Exclusives Interviews 28 October 2020
Author: Seth P

GRM Exclusive: Fraser T Smith reveals new album ’12 Questions’, meeting Craig David & working with Stormzy & Dave

28 October 2020

Producers seldom get the plaudits that they deserve. Short of becoming bona fide artists themselves, it’s often difficult for them to escape the shadow cast by the MCs who they’ve helped propel into the stratosphere. 

Fraser T Smith is the exception that proves the rule. Up until now he hasn’t released a project, doesn’t have a producer tag blazoned across any tracks that he works on, and yet has become one of the most decorated and sought after producers in the country. Perhaps the key to Fraser’s success lies in his malleability, and his ability to always bring something to the table, irrespective of the artists chosen soundscape. This intrinsic versatility has seen Fraser work with everyone from Adele, Craig David, Stormzy, Sam Smith, Kano, Florence and the Machine, and of course Dave.

Before discovering this prowess on the boards, Fraser’s weapon of choice was the guitar, and he plied his trade for decades as a session guitarist, and was even part of a band, Jeronimo Road. But after falling in love with UKG, and meeting Craig David, Fraser T Smith unearthed a deep passion for production, and started on a path that has led him to work on some of the greatest records of a generation. 

Fraser has worked across the musical spectrum, so is an obvious choice for this months instalment of The Architects. We catch up with him a few weeks before the release of his debut album 12 Questions. If you missed last months instalment with Scribz Riley, check that out right here.

What was your first experience with music? When did you think this is something I’d like to do for a living?

“It was when I was very young, my nan used to live in South London, and I was probably about five or six. She was part of the culture who’d play the piano in pubs, and people would literally gather round the piano while she was playing, and I was just amazed at the power that this music had, the way music can just bring people together. I think that had a massive effect on me, even though I was only young, but you’re very open to experiences at that age.”

What was it about meeting Craig David that was so pivotal?

“I think I met Craig at a point where I had made a decision to stop playing guitar for a living, because I had discovered production. Everything was just coming together at this point, I was DJing abit, remixing abit, and obviously still playing guitar a lot. At the time, I had this little studio at the front of a print works, where I was using a door as a desk, you know it was very very basic. Then I met Craig and heard the music he had been making with Mark Hill from the Artful Dodger, and I remember he gave me a five track demo cassette with unfinished versions of “Rewind”, “Rendezvous”, “7 Days” and “Walking Away” on. At the time I had been thinking about how I could get more guitar involved in garage, and when I heard the tape I was like these guys have done it! 

“Craig then offered me the chance to play guitar for him on TFI Friday, which I of course agreed to do. The relationship started developing from there, I would be sending Craig little guitar ideas through his letterbox, literally putting a CD through it. Eventually he approached me and said he wants to work with me on “Cant be Messin Around”, which interestingly doesn’t have any guitar on it.”

What was it about garage that drew you in? What was it about the genre that made you want to be involved?

“I loved the soulful vocals. I love the way that sometimes the vocals were chopped up, the way it ultimately had these breakbeats and basically sped up hip hop beats at its heart, but it still had this unique energy that felt very UK. It didn’t feel American in any way, and it just felt like everyone could relate to it. I love the way that it was just a fusion of all these different genres.”

Why do you think it fizzled out as time has gone on? Why do you think people have moved away from making it?

“To me, a scene has its point where it’s at its most exciting. You had tunes like “Sincere”, “Crazy Love”, “Rewind” and DJ Zinc’s “138 trek”. You know there was just so much fusion and diversity in the music, but then as with most scenes, people see the commercial value in that.”

“I think then the essence of what underground music is, gets taken too far into the mainstream in that it becomes this thing that is just everywhere, which is obviously great in some way because everyone gets to experience it, but if you’re a true lover of music it can be a bit jarring that something you loved years ago is now like on a massive commercial. Or suddenly you’ve got labels asking any band that they might sign to make garage tunes, thats what kills it.”

Do you worry that the commercialisation of grime, UK rap and drill could bring about their demise? 

“Where art and commerce meet, there’s a sweet spot. But I think when commerce is taking more out of a culture (this comes down to appropriation as well) and a genre than is put back in, then its leads to an imbalance, and that imbalance never feels cool.

“But also, we’re in a time now where the traditional gatekeepers don’t exist in terms of the old major label style, there’s now more openness to new genres and new creativity. There’s still a long way to go, but I think streaming has helped, and now it feels like if music is really good it can find a home. 

