Last week Clash sat down (over the ever-cosy Zoom) with Future Utopia, more commonly known as Fraser T Smith, to discuss all things music – more specifically, his debut album '12 Questions'.
Beginning as pre-Born To Do It Craig David’s guitarist in the late 1990’s, Fraser is no novice and has since become one the most prominent producers in the music industry. From producing Adele’s 'Set Fire To The Rain' and Stormzy’s 'Gang Signs And Prayer', to award wins from Ivor Novello to the Grammy’s, it was a wonder why he chose to release his album as Future Utopia and not the established producer, Fraser T Smith.
“It was important to separate what I do as a producer for other people, from what I’ve done with this project, it’s very different,” he says. “As much as I’ve collaborated with a lot of my old and all time favourite artists on the project, I wanted there to be a clear delineation between when I produce other people’s work and being an artist in my own right. 'Future Utopia' is uplifting. Everyone’s interpretation of Utopia is different, but mine is a good place with kindness, diversity, acceptance and good music.”
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Created in just over a year, the album poses 12 questions across the 22 tracks. From Fear or Faith? to What Is Love? the producer detailed the anxieties around the environment, wealth gaps, technology and other pressing issues that drove the creative direction. Reading the news, and being on social media, he’d begun questioning the world which future generations will inherit and wrote these down on an old whiteboard, before eventually finding himself with a cohesive tracklist.
Fraser’s curiosity is displayed throughout the project. Despite describing himself as a “Child of the dial-up / Child of the Landline”, he still gives space for artists to discuss issues that aren’t necessarily his own, on tracks such as Children of the Internet (feat. Dave). Throughout our chat, Fraser reminds me that the album was an opportunity for the most creative minds he knows to discuss their truths and have ownership of this project in that way.
As well as musical artists, poetry and spoken word is also heard across '12 Questions', from figures including Idris Elba, Simon Armitage and Es Devlin. “The questions warranted more than records alone. I wanted to experiment with different artistic mediums, it was challenging and fun. I just went on a bit of a journey with it.” he laughs. On choosing who to give the questions to, Fraser discussed how the music itself sometimes makes these decisions for you. “I learnt a lot from Stormzy with Gang Signs and Prayer about putting people on tracks who just feel right. There’s no set reason to music sometimes.”
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With such a wide range of sounds across '12 Questions', as well as Fraser’s portfolio, it was no shock to hear his personal music taste varies across genres, from Trap to the likes of the Chi-Lytes. “I love a lot of music from the 70s. Progressive rock, that forward thinking futuristic synth-y sound, but also beautiful strings with soulful elements. But then I also love drums and old school hip-hop. It’s very broad. I’m just a music lover through and through.”
The album also considers those outside of the arts sphere and listeners can hear Fraser T Smith question former Black Panther and activist Albert Woodfox too. After being moved by Woodfox’s story of being held in solitary confinement for over 40 years, Smith felt compelled to speak with him. Whilst he wondered how possible it would be, they were able to meet in New Orleans and here, the track ‘What’s The Cost Of Freedom’ was born. Evidently, the nature of the questions are both intimate and philosophical, but Smith says he wasn’t apprehensive to ask these regardless, believing now was the time for these to be answered.
'How Do We Find Our Truth?' was a personal standout for me. Stormzy delivers impassioned bars over melancholic keys as he speaks of faith and being “covered in the blood of Christ”. The single ends with Beatrice Mushiya, the mother of Duran Kajiama who was killed age 17 in 2016, reminiscing on her son and how she and her family miss him. Fraser met Beatrice whilst filming for GRM Daily’s UK Drill documentary, Terms and Conditions. Here, he was asked to produce a song for the grieving mothers’ of young boys killed in knife attacks to sing.
“I was petrified to make it, about whether they’d like it. I had to try and imagine how it would feel,” he says. “I’m a father and my daughter is of a similar age to Duran, I had tried to create lyrics that would resonate with these women and for Beatrice, it did. It was emotional to hear Beatrice speak in my studio and one of the most emotional parts of the album, one of the most unforgettable experiences.”
With over 30 years in the music scene, Fraser also discusses the struggles he still has with imposter syndrome. “There were moments mid-project, where I was thinking ‘who’s going to like this anyway? What am I thinking?’ But then I remembered someone once said: ‘In the middle of a project, it should always feel like chaos’.”
For young producers, Fraser offers the advice he gives to singer-songwriter Mysie, who is also his mentee (and Ivor Novello’s Rising Star for 2020). “Most artists.. most people will feel like an imposter. Year by year, week by week you’ve got to look at what you’ve actually achieved. It doesn’t even have to be musical, it can be on anything. It helps you feel like you’re climbing the mountain, rather than feeling like you’re constantly at the bottom of it.”
On the future of Fraser T Smith, he details plans to produce more records across the decade and how the creation of 12 Questions has changed how he’ll work with artists; “When I go back to working with other artists, I’m going to have a very empathetic side. Being able to understand things from an artist perspective now, I think I’ll be of great service to artists in the future and of great service to myself.”
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'12 Questions' is out on October 23rd via Platoon.
Words: Tochi Imo
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