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
ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON IN MAY 2016,
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
“I DON’T THINK I WAS FULLY PREPARED FOR HOW MUCH PEOPLE RECOGNISE YOU ALL THE TIME… SO YOU KIND OF WANT TO COCOON YOURSELF, BUT THAT’S KIND OF IMPOSSIBLE.”
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.
“THERE IS A LOT OF PAIN IN MY SONGS, BUT IT’S NOT ALWAYS NECESSARILY MINE.”
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.