Rag’n’Bone Man: We’re all winging it, basically
The last few years have been a rollercoaster for Rory Graham, better known by his stage name Rag’n’Bone Man. The 36-year-old singer-songwriter, whose baritone voice rocketed him to fame in 2016, became a father, got married, then separated.
But you wouldn’t know from his new album, the pointedly titled Life By Misadventure, an audibly optimistic collection that sets a new course for the Brit Award winner. “I was honestly wincing and closing my eyes while the first single was being put out,” he admits over video call from his home in Sussex.
His imposing frame, as tall as his voice is booming, fills the picture, but just visible behind him on the wall is a framed disc, presumably platinum, for his hit Giant with Scottish DJ Calvin Harris. “Either people are going to think this is really cool or they are going to think it is totally rubbish. There has been a mixed bag of response to it… but for the most part I think you are commended for being a bit braver in music these days.”
Graham had good reason to worry. Instead of returning to the hip hop-leaning neo-soul of his debut, he looked to classic singer-songwriters such as Sir Elton John, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell for inspiration, as well as the less fashionable music of Seventies staples Electric Light Orchestra. The first single in question, the jaunty All You Ever Wanted, was followed swiftly by a collaboration with pop superstar P!nk. An unlikely match, you might think. Graham even scrapped half an album’s worth of tracks after deciding he was covering familiar ground.
“I am sure it would have been OK,” he explains. “But I felt like I was concentrating more on a vibe rather than the actual songs. I was creating something that sounded nice to listen to, but I don’t know if the actual tracks would have lived up to it.”
Born in Uckfield, East Sussex, Graham started rapping over high tempo drum and bass music while still a teenager. He readily admits his school record was not perfect and once took part in a Prince’s Trust community programme that involved tending to a vegetable patch. Only when Graham moved to Brighton did he begin to find his feet musically, forming the rap group Rum Committee, supporting influential US hip hop acts such as Pharoahe Monch and KRS-One and later working with High Focus, a group of south London rappers with a cult following.
His switch to pop came in July 2016 when his first hit single, Human, was released on Columbia Records, peaking at number one in Austria, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Soon he had a clutch of Brit Awards including the coveted Critics’ Choice, previously won by Adele, Florence + The Machine and Ellie Goulding – a reliable indicator that the music industry has backed you for success. His first attempt at sophomore effort Life By Misadventure came in 2018 after a stint on tour. “I thought that was going to be the start of that process for this album,” he recalls. “But after writing four or five songs at the time, I quickly realised it was going over old ground and it just felt a bit stale. It felt the same vibe as Human and really didn’t fill me with any excitement.
“So I thought, ‘I’m not going to write any more. I am just going to take some time to think about what I want to do and just feels natural’.” That led him to a place where he was working solo on an acoustic guitar. “When I finished writing for this record I had loads of time to think about how it is going to sound,” he adds. “That is actually a beautiful thing, to have that time to realise the sounds you want to create and what kind of backdrop you want to give these songs.”
Fans, however, should not expect this to be a break-up record. “With this album there is more to be said than either, ‘I love you’ or, ‘I’m really sad that we broke up’. I don’t feel like the world needs more break-up songs.”
Graham married his partner of 10 years, Beth Rouy, in 2019 but they have since parted ways. They have a son called Reuben and have been co-parenting during lockdown. “I didn’t really write around that time,” he admits, referring to their split. “I didn’t want it to be that break-up record or anything… It’s not a horrible situation or anything – we still get on really well – so it’s not like a break-up record was even on the cards, to be honest.
“There is a tiny bit of that but, most of it, there is a real common theme about talking about my past and talking about now how I feel as a supposedly grown-up, responsible father. We’re all winging it, basically. And then a lot about my worries about the future and about how I have brought a child into this world we live in, which is seemingly at the moment f****** crazy. It feels like a real timeline. It’s a real story of the past, present and future.”
Prior to lockdown Graham moved out of London to his native Sussex in order to give his son more space. As an added bonus, he has also been able to convert a garden shed into a recording studio. “We basically live on the edge of a forest,” he explains. “It’s really beautiful around here and we were very lucky to be here around the lockdown period. I have friends who are in little flats in south London and I think, ‘Oh man’, especially when you are not allowed to leave the house. It must be really hellish.”
The joy of being a father has also fed into his music. “Part of becoming a father is that you have to let your guard down a little bit and also just be really honest. Children are very disarming. You could feel properly s*** one day, but if my boy is around, I instantly feel pretty happy. It brings me a lot of joy so it definitely fed into my music.
“Even though there are some songs on there that do feel a little bit melancholy, there is hope in them. They are not totally sad.”
Nevertheless, fatherhood is not all fun and games. Graham has been facing the challenge of promoting an album across multiple time zones while caring for his son, with all the bedtime stories and mealtimes that entails. “Having to say to my record label I can’t do Zoom calls at seven o’clock in the evening when I am meant to be putting my child to bed. That frustration I should be doing these things, but I have to put fatherhood first. I don’t have that freedom anymore to do exactly what I want,” he chuckles happily in that booming voice.
Life By Misadventure is released on Columbia Records on May 7.