Historically the rag and bone man made a living from picking out valuable bits-and-bobs from the city-streets. Salvaging audio detritus might seem an apt description for some UK hip hop and electronic acts who you could accuse of ‘phoning it in’ with cut ‘n’ paste beats. Meeting our Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Rory Graham, it’s clear his rich pickings are based on much more, piecing together a mixed bag of influences from mum and dad’s record collection to the UK’s hip-hop scene. I caught Rory after his 5.30pm Swn slot, just before he made his way back to London. Towering over my five-foot-five, he gave me a few insights into how he’s gathered the inspiration for his music:
‘People always say to me, you don’t look like how you sound. I guess, don’t judge a book by its cover, that’s the thing. Most people think that I’m black, but I guess that’s just the way I sing. It’s got a lot to do with what stuff you were brought up on. I think the importance of influence is lost quite a lot of the time – you don’t realise how important it is.’
Meeting him off stage, Rory has an unassuming, gentle demeanour. On-stage he is quite still and sings with control, not quite belting it out, but creating a smooth sound, with rich bass notes and the occasional rasp. Quite simply he has a beautiful voice. I asked him how he learned to sing, but he insists that he sort of didn’t:
‘I just did it. I never had any lessons. It’s down to my mum and dad really. We always had good records about. My dad would always play John Lee Hooker and my mum used to sing around the house. Instead of sitting me in front of the TV they sat me in front of a record player.’
Family influence has definitely rubbed-off onto this soulful singer, but his influences don’t end there. Rory comes out of the UK’s hip-hop scene, as part of Rum Committee, and he brings with him a network of musical friends.
At the Swn show quite a few people were familiar with his tracks,including Cardiff mates Baby Queens(they met playing Boomtown). The audience were slow to warm up at this early-in-the-evening slot, but permission to dance came with the arrival on-stage of friend and collaborator Stig of the Dump. Self-deprecatingly he invited us to provide the moves for “two clumsy fat men”:
‘Stig of the Dump: very talented rapper, and very good friend of mine. I used to go out on tours with him sometimes and be his back-up guy. And now he’s coming to rap on my sets. It’s great to have him as a good lyricist and rapper but also a mate that comes along.’
Also on stage was drummer Ben Thomas whose style is effortlessly cool, although looks can be deceiving:
‘My drummer, he’s a very good guy to have on board. He won’t mind me telling you this but he’s a bit OCD so everything’s got to be perfect. We’re doing it very simply at the moment but it’s important to be to get the right sound. And when you’re on stage and you’ve got a band around you there’s some kind of comfort in knowing that everybody’s got your back.’
Rag n Bone Man’s tracks reveal a heady mix of blues, soul, hip-hop, spiritual -and Clint Eastwood. ‘No Mother’ is perhaps the biggest mash-up of influences. The rockier ‘Lay My Body Down’ and ‘Wolves’ are both very catchy, but perhaps a bit too close to melodic metal for a typical Swn audience but if you really want idea of how his direct lyrics easily captivate live, as well as where this guy is coming from and his respect for family, ‘Life In Her Yet’ gives it:
She still remembers a time that was uncomplicated; As sure as the sunrise, she’s seen things that you’ll never see; Losses and heartache amount to her strength; But oh how they all take their toll; She’s still here fighting; Better know there’s life in her yet…Let her go, I can’t let her go.
‘It’s important to have emotion on stage because it comes across to the people that are watching you. Life In Her Yet is quite personal – I wrote it about my grandma. My grandparents lived with us for quite a long time. I’m from just outside Brighton, so Sussex born and bred – a lot of my family are around there.’
Other vital tracks to check out are ‘Sirens’ featuring samples from Clint Eastwood movie Hang ‘Em High, and the chilled-out ‘Rain’ featuring Mercury nominee Kate Tempest.
At Swn Rory was accompanied by live drums and backing track. A full live band would have been the icing on the cake and in future will gainmore credibility with festival audiences. But he doesn’t need this cheeky madam to tell him that. He has big plans:
‘We’re going to be expanding the live aspect pretty soon. We’ve got two girls, Sheena and Sam, they’re singing back-up for me, so they’re going to come on board when the tour starts. Hopefully, we’ve got another guy called Jack who plays keys. We’re expanding but obviously, it’s quite difficult when you start out because ultimately you’ve got to pay everybody, and sometimes you can’t because you don’t have enough money.’
With a recent signing to Columbia and potential resources to foster his sound, existing tracks have the potential to captivate with a more luscious sound. Here’s hoping that this Rag N Bone Man won’t be picking a living for much longer.
Tracks available on Soundcloud and free download of EP Wolves on www.bestlaidplansrecords.com
Photos: Tomos Hooson