In late 2019, British producer and songwriter Fraser T Smith travelled to New Orleans to meet Albert Woodfox, the former Black Panther who spent over 40 years in solitary confinement. The encounter was part of Smith’s debut solo album, “12 Questions,” an ambitious project that poses 12 big head-scratchers, such as “Is It Too Late to Save the Planet?” and “What Matters Most?” to an array of artists and activists and turns the results into a mix of spoken word musings and indelible pop bangers. The Stormzy and Adele collaborator was in Louisiana to ask Woodfox a big one: “What’s The Cost Of Freedom?” Smith says he emerged from the pair’s two-hour discussion with a new outlook on life.
Released under the artist banner of Future Utopia, “12 Questions” is out on October 23 via Apple’s Platoon label and 1983, the creative content studio behind it, and Smith’s own 70Hz label. There are collaborations with such artists as Stormzy, Idris Elba, Dave, the UK’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, Arlo Parks and more, but talking to Woodfox impacted Smith the most. “To sit with a man who’s been in a six-by-three-feet cell with no real outside stimulation for 43 years, who’s triumphed over that and has come out without any resentment or bitterness but is purely looking at the future has absolutely changed the way I look at things,” says Smith, sitting in his studio in Buckinghamshire, England, on a chilly October morning.
Smith has worked with some huge acts over the course of his career, including Adele (he co-wrote her Grammy Award-winning hit “Set Fire To The Rain”), Florence + The Machine and Sam Smith but it’s his involvement with a trio of game-changing British rappers that stands out. As producer and co-songwriter on Kano’s “Made In The Manor,” Stormzy’s “Gang Signs & Prayer” and Dave’s “Psychodrama,” Smith was privy to the rare thrill of watching his music transport beyond the realm of chart success and streaming figures and into something with a deeper impact. Those artists took grime music into the mainstream, turning a youth movement into a cultural phenomenon. Smith helped to reshape the landscape of modern British music.
The 49-year-old’s work with Dave, Stormzy and Kano inspired his approach on “12 Questions.” “I’d seen the way that their words could actually help people that were listening to the record and I wanted to do something which resonated on a musical but philosophical level,” he explains. “Kano, Stormzy and Dave share the same belligerence which is so refreshing and keeps them so fresh because they do what they wanna do. I learned a lot from that.”
He wanted the record to tackle modern anxieties about AI, the environment, lack of diversity and gang violence. It is filled with affecting moments. On the soulful “How Do We Find Our Truth?,” the grieving mother of a knife crime victim remembers her son as Stormzy delivers a powerfully stirring verse. Says Smith: “I played the album to a few people who were pretty emotional when it got to the end.”
Taking the reins on such a sprawling project required Smith to draw on a range of experiences from across his career, the good and the bad, the hits and the flops. “Being in the studio with Adele, you grow exponentially as a songwriter and as a person,” he explains. “But if I hadn’t worked with Claire Maguire on her album, which came out and didn’t do as well as expected and was a great disappointment to me, I wouldn’t have been in the position where I’d done what I did with Adele. Then seeing how Adele works helps me with I’m working with Stormzy because their minds operate on a similar wavelength.”
The time when Smith stepped straight off the plane and into the studio with Britney Spears, a sofa full of high-powered execs present to cast an eagle-eye over proceedings, also features on his list of learning curve episodes.
When Smith started “12 Questions” two years ago, he couldn’t have imagined how these issues would chime so resonantly at the sharp end of 2020. “I think at this point when people are becoming more introspective, it’s good for people to question,” he avers. “The record is about me asking an incredible array of luminaries and activists and rappers and singers to come up with the answers, but they’re not the definitive answers. Hopefully, everyone who listens to the record will have that sense of ownership on the album to feel that they can answer the questions in their own way.”
Making this album changed the way Fraser T Smith looks at life. He’s hoping for a similar outcome for those who experience it.