The British producer has been described as a therapist by Stormzy and performed at the BRITs with Dave. Ahead of his 50th birthday, Fraser T. Smith tells Document about finally releasing an album of his own, and why it's all about human connection
In 1996, Brian Eno coined the term scenius to describe how great art is typically created by a community or “communal genius.” Challenging the Great Man Theory that suggests important art is created by important men working in solitude, Eno’s concept illustrated how it actually emerges from a rich ecology of talent. Twenty-five years later, in the age of SoundCloud rap and MP3-email collaborations, some argue the concept is dead—others say the community has simply migrated online, spawning a new form of collaborative creativity.
Fellow British producer Fraser T. Smith thinks the concept is alive, essential, and surprisingly pandemic-proof. At his studio in the South East England county of Buckinghamshire, Smith—Craig David’s former guitarist, and Eno’s junior by a mere 22 years—has spent the last few years amplifying tracks and records for the heavyweights of London’s potent grime scene, including Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, Kano’s Made in the Manor, and Dave’s Psychodrama as well as the rapper’s devastating, exquisite, Ivor Novello Award-winning song “Question Time.” (He also helped shape Tinchy Stryder’s 2009 single “Number 1” and Adele’s chart-topping breakup banger “Set Fire to the Rain.”) While riding out quarantine in the countryside last year, Smith released an ambitious debut album under his own Future Utopia moniker. The 12-track collaborative effort, 12 Questions (via Platoon), was conceived after a five-year period of intense recording sessions during which he essentially lived in the studio with Stormzy et al.
“I came up for air and really started to feel quite anxious about the state of inequality and the wealth gap and AI and the environment,” Smith told Document on FaceTime from his studio ahead of his 50th birthday in February. He thought of 12 questions and wrote them all down on a whiteboard in his makeshift office. The 12 questions became 21 tracks evolving from intimate conversations with frequent collaborators and new friends—Mykki Ekko, Arlo Parks, and Lafawndah appear alongside stage designer Es Devlin, poet Simon Armitage, and activist Albert Woodfox. Smith read about Woodfox, a former Black Panther who spent 43 years in solitary confinement, in a newspaper. He eventually ended up flying to New Orleans for a profound conversation—“one of the most powerful moments of my life”—about the cost of freedom and Woodfox’s decades-long fight for his own. Other collaborators, like Ekko, Duckwrth, and Alysia Harris, flew out to Buckinghamshire to record their contributions.
Smith’s unconventional career path is an argument for human connection in a world that increasingly drives us apart. On his own album, he expands on the concept of physical spaces and scenes—considering the prison cell, the church, the recording studio, the tribal mountainlands of Papua New Guinea, the elemental and imaginary otherworlds depicted in mythology and the music of his youth. “Growing up just outside of London, culturally it was a little bit barren,” he says. “That was what drew me to Jimi Hendrix and Joy Division and The Smiths and Public Enemy, because they were worlds that I could only dream of. I had to visualize what was going on. Often the visuals in my head were completely wrong, but I lost myself in that music—whether it was in the streets of Manchester with Joy Division and Peter Hook’s bass, or Johnny Marr’s guitar in The Smiths’ ‘Cemetry Gates,’ Strangeways Prison, or Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Monterey, the streets of unrest with Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power.’” Smith says his strength as a producer is helping with melodies, which assuredly play a big role in grime right now. He has also been described as a therapist and sees himself as a father figure of sorts. He’s definitely not Pharrell, with a signature beat for artists to sing or rap over, and he’s not Rod “The Invisible Man” Temperton writing songs in the back of a cab. “I’m more, ‘What are you listening to?’” the producer says of his relentlessly curious philosophy. “Play me some music that you love.”
“You can’t take the journey with artists lightly. You’re there for all manner of emotions and I guess, maybe, you’re that person or you’re not. I’m not there to get the hit and then run—that’s not the way that I work.”
Hannah Ongley: You’ve spoken before about how important empathy is to your work as a producer. Performing Dave’s song ‘Black’ at the BRITs, and doing Stormzy’s ‘Blinded by Your Grace’—how do you sort of shape yourself into a conduit for those extremely intimate and intense projects?
