It’s no trouble getting ready to interview Fraser T Smith. He’s already sorted the questions, and given that they’re all about the meaning of life, it shouldn’t be hard to fill an hour.
At 49 the Bucks songwriter and producer, following years of working behind the scenes with everyone from Stormzy and Dave to Adele and Craig David, is belatedly releasing his debut album. He’s calling the project Future Utopia and the album 12 Questions, because each song title is a dilemma that can’t easily be answered by a three-minute piece of music, although he has a valiant go. How Much is Enough? Is It Too Late to Save the Planet? How Do We Find Our Truth? Why Are We So Divided, When We’re So Connected? And so on.
In search of answers he sourced lyrics and vocals from musicians including Bastille, Arlo Parks and his past collaborators Stormzy, Dave and Kano, but also the actor Idris Elba, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, London Olympics Closing Ceremony set designer Es Devlin, and Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who was released from prison in 2016 after spending 43 years in solitary confinement. The music is grandiose, with lots of strings; modern, with all those London rappers; but also trippy and experimental. Although, in the familiar Gorillaz format, it features one man orchestrating a lot of big names, he’s doing something more profound than trying to add to his collection of big singles.
“There’s no ego, and no ambition to write quick hits. I hope this is a record that can draw people in and be around for a long time. And it’s definitely not a soapbox record,” he clarifies. “I’m a student of music but also of life, and I wanted the answers because I didn’t know the answers.”
We speak on a Zoom call from his new studio, a barn conversion north of Henley-on-Thames. He recently relocated there from south-west London with his sculptor wife and their university student daughter. Behind him is a framed black-and-white photo of a woman who I can’t quite make out so I ask him for a closer look. It’s Adele, above the words “Set Fire to the Rain” – the quadruple-platinum US number one that Smith wrote with her. “I don’t really know why Adele came to me,” he says. “I don’t know what she might have listened to that she thought was typical, because as much as I love NWA, I also love James Taylor.”
Indeed, his CV contains almost ludicrous breadth, from early days as a session guitarist for prog rock cape-wearer Rick Wakeman, then Craig David at the height of the UK garage scene, to writing mainstream ballads with James Morrison and Sam Smith, and getting involved in the first wave of British rap success with production credits on Kano’s Home Sweet Home and Tinchy Stryder’s Catch 22. Post-Adele, he has been integral to most of the landmark homegrown rap albums, particularly Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer, Dave’s Psychodrama and Kano’s Made in the Manor. That was him playing the piano covered in projections on stage at this year’s Brit Awards during Dave’s remarkable performance of his song Black – the one where the rapper added new lyrics demanding support for Grenfell victims and the Windrush generation and said: “The truth is our Prime Minister’s a real racist.”
On the day we speak, the Mercury Prize winner is about to be announced, and Smith has a one-in-six chance of sharing in a victory thanks to his work on both Kano’s Hoodies All Summer and Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head. In the end Michael Kiwanuka wins, but Psychodrama won the year before, so he’s not too devastated.
Presenting a Best Producer award to Smith at a different ceremony in 2018, Stormzy said: “Fraser is the most genuine, incredible, soul, heart, man that I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Working with this guy is beautiful.” How did a middle-aged white guy become so revered by the rappers? “I’m a listener, I want to be a friend, and someone that will guide, but ultimately I’m the guy that will hold the rope while the artist feels free and safe,” he explains. “When young artists come to the studio I’m as nervous as they are, and we start from zero. There’s no sitting on laurels. Everything I’ve done before is set aside.”
The Future Utopia project grew from his feelings during a period when he probably could have got away with a bit of laurel resting. “Being around Stormzy, who’s this intense, incredible individual, you carry a lot of those emotions as the producer. Dave, too, who I’ve known for five years, goes through a lot emotionally. I’ve felt this pride and exuberance watching them win awards but then gone into the studio the next day and felt completely useless, unable to play a single chord.”
He had also just written music for a YouTube documentary called Terms and Conditions: A UK Drill story, including a sequence focusing on grieving mothers who have lost sons in knife attacks (one of the mothers, Beatrice Mushiya, also speaks on 12 Questions). “Once I had some time to reflect, my overriding feeling was anxiety. I was trying to understand some of the issues that face everybody in the world, from AI and the environment to fear and faith. I had this whiteboard in my studio and started writing down all of these questions.”
He wrote the music alone before getting his guests involved and asking them one of the questions. In Arlo Parks’s case, he played her a set of muted piano chords and relaxed beats and asked her, “What matters most?”
“Initially she was a bit taken aback. How could she answer? She’s so young,” he says. “But we talked for an hour and I stressed that what’s important to you might not be the same as for anyone else. We don’t have to write a song about world peace. What mattered most to her at that moment was that she’d just finished a relationship and it didn’t go well. So we wrote a song about that isolation and loneliness which is one of the most tender moments on the record.”
His quest has been “hugely enlightening”, he says, clearly deeply affected by having the opportunity to talk to lifelong prisoner Albert Woodfox about the cost of freedom, or Icelandic painter Katrin Fridriks about environmental fears. The project is anything but a midlife ego boost after a career lived backstage. “There’s not an ounce of, ‘Now it’s my turn for the spotlight,’” he says. “That’s why I’m not putting it out under my own name – I felt uncomfortable with that. But I’m so passionate about these questions, and their answers. Even though it’s terrifying, that’s what pushes me to the centre of things.”
12 Questions by Future Utopia is released today on Platoon/70Hz.