Despite the huge popularity of the BBC comedy sitcom Steptoe and Son in the 1960s and 70s, which helped maintain the rag and bone man’s status in English folklore, by the 80s they were mostly gone, consigned to the, er, scrapheap of history. But, as is the way with much of the 21st century so far, with the peculiar British tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses and give it new life, there has been a revival, albeit a minuscule one. You are extremely unlikely to see a rag and bone man with a horse and cart any more (they will now usually use a van) but, as poverty conditions continue to deepen for many in the UK, as always an opportunity is always being sniffed out for those looking to scratch out a living, however meagre.
Inspired by watching Steptoe and Son, Rory Graham decided one day to call himself Rag’n’Bone Man, perhaps reflecting the disparate nature of his music making, taking influences here and there – soul, blues, gospel, rock, pop, hip-hop – to fashion a sound that is as ancient as the blues, but also thoroughly modern in our post-irony rock age. Like the aforementioned rag and bone men of yore, he was eking out a living (whilst still working as a carer). But good fortune is beginning to smile for this Sussex-born and bred singer and songwriter, a veritable bear of a man, possessor of some fine tattoos and a big and wiry beard. But most importantly, it’s his powerful and versatile voice that really counts, one that sounds like vintage blues one minute, classic soul another, and big-lunged gospel the next. When I last spoke to him, prior to his Great Escape appearance in 2015, it was felt by many in the business that here was a man who, given the right songs, could easily be catapulted into the mainstream; into the hearts and minds of pure music lovers around the globe.
That is exactly what has happened. It’s perhaps taken a tad longer than hoped but the 32 year-old Rag’n’Bone Man is quickly becoming a household name. “Yeah, it’s really fast paced at the moment,” he says, reflecting on the change of scenes and tempos in his life, thanks almost exclusively to the song ‘Human’, which was released way back in July of last year. Did he think ‘Human’ was the one? “Actually, no! I thought it would be a ramp into the album. An introduction. And then we would put out another song. I felt that other songs would be stronger,” he laughs. But ‘Human’ did prove to be The One. It eventually gained momentum, throughout Europe in particular, reaching number one in many countries, before settling down to number two here in the UK, pipped to the post by the teen-pleasing Clean Bandit. “There’s been a lot of travelling around,” says Rory. “Which is great! It took off in Europe first and I got to travel everywhere, which I wanted to do anyway. Got to see different places and tried to understand people in different languages, you know. I love it. It really took off in Germany and Switzerland. And then it travelled all around Europe. Actually, England was the last place…” But, it is here that he is winning the plaudits and awards that really matter. Graham won the BRITS Critics’ Choice Award in December of last year, an award that is often seen as a guarantor of future success, and was runner-up in the BBC Sound Poll 2017. High profile TV appearances on Jools Holland, including New Year’s Eve, and on Graham Norton’s show, have served to cement the growing perception that here is a bona fide artist, an antidote to the fake artistry of groups like Clean Bandit with their factory-produced auto-tuned singers that clog up our airwaves.
Now we have Human, the album. A work that is almost certain to have reached number one by the time you read this, following in the footsteps of seven of the nine BRITS Critics’ Choice award winners since its inception back in 2008. Following the award, Adele, Florence & The Machine, Ellie Goulding, Tom Odell, Sam Smith and James Bay all reached number one in the first week of the release of their respective debut albums, whilst only two – Jack Garratt’s Phase reached number three last year, and Jessie J’s Who You Are made it to number two in 2011 – have failed to take the top spot upon release.
It really has been a brilliant journey for Graham. He’s been around a few years now, including MCing for a drum’n’bass crew whilst still in his teens, before heading to Brighton in his early 20s, where he joined Rum Committee, a hip hop collective, and performed regularly at the semi-legendary Slip Jam:B. He has collaborated with various hip-hop artists, including DJ Premier, toured with Bastille and released a number of recordings including the well-received Wolves EP in 2014 (featuring Kate Tempest), followed by the Disfigured EP in 2015. “I moved to Brighton when I was about 23, and lived there for six or seven years. Slip Jam:B was the first gig I did as a singer. I remember it well because there were about seven people there. It’s much worse doing that, than in front of a thousand or something,” he laughs.
“Rum Committee is the foundation,” he says about his musical upbringing. “They’re my family and the reason I’m doing what I’m doing now. The music community in Brighton is great, I’ve met lots of talented people over the years.” Late last year Graham was named Patron of the Brighton-based charity Audio Active that supports young people in contemporary music production and performance. Tom Hines is Audio Active’s Project Manager, and was the main man behind Slip Jam:B. “That was also where I met Gizmo, KD, DJ Direct and all the rest. It’s also how I met Leaf Dog and the High Focus gang,” he says about his time with Slip Jam:B. At the same time he was regularly performing at open mics around Brighton and Sussex, including the Five Bells in Chailey Green, performing his own blues-inspired material, and deciding that it was the singing side, rather than rapping, that was where his heart really lay. “I used to do a lot of rapping with Rum Committee. I think, by singing, it was a bit reactive. I would always sing a bit, but I saw the reaction of people when I would sing, as opposed to rapping. It definitely gave me that feeling that they like my singing more than my rapping,” he laughs. “It just felt more natural from then on.”