Fraser T. Smith: I think you have to build trust, you have to build friendship. It’s not about always being in the studio, you know. Dave was in the studio with me and his phone kept ringing, and I must admit it became slightly annoying for me, this phone constantly going. I’m not big on that in the studio. It’s very easy to become sidetracked by the distractions that we all have. So I said, ‘Dave, why don’t you take that, then we can turn our phones off together.’ I wanted to be sensitive, I wasn’t going to some kind of dictator, like, ‘You have to turn your phone off in the studio.’ Then he said, ‘Well, I’m really sorry but it could be my brother calling at any time from prison, so I have to kind of keep it on, I know it’s annoying.’ So we had a conversation about his relationship with his brother, and then we went to visit Christopher in prison. Christopher features on the record obviously throughout in terms of Dave’s closeness to him, but actually Christopher sent a voice note to Dave for the last track on the record.
You can’t take the journey with artists lightly. You’re there for all manner of emotions and I guess, maybe, you’re that person or you’re not. I’m not there to get the hit and then run—that’s not the way that I work. I really cherish those friendships and those relationships and I think, in doing so, you naturally create a safe space where the artist feels very comfortable and very protected, and can be very vulnerable and tender, and that makes great music. I grew up in bands, so you become very close with your band members, and as a guitar player in that band you would naturally gravitate towards the singer. The dynamic always used to work like that—you look at Morrissey and Marr, or Page and Plant—the guy with the guitar would usually help come up with songs, and that’s how I learned. So anyone that comes into the studio, we’re forming a little band for the day, or the week or the year or 18 months.
Hannah: I just watched a video from 2018 where Stormzy presented you with the Pro Sound ‘Best Producer’ award. He was literally lost for words. It was really sweet and you could tell it was coming from such a genuine place. He actually said that it feels like you’re his therapist at times—do you ever feel like you’re artists’ therapist?
Fraser: Well, I might be doing a disservice to a therapist, but I can listen. Dave’s father’s not around, Stormzy’s father’s around but kind of not, Kano’s father’s not around—I’m not pretending to be anyone’s father, but I think our age is kind of similar to how old their fathers are or would have been. I’m not trying to hang on that level of, like, ‘Let’s get the tequila out.’ Well sometimes I’ll get the tequila out, but they’re grown men as well. It’s more about how we’re feeling, what’s going on. ‘Are you feeling creative? Are you eating right?’ I’m probably annoying to be with in the studio, to be honest. I take on that role of wanting to look after artists.
Especially now that we’ve made this record, I really appreciate how we’re feeling and how dark things can get, because I think being confronted with your own creation makes you really question the light side and the dark side of your personality. I’ve definitely felt huge amounts of imposter syndrome throughout this record and lots of questions about my creative existence.
Hannah: Does working with artists from a younger generation teach you to look for interesting sounds in unexpected places? Do you engage with art differently because you’re around people with a different sense of curiosity, or who just engage with different things than you might normally?
Fraser: Yeah. I’m open to what any artist brings to the table. I’m aware that with different cultural backgrounds, and of different age, the kind of clubs that they might be in are very different from the clubs that I might be in—or not, as the case is. When I first met Kano, I had no idea what grime was. But he had no idea what rock was, really. So we ended up with a track called ‘Typical Me’ based on me playing rock guitar and him tapping out grime beats.
Hannah: You weren’t into Dizzee Rascal, or garage, when you were younger?
Fraser: I was into garage—that’s where [Kano and I] really clicked. I used to DJ garage in my Craig David days, so that was our common link. And I knew R&B and I knew hip hop, but grime—I think Boy in da Corner had come out, but that’s kind of a different grime. That’s not Kano grime. I still think that’s its own thing—the drums and the flow. It’s an amazing record, but I feel that where Kano is coming from is a different thing, so we had to break that down, and we connected over UK garage music. Kano was playing on the drum machine, which he’d never done before, tapping out this rhythm, and I was playing guitar. It made me think just what a wonderful thing that music is. You can really have seemingly nothing in common, but one thing will bridge it and then you can be…
Hannah: The new grime scene feels so specific to London. Even now in New York, where you have Brooklyn drill, and Chicago drill, and that scene is big in the UK as well. Do you think, with artists collaborating by sending MP3s over email, sound and scene are becoming less intertwined? Or do you think the concept of ‘scenius’ is still alive and essential today?
Fraser: I think the concept still exists. What’s interesting to me is looking at the streaming charts, for example. If you go to the French streaming charts, it’s full of local rappers. If you go to the Swedish charts, it’s full of local rappers, Ed Sheeran, and Drake. If you go to Bulgaria, it will be full of local Bulgarian rappers and Selena Gomez. That’s really healthy. Because you can imagine that there’s this slightly homogenized sound which everyone listens to, but from a dialect point of view—from a narrative point of view, it shows that rap music is, and maybe should be, made for a town. So therefore it keeps the language that is less homogenized. Someone asked me, when Stormzy’s second record was about to drop, ‘Is this gonna be the one that crosses over?’ I was maybe a little bit outspoken, but I said, ‘I kind of hope not?’ I want there to be things that are just about being from the UK. There are going to be things that cross over both ways all over the world, but I think what’s great about rap music, drill, and grime—you know, Chicago drill is still very different from UK drill. In this age of globalization, I think we have to hold on to the strands that make us different.
