Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2017: Rag 'N' Bone Man interview

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Media captionSound of 2017: Rag 'N' Bone Man

Hip-hop bluesman Rag 'N' Bone Man has been named runner-up in the BBC's Sound of 2017, which aims to predict the year's biggest new acts.

Born Rory Graham in Uckfield, near Brighton, the 31-year-old started his musical career as a jungle MC before his parents encouraged him to sing.

His first big break came in 2012, when he supported Joan Armatrading, after his girlfriend sent promoters his early recordings - including videos of him singing on the toilet.

"I didn't know anything about it," he told his local newspaper The Argus. "I made some of my early recordings while sitting on the toilet... They seemed to like it though."

Through constant gigging, he built a loyal fanbase until the emotive Bitter End, from his 2015 Disfigured EP, won support from Huw Stephens on Radio 1 and Jo Whiley on Radio 2.

With a rasping voice not unlike Joe Cocker, he recently scored a major hit with the gospel-inspired single Human, which has topped the German charts for the last 13 weeks, and challenged Clean Bandit for the UK Christmas number one.

He spoke to the BBC about his pirate radio past, becoming "big in Germany" and his favourite Disney songs.

BBC Sound of 2017: The Top Five

5.Nadia Rose

4.Jorja Smith

3. Raye

2. Rag 'N' Bone Man

1. Ray BLK

Congratulations on making the Sound of 2017's top five! How does it feel?

It's a pretty exciting thing to be part of. It feels like I've put in all the hard work for a reason.

Where did you get the name Rag 'N' Bone Man?

I used to go round to my granddad's house on a Saturday morning, and we'd sit and eat our porridge and watch re-runs of Steptoe and Son on BBC Two. I thought it was hilarious - and Rag 'N' Bone Man sounded like a blues name to me. It reminded me of people like Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Mama Thornton.

Imagine how different it would have been if you'd been watching repeats of Fawlty Towers.

Yeah, I could have been called Basil!

Did anyone ever advise you to go back to being Rory?

I was asked if I wanted to change it a couple of times, but I like it. Whether you think it's stupid or not, it's memorable.

Image copyright Sony Music
Image caption The musician has worked with the likes of Kate Tempest and Jack Garratt

Human has been number one in Germany for more than three months now. Is it strange to be big in Europe first?

It's really crazy. I never expected it at all.

I've been working as a musician for the last five or six years, but I saw myself as an underground artist and I was kind of happy doing that. But then, you know, when it started getting bigger I thought, "Well, why not? Why shouldn't it be spread to a wider audience?"

In the UK, the song only entered the chart after Emily Middlemas performed it on X Factor. How did you feel about that?

I didn't have any choice in the matter! X Factor isn't my thing. I don't watch those shows. But somebody showed me her singing the song on their phone and, actually, she kind of nailed it.

You spent a long time making hip-hop as a teenager. Were you a good MC?

I think I was - but I always had the feeling everyone was better than me, you know? When I started singing, I left it behind.

Image copyright Sony Music
Image caption The star's debut album comes out in February. "It feels like I've been waiting forever," he says

What prompted you to start singing?

Me and my dad used to go to these jam sessions and open mic nights but I was always scared of singing on stage. It felt different to rapping - more pressured.

But it literally took one time for me to do it, and for people to come up and say, "Dude, do you realise what your voice sounds like?" for me to be like, "OK, maybe I should do this more often!"

Where was that gig?

It was my 21st birthday at a pub in East Grinstead. My dad said, "You should get up and sing" and because it was my birthday and I'd had a few drinks I went, "Alright, yeah, I'll do it!"

What did you sing?

The guys on stage were all double, if not triple, my age, and they were playing old blues tunes and standards. I knew all the words because my dad used to play them on a slide guitar when I was a kid.

The first song you uploaded to YouTube was an old American folk song, Reuben's Train. I was surprised to see you playing guitar on it, because you don't anymore...

I don't much, no, but I've just decided to start doing it again.

What age did you start to learn?

I always knew a little bit because my dad played but I didn't really have that much interest. You know what it's like when your dad tries to get you into something!

But when I started singing, and I wanted to try and write songs, I realised I'd have to teach myself a bit more.

So you had no formal training?

My mum always wanted to send me to a music school but we didn't really have the money. So even now, I'm not a technically good singer. If you asked me to sing a particular harmony, I wouldn't know how.

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Media captionRag 'N' Bone Man performs Skin at the Brixton Jamm

What else were you into as a kid?

I played a lot of basketball - but I was a little terror as a kid. I caused a lot of problems for my mum. We used to have the old bill round my house a lot.

I grew up in a little town called Uckfield and there's not much to do - so we used to fight a lot. I was never in serious trouble, but we used to have the local bobby round the house saying, "Rory's been up to this again."

Then you got into jungle music?

Yeah, when I was 16 or 17. We used to do little pirate radio stations and put out jungle mixes.

What were those pirate radio shows like?

Well, we have a couple of tapes, which are never allowed to be shown to anyone, ever! They are really bad. I listened back to one the other day and it is terrible. I'm keeping them firmly locked away.

What's the most embarrassing bit?

It's my voice. It's only just broken so I kind of sound like Scooby Doo.

Image caption An acoustic performance on Later... With Jools gave Human early exposure in the UK

You've been making music as Rag 'N' Bone Man for five or six years, now. Did you have to work to support yourself at the beginning?

Yeah, I was a carer, looking after people with Asperger syndrome and Down's syndrome.

My sister does something similar. It's a very rewarding job but quite a draining one.

Mentally draining, yeah. But most of the time it was pretty fun, to be honest.I looked after a brother and sister who had Down's syndrome, and we used to drive around in the car, stick on Disney songs and sing along. That was my life for about four years.

What was their favourite Disney song?

I used to do impressions of the Jungle Book characters to the kids; and we loved The Aristocats as well. That was one of our favourites - Everybody Wants To Be A Cat.

During that period, you gave away your Wolves EP for free. Why?

Wolves marked a point where I wanted to write songs properly and I wanted a wider audience to hear them. So I thought, "Why don't we just give it away? How can that be a bad thing?"

People love free stuff. And it worked. If definitely widened the audience.

Was there a song that people really responded to?

There's one called Life In Her Yet. I wrote it after I spoke to my granddad about living on his own again, after losing his wife. I can't imagine being with someone for 50 years and then being on your own.

That was the first song where I felt I could write about stuff like that.

Where did Human come from?

A friend asked me a question I didn't really feel qualified to answer, and I was like, "Why are you asking me?" That's what prompted the line, "I'm no prophet or messiah". Like, go and ask someone else. I don't have the answers for you!

It's funny, because I spoke to other people and they think it's about humanity. Maybe it is… but that's what's good about music - people can interpret the song for themselves.

Image copyright John Marshall
Image caption In addition to his place on the Sound of 2017, the singer recently won the Brits Critics' Choice award

I saw you play in Brixton recently, and you told the audience: "It's hard to write sad songs when I feel so happy." How big a problem is it?

There was a period where I felt a lot of frustration and and I wasn't happy in my relationship - and that definitely did make me write in a certain way. But I'm still learning as a songwriter, so I think I've definitely got it in me to write happier songs. Whether they'll be good or not, I don't know.

You recently tweeted you'd been up at 3am writing rap lyrics about EastEnders, so that can always be the basis of album number two.

Haha! Yeah, I still have that really childish side to me. I have a couple of tracks on the new album that I rap on. I need people to hear that side of my music, as well.

Rag 'N' Bone Man's debut album, Human, will be released on 10 February by Sony Music.

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