When you picture Dave and Stormzy recording their biggest hits, you probably don’t imagine them with a 49-year-old dad from Buckinghamshire
The Brit Awards don’t always get their Album of the Year winners right. In 2004, the prize went to heavy-metal pastiche artists The Darkness for their album Permission to Land; meanwhile Dizzee Rascal’s landmark grime debut Boy in da Corner – arguably the most important British album released during that year’s eligibility period – wasn’t even nominated. Things have improved a little since then. This year, two standout albums are competing for the prize: Stormzy’s Heavy is the Head and Dave’s Psychodrama – and one man attending the ceremony will have divided loyalties.
On the surface, Fraser T Smith – a 49-year-old dad from rural Buckinghamshire who got his start touring with progressive rock savant Rick Wakeman – is an unlikely collaborator for Stormzy and Dave. Yet the songwriter and producer has worked on some of those artists’ biggest and best moments, executive producing both of their debut albums and co-writing songs like “Audacity” and “Funky Friday”. Stormzy returned to Smith for December’s Heavy is the Head, having previously praised their “beautiful partnership” that allowed him “to realise the artist I could truly be”.
For Smith, it’s been an unorthodox career trajectory. In the 1990s, he had a “wonderful experience” touring with Wakeman (“He played on the Hunky Dory album, and hearing all those stories about T-Rex and Bowie was amazing,” Smith adds), and spent the rest of the decade playing in a progressive rock band and working as an in-demand session guitarist. But it was a meeting with a then-unknown Craig David at the end of the 90s that set him on his current path. He spent five years working and touring with Craig David 1.0 at the height of UK garage, and later went on to produce and write for Adele, Britney Spears, Florence and the Machine, Kano, and Gorillaz, contributing to a whopping 18 number one albums and picking up a Grammy and Ivor Novello award along the way.
Ahead of tonight’s Brits, we sat down with Smith to discuss his career trajectory, and what makes a great collaboration.
You started your career playing in the rock band Jeronimo Road, moved into UK garage with Craig David, and have now worked with massive stars like Adele, Drake, and Britney. There’s a lot of variation there – but has there been a guiding principle throughout your career that’s been shared between all of these artists?
Fraser T Smith: It’s creating a space where they can put down something that’s emotionally quite profound. You can tie someone like Dave to Adele in that way. My studio is a very sacred space, an undisturbed, quiet space where I try and get onto a good level with an artist. Sometimes music can be a little transactional – I understand the Nashville kind of ‘songwriter-for-hire’, but I’ve never been able to get with that – so being given the opportunity to write and produce whole bodies of work means you can really go beneath the surface.
Are there songs you’ve produced in the past that make you cringe when you listen back to them now?
Fraser T Smith: No, because at the time, there was always a meaning behind it.
I can sit here now, having worked on Psychodrama, (Kano’s) Made in the Manor, and Stormzy’s albums, look back and say, ‘Shall we not talk about Britney Spears?’
But you know what? I wrote a song with some guys for an artist in LA, and that somehow got into Britney’s orbit. I got a call to fly out to meet her in LA the next day. I literally got off the plane with my engineer, went straight to Conway studios, and met her in the entrance, and she says, “Hi, I’m Britney! Are you ready to record?” No sleep. With my engineer, we played tag team ’til five in the morning, recording, editing, comping. She came back in at 11 the next morning, me and the engineer were there on one-hour sleep, I look behind, and there’s Britney Spears, dancing to her own song. It’s one of those ‘I’m a producer’ moments. Did I want to go on and do the next Britney album? Maybe not, but all these experiences are valuable and have helped make me a better producer.
You’ve produced for some of the biggest MCs in grime and British rap music. How invested are you in the history of the scene?
Fraser T Smith: I was always a fan of Roots Manuva, Tricky, and Skinnyman back in the day, so I’ve always had an awareness, but it’s been ‘artist-first’ for me.
