For the past two decades, Fraser T. Smith has been a ubiquitous, albeit inauspicious presence in UK music, always in the background but seldom seen. As a producer, composer, and songwriter, he's been responsible for polishing and elavating masterpieces for artists such as Stormzy, Adele, Kano, Craig David, Plan B and the Gorillaz, to name but a few. Such is Smith's presence—thanks to the far-reaching respect he commands—that with each passing year it becomes harder and harder to find a record he didn't work on. Despite that, until now he's avoided the limelight as much as possible, insisting on using his talents to elevate the art of others. This year, however, Smith has reached a crossroads in his career.
Given everything that's happening in the world and with such a wealth of creative relationships built up, Smith felt compelled to put some pressing questions he had on his heart out in musical form. From that seed grew a sprawling collection of collaborative numbers that would eventually coalesce into Future Utopia: 12 Questions, a cohesively woven, 21-song album that ties together the various genres Smith works in, from pop to rap to soul and even poetry. It's a very ambitious piece, revealing more and more of itself with repeated listens.
Complex caught up with Fraser T. Smith to break down every track on Future Utopia: 12 Questions, explaining more about some of the themes and how they play into each track.
"Fear Or Faith Pt. 1" f/ Alysia Harris
"I wanted 12 Questions to feel like a journey that had a clear start and finish. Alysia flew over from the US and we discussed the questions. She came with two amazing poems on fear and faith, and they became the introduction and closing pieces of the album."
"Promised Land" f/ Mikky Ekko
"I'd worked with Mikky Ekko on his debut album, and I've always loved him as a friend and musician. He came over from Nashville to work with me on the album and had this guitar riff, which is a perfect way to bring in the album. It's got a Led Zeppelin guitar vibe, and I thought it would sound crazy with some hip-hop drums. We wrote the song together and then I developed it further after Mikky left, to bring it into line with the album. 'Promised Land' is about fear; fear that lurks underneath the promise of redemption, sold through cult leaders. Mikky's vocals are raw and haunting."
"Fear Or Faith Pt. 2 f/ Idris Elba"
"I wanted an outro section to the song to speak further about fear. I went to Frankfurt on a trip to watch Shiva Feshareki perform, and was reading a book called The Secret DJ on the plane. There's a powerful passage on fear in the book, and I thought it would be perfect if somebody could narrate these words. By chance, Idris' manager reached out to see if I wanted to work with him on some music. Being a big fan of Idris, I jumped at the chance, but also thought it would be the perfect opportunity to ask him if he would collaborate with me on the album. He loved the idea, and recorded the piece in Albuquerque whilst he was in quarantine recovering from COVID."
"How Much Is Enough?" f/ Kojey Radical
"For this question, I wanted to see what it would be like to come up with Rick Ross-style beat, with a UK rapper on it to talk about the excesses of money in modern culture. I weighed up the options, and felt that Kojey would be my first choice for this. We got together and he loved the concept and beat. The replayed sample is from an old Chi Lites song called 'I Want To Pay You Back For Loving Me'. Kojey volunteered to do the intro poem and verses on this track, and his flow is incredible."
"Million$Bill" f/ Kojey Radical, Easy Life
"I then had a switch up in the track which I knew Murray from Easy Life would be perfect for. I've been working with the band for the past few years, and I think they're super creative and exciting. The music in the outro section is like a cross between Steely Dan and Frank Zappa; it's challenging, and I had no idea what Murray would do on this. He recorded the demo in his kitchen and sent it to me. It was perfect. We then refined it, and it's become one of my favourite tracks from the album."
"Do We Really Care? Pt. 1" f/ Tom Grennan, Tia Carys
"I heard 'Summer In The City' by the Loving Spoonful being played by a builder when I came in to check how the work was going on my studio which was being built. I loved the vibe, and the lyrics sounded haunting. I sampled it, replayed it and built the track around it. Tia is managed by my friend, Zeon, and I'd heard a couple of tracks of hers which I loved. She came to the studio and immediately related to the question and track. She laid the verses down in a day and I was buzzing. Lockdown was really starting to kick in, so when Tom Grennan agreed to sing the hook, I decided to send him a hard disk recorder and sterilised microphone for him to sing into. He ended up recording his vocals in the back of his car."