“It doesn’t feel that it is controlled so much by the commercial pressures, and artists like Stormzy, Dave and all the new genres coming through prove that. So I do feel that we’re in a way better time now.”

What was your first experience of working on a grime record? 

“Basically, Kane wanted a guitar track on his record, but he wasn’t very vocal at the time, he was young and it was probably a very different studio environment from what he was used to. So I just played a wide range of different guitars for Kano, from classical guitar to a Craig David sort of guitar and he wasn’t really feeling any of them. Then I started playing some heavy guitar and he was like “yeah this is it!” I just said to him if you wanted to do “99 problems” then you should have just said!”

“I said to him: “I get kinda guitar you wanna do, but if I’m honest I don’t really know much about grime”. I know garage, so we were able to talk about his favourite garage tunes and everything. He then described to me that grime has this double time thing going on, so I really got with that. I had a drum machine, so I said ‘tap out something’ so he started tapping out this beat and then I started playing this riff that turned into “Typical Me” and that was how that track started. 

“There was this amazing magical moment, where we weren’t really talking too much, he was a very shy 17 year old, and I was trying to find some common ground musically, even though there was such a big difference in our age, and we were from such different places, all that stuff didn’t matter cause music was this thing in the middle that joined us.  

“Ghetts eventually came down and put his 16 bars on it, and it became this thing that I was really proud of, because I felt that I had put myself into the track a lot by being able to give Kane this guitar thing. But we had also developed like a unique relationship, in that he had come up with the beat which was something he had never done before. It just became this unique relationship that we just carried on through all his albums. Our musical journey has been so rich, because we have written so many different songs together.”

What Does a typical day in the studio with Fraser T Smith look like?

“The session is very open.  I would wanna hear where the artist is coming from, I’d wanna hear lots of music, I’d wanna know where the influence is coming from, and where the references are. I’d wanna know lyrically what’s going on, and then at that point I’d have to adapt to best service the artist. 

“Whether it’s trying to find common ground with Kano on “Typical Me”, or actually sitting down to jam with Dave on “Picture Me”, where I was on the guitar and he was on the piano. It could even be just talking, I spent a long time talking to Stormzy about what his vision was, and I think that a lot of it is about the conversation, and working out how I can assist on a particular song or an album, or even in their career as a whole.”

It’s never rigid? Where you have a selection of beats that you think the artist will sound good on? 

“No, it’s never rigid. I like to go with the flow, and I think that I can work really quickly when I need to, cause I can pick up the guitar and jump on the keys or build a beat quite quickly. 

“For me, it’s more  about the bigger picture. But on my album it was slightly different, because it was the first time in my life where I actually built the beats before. Just cause I was having so much fun doing it, and I wanted to really flip it. So for everyone that came and featured, the music was pretty much done, that was a change.”

What do you think it is about you that has attracted some of these great artists? Aside from just the rappers, you’ve worked with royalty across the musical spectrum. Minus the accolades of course, what are people drawn to?

“I think its the openness, and I’m confident about what I can do musically, because I’m lucky enough to have been in loads of challenging situations musically. I just take it from the approach that I’m here to help, if we get on then thats brilliant, if we don’t then thats all good as well. I’m just in a very lucky position in terms of a headspace point of view, that I think that I can offer my help where its required, and sometimes if the help isn’t required then I’m also happy to jump out the way”

How do you navigate those situations when things aren’t working out in the studio?

“If the desire to make it work is there, you can always make it work. I think sometimes there needs to be an honesty, I hope that I can make people feel relaxed, and that isn’t some sort of time pressure on needing to create. 

“I never want it to be like: “we need to get a song done”, and I think people sense that I’m in no rush, I’m chasing greatness rather than to just chalk up that I’ve written another song. Let’s create something great, if its not working then thats fine, should we come back tomorrow or next week, and if you really didn’t feel it then that’s fine as well. We’re trying to search for gold, trying to be like alchemists. You have to both be searching for the same thing.”

How do you overcome writers block?

“I think sometimes just don’t force it. We can all put the pressure on ourselves, and I think usually when you have some sort of time pressure is when things get difficult. Maybe just go for a walk, do something to take the pressure off. 

“If it’s not working then you know its not working, but there is a multitude of things you can do to switch things up, to try something different, to become more fluid with it.

