Exclusives Interviews 21 April 2021

GRM Exclusive: Fred Again Talks ‘Actual Life’, working with Headie One & Life Before He Became A Star

21 April 2021
Fred Again Architects

It started awkwardly, somewhat. Fred Gibson, better addressed under the moniker of Fred Again, joined me over Zoom from a bench outside of the world-famous Abbey Road Studios, and started by telling me that our conversation was suspending his session with an orchestra. Something about drawing this wildly successful – and wildly talented – musician away from his natural setting just made me feel uncomfortable. Almost like I was meddling with his fun.

Moments in, those feelings subsided. Fred’s oozing warmth, striking candour and hasty optimism were enough to usher them into hiding. But then maybe I had just been intimidated by all of the numbers. In 2019, Fred spent over 14 weeks at number one, through his contributions to Ed Sheeran’s No. 6 Collaborations project, producing all but three tracks. That’s nearly 30% of the year! The year before, he co-wrote George Ezra’s summer smash “Shotgun”, which spent four weeks at the top of the charts, and another six in the top three. But if you weren’t impressed by that, the song George dethroned, “Solo” by Clean Bandit and Demi Lovato, was co-produced by Fred too! Oh, and he scooped up 2020’s Brit Award for producer of the year too. Not bad, eh. 

But it’s much, much more than that for him. His songs – which centre around dance, longing and raw, impassioned feeling – are something fundamentally deeper. The tracks, connected by a production style that Fred dubs “actual life”, interpolate vocal snippets from a host of strange sources ranging from his friends’ voice notes to chance encounters with new people or seemingly random clips from YouTube. They offer a glimpse into how Fred sees the world – or rather, how he hears it. 

For a while, Fred had just been gathering sounds and making songs, without any overarching direction other than to create, and to experiment with this new style of working. Mostly, his songs hover in the territory between the purest euphoria and gut-wrenching melancholy that lend themselves as much to sobering home listening as they do to the bustling environment of the club. His project, however, was given new meaning after the illness of a close friend began spiralling out of control. After all, tragedy is a natural part of life too. 

We caught up with him ahead of the impending release of his new project Actual Life to talk about his early inspirations, Actual Life and what life before he became a superstar looked like.

Where did it all start for Fred Again? Where did you grow and what was your upbringing like? 

“Erm, I grew up in South in Balham. My upbringing was blessed, I got real lucky on that. Neither of my parents do music, so I guess I wasn’t raised in a musical household, but it became a musical household quite quickly because I started playing instruments and stuff. I did a lot of classical music when I was younger so I guess that was where I started.”

You must’ve been the only one, or was classical music a thing with you guys? 

“Well I think sometimes if you learn piano or something, they’ll often teach you classical stuff, but I cared a lot about that side of music. But to be honest, back then when I was at college – the classical college – I was the guy who spent all of his time doing hip-hop, so it was actually the other way round. There, I was the rebel I guess. And it was fun because I’d never played that role before, I was the punk. But yeah, that kinda vibe.” 

Purely out of curiosity, what was the first instrument you learnt to play? 

“Piano and then tune percussion, so like marimba’s, xylophones and then drum kit and then guitar. I basically just wanted to learn the instruments that were the best for producing, so like the ones that help for building a song. So, like drums, bass, guitar, piano.” 

Who were the defining artists and producers of your childhood? 

“It’s a good range, you know. It would be everything from Burial, to Quincy, to Rachmaninoff – who was a romantic era composer, who’s beautiful – then Dilla, obviously. But then basically between the ages of like 15 and 18 I was at the church of D’angelo. That was just my life, D’Angelo non-stop.”

The way you’ve come to sample a lot of your tracks is pure genius. I just want to know the story behind the very first time you did it. 

“The first time, I can tell you this categorically. I should actually put it up on my Instagram again because he’s such G. It was the guy called Carlos who I met in Atlanta, he was like working in construction and I was just having a beer. And he came up to me and he was like “what you saying, my partner!?”. He had this real infectious voice, he was so smiley and joyful. So I got him a beer and we were just having a hang, then I was just filming shit – that’s just always what I do – and he kept saying these beautiful things.

“Like at one point, I turned to him and said “what you saying, Carlos?” and he was like “WE GON’ MAKE IT THROUGH”. He was such a spirited person; I’ve been trying to reach out to him ever since. So, the next day I was in a hotel in Atlanta, and I just dragged Carlos into Logic, started pitching it into melodies until I had a song. I love the thought of trying to build a diary of videos that all get turned into songs. I’ve trying to reach out to him, so when I go to Atlanta again, I’m going to track him down and buy him a chain.” 

What is like to always be under your own surveillance like that? But what I’m really trying to ask, is how do you know when to start recording? 

“You know what, to be honest, sometimes I go through these phases where I just want to capture the world. Like I haven’t filmed much really for a while for one reason or another, but then I’ll start again. I think it’s particularly on nights out, I’m always the mash up guy who can’t remember anything the next morning. So yeah, I think because there’s been less nights out, I’ve just found myself filming far less. I think the answer is probably when I’ve had a few Guinness’, that’s when the camera goes up.” 

How much of it do you see as a technical job, related to the process of recording, and how much of it is in the realm of emotions, or the psyche? 

“Oh, to me it’s a 100% in the latter. It’s just that a bit of technicality helps in executing the latter. But I had a thought the other day, I don’t know if this is true, it’s a new thought so I haven’t put it under much testing yet. But I thought that maybe, you don’t ever get better ideas. Like the better you get at music, I’m not sure if you get any better ideas, I think you get better at executing them. You don’t get better at feeling stuff; you feel things just as purely at age 10 as you do when you’re 90.” 

What would you say is the hardest aspect of a real-life moment, to capture in a song?

