Sam Ryder exclusively photographed for The Big Issue.
It’s got to be the music moment of 2022. After decades in the wilderness, the UK’s Eurovision entry, Space Man, has snuck up the left-hand side of the famous scoreboard. Now we’re head-to-head with Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra for the win. The cameras are trained on Kalush’s hopeful faces and on Sam Ryder’s massive, chill grin.
“Listen, I knew they were going to win it,” Ryder says. “And I wanted them to win it. All of us were just smiling because we were like, this is amazing. What an experience we’ve had. They’ve won it and I want them to sing the hell out of their song on that stage.
“That’s what was going through my mind. The fact that the camera was on us was a blessing. That never happens. We’re usually starting to pack up and go at that point, you know?”
Kalush’s song, mixing traditional music with rap, rightly won the day, after a swell of support from the public vote clearly showed a continent rallying behind ordinary Ukrainians against the Russian invasion. Sadly, Ukraine remains war torn, and too unsafe to host the 2023 Eurovision, so Liverpool has had to step in. As stand-ins the UK has to honour Kalush and Ukraine by showing “we are the best party planners on the planet”, Ryder says.
“They left friends, families at home to go and shout from the rooftops what was going on and help us feel, through their song, what was going on,” he explains. “A good song reaches out to a stranger and puts them in the shoes of the writer, so they may better experience something that they’ve never experienced. And Kalush did that. So they deserved to win.”
If it’s true that we show our real colours in defeat, that moment was the apex of a Eurovision campaign that showed Ryder to be a blindingly bright ray of sunshine. And seven months on, he’s still at it. Our interview today begins with Ryder himself answering the door to his luxury hotel room (PR looking confused in the background) and wrapping your humble correspondent in a bouncy bear hug.
Now we know it’s not an act, the first question I have to ask is, how? What’s the secret to Sam Ryder’s relentless buoyancy?
“Ha! I’ve been doing music since I was 14 years old. I always had the same dream: one day, I would love to be in a position where I’m sharing my own music with complete strangers, but those strangers actively want to listen to it. So when you get a sniff at it, it’s just gratitude all the way. There’s no room for any pretence or pomp or ego or arrogance. You’re lucky, you’re so lucky to be in that position.
“So, gratitude. That, and just get some sleep. Sleep and vegetables. Take care of your future self.”
This year, Ryder has had plenty to feel grateful for. Though pipped at the post in Turin, the 32-year-old returned to the UK a hero. Gigs at the Queen’s Jubilee and Capital’s Summertime Ball festival followed. His debut album, There’s Nothing but Space, Man!, comes out through major label Parlophone next month. He even found himself singing Somebody to Love for Queen (the rock band, not our dearly departed monarch) on the Wembley Stadium stage, at the Foo Fighters tribute show for their drummer Taylor Hawkins in September.
“Rock and metal and punk: that’s what I grew up on,” Ryder beams. “That’s what I’ve been playing in bands for years. So then to be able to do that with Queen – who are like my favourite of all time, I can’t express the importance and impact that band have had on me – to be invited as a vocalist is mad.”
Hawkins died in March this year, prompting a wave of love and grief from fans and the music community. Like Ryder, he’d been known for his perma-grin.
“It was celebrating a life. But it was a celebration that shouldn’t have existed,” Ryder says of the concert. “That’s the feeling that I felt. You’ve got this guy that would just play the hell out of the drums with his big smile on his face. I think he inspired joy.
“It wasn’t just incredible musicianship and passion. Because you can be an incredible musician, but if you’re not playing with passion, you’re not a magnet. Like Mick Jagger, he’s a magnet. Do you know what I mean? Like Freddie Mercury was a magnet. Taylor had it. And it shakes the world to its core.
“As a musician, if I’m not doing that, I’m not doing anything. It has to be that or nothing.”
In addition to Queen, the show at Wembley attracted a massive mosh of rock icons – Metallica, AC/DC, Paul McCartney, Rush, Liam Gallagher, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and, over a mammoth six-hour run time, Dave Grohl as host and emotional heart. The whole thing was streamed for free on YouTube, so when Grohl finally broke down at the start of Foos anthem Times Like These, it wasn’t just the people in Wembley that felt it.
“I remember seeing the shape of him, the way he was holding himself, with a guitar strapped around him. It felt like Wembley was just a giant arm around his shoulder,” says Ryder. “And not just his but everyone’s. It wasn’t like we were romanticising grief and romanticising sadness. It was pure. It was raw. And it was really tangible.”
For Ryder, that sense of a global community coming together to get through pain was yet another proof he’s been right all along to dedicate his life to music. The last year’s been “honestly amazing” but for a long time before that, it was much less glamorous. After attending school in Chelmsford he kept the vision alive while working for his dad as a labourer on construction sites. “I learned a lot in construction, like: I do not want to do this,” he laughs.
Still, Ryder’s now thankful for those days. “As a mature adult looking back, what kindness that my dad gave me space to earn money to be able to fund a dream. That’s my dad, who is not a musician, doing everything that he could possibly do to support a musician.”
When he escaped the building site, Ryder was to be found serenading a parade of Essex brides, grooms and drunken uncles at eight years’ worth of wedding band gigs. At the same time, he was running a juice bar in Coggeshall with his girlfriend Lois Gaskin-Barber. The combination was exhausting, and occasionally chaotic.
“I had no sleep. It was really tough running both of those things at the same time,” remembers Ryder. “One time, I’d fallen off a little bit in terms of my organisation. I didn’t see there was a first dance. It was my worst nightmare. I had five minutes to run to the loos, search the song on my phone, and just memorise as much of it as I could.
“My rendition, if anyone’s got it on camera, was like a Picasso version of Ed Sheeran.”
Still, Ryder is – predictably – grateful for what he learned. “It taught me everything that I really know about music,” he insists. “I was playing in loads of bands before that, and arguably doing a lot cooler stuff, but that didn’t give me my 10,000 hours [referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to become a master].
“That didn’t give me the maturity, or the real love of what music is. Music isn’t about being applauded or getting a dopamine rush or validation from a crowd. It’s about getting it from yourself. It’s only in very recent times that music has been a commodity in the sense that we’re fighting for number ones or market share. For millennia, we’ve been playing and sharing songs without any of that.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit UK shores in 2020, lockdowns stopped the wedding industry in its tracks. What could have been a disaster for Ryder became the impetus for a revolution in his life. Capturing that sunbeam personality and that powerhouse voice on TikTok, he grew an enormous following, including backing from pop luminaries Alicia Keys, David Guetta, Justin Bieber and Sia. He’s currently closing in on 14 million followers on the micro video app.
“I feel like it could be one of those things where people are like, TikTok is a bit lame or whatever, but I just love it,” he smiles. “Like, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Ryder’s positivity was the tonic the world needed to get us through those frightening times. And with his first album, he hopes to keep spreading joy. “I think there’s a place for music, whatever’s going on in the world,” he says. “There’s no time that’s ever existed that hasn’t been able to be made better or lighter by the presence of music. This is the thing we turn to every time there’s darkness.
“Think about every charity drive that’s ever existed in the world. We call the musicians. Because it’s when we put in melody to a statement or an idea is what makes it catchy. It’s what makes people hold on to it, and then act upon it. That’s why, in my opinion, music is so powerful. I’m really grateful to have made this record with people that are incredibly talented and dear friends of mine.”
The lesson from Sam Ryder, in case you needed it one more time with feeling, is gratitude.
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