RORY GRAHAM IN BROOKLYN, JUNE 2017. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. GROOMING: NATE ROSENKRANZ FOR HONEY ARTISTS USING YSL BEAUTE TOUCHÉ ÉCLAT. PHOTO ASSISTANT: BEN COLSON. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKER’S ELVES LONDON. SPECIAL THANKS: RUBY BIRD STUDIO.
Rory Graham, better known by his moniker Rag’n’Bone Man, has a voice that is nigh indescribable. Saying it’s booming and soulful with an ability to fluctuate from high peaks to powerful tenor would be underselling it. For proof, one need only listen to his hit single “Human,” or any of the songs off his debut album of the same name, released in February 2017 by Sony.
Shockingly, it took the affirmation of strangers at an open mic for Graham, who was born in Uckfield, England, to realize that he could really belt it. “I used to sing as a kid but it was quite squeaky,” he tells us. “I think I was about 19 or 20 and we used to go to these jam sessions and open mics. I just got the courage to sing one day. I don’t think anyone expected it to sound like that. Lots of dudes were coming up to me like, ‘Dude, you don’t know how good your voice is.’ I knew it was in tune but I didn’t know there was anything special about it,” he continues. “It literally took that one time and then I knew the stage was where I was going to be.”
The song Graham sang was the blues classic “Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson, which makes sense given how often he draws from the genre to compliment his deeply emotional, at times gruff vocals. In more recent years as Rag’n’Bone Man, he’s steadily built a catalogue and some steam with various EPs, but it wasn’t until the electronic soul-gospel-blues LP Human that he really broke through.
In the midst of a world tour—including a stop at New York’s soon-to-be-renovated Webster Hall next Tuesday, August 2—Rag’n’Bone Man spoke to Interview about how he knew he was becoming famous, recording tapes in a bathroom, and his former career as a carer.
ETHAN SAPIENZA: Where are you right now?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: I am in a tent backstage at a festival.
SAPIENZA: Do you have any pre-show rituals that help you get ready to perform?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: It’s kind of the same as always. I drink some hot lemon and ginger and honey with rum in it every time, and then I put on some Sly and the Family Stone. That’s pretty much it.
SAPIENZA: When did you realize you really wanted to pursue music? I understand when you were a teenager you would rap over jungle music.
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Hip-hop was the music that actually got me excited about it and the actual prospect of performing. I think I loved music from an early age because my parents wanted me to love it as much as they did. It was constantly there. When you get to your teenage years you want to find something that you identify with. It’s almost a slight rebellion; you don’t want to listen to what your parents listen to anymore, you want to find your own music. That, for me, was hearing the Fugees for the first time. A friend of mine got me into Outkast. Hip-hop really sparked my imagination.
SAPIENZA: When did you start rapping?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Probably about 15 or 16.
SAPIENZA: What would you rap about?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: It was mostly about girls and smoking weed. [laughs] It wasn’t that interesting, and I’ve got a great deal of tapes of the early days. I don’t want anyone to hear them—it’s really terrible.
SAPIENZA: Who’s your favorite blues artist?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: It’s really difficult [to choose]. Close to my heart is Muddy Waters. I love the way he sang. It was almost like a bark. It was like the bark of a dog, it’s not fancy; sometimes it’s not like singing, it’s like shouting. There’s something really magical about his voice, and he taught me how to sing, basically. I used to sing along to Muddy Waters records constantly. People like him, and all the great blues singers, like B.B. King.
SAPIENZA: I was going to ask about how you taught yourself to sing. You were just trying to replicate musicians you looked up to?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Kind of, yeah. In the early days, I almost had a Muddy Waters accent to my voice because I sang along so much. I gradually got my own style.
SAPIENZA: I read that there was a tape of you singing on the toilet that helped to get you a gig. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: It was just a recording I made on an old 8-track with a microphone in the bathroom. I recorded a couple of acoustic songs, and my girlfriend at the time sent in some of those tracks to promoters. I subsequently ended up supporting Joan Armatrading. That was about 2011 or 2012. It gave me a massive boost, since it got me a bit of interest from radio here and there and it spurred me to record my first project.
