rag’n’bone man

Rag’n’Bone Man is a vol­canic-voiced man moun­tain whose de­but al­bum is the fastest-sell­ing of the decade so far for a male artist. But be­hind that voice is Rory Gra­ham, a quiet, sen­si­tive soul from Sus­sex strug­gling with the in­ten­sity of sud­den fame. An­dre


Q trav­els to Italy to hear the true-life sto­ries be­hind the vol­canic-voiced man moun­tain’s megahits.

a6’ 5” be­he­moth named Rory Gra­ham saun­ters into a busy pub gar­den in Bat­tersea, South London, and no heads turn. He’s an as­pir­ing singer signed to a ma­jor la­bel, but at this stage, he’s an un­known, work­ing on his de­but al­bum around the cor­ner, at a stu­dio on the crime-riven Dod­ding­ton Es­tate. Not for the last time, Gra­ham pa­tiently ex­plains to this writer how his cho­sen nom de guerre, Rag’n’Bone Man, was in­spired by watch­ing Step­toe & Son re­runs with his grandad, and how it was in­tended to make him sound like “a jazz cat, or some old blues fella.” He also re­veals that he’d wanted two words inked across his knuck­les ever since he was a teenager, which given his lis­ten­ing pref­er­ences at that time would’ve been “drum” and “bass” – or even “jun-gle”, over three fin­gers of each hand. “Luck­ily, I never got round to it till later,” he laughs. Hence his now-trade­mark “funk” and “soul” tat­toos. In the in­ter­ven­ing 13 months, Gra­ham has be­come a whirl­wind pop phe­nom­e­non. In Fe­bru­ary, his de­but al­bum, Hu­man, went straight in at Num­ber 1 in the UK, be­com­ing the fastest-sell­ing de­but al­bum by a male artist in the 2010’ s, and this man moun­tain with vol­canic ton­sils has also topped the sin­gles and/or al­bums charts around most of Europe and Aus­trala­sia. So, in June 2017, Q re­con­nects with him in loftier cir­cum­stances in north­ern Italy, on the rooftop of a posh ho­tel in Verona, where he’s en­joy­ing a mo­ment’s respite from the world­wide clam­our for his tal­ents. “Yeah,” he says with a throaty chuckle, as one of the city’s fa­mous bell­tow­ers loudly her­alds the hour, “it’s all gone off a bit, ha’n’it?” Ac­cept­ing a sec­ond Brit as Best Bri­tish Break­through Act, Gra­ham was at pains to point out that he’s ac­tu­ally “10 years deep” into his ca­reer. Now 32, his rise has been a pa­tient one, tak­ing in a lengthy ap­pren­tice­ship on the un­der­ground blues, hip-hop and drum’n’bass scenes of Brighton. He first trou­bled the scorers last sum­mer in Germany, where his mod­ern blues an­them Hu­man held the top spot for a nearBryan Adams-es­que ten­ure of 12 weeks, but his home­land ini­tially re­sisted his charms, un­til Novem­ber, when X Fac­tor con­tes­tant Emily Mid­dle­mas gave a show-stop­ping per­for­mance of Hu­man, prompt­ing the


Rag’n’Bone Man orig­i­nal’s last-minute rush to a Christ­mas Num­ber 2. Gra­ham has been on the road ever since, spend­ing the odd night ev­ery few weeks at home with his girl­friend of eight years’ stand­ing, Beth. “Just lay­ing in a nor­mal bed that’s not mov­ing is a bit weird,” he chuck­les. Or­der­ing a plate of what his tour man­ager aptly calls “big-boy scal­lops”, Gra­ham is scrupu­lously po­lite to the wait­ing staff, wrong-foot­ing them af­ter he stomped in with his Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, scraggy beard and tat­toos.