"Do We Really Care? Pt. 2" f/ Simon Armitage
"I'd connected with Simon Armitage through a film director friend of mine called Brian Hill. I met Simon for coffee in Paddington, and we talked about The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, and my album. Simon graciously agreed to write a poem answering the question 'Do We Really Care?' and he sent me the voice memo. I read up about the poet laureate, and was pretty overwhelmed when I read the short list of names Simon was included with—Wordsworth, Ted Hughes and Tennyson, among others. I played the voice memo on the loop, and came up with the piano chords to fit his words."
"What's In A Name?" f/ Dan Smith (Bastille)
"I'd worked with Dan and Craig David on 'I Know You', and thought he'd be great on the album. We also got to know each other well hanging out at Glastonbury after his performance and watching the Chemical Brothers and Lizzo's sets. I thought Dan's sensitivity and lyrical and melodic prowess would be perfect for this question. We wrote the song together in a day at my studio and I loved the melodies and concept of the song, but something wasn't right musically, so I changed the track completely. For the outro, I had this guitar riff which I'd put down a few months before and thought it might fit. I love the blend of interesting chords on this song, the slight progressive rock field, and trap drums."
"Why Are We Divided When We're So Connected?" f/ Es Devlin
"Es and I had worked on Stormzy's 2018 Brits performance together, and I'd seen an incredible TEDTalk Es had given on division. Her work designing large-scale performative installations for artists like Kanye, Adele and Beyoncé speak for itself, and now her words are starting to resonate around the world of culture as well."
"Children Of The Internet" f/ Dave
"Dave and I wrote 'Children Of The Internet' a while ago, but the music didn't feel right. I'd always loved Dave's verses, and the concept worked brilliantly over the question. Once I'd made the music fit with the album, I contacted Es to see if she would agree to me interviewing her, asking the question, and working with her words as the intro to the song."
"How Do We Find Our Truth? / The Other Side" f/ Stormzy, Beatrice Mushiya
"Stormzy and I had a track called 'The Blood Of Christ', which, to me, was incredibly powerful. It talks about human consciousness and how if you lose your faith, it can sometimes lead you down the wrong path. I stripped back the beat on this to just piano and strings and Stormzy's lyrics became even more poignant. Beatrice Mushiya is the mother of Duran, who was tragically killed in a knife attack. I'd got to know her through a project I'd done the music for called Terms & Conditions, a documentary about the drill scene. I'd written a song for the documentary called 'These Tears Could Fill A River'. At one point, myself and the director, Brian Hill, asked some of the mothers to record a tribute to their sons. It was one of the most painful things I've ever had to record. The hurt and emptiness in the voices affected me hugely. I felt it would be poignant and fitting to include Beatrice's testimonial to her son on this track and to dedicate it to his memory."
"What's The Cost Of Freedom?" f/ Albert Woodfox
"I read about Albert Woodfox's story in the paper. He'd been locked up in solitary confinement for 43 years in a 6 x 3ft cell, for 23 hours a day for a crime he didn't commit. When I'd read his story, I knew instantly that I wanted to ask him 'What’s The Cost Of Freedom?' It took us a while to make contact with Albert—he's now in his 70s and time is incredibly precious—but he graciously invited me to his house 20 minutes outside the centre of New Orleans to speak with him. I recorded the whole interview and the conversation was life changing. To hear a man speak with so little resentment, only really thinking about bringing positive change in the future, and with the strength to have made the decision in his 40s to become mentally free even though his body was locked up in a box not much bigger than a coffin, it affected me profoundly. I think his words will make a huge impact on anyone who listens to the album.