SAPIENZA: So the bathroom had really good acoustics?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Yeah. [laughs]
SAPIENZA: To me, a lot of the album is about finding your place in life and reconciling with that situation, especially on “Grace” and “As You Are.” Would you agree with that interpretation?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Yes, totally. For instance, “Grace” started off from a real negative place. It’s about me declaring my love for somebody, but that in turn changes your life. I realized that that was actually a good thing at that time. It changed the course of where I’m at now. It might be about change, but it’s about where I’m about now. There’s a lot of stuff on there that’s really old and happened a long time ago, but when I was making the album I was thinking about how all those small things, which you think are so important at the time, actually change the course of your life, like the decision to move cities or where you live can have such a big effect. It’s seeing things that you thought were negative becoming positive. Everything’s cathartic in that way.
SAPIENZA: Is making music specifically cathartic for you?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Yeah, for sure. One of the things I find really difficult being on tour is we don’t have time to make music. I try to find a week off in-between touring not to rest, but I have all these ideas in my head that I need to unload, so I just go into the studio for a week instead.
SAPIENZA: When did you realize that you were first blowing up? Was there a specific moment?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: My pals would call me up. I have friends who live in Australia. They were working on a building site, and my friend called me up and said, “Dude, you’re playing on the radio in Australia four or five times a day. We’re building this house and we’ve got the radio on and [you’re] playing all day long.” That’s crazy because that’s the other side of the world. I would be driving through different places, like Belgium, and turning on the radio and I’m on the radio there. That was crazy for me, other countries playing me on the radio.
SAPIENZA: You have “soul” and “funk” tattooed on your hands, is that right?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Yeah, that’s right.
SAPIENZA: I’m curious what your reason was for that. Does it have anything to do with Night of the Hunter?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: It came from when I was a kid. I come from a place called Brighton and there’s a motorbike rally that goes from London to Brighton every year. Bikers would always hang out at the pub near me, and I just always had a fascination with bikers having tattoos on their knuckles. The guys who drove Harleys would always have “love” and “hate” on their knuckles. It was kind of a fascination as a kid, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I always thought, “When I’m older I’m going to get knuckle tattoos.” I couldn’t really get “love” and “hate” because I’m not actually a biker, and the guy who did my tattoos was like, “What do you like?” I was like, “Well, I like soul music.” He went, “What about ‘soul’ and ‘funk’?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool as fuck.”
SAPIENZA: Do you know fully where you want your sound to go from here?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: I never really thought I had one specific sound. I don’t know how you feel about the album or whether you’ve listened to it, but I feel like I just did a little bit of everything. It didn’t have one sound. That’s something I never wanted to do. I never wanted to have one sound. I want to pursue hip-hop a bit more on this next record, but then I also love folksy country music, because I grew up on Johnny Cash and people like John Prine and Bonnie Raitt. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do next, but I know it’s going to be different. I never felt bound to one genre. I’ve put out quite a few projects, and none of them have been the same as the next one. I do intend for that to be the same with the next record.
SAPIENZA: What did you want to be when you were five years old?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Oh shit. [laughs] Probably a biker from Mars. I don’t really know. I don’t remember five years old. I’ve smoked a lot of weed in-between then and now. That’s a really hard question to answer.
SAPIENZA: If you weren’t doing music what do you think you’d be doing?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: Before music, I used to look after people with Down syndrome and autism. I was a carer for five, six years. Obviously I love music the most, but that was a fucking great job man. It was a really cool job. I used to have so much fun. At times I miss it. If I wasn’t doing music, then 100 percent I’d be doing that.
SAPIENZA: Do you feel like there’s anyone you’re singing to in particular?
RAG’N’BONE MAN: These days I feel like I’m singing to fans. That’s the most joy I get out of performing. I close my eyes a lot when I’m on stage because I get into it. I get mad into it, so I just shut my eyes quite a lot. I’ll open my eyes at points and I’ll see someone. You can almost see what’s going through their heads and how much a song might mean to someone. That’s the greatest thing. I feel like at those points I’m singing to those people. It’s fucking intense.
FOR MORE ON RAG’N’BONE MAN AND HIS UPCOMING TOUR DATES, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.