Hannah: Tell me about going to see the Harlem Gospel Choir with Stormzy.
Fraser: Stormzy and I had spent so long in the studio, we’d got into a real flow of day after day after day—order food, listen to music, go into the booth, make some music, leave at night. We were in that flow five, six days a week. I wanted us to see some culture together, I wanted us to do something—to just have a little journey together. We literally got off the plane, almost straight to the studio, those guys were ready to go. In this relatively small studio, they sang their hearts out and gave us exactly what we needed. We then took the files, went to dinner, were exhausted, went to bed, and got the first plane out in the morning. There was something magical about meeting the choir, to hear those amazing voices and have them on the record. When you live in New York, maybe it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but being from the UK and actually traveling to New York to record the Harlem Gospel Choir—that’s a real big deal. I felt like I wanted to be able to look back and for us to feel we’d literally gone there. We’d always talk about Kanye and ‘Ultralight Beam’ how the American artists always seem to take it to such a place. We felt like we’d achieved something by doing that, by really making that effort and being there. It did a lot for our confidence and for our relationship.
“Chicago drill is still very different from UK drill. In this age of globalization, I think we have to hold on to the strands that make us different.”
Hannah: Did you have a very varied taste in music growing up? Were you getting into much electronic music at that time as well?
Fraser: Well I guess—electronic music, for me, was, like, The Sisters of Mercy. And I went to school with Tom Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers. He was like my sort of guide around music. He had guitars and guitar pedals, drum machines, vinyl—you know, just like he is now. He just used to give me records. It was interesting, I guess if you look back, we were lucky enough to go to a school where you could be yourself. I don’t know how it was in New Zealand, but I didn’t ever feel pressured to be a mod or a punk or a—you know, sometimes you feel like you have to dress the way someone listening to electronic music would dress. Tom and I would be listening to Run DMC, into The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths—just a real broad palette of music. My mother had spent some time in Queens when she was 16. She was into Philly soul, but also David Bowie, Carole King, The Carpenters. There was a lot of music at home.
Hannah: I hear you’ve done a lot of Berklee Online courses. Tell me about his further education in music, how many courses are up to now?
Hannah: Wow, really? I don’t think I could even name 14 instruments.
Fraser: Yeah. I always wanted to go to Berklee as a child, because I wasn’t great at school, but the price for overseas students was just not something that my parents could help me with. I don’t think you could get a scholarship as an overseas student, and I wasn’t a virtuoso anyway. Then I found that you could actually do these courses—three-month courses—and I just learned so much, from piano-playing to lyric-writing to production, Pro Tools, and mixing. It’s been a great thing to know that I’d done the equivalent of three years worth of courses. They sort of awarded me an honorary type of degree. I went to Berklee to actually talk to some of the students, a few years ago, which was amazing—to visit the campus and see what was going on there. I’m a massive learner. It’s imposter syndrome creeping in, you see.
Hannah: You were self-taught on guitar and piano as well, right? Has this been the first time you’ve learned how to read music?
Fraser: I still can’t read music, Hannah. I think I’m so used to interpreting music that whenever I see the notes, there’s something that stops me just playing what’s there. It really slows me down. I developed my ear by learning tough Jimi Hendrix solos from the tape recorder.
Hannah: That’s more impressive than being able to read music.
Fraser: Well, you haven’t heard the solos [laughs]. But yeah, I’ve always had a good ear for music, and for me that works better. I worked with a lot of string players and brass players on my record, and I think at that point it would have been great to be able to write music, and to be able to communicate on that level.
Hannah: Has the Future Utopia project led to further questions that you’re curious to answer?
Fraser: I learned so much and I evolved so much as a person and as a creative that I have to keep going on this journey. I want to make more records, and I want to ask more questions, and I want to hear more answers. It’s not that everything has to be question-based, but if someone walks into the studio, the first thing I usually say is, ‘How are you?’ Adele might say, ‘Really shit, I just split up with my boyfriend, he finished with me and tried to smoke a cigarette and couldn’t, I felt like all I wanted to do was to set fire to the rain.’ That sounds cheesy, but everything comes from a conversation that usually starts with, ‘How are you feeling? How are you doing?’