“I found that with Stormzy, he just wants to experiment, thats what’s so great about him as a creator, in that sometimes its very abstract, but he’s there with you “why don’t we try that, why don’t we watch the Simpsons” – stuff like that just keeps you open and really fluid.”

How did you come to work with Stormzy & Dave?

“We’d finished Made in the Manor, Kano and I. Stormzy heard that, and just the diversity of stuff I’d worked on before maybe appealed to him. The actual physical connection was through Twin B, so he hooked us up. After we met, we just hit it off and he told me his plans for Gang Signs and Prayer, and as we were talking I was just getting so many ideas of how the gang signs could be the beats and the prayer could be the harp, the strings and all these very beautiful sounding instruments, and how we could have this mix of hard beats and baselines amongst the beautiful music.

“With Dave, I’d known Jack and Benny from Neighbourhood for years through working with Tinchy. They said to me that they’d found this amazing rapper that wanted me to meet, and Dave turned up. I think he was on his way to college or something. 

“After we met, we got in the studio and worked on “Picture Me” and that first EP and then came together again on the second EP, then eventually worked together on Psychodrama.

How Long have you been working on your album 12 Questions?

“In actual time, for about a year. I got to the end of working with Dave on Psychodrama and really felt now is the time to do something, and I felt that I had to progress. I’ve never been the sort of person who could repeat myself. I’ve always wanted to push myself into new areas.

“I had these questions that would born out of quite a few anxieties that I was feeling about A.I, the environment, inequality, the wealth gap, all these kind of social questions that I wrote down on a white board. 

“I came up with these 12 questions that I thought were very open ended, and I thought it would be a really cool idea to come up with the music that was really longing to come out of me in terms of some of the influences that maybe I hadn’t been able to show on previous albums with people.

“So I came up with the questions, then I came up with the pieces of music, and then I set about deciding who would be great to either talk, rap or sing on the records”

What are the 12 questions?

“Fear or Faith?

How much is enough?

Do we really care?

Whats in a name?

Why are we so divided when we’re so connected?

Nature or nurture?

“All these questions are there on the record, and the answers are the tracks. So Ez Devlin I got her to answer ‘Why are we so divided when we’re so connected?’. She is the amazing stage designer that designs all the sets for The Weeknd, Adele, Kanye and Stormzy, but she also did a brilliant TED talk on division, then Dave comes in with “Children of the Internet” which is like another answer.”

Was it always part of your plan to release an album?

“It happened organically, I never felt the need to do it from a point of view of like ‘now I’ve got to the point, I’ve produced for other people I wanna put myself out there, I’m gonna Elevate myself from producing for other people to this’, not at all, it wasn’t anything like that. 

“I just knew that I wanted to do a project that I felt was completely mine, and it turned out that this was 12 Questions. It has been an amazing thing, that has been terrifying and exciting at the same time, I’ve grown a lot as a musician, producer and as a person through being able to ask these questions to these amazing people. 

“I flew to New Orleans and asked Albert Woodfox who has been locked up for 45 years what’s the cost of freedom? And then Kano came over and stayed with me, and we talked about Albert Woodfox, and he read Albert Woodfox’s book, and came up with his verses during  lockdown. I’ve just had the most amazing year of creative experiences. I’m so grateful, but i’m also so much wiser!”

Why the name Future Utopia?

“The only thing with my name, even though it is associated with some amazing artists, I wanted it to feel like the record stood on its own – that wasn’t necessarily seen as a producer record. I wanted to feel that it could be more like The Gorillaz or Massive Attack, that was more a collective of people – cause thats what it is, its a collaboration between all these different people. I’m obviously at the centre of it, but if its me, it feels very producer driven, but I feel like this is a collection of great people, everyone is coming together to be a part of this and I feel like there is a collaborative spirt on it. 

“In terms of the words, I feel like there’s hope and positivity on the record, as much as we delve into some hard questions, I think that the overall feeling is one of hope and positivity, I hope thats what people will feel, and they’ll ask themselves the questions. 

“We’re all heading to utopia ultimately, it’s different for all of us but we’re heading there. In my mind it’s a world where there is way more acceptance culturally, way more kindness, way more love in the world and thats what Future Utopia is to me and hopefully thats where we’re all heading towards.” 

12 Questions drops on the 23rd of October. Be sure to keep it locked on GRM Daily for any developments.