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‘Cool is the enemy!’ Eurovision hero Sam Ryder on how he ditched his ego and found his joy

Did Sam Ryder have any idea, when he got ready for his Eurovision performance, that he might be about to reverse the nation’s doldrums, the super-low scores that have dogged us for this entire century? Did he have a clue that he might come second?

“I had inklings,” Ryder says, sitting in Langham’s, a fancy hotel in central London, where he and his girlfriend, Lois Gaskin-Barber, have been holed up since they came back from Turin on Sunday. “It seemed like it was from the universe.” The 32-year-old, with a hat-trick of Jesus-like qualities (long hair, beard, good at carpentry), leans forward to paint the scene: “I was backstage, with clips in my hair, I looked like a little terrier. The atmosphere is like a school play, times a million. Everyone’s getting ready, fixing loose stitches, putting pearls back on with a glue gun, rollers in their hair, flapping.” When he stepped on stage to perform Space Man, an anthemic, Queen-tinged riot of a song, he had just been awarded Eurovision’s Press award for best song of the year. “The UK has never won that. So that gave me a real boost, a lot of adrenaline.”

He is still wearing the same splashy jumper with the psychedelic flowers in which he arrived home, to cheering fans who had spontaneously gathered at the airport. He’s also still grinning ear to ear, but his TikTok army – a following of 13 million, mostly built up over lockdown – will know that that’s not unusual, and it’s not even necessarily because of Eurovision.

Sam Ryder walks across the stage in glittery jumpsuit at Eurovision, holding the union flag high
Lap of honour … Ryder at the Eurovision song contest in Turin. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Sam Ryder is a genuine one-off, perpetually emanating good feelings. He reckons you can tell what someone will be like from listening to their music, and I ask what, then, his music tells us about him. “I get ‘golden retriever energy’. And I accept that 100%. I love golden retrievers.” He makes no stab at all at a detached, rock star exterior, and hates cynicism, but not as much as he hates cool. “Cool is the enemy. Cool is the reason that so many people don’t live authentically. And it’s the reason that a lot of dreams end up on the scrapheap, dreams that could have easily been fulfilled otherwise. Cool is something that is imposed on people by someone else whose journey it isn’t.” “That’s cool,” I say, reflexively. “Dammit,” he replies, beaming.

He now has a European tour, one in South Korea, a summer full of festivals and enough songs written to cut an album in the autumn. “More than enough – I had a hundred songs. Not all of them good. A lot of them are shite. But that’s songwriting.”

So obviously, like any normal person, I want to find Ryder’s dark side: his life may look pretty golden (retriever) today, but the road to Eurovision was paved with things that didn’t quite work out. He decided he wanted to be a singer when he was 11 (endearingly, he still goes by the school year and describes his age as “year 7”); he saw a Canadian band called Sum 41 live and that was it. His musical tastes tend towards energy and showmanship – he loves Queen; Earth, Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder. On TikTok he pays homage to Britney Spears with a joyful cover of …Baby One More Time.

He grew up in Chelmsford, in Essex, and his parents – his mother a dental assistant, his father a carpenter – were very encouraging. “They weren’t musical, but they did whatever they could to give me more of a shot.” But they weren’t pinning any hopes of glory on him. “They just wanted me to realise enough of my goals that I could see if it was for me. Because a lot of the time, especially when we’re young, we think we want things that we don’t necessarily. All the people that used to play music in my school, we all had those same dreams, of being a rock star one day. None of them do it any more. And they’re happy. Thank God.”

By the time he was 19, a few different bands he had been in at school had coalesced into one, the Morning After, which released two studio albums in the late 00s. They were not what you would call an overnight sensation, or even an underground hit. “I’ve been playing music for a long time, mostly to empty rooms,” says Ryder. “That’s not me getting the violin out. That’s the reality for so many people. Absolutely grafting, carrying on regardless with a sort of blind ambition, believing that you’ll make it one day and it might not be tomorrow.”

He warms to this theme, basking in the not-success years. “You know, no one could stop me because I loved it. I didn’t need validation because music is so amazing. When you’re connected to it, when you’re singing, you feel all that fulfilment and joy. It gives you everything, so to ask anything more of it, to ask for success as well, feels almost greedy, takes the magic out of it.” He circles round and says this another way, in case I didn’t believe him. “If music is your whole life, if it’s the reason you have that spark inside you, your cup’s full, essentially.” But I did believe him.

He is very keen not to leave any false impressions about the Morning After. “If we played to 30 people, we thought we were kings of the world. It wasn’t as if every week there were breadcrumbs of hope – like ‘You got played on the radio today’, or ‘You’ve been asked to go on a support tour’. The rewards were few, far between, and when they came, absolutely meagre.” Very occasionally, he would have a dark night of the soul, but snap out of it as soon as he got some good news. “But that would be an email from Radio Essex, saying: ‘We’re going to play your song on Tuesday.’ It was absolutely not the keys to the city. No disrespect to Radio Essex. So what is it that keeps you going? It has to be love. What else could it be?”

The Morning After parted ways in 2010, and after that Ryder went to Canada to play guitar for a glam metal band, Blessed By a Broken Heart. Two years in, he was their lead vocalist, and the album they recorded made it on to a Billboard newcomers’ chart, before the band split in 2013 and he joined the American band Close Your Eyes, which I only mention in order to use the phrase “Texas melodic hardcore”.