“Authenticity. That’s generally why I sample things in all the ways I do, it’s just pure unaffected authenticity. It’s hard to get that when you’ve got a person in a booth, singing into a mic.”

Despite being an industry mammoth, did you ever become anxious about releasing Headie’s Gang EP – knowing what his mostly purist base of rap fans would say about it? 

“No! it’s funny that.. just no. It doesn’t fuck with me at all. I don’t know why. Like obviously Headz and I had spoken about it, I was like “by the way, heads up, are you aware?” and he didn’t care so it was like cool, let’s do it then. 

“We’ve seen this tale time and time again with different artists since the dawn of time really. If you try and expand, there will always be a core group of people who resist it, but it’s the key to staying in the game. And now the fact that Headie can sit so effortlessly as he does on tune with FKA Twigs and in the same week sit next to Drake or RV, makes him look so much bigger than the game he was once coming from. And he deserves to be an artist that’s seen as bigger than that.” 

Why Headie?

“Oh, Headie’s the truth. He’s one of those rare cases, where the authenticity is there even when he’s in the booth behind the mic and nothing can get in the way of it. Yeah, it was immediately apparent, and I knew that moment I met him. And you know, we made a couple bangers last week, and we’ll keep making bangers. Yeah, got a lot of love for him. And he tells the whole story, as opposed to just shining the light on a few romantic details. He tells all the gritty parts.” 

As a white man that really specialises in making dance and other types of electronic music, was growing into Afrobeats and UK rap a daunting move for you to make?

“Maybe, when I was like 14. But you know, when you’re 14, you’re just 14 and you’re not really aware of the weight of the world. Because it was actually more the other way around, I came up doing hip-hop. The first record I made was with Roots Manuva, who’s like the GodFather of UK hip-hop. And it’s more recently, I’d say in the last 3-4 years that I started making pop music. My start point was actually more in hip-hop. But I know what you mean, probably as you get older you become more aware of it but by then you tunes you make are already happening, so it doesn’t really register as a thing.” 

So, why the dance pivot? 

“Erm, I don’t know. I mean there was a dance project I made about 8 years ago that I never put out with my boy Jim, shouts out Jim, and there’s always a part of it that just stayed with me. So, then when I started music on my own again, it quite naturally found itself becoming that kind of music. I guess I was following something I wasn’t in control of.” 

I thought “Me” was a really beautiful track. How much did it take from you emotionally to get that done?// even listening back to it, does it trigger you/ take you back to the moment – is that hard for you?

“Yeah, it does but to be honest, I’m quite like new in this. Like ask me in 12 months when I’ve played it live, but then I don’t know if I’ll be able to play that song live. So therefore, there’s your answer. I don’t know, yeah, it does, I’m just trying to figure it out as I go along.” 

I want to know precisely what this project means to you. 

“I think it means… I don’t know yet. It feels very important to me – but that’s a boring thing to say – and it feels honest but I don’t know yet. I think I’ll know more after some time has passed.”

What was the single most challenging aspect of making the album? 

“I think a lot of the time, working with the samples and the way I work with them, I often feel very conflicted when I start to make my version of these people’s words. Often at first I feel like, “oh fuck, you can’t do that or you’re ruining their sentiment or whatever”.

“I feel lucky because as of yet, everybody’s been so blessed, and so encouraging, and so sweet about the songs when I hit them up. But start making the songs, it’s still hard to get over the hump of trying not to betray the original sample’s emotional purity.” 

Now, I guess it’s probably easy for you now, but objectively speaking, is chopping up the sample like that a difficult thing to do? 

“Oh, yeah, it’s hard. Like I still flop hard now. I mean not all of them are, but some of the ones where I’m taking clips of people speaking and making melodies and rhythms out of them when none of those things exist are hard. Often they’ll like give you a helping hand and there’ll be a moment when they say something that’s a little bit in rhythm and that will give a bit of a compass. But yeah, I’ve got so many files on my laptop of various things that just don’t work. Like hundred and hundreds of them.” 

Nowadays producers are stars just like the artists. it has begun to feel like the producer/ the beat of a track, is more important to a song than the lyrics. What do you think?

“I don’t think so, to me, the lyric is everything. I think it always has been and always will be – the lyric and the melody and feeling of it, but I mean its all a sum of it’s parts. To me, what’s dated is the idea of seeing them as two separate things. Like the number of artists that produce their own beats and the number of producers that sing on their tracks, it’s increasingly becoming one melting pot, as it should. But for me, if a song has a lead singer, then they are the heart of the song.” 

How far beyond just making a beat does your role in the studio go? 

“I’m not a beat-maker, I’m a producer and a song writer mainly. I’m really a song writer, that’s what I do every day, I write songs. Sometimes I’ll write them with rappers and obviously, they’re going to spit their bars, but I’ll be like “try this flow for the chorus” or “repeat that last line 4 times, that can be your hook”.

“If I’m writing with someone that spits, I’d maybe tell them to choose those 8 bars here or those 8 bars there, or let’s try this for a hook. But with most people, I think the more everything can be a collaboration, the better. The more everyone’s working on everything, the better.” 

What is your favourite Fred Again track?

“Probably at the moment it’s “Angie” which is the last song on the album. Just because that lyric has been with me for a year and a half, and it still means as much as it does.” 

Looking forward, what is the ultimate goal for you?

“To get better, I don’t really have any goalposts. If I can keep getting better every day at making songs and getting as good at it as I can get, then that’s a win. I’m going to keep working on my projects because I know there’s something I’m capable of making that I haven’t made yet, in terms of the purity of it. So, the goal is to keep chasing that.” 

If you missed our last instalment of The Architects check out our in-depth conversation with Conducta right here