You might be tempted to think that Rag‘n’Bone Man’s massive break-out success with his single "Human” — topping the charts in 10 countries and remaining at that lofty peak in Germany for a full three months — was a modern day Cinderella story. But you’d be wrong.
First off, Rory Graham, aka Rag‘n’Bone Man, didn’t emerge from complete obscurity on a cloud of sea foam to win the coveted Critics Award at the 2017 BRIT Awards (previous winners include Adele, Sam Smith and James Bay) then receive an out-of-the-blue phone call from Elton John, telling the 32-year-old bluesman-cum-rapper that he loved his music.
"Nobody told me how to sing, so I thought I’d try to sing like Howlin’ Wolf." Rag 'N' Bone Man
Nope, it was the result of a long, well-considered plan, back when Graham started listening to Muddy Waters at the age of 12. By 15, he decided he was going to be a jungle MC or at the very least, the next Roots Manuva. He made good on that promise: By 16, he was working as rapper called Rag’n’Bonez in his native Uckfield, a town 50 miles south of London, making his name as an MC at drum ‘n’ bass raves and on pirate radio. By the next year he’d formed an outfit called Rum Committee, and realized he wanted more input into his creative endeavors and began writing over beats. Eventually, he felt constrained by those beats, the hip-hop and the samples he’d so loved. “I wanted to start writing songs from the ground up, you know, sit at a piano and work a song out and decide what it’s going to be later,” he told the U.K.’s Guardian.
His father, an expert slide guitarist and avid music fan with a prodigious record collection encouraged his son and suggested instead of rapping that he try his luck singing at a local pub. It turned out that was perfect advice for Graham.
“Afterwards, this old geezer came up to me and said, ‘Dude, your voice is insane, you should sing some more.’ That feeling of actually getting a reaction had a big effect — ‘Oh, I like this is — this is good!’” Graham told the U.K.’s Telegraph.
But apparently not good enough in his estimation to put out an album immediately. In fact, after self-releasing a couple of EPs he bumped into an old school friend from Uckfield named Mark Crew who had been producing Bastille. Together, they worked on the songs that became 2014’s Wolves EP. From that, Graham scored a publishing deal and spent more and more time working on honing his songs and playing live and getting his sound just where he wanted it.
"There is something refreshingly normal about Graham, like Adele before him."Mark Crew
“I think there’s an attitude these days that you go straight from a studio to the stage and it isn’t really like that,” Graham told the Daily Record. “Playing live was the most important thing for me at the start, because whenever I recorded something, I didn’t like how my voice sounded. It was just raw. Nobody told me how to sing, so I thought I’d try to sing like Howlin’ Wolf.”
He never stopped trying to sing like his blues hero, adding in a touch of Marvin Gaye, a dash of Eric Burdon; the rough magic of his self-taught voice was a vehicle for deep, authentic emotion and homespun advice. Like Gregg Allman before him, he possessed a voice that was far older and conveyed wisdom beyond his years.
Nor is there any pretense in his voice, or in his persona — there is something refreshingly normal about Graham, like Adele before him. He has little of the glamour, the artifice or the trappings of a pop star and at 6 feet 2 inches tall, big-boned and covered in tattoos, he is nobody’s idea of a magazine cover idol. In fact, one publication said that he more closely resembles a bouncer at a biker convention than a chart-topping artist.
“People think I’m scary because I’m a big dude and I’m covered in tattoos,” Graham told Hot Press recently, complaining that his size and rather intimidating bearing have led to mistaken assumptions about his music.
But he is a big man with a big heart. Before he started devoting himself full time to his music he was a caretaker for people with Down’s and Asperger Syndrome. “It was a very rewarding job but a draining one,” he says.
"His debut album Human took him two years to write, and not only is the material good, it was uplifting, self-aware, with the underlying message that one need not be perfect, or anything other than themselves."
Almost as draining as recording 19 songs for his debut album Human, an album that took him two years to write. “It was important to show the very best of my work, so I took my time with it. I could have put an album out last year, but I waited until I had better material to fill it up,” he explained to the Daily Record.
Not only was the material good, it was uplifting, self-aware, with the underlying message that one need not be perfect, or anything other than themselves. Mostly it was empathetic.
“Beth [Graham’s girlfriend of seven years] says I’m not that sensitive in real life, but music allows you to be a different person and be more honest about who you are. It is cathartic for the right reasons,” Graham told the U.K.’s Sun.
You can see the evidence in a song like “Life in Her Yet,” that he wrote after his grandfather lost his wife of 50 years. Then “Love You Any Less” about an old girlfriend who was wildly insecure. “She would never leave the house and I thought I could help with her flaws, but I couldn’t,” Graham explains.
There are also songs about being a better person like “Human,” and “Be the Man,” while “Ego” was inspired after he had to endure someone talking about themselves for three hours.
As for Graham, he has very little ego himself, letting very little of the success go to his head.
“If you think too much about this sort of thing, it would keep you up at night. The accolades are a wonderful thing, but I never got into music for trophies. Even if I didn’t get any of them, I’d still be doing exactly what I’m doing right now. You need to keep your feet on the ground and not worry about any of that stuff,” he sagely told The Daily Record. And there’s no doubt he means it.