Rag’n’Bone Man is one of those rare artists who has managed to make the leap from underground to mainstream, without losing any of their integrity. I was lucky enough to to chat with him recently about his early influences, staying grounded and his recurring themes of death and mortality, among other things. The interview took place at the Cypher Lounge at the Windmill in Brixton.
G: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, man. How’s everything going?
R: It’s wonderful actually, really, really wonderful. Things have changed a lot, but yeah I’m super happy.
G: Congratulations on your recent appearance on the Sound of 2017 Top 5. That must’ve been a good way to kick the year off?
R: Yeah well it’s one of those things cos I didn’t really get into music for the trophies and accolades, but I’ve been doing this for 10 years so when they come along, its like people are noticing. All the ambition I ever had was to perform to bigger audiences, so that’s just another step towards that really.
G: I was wondering what your earliest musical memories are?
R: There are a few, but one is me as a kid, pottering round the living room with my dad and uncle playing guitar together – like he wasn’t really my uncle, just my dad’s friend, but we knew him as uncle Rob. So him and my dad used to play together, my dad would play slide and he’d play regular and they’d just jam and drink red wine. So that’s like my first memory – looking up at the table, seeing the red wine and thinking Uncle Rob’s coming and they’re going to play together. They’d play like old Sleepy John Estes tunes and stuff like that, so yeah that’s the one I remember most.
G: And do you remember always having a desire to sing, or was it something you discovered as you got older?
R: Not really to sing. I got brought up on blues, soul music, jazz and all that kinda stuff, that was my mum and dad’s collection of music. But when you get to 14, 15, you want to pave your own way in music and listen to what you want to listen to, not what your parents listen to. So I started to rebel against it and listen to what I wanted, and my thing at the time was jungle and ragga music, that was like the first kind of thing I got excited about. Listening to people like Congo Natty and then going to raves as well. I went to my first rave when I was 15 at Stratford Rex and seeing people like Shy FX & The Ragga Twins, that was the first thing I got excited about. And it made me want to be an MC, I wanted to be on stage with Randall or Kenny Ken or whoever.
G: And did it happen?
R: Yeah it did, I hosted for a while. We did some nights in Brighton and Eastbourne, where we had people like Scientific, DJ Fresh and Mampi Swift down. So I hosted for quite a few people and MCed at quite a few raves in my teens, but I don’t think I was really that great [laughs]. It was just words that rhymed together.
G: So when did the singing come into it?
R: The singing came a bit later cos I got into jungle, then naturally I got into hip hop, grime and some sound system stuff, from listening to jungle. But then I kinda like reverted back to where I’d started almost, with blues & soul and stuff; I taught myself to play guitar and piano, then I’d go to pubs and hit up open mics, sing with jam session bands and stuff. So that came around in my early 20’s a little bit later, when i realised I could still sing even though my voice had broken [laughs].
G: Is there someone you can identify as being the biggest influence on your singing?
R: Yeah for sure. Muddy Waters has definitely been the biggest influence cos he kinda like taught me how to sing. My mum – my dad wasn’t really around – couldn’t really afford to send me to any sort of music school, she knew I was interested in music and had a voice from an early age. She said to me “if I could’ve, I would’ve sent you to one of those schools”, but I just listened to those records, sung along and I just loved the way that Muddy Waters’ voice sounded. It was not fancy, he wasn’t doing runs like Mariah Carey, you know what I mean? He barked out those songs, but I’d defy anyone to listen to Muddy Waters and not like it cos it’s so truthful. He’d do it in this way where, even if you’re like 10 years old and you don’t know what he’s talking about when he says “I can’t be satisfied”, you want to know what he’s singing about cos it sounds interesting.
G: I’m a big blues fan myself and I know how hard it is to convey the pain within the music, especially for someone still relatively young. Have you had to work to get to that stage, or did you find it already was within you when you started singing?
R: I think that comes to down to the importance of influence and hearing the way people sing. I always felt when I was writing a song that I wanted to be able to sing that song on stage, the way I felt when I wrote it; I wanted people to be able to look me in the eye and know what I was talking about. That’s really important to me cos I’d say technically I’m not the best singer, like I couldn’t tell you what harmony I’m singing, or if someone said “do this as it’s written on the paper”, I couldn’t do it cos I never had any music lessons of any kind. There are probably a million people who can sing better than me, but a lot of it comes down to credibility and if you put everything into it then people will know it’s real.
G: I’ve noticed that death and mortality have been themes you’ve kept returning to since the Bluestown days; is there a reason behind that? Is it just something you find easier to write about?
R: It’s something that interests me. I find it interesting the way that some people are scared of death, or however they feel about it. R: Because if people are honest, there are certain things you think about – I don’t know about you – but I always think about stuff like what would happen if I died today? How would people remember me? Or even down to stupid stuff like how many people would be at my funeral? [laughs] It’s sort of a selfish thing – it’s sort of an ego thing as well, but if you’re really honest everyone thinks about that. So I’m interested in death, but not in a morbid way.
