“A Foot in The Door”: Rag’n’Bone Man on ‘Human’, Lockdown, and His New Album
Rag’n’Bone Man – AKA Rory Graham – has a new record, Life by Misadventure. It’s nothing like his old one, though none of his work ever is. Instead it’s a hopeful, guitar infused rejection of negativity that seeks to lift the world, and himself, out of a dark place.
“I feel like this record isn’t sad. It has moments of melancholy on it, but as a whole, it’s quite hopeful”.
Rory Graham is a large, bear-like dude, with tattoos across his face and a beard worthy of a viking longboat. Five years ago he was slowly bubbling his way up through the UK underground, working with drum n bass acts, UK hip hop crews, and spoken word artists.
Then his single ‘Human’ exploded across the airwaves like an atomic bomb, the fallout permanently lodging itself in our brains and changing Graham’s life forever. The track currently has 1.2 billion – with a B – views on YouTube and mere mention of the title will have you humming it for days. But the song itself is not the man sitting in a little box on my laptop screen, nor is he particularly enamoured with the track that made him famous.
Watch Rag’n’Bone Man – Human (Official Video)
“It was a foot in the door for me,” he says in his iconic, sultry baritone. “It was obviously massively successful, but it really just opened doors for me, and enabled me to be at a place now where I have total freedom to do whatever music I want to do and I don’t really have any boundaries.”
“I feel like I could go and make a fucking heavy metal album if I really wanted to,” he chuckles. “People might not like it, but, you know, I can kind of do what I want.”
Rag’n’Bone Man has been on a journey since ‘Human’. His second album, Life by Misadventure, is spoken about as his sophomore effort, but in fact it’s his fifth long-play.
Much like his real life name-sake, Graham is a collector, a jack-of-all-trades, and a dabbler in pretty much anything. He served as hype man and human subwoofer on hard-drinking party tracks for the UK hip-hop group Rum Committee. His first album, Bluestown, sounds like Otis Redding singing mournful ballads in the smoking wreckage of a houseparty at 5am. He’s also provided vocals for some of the biggest names in the drum n bass scene as well as legends of the underground.
From Kae Tempest and Stig of the Dump, to Calvin Harris and Gorillaz, it’s clear he’ll work with anyone to create sounds that connect with people. That’s why it makes sense that his latest album would feature pop-punk icon P!ink. That’s why it makes sense that it was written in Nashville.
Watch Rag’n’Bone Man & P!nk – Anywhere Away From Here (Official Video)
“It feels like a natural progression. When I look back on the Human album, although it came out in 2017, most of the songs were written probably like four years before that. So, it feels quite a lot older to me than it does to everybody else”.
“I’ve grown up so much as a songwriter, I feel so much more comfortable now as a songwriter that some of the songs on the album sound quite Mickey Mouse to me. They represent you at a certain time. So, you know, I’m not digging the album out. I’m just saying that, you know, in hindsight, I would do it differently now.”
It’s been a huge year not only for Graham but the rest of us. After going through a divorce with his long-term partner, with whom he had been together for over a decade, Graham had to focus on being a father to his young son Reuben. He decided to get some perspective on his home life by moving to Natshville to record the new record. Of course, the pandemic soon put a stop to that.
“We kind of just needed a bit of a change. My writing started to get progressively more depressing. I got to the point where I’d written a couple of songs and I was like, ‘I’m not sure people want to hear this’, you know, my sadness at that moment. And I really didn’t want to make a record like that.”
“I kind of purposefully didn’t write songs around the time that I was feeling that way. I was like, ‘I’m just going to hold back and wait for a while’ and I’m glad I did, because it made for a more hopeful record”.
The change to Nashville from his three-acre estate in Brighton, UK, was certainly a jump. As for the musical influence, “it definitely made me put a lot more guitars on record,” Graham jokes.
Watch Rag’n’Bone Man – Crossfire (Live from The Garage)
“I’m not a massive country music fan, so I don’t really feel like county has infiltrated my sound, but maybe the backdrop of it has. Just being in that space and writing songs around a table with a bunch of guys on acoustic guitars definitely had a lighter effect on the record”.
“Being in a place like Nashville made me write differently. Being away from home a lot made me think more about my family and, in turn, that made me write songs about being a dad and how I feel about my son. It definitely made it more of a personal record in that way.”
With COVID in retreat, and the UK now having vaccinated over half of its population, the music scene is emerging from its enforced slumber and Graham is looking forward to gigs returning. He tells us he has 20 festivals penciled in from July through September and, if everything goes to plan, he’ll soon be playing intimate gigs at Camden’s Jazz Cafe to a crowd of just a hundred.
“I really engineered this record to be a live record, you know, not only the sound of it but with us going into a studio as a band and playing it live. The way that the record flows feels like the way I would play my live set. In the back of my mind, when we’re making it, I always thought that this is going to translate onto a stage or a festival somewhere.”
As for Australia, we’ll have to wait to get a taste of the live set. Graham says he’ll be down under “as soon as physically possible” and when he is, he plans to spend a good few months touring properly and gigging in places beyond Sydney and Melbourne where he’s only played before.
The album itself is another step in the musical journey of Rag’n’Bone Man but fans should expect the familiar vocal power interweaved between new sounds. As to the future, Graham cites drum n bass as a genre he’s keen to return to, with unreleased tracks from his collaboration with Roni Size potentially seeing the light of day.
Finally, the album cover is a profile shot of the man himself (“I think my label were pretty gassed at having something that was easily marketable”), eyes closed, with a crack down the centre. “It kind of represents the fact that everything’s not been perfect, and it probably won’t be perfect,” he says, while at the same time knowing that that’s okay.
Rag’n’Bone Man’s second album Life By Misadventure is out now.