His smart move, Ryder says, was that he always tried to make a living from work besides music. “A lot of people want to be perceived as artists, sustaining themselves fully and sovereignly through their art. I know so many people that did that who aren’t doing anything any more. The reason is, you put too much pressure on the work, and then you begin to resent the work.”

Instead, he worked in construction; he helped his father with the carpentry (“I think I was probably more of a hindrance than a help to my lovely dad”); and in 2017, he opened a vegan cafe with Gaskin-Barber. They have been together 10-and-a-half years (something dead romantic about his mentioning the “half”, as if it was very important to him not to round down). She is watchful and self-possessed, not wild about attention but nor is she not enjoying the mayhem. She is a jewellery designer now, and she made all those colourful bead necklaces that interrupt his knitwear. They are both still vegan; it’s really good for your voice, apparently, not eating dairy.

At around the same time as Ryder opened the cafe, his parents suggested that he get into playing weddings on the side. “They said: ‘You live in Essex; it’s the wedding capital of England.’ So I’ve played loads of them.” All over the south-east, there’ll be couples with a video of dancing their first dance to the near-winner of Eurovision. “It was amazing – and definitely not cool. If you’re trying to form your own music career, it’s almost got a stigma. ‘You’re a wedding singer now. You’ll never get out of it.’ Other people’s perception would be that that’s the thing that you do when you’ve exhausted the pursuit of your dream.”

This, he says, gave him his 10,000 hours (amazingly tenacious, that Malcolm Gladwell principle, which says that’s how long it takes for someone to become an expert in their field), singing Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston covers, looking after his vocal cords with juiced vegetables. It takes quite a lot of physical discipline to be able to sing three weddings a week, at two hours a pop. “You don’t get that practice when you’re focused on being an artist. You’ll probably tour a few times a year, doing half-hour sets to crowds that you haven’t got to win over, because they’re already stoked. So weddings are fantastic.”

The experience also provided something more important than practice. “I remember the first wedding I played, on stage, with my eyes closed, thinking: ‘Yeah, I really nailed that little section. They’ll like that.’ Opening my eyes and no one cared. They were there with their friends and family, having the best day of their lives. I was there to provide the atmosphere. The band is so far from the centre of attention – if anyone’s the star of the show, it’s the caterers.” So it was good for his ego. “I realised, my joy’s meant to come from within, not from an external source. That, for me, changed my entire life, changed my path and where I get my happiness from. It’s not from a full room.”

The cafe work continued: “I’d come home from a wedding around three in the morning, and I’d be passing the juice bar and think: ‘I may as well just go in – I need to be there in three hours anyway.’ So I’d be there in my suit, with an apron on, cutting watermelons, waving at the milkman. You do what you’ve got to do to make it work.” His descriptions are often quite cinematic, visual and pacy. When lockdown brought weddings to an abrupt end and he started posting his TikTok videos, they looked really spontaneous and lo-fi. He’s just a guy, standing in front of a lamp and a venetian blind, with a great big beard, singing his heart out for (usually) 15 seconds.

There’s a lot of power in his voice, a lot of wit and charm in his asides; he has a huge range, and you can tell his mum works in dentistry since his teeth are positively American; but there’s something more going on, a sense of visual connection. These aren’t just showstoppers – Queen, the Greatest Showman soundtrack, Taylor Swift – expertly rendered. They are enough to make you want to sing yourself, and jump about. Once you’ve seen one video, you want to see another every morning. It’s like karaoke Wordle.

“They were just silly, fun videos,” he says. “There’s a difference between taking something seriously and treating it with respect. No one can say to me that I don’t have respect for the music or put my heart into it, but I can still mess around and try and sing Britney Spears as high as I can go.”

In 2019, UK Eurovision changed tack; instead of putting the song-entry choice to a public vote, the BBC and a music management company (formerly BMG, now TaP) would decide. This turned out to be smart, because some decisions are too important for democracy. Ryder wrote Space Man a year and a half ago. “I never meant for this song to go to Eurovision,” he says. “I’ve always been a fan of Eurovision but that wasn’t my dream – I never thought I’d love to do it. Making a career for yourself in music is a mountain to climb, and the wind’s against you. Dreaming of Eurovision on top of that – you’re basically saying: I want to be the 1% of the 1%. But when the opportunity came along, my heart leapt at it.” Now, if Space Man reaches No 1 this Friday, he will become the first British artist since Gina G in 1996 to top the UK charts with a Eurovision entry.

Ryder was blown away when he heard Ukraine’s entry at the contest: “One of the proudest moments of my life was standing in the arena with my friends and team, watching them win, and witnessing love being radiated from the entire room, standing in solidarity and shining a light into darkness.” But he hadn’t listened to any of the entries before. “As soon as you do that, you’re thinking, ‘I’m in a battle of the bands. This is a contest.’ I didn’t want to do that. I mean, what are you doing, if you’re from the UK and you’re preparing for battle? Seems a bit silly.”

Do not, whatever you do, mistake this for pessimism about the UK’s chances in future. “We almost put ourselves in a victim mentality when it comes to Eurovision. I don’t subscribe to that stigma and cynicism that Europe hates the UK, that Eurovision is a waste of time. That hasn’t been my experience. We travelled around Europe, did radio and TV, all manner of press, singing on street corners, and the only thing we ever felt was love and welcome. There was no weirdness. We weren’t ostracised in the lunch hall. Everyone was buzzing, everyone was stoked, everyone was kind, everyone was loving.”

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