"Freedom" f/ Kano, Albert Woodfox
"Kano was my only choice of artist to interpret Albert's words and weave his story into this song. He took time on the writing and finally told me he had a verse on his phone that he wanted to send me. It was perfect and I knew I could use it on the record in this form. Being a perfectionist like myself, Kane had reservations about the quality, but I managed to make it work sonically. It's a testament to his clarity and power that something recorded on a tiny mic in his front-room can make it onto a record. It's all about the performance."
"Mountain Girl" f/ Ruelle
"In 2018, I travelled to Papua New Guinea and met members of a local tribe. With no internet and limited means of communication, it struck me that living amidst the untouched mountains and greenery, they must be completely unaware of what the rest of the world has been doing to the planet. There was bliss in the ignorance. I caught site of a girl on the side of a mountain, and thought it would make a good concept for a song. Ruelle and I had worked together on Psychodrama and I'd become a big fan of her voice. We wrote the song over the track I'd made, and I thought my friend Katrin Fridriks would be perfect to answer the question."
"Is It Too Late To Save The Planet?" f/ Katrin Fridriks
"Katrin's an Icelandic revolutionary abstract artist, who campaigns against global warming. The outro goes quite proggy. I wanted the instrumental sections of the album to be interesting and trippy, to give the album a chance to breathe."
"What Happens Next? / Way Back When" f/ Lafawndah
"This was the first time I'd worked with Lafawndah. I'm a big fan of her music, visuals and aesthetic. To me, she pushes culture into new territories. A lot of the session was jamming, finding the right vibe. Lafawndah also produces, so we were going through sounds and textures together. We soon got a vibe that we liked and wrote 'Way Back When' over it. It's unique, abstract, and I love it."
"Nature Or Nature? / Am I Built Like This?" f/ Jelani Blackman, Ghetts
"Jelani Blackman is one of the most exciting new rappers out there. I made this beat with Tyrell 169. The choir sample is from the '70s and we put a modern flip on it. Jelani came to the studio and we chatted over the question for a few hours. When it came to digging into the writing, it felt easy—he laid the hook and verses and later sent me the sax line, which I love. I wanted another perspective on this and gave Ghetts a call. I've known Ghetts since 2003, when we recorded 'Typical Me' with Kano. I've loved seeing his career flourish over the years, and to me he's a true artist who's never lost his way, staying true to his art, but always growing and working so hard behind the scenes. He laid his verses on this in about two takes and floored me, as usual, with his lyrics and flow."
"What Matters Most?" / "Stranger In The Night" f/ Arlo Parks
"I made this track with Shiva Feshareki. She had this string drone looped and the chords just fell into place. When Arlo came to the studio, she was initially slightly overwhelmed by the question 'What Matters Most?' I broke it down to her, saying that it was up to her how she interpreted the question. It's important that it related to her. I asked her 'What Matters Most' to you now? She told me she'd just split up with her partner, so we wrote quite a classic love song around the chords. I love that these questions can all be interpreted on a deep level or super personal. Really there are unlimited perspectives."
"What Is Love?" / "Bright Eye" f/ Duckwrth
"I was writing in LA and not having a great time. I felt like all the artists I'd been set up with were burned out and uninspired. I cut my trip short as knew I'd be more creative back home, but wanted to keep my session in with Duckwrth. He walked into the control room with snakeskin cowboy boots, a bag of vinyl and a TC Voicebox vocal processor. We started jamming and I immediately regretted cutting my trip short—I felt like I could work with him for another two weeks straight. His melodies and uniqueness hit me, and we wrote 'Bright Eye' that night on piano, acoustic guitar and the TC Voicebox. Duckwrth then came over to the UK to finish off the vocal and he'd written the rap section. This feels like a perfect uplifting alternative/indie end to the album."
"Fear Or Faith? Pt. 3" f/ Alysia Harris
"Stormzy introduced me to Alysia when we were working on GSAP. The way she performs her poetry is incredibly emotional; her tone, the colours that she paints with. We wanted to close the album with a hopeful poem, to show that you can come full circle through the huge range of questions and emotions on the album and arrive at faith. Without hope, what are we left with?"