Kane (Kano) came in when I was on the garage thing (in the mid-2000s), having spent five years working with Craig David, and I didn’t know what grime was. We bonded over old-school garage tunes as a point of reference. Kane plays his cards very close to his chest, and I love that about him. He wanted a guitar track, so we went around the guitars: acoustic, classical, clean Nile Rodgers-like, and it was, “No, no.” So this was getting tricky, as we were running out of guitars by this point. And then I played some rock guitar and he’s like, “That’s it.” I asked him to explain grime to me, and he couldn’t really put it into words, so instead he got on this drum machine (Smith pulls an MPC-4000 towards the webcam), and tapped out a rhythm on the drum and I started playing guitar. And then we had “Typical Me”.
When you’re working with a Stormzy or a Kano or a Dave, how do you balance resonating with a grime or rap audience with the artist’s mainstream aspirations?
Fraser T Smith: I’m very sensitive to make sure that the essence of what the artist wants to say and where they’re from culturally is maintained. But I don’t have a one-size fits all setup here. There are many big producers who do. Rick Rubin, for example, doesn’t use reverb, and then Adele comes in and she wants swimming pools worth of reverb on her vocal. Sometimes those rules can work, but I’m not that kind of producer, even though Rick Rubin is my hero.
Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” was written by you and was supposed to be produced by Rick Rubin. She later changed her mind after hearing his version and wanted you to finish it. Given he’s your hero, what was that experience like?
Fraser T Smith: His influence on me is massive. I was blown away that he was listening to a piece of my work. Then I got a call from Adele asking to come over. We were close in a songwriting sense, but we weren’t hanging out, so I felt it was kind of weird. So I went to her flat in Battersea and she said, “I’ve just got back from Rick Rubin’s studio, and he’s amazing, but he’s done all these versions, and the record company have spent all this money, but I don’t really want to use any of them.” And a lesser artist would have been pressed to go with him…
Of course – it’s Rick Rubin.
Fraser T Smith: ...but that’s testament to the strength of character she possesses. I heard his versions and it was more chilled, a little more country.
“Stormzy has a saying: ’As soon as you get lost in the gas, you’re done’” – Fraser T Smith
How does it feel to be involved in two records in the Album of the Year category at this year’s Brits?
Fraser T Smith: I’m very, very proud of the scene, and of Dave and Stormzy as individuals. It sounds selfless, but I know I’m very lucky to have had the career I’ve had and am having. You reach a certain age where you become emotionally moved by these things. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s going to be good for business, the phone is going to ring after this!’ I remember being sat at the Mercury Awards and being sat next to Dave’s mum who has been through a very tough time. She came to this country with five pounds in her pocket. Her husband died, two of her children are in prison and, to be fair to Dave, it probably looked like he would go through the same thing, or at least be in a gang, but he’s come through. To see the joy from Dave’s mum was greater than most things in life.
What are the differences and similarities of working with Dave and Stormzy on their respective albums?
Fraser T Smith: They share an attention to detail in their performance and lyrics, their vision for the overall picture, and their time-keeping. I once said to Dave that there must be a time difference between the studio we were working at in Fulham and where he lives in Streatham.
Dave has an obvious musicality in terms of being able to sit at the piano and play. Stormzy’s musicality is in terms of what he brings to the table, almost like a DJ. We had an amazing saxophonist in for a session, but he didn’t quite like it, and instead was like, ‘Can you bring up episode five of season one of The Simpsons?’ His references come from the leftfield. Stormzy will record one line 100 times. Dave will write one line down 100 times.
Listeners might be very familiar with your work, but less so of you as an artist. Is this something you’re looking to change?
Fraser T Smith: I am. I have an artist project that’s going to be released later in the year. It’s a collaboration record. It’s the most excited I’ve ever been about music – and I get very excited about music. Musically, I’ve won the lottery with Dave, Stormzy, and Kane, but there’s still a lot of music left in me. To be completely self-absorbed, it’s been an amazing eight months of my life, recorded in my new studio in a rural valley an hour out of London. I can’t wait for people to hear it, I’ve learnt a lot as an artist. It’s with a group of incredible artists and luminaries – I don’t mean to be so secretive!
You seem to possess remarkable humility for someone who has been so successful. How do you remain level-headed?
Fraser T Smith: When you’re honest with yourself you stay grounded, there’s just so much to learn as a producer and songwriter. On a bad day, I’m crippled by my own lack of ability, because there’s always so much more to learn. Stormzy has a saying: “As soon as you get lost in the gas, you’re done.”