Atext­book gen­tle gi­ant, he cuts a cu­ri­ously vul­ner­a­ble fig­ure. Un­like even the win­ners of ta­lent shows, who are duly packed off on crash cour­ses in sing­ing, stage­craft and self-pro­mo­tion, he seems al­most en­tirely un­tu­tored, and dis­armed by the cir­cus sud­denly en­gulf­ing him. Con­se­quently, though, there’s a great deal about Rag’n’Bone Man that piques the ad­mi­ra­tion of those mu­sic fans who are re­pulsed by that plas­tic-pop world. One re­viewer may mem­o­rably have likened his dance moves to “a dust­bin”, but that’s part of the ap­peal. Hu­man, af­ter all, is es­sen­tially a chain­gang blues song, com­plete with a som­bre, rock-crack­ing beat up­dated for the dig­i­tal era. There’s also a raw, un­re­fined power to Gra­ham’s voice, which con­nects with the lis­tener on a gut level rare in to­day’s main­stream. “There were mu­sic acad­e­mies and that near me, grow­ing up,” he re­flects, in his soft, fath­oms-deep tones, “but my mum would never have had the money to send me to one of them. I just learnt from sing­ing along to Muddy Waters records.” Yet Gra­ham brings his own con­tem­po­rary and uniquely per­sonal slant to blues. As he aptly rea­sons, “You’ve got to be­lieve in what you’re sing­ing, if you’re go­ing to make other peo­ple be­lieve it, too. It can’t just come out of the ether.” The up­shot of his be­ing so gen­uine and di­rect, how­ever, is that all those peo­ple who’ve been moved by his mu­sic now want a piece of him. “I have to say, I find the whole be­in­grecog­nised thing quite un­nerv­ing,” he says, with ha­bit­u­ally min­i­mal eye con­tact. “I don’t think I was fully pre­pared for how much peo­ple recog­nise you all the time… and in sit­u­a­tions where you haven’t had much sleep and you don’t feel that great. So you kind of want to co­coon your­self, and put your­self in a ball, but that’s kind of im­pos­si­ble.”

He trails off ques­tion­ingly, then ges­tures down at his huge frame: “I can’t re­ally hide,” he says, with a self-dep­re­cat­ing laugh, “I mean, lit­er­ally I can’t.” Many new­found pop stars ad­just to celebrity in­stantly, swan­ning off into the VIP zone, and hap­pily leav­ing real life be­hind. Rory Gra­ham is not one of them.

Grow­ing up in Uck­field, 20 miles in­land from Brighton, Rory Charles Gra­ham’s par­ents split up when he was “five or six”. There­after, he lived with his mother, but his fa­ther, a blues buff who ran a mu­sic shop and played gui­tar on an am­a­teur level, turned him on to mu­sic in ab­sen­tia. “Dad left most of his record col­lec­tion in our house, in this lit­tle box room,” Gra­ham re­calls. “The room had a lit­tle record player in it as well – a beau­ti­ful old valve one with a wooden cab­i­net, made in ’ 53. I was prob­a­bly only about 10, maybe even younger, when I started sit­ting in that room, just pick­ing out records, ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated by it. I mean, who wouldn’t be fas­ci­nated by hear­ing John Lee Hooker for the first time? It was like, ‘Fuckin’ ’ell!’” By his mid-teens he’d dis­cov­ered mu­sic of his own – hip-hop, af­ter see­ing Roots Manuva on Later… With Jools Hol­land, and drum’n’bass, thanks to the scene kick­ing off in Brighton in the early noughties. Aged 15, he cut his teeth as an MC on his mates’ junglist pi­rate sta­tion in Uck­field. “And you can’t get much more ur­ban than that!” he grins. Mov­ing to Brighton to get more in­volved mu­si­cally, he joined hip-hop crew Rum Com­mit­tee, who would sup­port vis­it­ing rap lu­mi­nar­ies such as KRS-One and Pharoahe Monch, but par­al­lel to this, Gra­ham had inched his way into a solo guise. Back in Jan­uary ’ 05, he’d cel­e­brated his 20th birth­day with his dad at a blues hoo­te­nanny, he re­calls, in “a shit­hole of a pub in East Grin­stead. He’d heard me sing, and talked me into get­ting up. I was quite pissed – just the nec­es­sary amount to not be fright­ened.” Wow­ing the older clien­tele with his el­e­men­tal voice, he was duly en­cour­aged by his dad to play gui­tar, and write. He’d meekly show up at open-mic nights, and even cut a few records lo­cally as Rag’n’Bone Man, but he still had a day job, as a carer for kids with Asperger and Down syn­dromes. “My sis­ter has Down’s,” he ex­plains, “so I au­to­mat­i­cally knew other fam­i­lies with Down’s chil­dren, and just nat­u­rally fell into that job.” On top of help­ing his sin­gle mum cope with his sib­ling’s dis­abil­ity, at work his phys­i­cal pres­ence was ap­par­ently of­ten called upon, to help re­strain teenage Asperger’s suf­fer­ers dur­ing their many anx­i­ety at­tacks and tantrums. His big break in mu­sic came in 2013, when he cut a daz­zlingly lay­ered vo­cal-only track called Reuben’s Train with a guy he knew from school called Mark Crew, who con­cur­rently hap­pened to be pro­duc­ing Bastille’s Bad Blood. As that al­bum went su­per­nova, Crew got to set up his own Best Laid Plans la­bel, and promptly signed