G: And that’s the best way to look at it, or else you’re just scared of it. Cos you can’t avoid it!
R: Exactly. Everybody dies some day.
G: I know how hard you’ve worked to get to where you are today and how quickly things have progressed over the last year; is it difficult to not get carried away with everything?
R: I haven’t found it hard cos I don’t think about the future that much. Like I don’t have these huge goals in my mind; I am ambitious, but I like to live sort of day to day. That helps me stayed grounded in the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, the music business is a fickle place and I feel very lucky to be in the place that I am. So no, I don’t find it difficult in the slightest.
G: I’d imagine there have been a lot of high points in your career so far , but do you have one that stands out in particular?
R: Well yeah there have been different high points in different places. Me, Gizmo, Kong and the rest of Rum Committee when we supported Pharoahe Monch, that was like three or four years ago at the Concorde 2 in Brighton. I remember sitting there, maybe four or five years before that, saying “Imagine if we could play the Concorde 2” and that’s only like 500-600 capacity venue. But that was a dream in itself, like imagining we could play the same venue where we’d gone to see all these different people and then we did that! Then I remember saying “Just imagine if we could play Jools Holland!”, but that just seemed so out of reach, like a million miles away from the point where I was at. Then a year later I get the call and it’s like, well this is fucking crazy! And then you’ve got all these venues that I went to growing up, like Brixton Jamm, Electric Brixton and now I’ve sold out those venues. Then next year I’m doing two nights at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and it sold out in two hours. So that’s what I mean about living each day as it comes cos if you live day to day and you don’t have these massive aspirations for the future, I feel like I just keep surprising myself.
G: Now are you one of those artists who are always writing, where you just need to get the words onto the page asap, or do you have a certain method to your songwriting?
R: Yeah I do it in any way I can really. I still write rap lyrics quite a lot cos I’m thinking about putting out an album with Rum Com in the next couple of years, so I keep writing rap stuff. And as far as songs go, it’s constant, like a couple of times a day. Whether it’s just a chorus idea, or a little melody idea, I’m always speaking or singing into my phone to get it down cos my memory is terrible! So if I don’t do it instantly, I forget straight away.
G: I can see how easy it would be for someone in your position to drift away from the people they came up with, but you’ve maintained your musical relationships throughout. Is that important to you, keeping in touch with your roots?
R: Yeah man, I don’t know how I could never not do that really. I still have a massive love for hip hop and also the blues circuit as well, so when I’ve got time I always like to go to things like tonight. There’s a cypher thing on, Giz and Ceezlin are playing; why would I not want to go to those things? I always wanted to in the past, so why would I not want to any more? Plus I like to try and support people where I can. It’s good when you’ve got a platform as big as mine is now cos like I did an interview with Beats the other night and it went out to thousands of people, so I played Dabbla & Baxter’s tune. They asked me if I wanted to do the music, so I played the music that I love from the people I believe in cos I have that opportunity.
G: And so in terms of working with people like Rum Committee, are there no restrictions from a label point of view?
R: No cos I had this ideal in my head. I never thought I’d sign to a major label cos I didn’t really know much about the music industry, but I knew it can be a shitty place. But at the same time, the reason I eventually signed with Columbia was cos they never wanted me to be anything I’m not. They saw my vision for how the music was going to be and they nurtured it. They’re always pleased when I want to try something different so if I went to them and said I wanted to do an album with Rum Committee, they’d be cool with it. And to be honest they wouldn’t have a choice anyway! [laughs]
G: Your album is due out next month, I believe. What can we expect from it?
R: It’s super diverse. Human isn’t a blueprint for how the album is; there’s that track and there’s maybe one more that I would say sits next to it, but then the rest of the album is really varied. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have an album that sounded the same. I didn’t have a concept for it as such, I just wanted to make sure the songs were good before we went into production. So all the songs would still work with just me and a piano, or a guitar, so I can play them all acoustically and they would still work. You’ve got really heartfelt songs on there and everything is real, like I didn’t write anything just for the sake of it. Plus I rap a couple of times on there, like there are moments where it gets really into hip hop, so I think people will be surprised and hopefully not bored.
G: I was kinda surprised the album didn’t make its appearance last year. Was there a reason you’ve left it until now, or has it simply taken you this long to get it to the level you wanted? I remember speaking to you at the end of 2015 and it was almost done then.
R: Yeah well the thing is last year I could’ve put out an entirely different album and probably the year before that too, cos I’ve been constantly writing towards something for three years. But I always felt I had better material in me and that’s the most difficult thing about me, cos I’m my own worst critic so I can just keep writing and writing, and never put an album out. But at some point you’ve gotta say this is the cut-off and I’m happy with where it’s ended up.
G: That’s it from me, but have you got any last words or shout outs?
R: Yeah I want to shout out anyone that has supported me over the years, from Rum Committee to High Focus Records; basically the whole UK hip hop scene that embraced me and helped me to get where I am at the moment. Sometimes people forget their roots, but whatever music I’m making now, there have been people who have really helped me by putting their faith & time into me, so I would like to thank all of them.