Sam Ryder on Eurovision, TikTok and why he won’t let fear rule his decisions
Call it what you will — uninspiring song choices, strong competition, the curse of Brexit — but the United Kingdom is suffering from a severe case of Eurovision hoodoo.
Finishing dead bottom for the past two editions, with poor old James Newman struck down by the ignominy of the nul points in 2021, these isles haven’t produced a top 10 finisher since Jade Ewen hit the heady heights of fifth back in 2009. So how did Sam Ryder — the social media sensation whose TikToks helped win him a major label contract during the pandemic — feel when the call came asking him to try and reverse the UK’s fortunes at this year’s Eurovision?
“My gut reaction was as a fan, like: that’s amazing, what an incredible opportunity,” the 32-year-old remembers. “Then, after that immediate blinding of the lights, you get the fear, and the overthinking kicks in. What if you get so-and-so points? What if you come here on the leaderboard?
“But then, I had to keep reminding myself that that has nothing to do with anything in my power, and to base your decision on any of those things is to base your decision on fear. And I never want to have a relationship where I’m choosing not to sing because I’m scared or fearful.”
It’s a grounded approach for a musician whose past couple of years have been anything but. The announcement that Ryder would be heading to Turin for the Eurovision final in May “opened the floodgates” in terms of diary commitments — our interview is being squeezed in between a weekend trip to Madrid and a flight to Germany for a run of gigs — but it’s just the latest injection of rocket fuel for Ryder’s ascent.
Essex-raised, he grew up “in a house where there was always music”; duetting with Freddie Mercury’s solo records in the back of the car as a child is among his earliest memories of singing. Later on, inspired by artists on the heavier end of the spectrum, such as Iron Maiden, Ryder flitted between bands “like a flea on a dog”, he says, both playing instruments and singing. “As soon as a member of a band left and someone needed someone, it was me that hopped in. I’d be in the band for like, a year or something, and then get kicked out — or the band would finish, actually… that’s what usually happened.
“I was like the Black Death,” he says with a laugh. “Once I turned up, you knew the days were numbered.”
In the few years before the pandemic, Ryder focused on trying to launch a solo career, but soon became stuck in that “cycle of overthinking things”, spending weeks on projects before binning it all, doomed to repeat the process.
Enter, the first Covid lockdown. “It gave me a really good opportunity to clean the slate,” says Ryder. He resolved to “tackle the way my relationship works with music. That was the question, and to get over that procrastination, I just pulled my phone out and sang straight into it.”
Within weeks, Ryder became one of TikTok’s most viral musicians. His videos, in which Ryder would cover pop songs to showcase his ground-quaking vocals (and glorious hair), were little more than 30-second snippets, but they drew millions of viewers — some famous admirers among them. “Justin Bieber DM’d me to say that he texted my video singing Elastic Heart by Sia to Sia,” Ryder recalls. “And then Sia posted it on her Instagram with this amazing, encouraging caption. That was a huge milestone.”
Ryder’s digital fame continued to balloon — he’s got 12.3m TikTok followers and more than 100m likes on the platform — and before long, the big record labels began to circle, even though Covid rules meant that any fancy dinners with company execs were swapped for “coffees in alleyways”, Ryder says.
“There was a lot of interest around for a while, but it’s not just a done deal, like, ‘Hey, we’ve seen you’ve got this many followers on TikTok so we want to sign you’, because it’s immediately apparent that’s foolish. It doesn’t happen like that. It was actually Space Man that got me signed to [current label] Parlophone.”
Ryder’s referring to the song he’ll sing at Eurovision, a track that “hit the launch button on everything”. Written alongside Amy Wadge — a Grammy winner for her role in penning the Ed Sheeran hit Thinking Out Loud — and songwriter Max Wolfgang, it was first released in February this year.
A punchy pop ballad highlighting Ryder’s dynamic, powerful voice, it proved a hit during a sell-out run of UK shows earlier this year. It was during the tour that Ryder realised Space Man had also caught the ears of the BBC, who wanted it for Eurovision.
“I took three days to make my decision, even though I knew my decision, because I knew as soon as you say yes, everything starts,” Ryder says. “I was on my first ever UK tour, and I really wanted to just be in that moment, and enjoy that moment, and not let myself be overwhelmed by this other huge force that is Eurovision coming in too soon before I could handle it. To be honest, I was worried that it would just be too much on my plate, mentally.”
An avid Eurovision viewer since childhood, who names Finnish horror-rockers Lordi as his all-time favourite entry, Ryder seems well aware of the surreal pressure of now competing himself, but he’s determined to savour the moment in May.
“Those three minutes on a stage in Turin will go past in the blink of an eye,” he says. “And if you’re fearful about your decision, or where you come on a leaderboard, it goes by even quicker. It’s so important for me to try and stay calm, focused and centred through the whole thing because I want to enjoy it.”
And even though the UK doesn’t have much by way of recent pedigree, there is cautious optimism: some bookies have placed Ryder among the favourites. It’s nice to feel “encouragement that, hopefully, that there’s an air of positivity at home”, Ryder says, but he’s also made a conscious decision not to get too wrapped up in it. “I just want to step away from Eurovision, walk off that stage and know that I did the best job I possibly could.”
The Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest will air on BBC One, iPlayer, Radio 2 and BBC Sounds from 8pm on May 14