Rag’n’Bone Man, also fix­ing him up with a lu­cra­tive pub­lish­ing deal so he could go full-time. In 2014, his nine-track Wolves EP mixed blues and nu-soul with hi-tech beats and oc­ca­sional bursts of MC-ing, and Gra­ham’s agree­ment with Crew was duly ex­tended into a con­tract with Sony, but ini­tially the la­bel weren’t quite sure what to do with him. He didn’t re­ally fit in, and ul­ti­mately the cred­its for Hu­man would list three sep­a­rate pro­duc­tion teams, in­clud­ing Crew’s, and nu­mer­ous co-writ­ers – hardly a recipe for a co­he­sive, suc­cess­ful al­bum. The magic in­gre­di­ent was hid­ing in plain sight – the mild-man­nered Gra­ham him­self.

On 15 May, 2013 at Brighton’s Con­corde 2, a Rag’n’Bone Man solo gig sup­port­ing her­itage hip-hop act Slum Vil­lage suf­fered an em­bar­rass­ing tech­ni­cal hitch, as Gra­ham’s DJ, his only part­ner on­stage, “fucked it up, and sud­denly there was noth­ing for me to sing to.” One can only imag­ine Gra­ham’s sense of panic. “Some­one shouted, ‘Do an a cap­pella!’” he re­calls, “and the only thing I could think of was In My Time Of Dy­ing.” This is an old gospel tune, best known for be­ing cov­ered (at con­sid­er­able length) by Led Zep­pelin on 1975’ s Phys­i­cal Graf­fiti, but he knew it from an old 45 of his dad’s by blues­man Josh White. On pa­per, its mor­bid sub­ject mat­ter was hardly tai­lor-made for paci­fy­ing a rest­less party-rap au­di­ence, but that night Gra­ham dis­cov­ered that his voice alone could si­lence a room, and bridge any per­ceived gap be­tween genre and gen­er­a­tional taste. Some scep­tics have painted him as a voice in need of artis­tic di­rec­tion – pos­ses­sor of a ti­tanic nat­u­ral gift, which, if chan­nelled cor­rectly, has earth-mov­ing po­ten­tial. But that is to over­look the songs on Hu­man, all of which, bar Die Easy, orig­i­nated with Gra­ham him­self but were later sculpted along­side more ex­pe­ri­enced tune­smiths (in­clud­ing Ben Ash, co-au­thor of Sam Smith’s Money On My Mind). At least two of these have con­nected with peo­ple to an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­gree in­ter­na­tion­ally. If one thing unites his com­po­si­tions, it’s a sense of em­pa­thy. Rather than ex­plic­itly ex­or­cis­ing the ghosts of his child­hood, his lyrics are more about iden­ti­fy­ing with the suf­fer­ing in oth­ers, hav­ing gone through a parental di­vorce him­self.

