimes told to reign in such personal details out of fear they won’t connect with their listeners.

“Like most singer-songwriters, I’m absolutely riddled with crippling insecurity.”

Referencing a Springsteen quote, Fender encapsulates that balancing act succinctly. “Like most singer-songwriters, I’m absolutely riddled with crippling insecurity. You’ve got the insecurity and your shyness, yet an ego big enough to think that everybody needs to hear what you’ve got to say.”

It seems as though leaning into the graphic imagery of his own experiences has been a challenge for Fender, but it’s certainly paid off in a major way. In a standout moment on the title track of Seventeen Going Under, Fender alludes to the strained relationship he had with his father: “I was far too scared to hit him, but I would hit him in a heartbeat now.” It has resonated with fans old and new alike, even becoming a rallying cry on TikTok among survivors of domestic abuse.

We spoke about how people are often afraid of their fathers, no matter how nice dads can be. Fender recalled a specific moment in his childhood. “Me and my dad laugh about this now, but I remember my dad having an argument with my mother. He slammed the door in the argument, and accidentally slammed my finger in the door. So then, he saw me screaming and crying, which further enraged him. Instead of coming over to pick me up, he then proceeded to kick through the wall under the stairs. Looking at him, boot in the wall, I was like, ‘Ahhhh!’ Half an hour later, he’s plastering the wall back up, giving us a cuddle, ‘You’re alright son, you’re alright’.” 

It’s an incredible feeling when the listener feels like you’ve written their story. It’s the basis for many forms of art, but it’s the anchor that makes Seventeen Going Under so special. As a keen onlooker, it’s been astonishing to witness Fender’s meteoric rise from the Horseshoe Tavern on a Monday to playing Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage with Sir Paul McCartney in only a few short years, something that Fender himself calls “fucking insane.”

Despite Fender’s successes, he found himself dealing with the impostor syndrome that inevitably comes with it. Like most of us, spending 2020 in isolation offered Fender ample time with his own thoughts, and he started dissecting them at therapy appointments.

“The only thing I was really talking about was my therapy. The music I was writing was just all about that. It opened Pandora’s box for me. Playing those songs live, I was always a bit worried at first, but then for it to be this big collective of people who are all singing it as if it was their own story, validates it for you. You can see the catharsis in other people. That in itself is a blessing, to be able to do that as a job.

This was the pivot where the outward observational songwriting of his debut, Hypersonic Missiles, shifted towards Fender himself. Seventeen Going Under became an extension of those therapy sessions. As a fellow musician, I naturally gravitate to the album’s marvellous production qualities. Fender and his band tracked Seventeen Going Under at Ireland’s Grouse Lodge with producer Bramwell Bronte.

“It’s the most alcohol fuelled fucking album I have ever made. We were so fucking drunk the whole time. The songwriting was the hard bit, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it musically. But we were just so pissed. We did it in Ireland, and there was unlimited Guinness, and unlimited whiskey in the studio. We racked up the biggest bar bill that the studio has ever had, and that the label has ever had to pay in 15 years or something. I said to the boys, ‘This is so so toxic, but I’ve never been so proud of you guys’.”

The album was mixed by Craig Silvey, whose credits also include Arcade Fire, Catfish and the Bottlemen, and Gang of Youths. The instrumental arrangements are the perfect foundation for Fender’s soaring vocals. The eclectic use of synthesizer pads, Fender tones, tightly pocketed drums, acoustic guitars, and other strings make for an inspiring listen, amplifying the emotions that come with Fender’s writing. 

Before we wrapped up, we riffed on a couple more questions. Fender touts Joni Mitchell as one of his favourite Canadian artists, someone he turned to because of Jeff Buckley and his love for public radio. Comparing BBC with other public broadcasters like CBC and NPR, he believes that “if you crack Radio 1, and they’re playing you on regular rotation, you’re gonna do well.”

After our conversation, I felt like we’d been friends for years. Fender is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in the music industry, and I hope our paths cross again.

“Love of love, man,” he signs off.