Fraser T Smith on his ambitious debut 12 Questions, producing a Foo Fighters mega-cover and helping launch Stormzy and Dave into stardom – NME

Posted: August 16, 2020 at 9:54 am


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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 Smiths 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.

Fraser T Smith (Picture: Press)

Smith: Ive worked for so long with so many incredible artists across the board musically, and more recently Ive 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 its really important to say that this isnt about me standing on a soapbox: Im literally in the middle, like a student of life and music, just seeking enlightenment from this amazing, diverse and rich group of collaborators that Ive been very fortunate enough to have worked with on the record.

Some of it is was driven by the music. For example, Id been a big fan of Kojey Radical for a while but Id 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 thats 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, Id have tried to get Dave and Stormzy on a track going back-to-back over 32 fire bars which mightve been the obvious choice! But Im 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 theres nothing cynical about this record. Theres a real breadth [of collaborators], and I love looking down at the tracklisting and seeing all these incredible names.

Shes just incredible. When we worked for the first time, it was quite daunting for both of us because I didnt know how shed 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?. Ive grown to love her as a person as well as an artist, her voice is so impactful and emotional. Weve worked together on her upcoming debut album, too its super-exciting.

I think so. The record was pretty much written before lockdown, but its amazing how many of the lyrics pop out in terms of whats 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.

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 dont 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 Ive ever done in my life! He was feeling what wed 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.

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 hes 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.

Its every producer and collaborators dream to see an artist realise their raw talent and momentum. To see all the good that [Stormzys] done in the world, too: his charitable donations, putting students into Cambridge and Oxford, the publishing company hes built to give a voice to young writers. People are using the expression national treasure, but I think its 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. Im very, very, very proud of him.

Its 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 Daves words just resonated through everybody. It was one of the most amazing experiences ever.

Absolutely. The thing that Im 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. Theres 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 thats where the sweet spot really is. Weve been bestowed with the gift of music, but theres also something else that music can do that can really help people in a variety of ways and I think theyre both doing that. Im now hoping that 12 Questions can do the same as well.

Fraser T Smiths 12 Questions is out on October 23.

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Fraser T Smith on his ambitious debut 12 Questions, producing a Foo Fighters mega-cover and helping launch Stormzy and Dave into stardom - NME

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August 16th, 2020 at 9:54 am

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