Pulp in 1995, The Libertines in 2002, Arctic Monkeys in 2005, Adele in 2007: the Jools Holland breakthrough performance has become something of a music industry phenomenon. It’s one that can be split into sub-categories. Take gristly music that sounds like it was made in the woods, for example. At The Drive-In in 2000, Kings Of Leon in 2003, Seasick Steve in 2006, Bon Iver in 2008. On September 20 this year, Rag’n’Bone Man joined that list.
With Jools himself at the piano, 31-year-old Rory Graham approached the microphone, sporting Timberland boots and folding club-like arms across his middle. His clothes betrayed a love of hip-hop, but the earthy sweetness of latest single Human was all about the blues.
Graham’s is the kind of voice that might weaken the knees of record geeks and Sunday supermarket shoppers alike. That must have attracted Columbia, who signed him following 2014 EP Wolves. It also makes the petite ivory tickler’s BBC show the perfect place to push Rag ‘n’ Bone man out of Brighton’s DIY hip-hop scene and into the mainstream. “It was so surreal mate, I’ve watched Jools since I was about 10.” Graham is reminiscing on “a massive benchmark” from a tour bus in Leeds. He’s supporting Tom Odell, and enjoyed the previous evening’s show: “It was in a leisure centre in Swindon. Very ‘80s decoration.”
The Odell run represents another step towards the mainstream, but Graham doesn’t foresee an easy transition. “I don’t know that I fit into a pop world,” he says. “I think we’re gonna have to force it. I listen to the radio and it’s so dance and hook-orientated. I hear my songs and I’m like, I don’t know where that fits. But hopefully I’m wrong and it does.”
It’s looking increasingly likely he will be. Led by Human and teaser track Healed, next year’s debut promises enough emotional heft and crackling, groove-based production (from Mark Crew, Two Inch Punch, Jonny Coffer and Cadenza) to render comparison with slick electronic chart pop irrelevant. Rag’n’Bone man is aiming for something more authentic. “There’s definitely light and dark on there,” Graham explains. “Big hip-hop tracks and then much gentler, ballad-y songs. I made sure they all work with only a piano, too.”
I don’t know that I fit into a pop world
This appreciation of honest, unfussy songwriting stems from a childhood in “boring” Brighton satellite village Uckfield devouring his dad’s records. “Blues was instilled into me from the womb,” he explains. “I grew up with Muddy Waters and stuff, then I got into jungle.” His schoolmates dug jungle too, but not the blues. This allowed him to dig deep into it. “I was so interested in what they were singing about. It’s just a very truthful sound,” he says.
A love of words led him to hip-hop and its underground scenes in Brighton and London. Fiercely independent, Graham was content buzzing between open mic nights and touring his DIY releases until Columbia came along.
Now though, he’s happy where he is, and we finish by discussing collaboration pipedreams (Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar, clear your diaries) and the prospect of making Britain feel the blues. “The idea of people hearing me and revisiting the old stuff definitely excites me.”