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Sea Shanty Sensation Nathan Evans: ‘I’m an Actual Musician’

“I’ll prove that I’ve got other things in my locker,” promises the TikTok-famous young musician who just signed a deal with Universal’s Polydor Records

Jo Hanley*

On Christmas, Nathan Evans was a struggling 26-year-old musician who delivered mail by day in Airdrie, Scotland, a small town outside Glasgow. He needed a job that would allow him time to practice and also help support him and his wife during their first year-plus of marriage. Then, on December 27th, Evans posted a new tune on TikTok — an a cappella version of “Wellerman,” a sea shanty about whalers awaiting a resupply ship in the mid 1800s. (The real-life company that owned the boat was the Weller Brothers, hence the title.) Now, less than a month later, he has a three-album record deal.

For Evans, the song was just one of several playful sea shanties and folk songs he’d posted, this one filmed in a room in a relative’s house where he and his wife are currently living. But “Wellerman” soared into the stratosphere, with people around the world adding their own harmonies and reposting the track. His own version has amassed over 8 million views and helped kick off an extremely left-field sea-shanty moment in the culture. “Jesus … Jesus,” Evans says from his home when told the latest numbers about the song. “That’s insane.”
It’s an unexpected leap for someone who graduated college in his native country with a degree in web design and has yet to play any official gigs. (His previous releases were covers of Vance Boy and Kodaline songs that he uploaded to Spotify last year.) Having quit his postman job, Evans — who released an official “Wellerman” single with Universal-owned Polydor last week that is already ascending the music charts in the U.K. — spoke with Rolling Stone about his journey into the court of virality and modest future plans.

How are you coping these days?
I’m good. Just carrying on and taking each day as it comes. I left my job not the last Friday but the one before. The Monday before I quit my job, I was getting texts and emails and I said, “I can’t do both.” Some management companies got in touch with me and some small record labels too, so I saw this opportunity coming.

Where did you grow up and what music did you hear as a kid? You posted covers of Dylan and Paul Simon songs early on.
I pretty much grew up here [Airdrie]. I got my first guitar when I was 8 and I’ve been playing since then. When I was young, I was into everything from rap music to punk rock, like blink-182. My dad and mum had Van Morrison and records like that. So that’s where [the covers] come from, my mum and dad.

What appealed to you about “The Sound of Silence”?
It’s the words and the story behind the song. You can shut your eyes and just see it.

Did you play in bands as a kid?
No. I was in the school choir. I’ve always loved to sing. But I was never in a band. I just kept to myself, just me and my guitar. If I messed up, I could only blame myself.

You started uploading songs to TikTok about a year ago. I’ve noticed you cover songs by Lewis Capaldi and Ed Sheeran.
The way they do their music was a great influence on me. They’ve clearly shown they can write a good song, a story, and they can they can play and it’s just them and their guitar. That has been an absolute massive influence for me. You can hear the emotions in the songs.

What lead you to start posting folk songs and shanties?
I was just doing covers and people started leaving more and more comments about why I should this song or that song. I was writing them down and looking at the suggestions. Someone said, “You should sing some sea shanties.” Or “You should sing ‘The Scotsman.’” My granddad and mum and dad would always old Scottish folk songs and VHS tapes, so growing up, those were an influence too. So I did that and people said it was amazing.

“I hadn’t really heard [‘Wellerman’]… I went to Spotify and found a couple of versions there, like by the Albany Shantymen. I learned it in three or four days.”

Were you familiar with “Wellerman”?
No, I hadn’t really heard it. I had heard the other folk songs. This one just came from a comment. So I went to Spotify and looked up “Wellerman” and found a couple of versions there, like by the Albany Shantymen. I learned it in three or four days. I recorded myself singing and then put all the files on my computer and did the harmonies.

Why did this song connect?
For one, my accent helps. American followers love my accent. But it’s not the best time for everyone… Everyone is stuck in their houses. I think this is just like a beacon of light to everybody, especially once people would do it together and duet on it. Maybe it’s giving everybody that sense of unity and friendship that we’ve all been missing for about a year now.

It’s also about a ship waiting for supplies, which may speak to people too when it comes to a vaccine.
That’s right. It takes what a sea shanty was in the 1800s, to keep the sailors’ morale high, and brings it into the modern age.

Take us through December 27th.
I could see it was uploaded and that whole day the views kept climbing. But I didn’t notice it was going to be big until two or three days later. The duets started coming in. I saw it on other websites. I think there were a couple of people with bass voices joining in, and once people saw that they joined in.

How difficult was the mail job in time of COVID-19?
You have to take sanitizer because you’re touching mail boxes and packages and all these things. You have to make sure you always sanitize and wash your hands and put your mask on. But I was getting home at half 3 [3:30 p.m.] so it was the perfect job for me. I’d go home and practice.

People like John Prine and one of the Grateful Dead held mailmen jobs too.
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely a tradition.

Have you played live yet?
I’ve only played for family and friends, and friends of friends. I’ve done a couple of weddings. My mom and dad, they both like karaoke so I’ve always shown up with my guitar, and at the end of the night, I give them a few songs and take requests.

What will you do with your record advance?
I’d like to buy a house. Me and the wife will go house hunting. I’ll probably stay in the town I’m living in.

You must have seen some of the online comments like, “A mailman is singing a sea shanty? Is this a novelty?”
That’s right. It’s very understandable. I can see why people would think that. But I’m an actual musician. I’ve written some songs and hopefully you’ll get to hear some of them this year. Finger crossed. I’ll prove that I’ve got other things in my locker.

From Rolling Stone US