“There is a lot of pain in there,” he qui­etly ad­mits, “but it’s not al­ways nec­es­sar­ily mine. Like, my mate told me one night when we were get­ting drunk that his mis­sus had made it so he wasn’t al­lowed to see his daugh­ter any more. I was like, ‘This is too deep to not write a song about it’, and the next day I’d got No Mother off the Wolves EP].” Sim­i­larly, Odetta, from Hu­man, was writ­ten about “one of my best friends in Brighton, who had long-term is­sues with drugs. When his daugh­ter was born, it just changed him so dra­mat­i­cally, I knew I had to write about it.” His two big tunes (see earlier pan­els), per­haps not coin­ci­den­tally, are a bit more un­spe­cific and open. The idea for Skin came from watch­ing an episode of Game Of Thrones, about car­ry­ing a life­long torch for some­one, af­ter cir­cum­stances pre­vented you both from get­ting to­gether ro­man­ti­cally. Hu­man, on the other hand, is Gra­ham’s ri­poste to friends who come to him look­ing for val­i­da­tion for their own dodgy mo­tives. Read­ing be­tween the lines of that song, you imag­ine that his mates may choose to con­fide in him pre­cisely be­cause he’s a man of emo­tional ma­tu­rity, with an un­usu­ally steady moral com­pass. On­stage, he says he scours the au­di­ence, look­ing for con­nec­tion – “even if it’s just one per­son, like there’s some­thing re­cip­ro­cal.” One pre-al­bum track in the live set called Per­fume, which he wrote af­ter read­ing Pa­trick Süskind’s novel of the same name, has be­come par­tic­u­larly poignant for Gra­ham him­self. “That book’s dark as fuck,” he says, “but it’s such an in­ter­est­ing con­cept – some­body think­ing they can bot­tle the scent of a per­son. So I got to think­ing about the smell of home be­ing the smell of the one you love.” He frowns. “But I wouldn’t write that now, be­cause I’m never at home, and I’ve for­got­ten what my girl­friend smells like.” Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the tabloids gen­er­ously re­vealed against his wishes that Beth is ex­pect­ing their first child, due in Septem­ber. He asks not to talk about it, clearly hop­ing to avoid pil­ing ex­tra ex­ter­nal pres­sure on her. “I’m glad it’s hap­pened when it has,” he says, “but fuck, I couldn’t have picked a busier time to do it.” He smiles benev­o­lently. “It’s all good.”

In balmy Verona, the Rag’n’Bone Man wows a gen­teel, seated crowd. Gra­ham opens the set alone with an elec­tric gui­tar, moan­ing out St James In­fir­mary Blues – an early 20th- cen­tury blues track, other­wise cov­ered by The White Stripes. With his band in­clud­ing a Premier League funk bass-player, the set duly takes in D’An­gelo-es­que soul (Ego), grime-tinged rap mo­ments (The Fire) and, on As You Are, a Prince-ly good-vibes love song. And then there’s Die Easy, prompt­ing an al­most rou­tine mo­ment of pin-drop awe. Go­ing for­ward from here, there are plenty of dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions he could take. Gra­ham says he’s been writ­ing more rap lyrics lately, and af­ter watch­ing The Art Of Or­ga­nized Noize, a doc­u­men­tary about the At­lanta, Ge­or­gia pro­duc­tion team be­hind OutKast’s live-in­stru­mented take on hip-hop, he’s keen to start writ­ing and record­ing with his virtuoso band. And the sub­ject mat­ter? “I’m gonna be do­ing quite a lot of liv­ing over the next year,” he smiles, “so hope­fully it bodes well for that side of things.” Right now, ev­ery­thing’s turn­ing to gold for Rory Gra­ham.


Rags-to-riches man: (above, right) with rap crew Rum Com­mit­tee in 2015; (be­low) re­ceiv­ing his Crit­ics’ Choice gong at the Brits in 2017.

“Sooo glad you could make it...” Rag’n’Bone Man sound­checks at Verona’s Teatro Ro­mano, 16 June, 2017.

The gen­tle­man of Verona: Gra­ham greets the crowd at the Teatro Ro­mano.

“Hmm, tempt­ing...” Gra­ham pon­ders a pregig dip in the River Adige.

“Ar­rived­erci!” Gra­ham bids Verona good­night.

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