But he hasn’t completely ditched the rapping. Human contains two songs (one on the deluxe CD version) which features his rapping skills. “We recorded half the song (‘Ego’), and then I went to record a second verse, and I literally just sat there and wrote for about two hours, and it came out like a rap. And I thought I would put it down as the second verse. And I listened back to the song and someone said we’re missing a second verse, so I wrote the second verse but kept the rap in. The producer, Two Inch Punch, was like ‘Dude, you have to put the rap back in. It doesn’t sound the same without it’.”
For those who have just come to Rag’n’Bone Man they wouldn’t necessarily know his history, such as his rapping with Rum Committee, and before that, a drum’n’bass outfit. They wouldn’t know either that he was brought up on a diet of the blues, as well as soul and jazz, thanks to his parents’ extensive record collections. Artists such as John Lee Hooker, and the modern blues fusion musician JJ Cale. But, Graham is adamant that blues is only a part of what he does. I ask him what he thinks he does. “It’s hard. I grew up on the blues and everyone hears my voice and says ‘Oh, you make modern blues music’. But, I don’t feel that is what it is. I wouldn’t say Human is a blues album. I know it isn’t. I feel that it is all the things I love, all in one. A bit of blues, a bit of gospel, soul, lots of hip-hop influences in there as well. I love the pain in storytelling, that’s why I love blues. Hip-hop is like the backbone. And soul is in everything. I just want people to listen and know what music I grew up on and what I like. Comparisons are a fucker sometimes! Some people are void of imagination, so they put you in something, ‘Oh, it’s like the male Adele’. Where did you get that from!?”
In a nutshell Human is really just classic soul-pop, with blues, funk, hip-hop and the rest all mixed together in making a tasty concoction for the ears, with themes of fragility, blame, regret and forgiveness laced throughout. It is about being human, something that Graham can perhaps relate to better than most thanks in part to his time as a full-time carer. From the funk-soul title track to the r’n’b orientated ’Skin’, and from the hip-hop-influenced ‘Bitter End’ to the string-laden pop of ‘Be The Man’, Graham, along with his producers and a coterie of co-writers have fashioned a rock solid debut, demonstrating his vocal range and musical eclecticism. And signing to Sony has given him the chance to work with people he admires. “I didn’t want to do that thing that major labels often do with artists. They make them go in with a million top-liners to throw shit at the wall to see if it sticks. I already had a good idea of what I wanted to sound like, and I got to work with some really talented songwriters, like a friend of mine called Simon Aldred, who is also known as Cherry Ghost (and who has written for the likes of Sam Smith). And I also worked with Foy Vance on the album, one of my songwriting heroes, and a guy called Jamie Scott (who co-writes four songs on the Human album).” I tell him Foy Vance is a big favourite of mine, right from his very early days when he was playing to just a handful of people in a Brighton cafe some 12 years ago. “To this day he is one of my favourite songwriters in the world. He understands how to write songs. And he really helped me out with a proper, personal song on the album, called ‘Odetta’. ‘I need to finish this song, but I don’t know how’. And he came around my house and said ‘this is how we’re going to do it, and we did it,” he laughs. “All the bv’s on that track are his. We kept them in ’cause I really love them.”
Despite working with co-writers, the songs on Human are basically Graham’s, and his initial ideas. “To be honest most of the songs on there are personal in some way. I wrote a song called ‘Love You Any Less’ which is a song about someone who I was in love with a very long time ago, that couldn’t love back because they had their own problems. It was an admission, me saying ‘I kinda hope you are alright, even though I don’t know you now’.” And what about ‘Die Easy’, the a cappella that closes the album, a version of the traditional gospel song ‘In My Time of Dying’? Why did you choose to do that one? “I had been doing that for five or six years. When I used to do gigs in Brighton with my old crew we didn’t really have that much material. And I remember getting to the end of a show once and we didn’t have anything else, and someone shouted out ‘do an a cappella!’ I’d been listening to that record that day, and so I sang it. It’s an old gospel standard. I started doing it at a few other gigs and the A&R at Columbia (Alison Donald) said ‘you really got to put that on the album’. And, so I did.
How does he feel about all this sudden attention, and success? “It’s been no different for me, really,” he claims. “Apart from the fact that if you want something you can ask for it, and you don’t have to pay for it yourself! Financing yourself in the early days was difficult. I’m only just starting to break a profit at the moment. It’s not how people think it is; sign a record deal and become rich or anything. We’re not living in the nineties when people could sign million pound contracts. You do really have to put in all the work yourself, especially at the beginning. I had done all that work, and I had a strong, decent sized fanbase before I even decided to sign with a record label.”
There seems to be no doubting Rag’n’Bone Man’s sincerity, and his down-to-earth bearing. It feels he would quite happily bite the hand that feeds him if he was asked to do something he didn’t want to do, to be manipulated into something he may not be comfortable doing. He’s called the music industry ‘brutal’ and seems to be perfectly aware and comfortable with its highly fickle tendencies. So, despite the pressure of expectations, and carrying the torch for previous BRITS Critics’ Choice award winners such as Adele and Sam Smith, it seems all Rag’n’Bone Man wants to do is play live, like he has always done, and in the true spirit of rock’n’roll. “I can’t wait, man,” he says in anticipation of touring. “All this promo stuff is cool, and totally necessary, but ultimately the stage is where I want to be.” And Brighton? “We’ll definitely do another gig in Brighton (soon after we talked it emerged that he will be playing the Dome as part of The Great Escape festival this year’s). Every time I do a gig in Brighton it’s nice because it’s the place I love and I get to see people I haven’t seen for a long time.”