Bluesbreakers: Rag’N’Bone Man

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Once upon a time, the basis of a teenager’s musical tastes was simple: if your parents didn’t like it, you turned it up. For music-loving kids in the 21st century, though, the generation gap hasn’t had its bridges burnt. That’s why for Brighton boy Rory Graham, his parents’ folk, blues and soul records were as important as the drum’n’bass and hip-hop jams his schoolmates were into.

Echoes of that upbringing can be heard on his recent EPs Disfigured and Wolves, which combine a booming, portentous blues voice with dark, brooding soul songwriting and slow, bassy beats.

Recent plays on BBC 6 Music, Radio 2 and XFM (as well as soundtracking a trailer for the BBC’s Poldark series) have ensured that his audience is now a curious mix of older roots music fans and the hip-hoppers who have followed him since he first stepped up at an open mic show in his home town six years ago./o:p

“When I was a kid I always wanted to be a drum’n’bass MC,” he says, laughing at the memory. His horizons have changed somewhat since then, as he soon realised his voice was naturally given to a booming bass croon in the style of the records his guitarist dad had brought him up on. So when he first got up on stage he didn’t choose a rap standard but Big Bill Broonzy’s Key To The Highway. “After that I kept getting up and singing blues and soul stuff over hip-hop beats, and people would stop and listen.”

It doesn’t hurt that he cuts a commanding figure. Standing over 6ft tall, he’s built like a nightclub bouncer with the kind of beard that could make ZZ Top feel a little thin on the whisker front./o:p

After joining Brighton hip-hop crew the Rum Committee, he moved to London, and although he is regularly remixed and collaborates with other urban artists, his solo stuff is increasingly getting back to soulful, bluesy basics, as on his latest EP, Disfigured.

“I never had any formal vocal training,” the 28-year-old says. “My voice just came out this way. Recently I’ve explored different styles, and that’s helped me do stuff I never thought I could.”

He now plays live with a seven-piece band, which has freed him up further, delving into gospel styles with a cover of Mary Mary’s Shackles (Praise You). He’s also benefitting from a growing taste for blues styles among his contemporaries. “If you listen to Sam Smith and Paolo Nutini, they’re essentially making soul music. Nutini’s got Otis Redding in his voice, and the way he writes songs is very much based on the blues and gospel.”

With similarly big-voiced, blues-influenced performers like George Ezra topping the charts recently, you wouldn’t rule out Rag’N’Bone Man carving out a similar path into the mainstream. So best catch him before the rest of the world does./o:p

The Disfigured EP is out now via Best Laid Plans./o:p

INFLUENCES

“I love the early blues, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, for the way they sing. Instantly the power of the vocals grabs you. I live next to a Pentecostal church and I love to hear them singing there, so recently I’ve also been getting into people like Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens.”/o:p