Fraser T Smith on his ambitious debut ‘12 Questions’, producing a Foo Fighters mega-cover and helping launch Stormzy and Dave into stardom
Award-winning producer, songwriter and musician Fraser T Smith — renowned for producing hit records and critically acclaimed albums by the likes of Adele, Stormzy and Dave — has made excellent use of his packed contacts book in assembling ’12 Questions’, the ambitious, expansive and challenging debut album under his Future Utopia moniker.
Set for release on October 23 via Platoon and Smith’s own label 70Hz, ‘12 Questions’ was built around a series of thought-provoking and universal topics, ranging from the environmental crisis to the relentless march of technology, that Smith posed to his packed cast list of collaborators which includes Idris Elba, Arlo Parks, Bastille, Easy Life, Kano, poet laureate Simon Armitage and Kojey Radical.
NME caught up with Smith to delve into ‘12 Questions’ while also getting his take on the mammoth task of producing the recent Radio 1 charity cover of Foo Fighters’ ‘Times Like These’ and explaining why he is so immensely proud of Stormzy and Dave.
NME: Hello Fraser! How did you go about selecting the weighty topics that are addressed on ‘12 Questions’?
Smith: “I’ve worked for so long with so many incredible artists across the board musically, and more recently I’ve become so close with Kano, Stormzy and Dave through making ‘Made In The Manor’, ‘Gangs Signs & Prayer’ and ‘Psychodrama’. I really felt that those records talked about their personal struggles and big topics such as inequality. I started then to think about my own anxieties in terms of what was going on in the world, like a lack of acceptance of diversity, the environment, A.I., the wealth gap. This record was really a quest for enlightenment from some of the best people that I could think of to answer these questions. I think it’s really important to say that this isn’t about me standing on a soapbox: I’m literally in the middle, like a student of life and music, just seeking enlightenment from this amazing, diverse and rich group of collaborators that I’ve been very fortunate enough to have worked with on the record.”
How did you assemble this ensemble of guests?
“Some of it is was driven by the music. For example, I’d been a big fan of Kojey Radical for a while but I’d never worked with him before. I had the music for ‘Million$Bill’ — I wanted a UK version of a Rick Ross-type of beat — and I felt that Kojey could really flow on the beat so, so well — and he did! I love what he talks about. But it was always the idea to flip the beat at the end to go to something that felt way more aggressive, and that’s what Murray from Easy Life did — both Kojey and Murray made that song incredible.
“Sometimes the questions led my decisions, while sometimes my own personal relationships with the artists did. But there was nothing cynical about the decisions, which I think was important. If there was anything cynical about it, I’d have tried to get Dave and Stormzy on a track going back-to-back over 32 fire bars — which might’ve been the obvious choice! But I’m quite proud of the fact that Stormzy is only on eight bars [on ‘How Do We Find Our Truth?’] and those bars really resonate. Collaborating with Beatrice Mushiya, who is so poignantly talking about her son who was tragically killed in a knife attack, maybe shows that there’s nothing cynical about this record. There’s a real breadth [of collaborators], and I love looking down at the tracklisting and seeing all these incredible names.”
NME favourite Arlo Parks features on two tracks – just how good is she?
“She’s just incredible. When we worked for the first time, it was quite daunting for both of us because I didn’t know how she’d take this question [‘What Matters Most?’]. I think at the start Arlo felt that she had to come up with something that was super-profound. But I said that the thing about this and all the questions is that they can be as big or as small as you want them to be: they can be about, maybe, splitting up with your girlfriend two nights ago, or they can be about the meaning of life. The fact that she wrote the poem at the very beginning of the song and then we wrote ‘Stranger In The Night’ gives a really great perspective on the question ‘What Matters Most?’. I’ve grown to love her as a person as well as an artist, her voice is so impactful and emotional. We’ve worked together on her upcoming debut album, too – it’s super-exciting.”
Do you think the chaos and upheaval of 2020 is actually the ideal time to start addressing the topics in ‘12 Questions’?
“I think so. The record was pretty much written before lockdown, but it’s amazing how many of the lyrics pop out in terms of what’s happening today: this was pre-lockdown, pre-George Floyd. I think this is a perfect time for people to be able to reflect, so I really hope that the questions and the answers give people a sense of ownership.”
Speaking of lockdown, you produced the star-studded ‘Times Like These’ charity cover for BBC Radio 1 back in April…
“It was quite a daunting project because the original ‘Times Like These’ is so good! I think the thing that people were surprised about, and that I anticipated, was that most artists don’t have recording studios [at home], so they recorded their vocals on a phone. We had to sort of downplay the fact that it would feel pretty awkward and weird for artists to record Voice Notes or use whatever recording techniques that they could, but I really wanted to use the campfire-type approach so that it felt very warm, had a lot of integrity and was all about the sentiment of the song.
“We found out that Dave Grohl was gonna appear on the song at the last minute. He wanted to hear how it was going, and we started getting into email conversations with Dave Grohl — which was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life! He was feeling what we’d done. It all came together, people seemed to respond to it and it went to number one. It more importantly raised a seven figure-sum for charity, which I thought was amazing.”
You’re well known for your close relationship with Stormzy. How has he progressed as an artist?
“With Stormzy, his trajectory since I first met him has been absolutely incredible. He described what he envisaged for ‘GS&P’ and I spent a year getting to know him, his friends and his family. To [now] know so much about his influences and see how he’s handled the fame and the success, to have released an incredible second record [‘Heavy Is The Head’] and then to have performed that iconic headline performance at Glastonbury — one of the best performances, if not the best performance ever — is mind-blowing for me.
“It’s every producer and collaborator’s dream to see an artist realise their raw talent and momentum. To see all the good that [Stormzy’s] done in the world, too: his charitable donations, putting students into Cambridge and Oxford, the publishing company he’s built to give a voice to young writers. People are using the expression ‘national treasure’, but I think it’s because he has so much to give to the world — not only musically, but spiritually — as an amazing human that really is changing the world. I’m very, very, very proud of him.”
You performed ‘Black’ with Dave during his breathtaking BRITS appearance earlier this year. How do you look back on that moment?
“It’s one of those performances that was so big, it takes you out of yourself in a way. I think on a practical level, the terror that I felt about doing my first-ever piano performance in public was so huge that I just had to really condition myself and focus in on just playing as well as I could while being there for Dave so I could be the rock for him, rather than a quivering mess. We inspired each other on stage, I think. When Dave performed his last verse, coming off the piano and talking about Jack Merritt and all those subjects, I felt this surge of energy come from the crowd. It was really hard to keep my concentration because the power of Dave’s words just resonated through everybody. It was one of the most amazing experiences ever.”
Dave’s potential is limitless, isn’t it?
“Absolutely. The thing that I’m so proud about both Dave and Stormzy is that not only are they superstars, the social conscience that they both possess is so rare, globally. There’s some amazing emerging artists in Africa that have that similar level of consciousness and that mission, like Mr Eazi and Burna Boy. But I think Stormzy and Dave are leading the way in terms of what they can do socially as well as musically, and I think that that’s where the sweet spot really is. We’ve been bestowed with the gift of music, but there’s also something else that music can do that can really help people in a variety of ways and I think they’re both doing that. I’m now hoping that ‘12 Questions’ can do the same as well.”
Fraser T Smith’s ‘12 Questions’ is out on October 23.