12 Questions

12 Questions

“In the best possible way, I know my place,” Fraser T. Smith tells Apple Music. “I pride myself as being the person who can support an artist and work across genres. I want the artist to win; I’m the cheerleader, the player-manager. So when it came to this record, I knew I had to step up massively. And that was terrifying and exciting.” You can forgive a few first solo project nerves—even from a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter. Far from an ego-serving victory lap, 12 Questions—released by Smith under his Future Utopia guise to, as he says, “avoid the baggage of a name” and “allow the listener to step into a world”—is one of 2020’s most ambitious releases. Challenged by the hard-hitting nature of albums he’d worked on with Dave, Kano, and Stormzy, Smith posed himself 12 big, existential questions that captured the fraught state of our modern world and wrote them down on a whiteboard. Those questions were then put to a collection of close collaborators, friends, and inspirational figures from across music, art, and beyond. The result: a questing melting pot of transatlantic rap, jazz, soul, rock, and pop that feels vital and—importantly for a record this ambitious—irresistibly listenable. Below, Smith and some of the album’s key figures guide you in an oral history of sorts of how they went about tackling those 12 questions on that whiteboard over 21 multipart songs. Question 1: Fear or faith? Collaborators: Alysia Nicole Harris, Mikky Ekko, and Idris Elba Fraser T. Smith: “Stormzy introduced Alysia to me when we worked on his Gang Signs & Prayer album. I was absolutely captivated by her performance and her words. She spent three or four days with us and we really got to immerse ourselves in the record and in the narrative. We came up with the idea that ‘fear or faith?’ should be the first question—so that we could set off talking about fear and then have this full bookmark ending the record with faith.” Alysia Nicole Harris: “This question was another opportunity to explore spiritual and religious truths with largely secular audiences. I think Fraser’s a bold man to ask the question, because when people talk about faith it can sometimes come across as corny or judgment. But in reality all people have faith in something, and all people confront fear and doubt. Fear is an open gullet. I knew I was writing the intro and that my performance had to set the tone for the rest of the album. I can’t think of a better bookend for 2020, honestly. The disillusionment so many of us feel is what ‘Fear or Faith? Pt. 1’ pinpoints. We then tried to capture a collective sense of gratitude in ‘Fear or Faith? Pt. 3,’ because the struggle is always worth it.” Smith: “I’d worked with Mikky Ekko on his first record [2015’s Time] and we’d become very close. He had this track—which became ‘Promised Land’—and I thought it would make a great, unexpected opening song after Alysia’s intro. It’s essentially hip-hop, but it has Mikky’s voice, which evokes memories of ’70s rock. It makes you feel quite edgy because it’s essentially Mikky taking the role of a cult leader using fear as a means of converting people. Fear working with faith.” Mikky Ekko: “I grew up in church and spirituality and the organization of it can change the way people think—for better and for worse. That’s something I’ve dealt with, even into my adulthood. The biggest challenge I ran into was being honest with myself about really having to tackle what I feel about these things. There is a dark and a light side to knowing the difference between faith and fear. Both can be used to manipulate.” Smith: “I went away for the weekend around this time and read a book called The Secret DJ. It’s by [an anonymous] superstar DJ who’s traveled the world and has loads of sections I was circling—before arriving at this paragraph on fear. I managed to get in touch with the DJ and ask if he would read it for the record. To be fair, he’s the Secret DJ, so he asked if we could detune his vocal. But when I did it, he sounded too dark—like a serial killer. I then ended up talking with Idris Elba and it became clear he’d be perfect. He was in Albuquerque filming, but had COVID. Being a musician and producer and everything he is—he had a laptop and a mic on him, so sent me his reading of this section which is ‘Fear or Faith? Pt. 2.’ I wanted to make sure the start was, if possible, a pull-the-car-over moment where you wasn’t sure what was happening, but you knew you were in it for the long haul.” Question 2: How much is enough? Collaborators: Kojey Radical and Easy Life Smith: “I had the arc of the idea for ‘Million$Bill’ to tackle this question, and I had the Chi-Lites sample [1971’s ‘I Want to Pay You Back (For Loving Me)’]. In my head, this was going to be a British version of Rick Ross, talking about Jacuzzis and hot tubs, but in an ironic, self-deprecating way. And then the arc in my head went to this slightly awkward Steely Dan fusion section that would be very British in its delivery—it would be quite angry and angsty. I had the music, and then it was really about choosing the best artists for the job. Easy Life was easy because I've worked with them on [2018 single] ‘Nightmares’ and their [forthcoming debut] album. Kojey came down to us, and told me about a book he’d been reading—The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck [by Mark Manson]—that seemed to help him really relate to the question.” Kojey Radical: “Fraser had all the questions laid out, which was one of the most fun parts, as it eliminated that stress of having to come up with an entire concept for a song out of the blue. For me and Fraser, we wanted to look at that element but also the idea of gluttony, and when does it reach the point of excess and beyond the point of necessity.” Question 3: Do we really care? Collaborators: Tom Grennan, Tia Carys, and Simon Armitage Smith: “One of the builders had the radio on a lot while our studio was being renovated. ‘Summer in the City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful—which is obviously an amazing song that we all know—was on, and I was struck by how dark the chorus is: ‘All around, people looking half dead/Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.’ So I wanted to take that chorus on for ‘Do We Really Care? Pt. 1’, before going to this other section, which I knew needed a rapper. Tom Grennan came with the goods despite having to record at home during lockdown onto a little hard-disk recorder that we left on his doorstep and later collected. I’d come across Tia Carys from Instagram and I love her tone and her delivery. She’s had experiences of being homeless or couch surfing and some negative experiences of the care system. With COVID hitting and how the world felt around Black Lives Matter, her lyrics—and the lyrics of the original song—felt very relevant. And then we have the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, for ‘Do We Really Care? Pt. 2.’ He sent me that voice note and really just knocked me for six. I played his words round and round and came up with a piano piece, which was just a stream of consciousness.” Tom Grennan: “Every time I work with Fraser, it’s a totally different experience. This one was unique, because we couldn’t physically get into the studio to record together. I recorded it in the back of my car, as I was staying with my mum and dad during lockdown and didn’t have that room where it felt studio-style. The car was the next-best thing..” Simon Armitage: “‘Do we really care?’ is a big question. It rocked me back on my heels a little bit. As a poet I tend not to deal in answers, just more questions, so it was never going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ I tried to be hopeful—or a little hopeful—while staying true to some of the doubts I have about us as a species. And finding a form: I remembered later that I'd been listening to Dylan's ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ the way he delivers some of the closing words in the verses. I was trying to find a way of getting air and light between the phrases and the rhymes without sounding portentous.” Question 4: What’s in a name? Collaborator: Dan Smith of Bastille Fraser T. Smith: “Whether the label is gay, straight, male, female, transgender, Gucci—there is always this perception. ‘What’s in a Name?’ was a track where I felt I’d come up with ideas but I didn't particularly like them, and I just wanted to get in with Dan and create something. We both felt it didn’t need an intro or outro with a luminary speaking—it felt like a very compact type of track. I think in this day and age we have a get-to-the-chorus-quick mentality; I wanted to go against the grain on that, because a lot of the subject matters are very deep and it's a lot to take in. I also wanted to allow the listener a little bit of time just to hear. Because we don't really have guitar solos anymore, do we? Or keyboard solos. Just letting a bit of instrumental play is quite nice, right?” Dan Smith: “There was so much to explore in and around how our names interact with our identities—whether they’re just completely arbitrary or fundamental to who we are. And how they mean very different things to different people. It’s a huge question—quite a lot to try and address in a song. I loved that Fraser was trying to provoke people—both the artists and the listeners. We had a great day recording, and it came back as this amazing, mad science-fiction odyssey, which was incredible.” Question 5: Why are we divided when we’re so connected? Collaborators: Es Devlin and Dave Fraser T. Smith: “I first met [British artist and stage designer] Es Devlin in 2018, for Stormzy's live appearance at the Brits. I then watched a TED Talk she’d done on division and lack of connection which blew me away. Concurrently, I had the track with Dave. He had the title [‘Children of the Internet’] and I said it’d be great for us to do this song for the album because he’s obviously a child of the internet himself, so could help answer the question. He was pretty offended by that, and said, ‘No, no. I’m not. It’s the generation before which were first playing FIFA on Xboxes against virtual people. That’s the point where we lost eye contact, and everyone was just lost to their phones.’ That came together in a really interesting way with what Es talks about on ‘Why Are We Divided, When We’re so Connected?’ We had a two-hour conversation at her house that I recorded and took out sections that really resonated with me. I really wanted to take this raw gold and come up with something that felt less of a Dave record and something clearly from my album—while still being something that he was passionate about. He had one piece of feedback, actually. I initially had this harpsichord sound running through the song and he asked if it could be changed to a piano. Looking back, that harpsichord was quite jarring.” Question 6: How do we find our truth? Collaborators: Stormzy and Beatrice Mushiya Smith: “I met Beatrice Mushiya when we were working on Terms & Conditions, the [2020] documentary we made about UK drill music. I was asked to write a song for Beatrice and eight other mothers who were grieving the losses of their sons to knife crime. It was one of the most daunting things I’ve ever been asked to do musically, We asked the mothers to go into the booth and talk a little about their sons, but it wasn’t used for the film. Beatrice’s section, though, always stayed with me. I also had lyrics from Stormzy from a track we had written a little while ago called ‘Blood of Christ’ that I felt was very special, and I knew there was a question that could connect these two special pieces. Back when we were making Gang Signs & Prayer, Stormzy had told me about a religious epiphany he’d had when being asked to perform a crime by an older gang leader. It just suddenly felt to me that there was suddenly then something in this question tying Beatrice and Stormzy together, and how ‘How Do We Find Our Truth / The Other Side’ is a track about our times. I wanted the track to hopefully leave listeners feeling as I felt, which was that there's hope. We can get on the wrong side of any track, but you have Stormzy talk about listening to his conscience to avoid a terrible situation, and the devastation in Beatrice’s voice being testament to the consequences of what can happen when you are on the wrong side of those tracks. It’s truly powerful.” Question 7: What’s the cost of freedom? Collaborators:: Albert Woodfox and Kano Smith: “I picked up a paper and stumbled across an article about Albert Woodfox one day—this extraordinary former Black Panther who’d been incarcerated in solitary confinement for 44 years. We must’ve made 50 calls and sent 50 emails before I’ve miraculously found myself on a plane headed for New Orleans to meet him for the most life-changing experience I can describe to you. I’m wanting to ask questions about freedom for an album, and I’ve been able to get to the source for ‘What’s the Cost of Freedom?’ The person who’s going to get it more than anyone on the planet, really. And talk about it in a way that’s so devoid of anger, or angst, or regret, and with this incredible strength. Kano really doesn’t do features. I think he’s turned down 100 features in the last 12 months. Fortunately, he felt incredibly inspired by Albert’s words, and I think lockdown gave him something extra to write about, so we got ‘Freedom.’ He carries this huge burden of almost guilt, Kane, which he recognizes in the lines talking about being underneath Christ the Redeemer in Rio, sipping on caipirinhas, and how flippant that feels now.’” Question 8: Is it too late to save the planet? Collaborators: Ruelle and Katrin Fridriks Smith: “‘Mountain Girl’ was the very first song I wrote for the album. Dave and I had worked with Ruelle on PSYCHODRAMA, so she was an artist I’d earmarked for 12 Questions. My wife and I went on an amazing adventure to Papua New Guinea and met some of the incredible local tribes. My takeaway was wondering what these tribes would feel, especially some of the younger generations, about what we’re doing to the environment. Katrin Fridriks—who speaks on ‘Is It Too Late to Save the Planet?’—is an incredible abstract artist from Iceland who is very tied to saving the planet. Her point is, ‘We need the planet, but the planet doesn’t need humans.’ In that way, we’re very fallible. We can be quite egotistical walking around the planet thinking this is it, but actually, if the human race was to disappear, the planet would just go about its way.” Ruelle: “I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of the most beautiful places on Earth, and I think that for me with those experiences, my sense of responsibility to protect our planet has grown tremendously, and my world view has grown, too. The challenge for us came down to the approach. It came down to storytelling. We flipped the challenge set by the question on its head, and it was more about how can we tell a story that will draw people in and allow people to think about it in a completely different way.” Question 9: What happens next? Collaborator: Lafawndah Smith: “My mind kept turning to AI, and these futuristic types of beats. So I was searching for a not-of-this-earth, super-futuristic alternative artist. Lafawndah became the very clear choice. I was also working on ‘What Happens Next / Way Back When’ with a brilliant British Iranian experimental composer and turntablist called Shiva Feshareki, so I thought it’d be fascinating for the three of us to get in and jam. It became a really good example of creating the beat in the moment. And Lafawndah actually flipped the question back into asking, ‘What was it like back then?’ So we move back in time to answer the question and talk about the future. It’s super abstract, but it’s about time and time is its own abstract concept, really. That’s how I rationalized it: when I realized it was the right thing to let Lafawndah just be guided by the question. Plus, I really, really liked the beat. It’s almost like an Arabic trap.” Question 10: Nature or nurture? Collaborators: Jelani Blackman and Ghetts Smith: “I had the beat and the idea for ‘Nature or Nurture / Am I Built Like This?’ for a while. Tyrell 169 and I created that piece of music from an old sample that we interpolated from a Southeast Inspirational Youth Choir recording in 1971. It was from a choir competition in Houston where they arrived looking very impoverished as they were from a poor area, and everyone was laughing at them. These other choirs were in these perfect cassocks, but they won by a mile. So that was a nice story, and then I must credit my wife, again, for leading me to Jelani. He came down to us, and spoke a lot about the philosophy around nature and nurture and DNA versus environment. And Ghetts is truly one of the UK legends, in my opinion. Lines like ‘I wish DNA stood for “Dad Never Absent”’ are some of my favorite on the album.” Jelani Blackman: “The ‘nature or nurture’ idea was something we’d spoken about quite a lot—it’s really difficult to know, especially in the world we live in, how much is down to your environment and how much comes from genetics and where you come from ancestrally.” Question 11: What matters most? Collaborator: Arlo Parks Fraser T. Smith: “Arlo is such an old head on young shoulders. At the beginning, she was a little bit overwhelmed by the size of the question. But I stressed that her words weren’t meant to be universal—it was literally her, and could be anything she wanted it to be. So she said, ‘What matters most to me is the fact that I've just split up from my partner and I'm really upset about it.’ So we wrote ‘Stranger in the Night’ together, and I think it's a wonderful song.” Arlo Parks: “The question that Fraser posed to me felt all-encompassing, like a universal question. Love felt like something that tied all of humanity together. I think that asking these big philosophical questions is something we don’t do enough, and it made me really delve into the recesses of myself and my own needs and desires and priorities. Every time I listen to [this song], I imagine I am somewhere quiet and vast and somewhere reflecting on my life. I have that immediate gut reaction of melancholy intermingled with hope.” Question 12: What is love? Collaborator: DUCKWRTH Fraser T. Smith: “I think positive songs are kind of hard to do; they’re certainly hard to make cool. Fortunately, DUCKWRTH makes, I think, ‘What Is Love / Bright Eye’ really cool. The song finds this sort of Queen-meets-folk-meets-trap-meets-DUCKWRTH place, and it’s tough to pull off those things, but he does it, because it doesn’t feel cheesy to me in the least. We first met in LA—he walked in at 8 pm wearing snakeskin cowboy boots with a voice effects box and a bag full of old ’70s rock vinyl. By 10 pm, we had this song, and we then flew him over to the studio here to finish up. I wanted people to reach the end of the record and to feel uplifted—that as long as we have love and faith in goodness and hope and kindness and diversity and understanding and gratitude, that’s all that counts.”

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