A HUMBLE MAN
English Producer and Songwriter Fraser T Smith
Words by Michelle Sullivan
Photography by Georgie Clarke
Creative Direction by Beatrice Hurst
P A R T O N E
It is a chilly London morning as I stand in the foyer of The Matrix Studio Complex in Parsons Green, located in the south London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. The building houses an impressive stable of industry folk including Modest! Management, Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong and English writer/producer Fraser T Smith.
“Hi Michelle!” says Fraser, as he glides toward me in the same manner that you would greet a friend of many years. He is dressed in a grey sweatshirt, black jeans, and black Nike trainers with bright red laces. His bright blue eyes smile with great warmth, “It’s so great to meet you!” he says. I extend my arm in readiness for the hand shake that would accompany such a first meeting, but I am cut off at the pass and find myself scoped up into a hug. “Thanks so much for coming to see us” he says.
As we begin to walk back down the winding corridors to his studio, making the usual chit chat, one would be forgiven for being a little suspicious of this man. “Who is that nice on a first meeting?” I think to myself.
“Can I get you anything? Shall I give you a tour first?” says Fraser, as we enter through the front door of his studio. Inside the first room is the office set up for MyAudiotonic Productions - the company that he shares with Sarah T Smith - his wife and manager. On the right wall hangs a large framed Billboard Magazine cover, featuring Adele and titled Set Fire To The Rain. On the left wall hangs a canvas artwork by Goldie titled The Kids Are All Riot. As we enter the foyer that leads through to the engineer’s room, another piece is on display – a Jimi Hendrix Cassette Tape artwork by Erika Iris Simmons. Fraser proceeds to show me around each room – the drum room, the vocal booth and the piano room. Each is carefully considered and beautifully detailed; he shows me the tea/coffee making room that he is particular to point out has been designed by Sarah, “who has excellent taste.” This is not the experience I was anticipating. It is as though I am being ushered around by the studio assistant; the way he gushes about the details of each room and continually ensures there isn’t anything I need. Fraser radiates the persona of a 22-year-old boy who is pinching himself that he is lucky enough to be working here; rather than the owner and Grammy winner himself.
As we finally make our way into the main studio room, something has shifted for me. I have now completely forgotten any doubt of authenticity that I had only moments ago in the foyer. As if by magic, Fraser has been able to put me at ease and invoke an air of genuine affinity between us.
We settle for our conversation; onto a large distressed brown leather vintage couch at the back of the room; it is softly lit with Volusia Mokara candles, creating a clean light scent. “I like the sound of analogue equipment because it just reminds me of the kind of music I listened to growing up”, he says, “I’m passionate about the aesthetic of the sound that the record makes, my way of making them is more about getting the lyrics right, how they fit with the vocal and the melody. It’s the human element really.”
Fraser Lance Thorneycroft Smith grew up in Berkshire, a county of south east England, located approximately 25 miles west of London. His parents – Vivienne and Chris – are devout music lovers, and raised Fraser on an eclectic combination of records from Carole King, Carly Simon and Dave Brubeck.
He moved to London at 18 after receiving poor results on his A levels. The only course that would accept him was a business course at Woolwich Polytechnic School in south east London. “At heart both my parents and I knew that I had to fly the nest” he says, “It was a rough area and a culture shock for me, but at least I was in London and I could make a start.” The first thing he did was get into a band. It didn’t take long for activities with the band to take priority, and Fraser was soon struggling with his grades. “I didn’t tell my parents, but I had found out about a scholarship for a music course in Richmond (Thames Valley University) and had already proceeded to enter my application” he says. After winning the scholarship he plucked up the courage to inform his parents of his new path, he went back home and said “I’ve got good news and bad news, the bad news is that I’m about to be thrown out of business college; the good news is that I’ve won a music scholarship!”
Fraser graduated the Music College and began working as a session guitarist in and about London. After what he labels “a few false starts”, including a turn washing dishes in a pizza shop, he began to make a little progress. “It’s was a shock! I thought I was ready to take on the world; then you realise that you have to meet people and develop, no matter how good you think you are.”
The life of a session and touring musician is not one that is easily understood. You often work in block periods and don’t always know where your next paycheck is coming from. “I think it was a natural thing that my parents were concerned” he says. “They didn’t understand what I was doing. It’s not always a very visual thing.”
Enter Craig David.
Fraser was first introduced by way of Craig’s manager at the time, and he began working as the session guitarist for Craig in 1999. In many ways it is the working relationship that changed his life, although I don’t believe that Fraser wouldn’t have found his true calling as a producer regardless of what path he took to get there. He is an extremely ambitious man and has a solid work ethic. While there is no denying that he has talent, there is no magical secret to Fraser’s success. Put simply – he has worked hard for it. Where some might call it a day and go to the pub, Fraser is working. Where some might have had a late night performance and designate the following morning for some time off, Fraser is working.
He acknowledges that it wasn’t easy. We chat about a particular experience that still burns in his mind - playing Top Of The Pops in 2000. “I remember playing that night with Craig and everyone was texting me saying that they had seen me on TV. After the show I remember going back to my studio; it was within a printing works on this dodgy trading estate in Maiden Head. I was starving because I hadn’t eaten all day. I went to buy a sandwich with my cash card and it was declined, and I had to make that long walk back from the counter to the refrigerator to put the sandwich back. It was humiliating and I was hungry.” He goes on to explain, “It helped sharpen the knife … I used to run competitively and so I understand work ethic. I don’t look back on that night as much about humiliation, as about just being inconvenient. I decided that I didn’t want to be in a situation where I had to worry about things like that.”
Ambition and expectation in the music business do not make for easy bed-fellows. Fraser made the transition from Craig David’s guitarist (and a regular income) to that of a freelance producer in 2006. A combination of the delayed nature of royalty payments, projects not connecting with audiences, ongoing investment in studio equipment and record companies failing to pay on time, saw Fraser return to a second period in his life where his limits were truly tested, except this time he had a family to provide for. It was Christmas 2008 and Sarah was chasing an invoice for work that Fraser had done for a label. She had been chasing it already for months with no result. Aside from not being able to buy presents for their daughter, that fateful ATM said no funds, and the pair were scrubbing around the drawers looking for pennies to buy milk. Luckily on the eve of the Christmas holiday period, the label finally agreed to pay up half of what was owed.
Fraser is a man with an inquisitive mind and will happily tackle the idea of what makes a commercially successful recording artist. His main argument is not surprising, “It’s interesting working with more and more successful artists. The ones I see really make it to the top; all have a very strong work ethic.” As we continue to talk, still seated on the sofa, we dissect the work of the incredible artists he’s worked with to date; names like Craig David, Tinchy Stryder, Cee Lo Green, Britney Spears, Keane, Quadron and Lily Allen. He talks of each one as though speaking of a friend, “He’s amazing!”; “She’s so amazing!” he often says. Fraser’s production work demonstrates a broad scope and regularly swings from genre to genre. He is responsible for Adele’s Set Fire To The Rain, James Morrison’s Broken Strings, Taio Cruz’s Break Your Heart, Kano’s Feel Free, Ellie Goulding’s Your Biggest Mistake, Plan B’s Kidz / Dead and Buried. My thoughts turn to questions of how he would be positioned within the producer landscape? We know Dr Luke for his methodical power pop; Rick Rubin for his stripped down sound; Butch Vig for his alternative rock bands; Stargate for their acoustic guitar-drum loop formula. What’s the driving characteristic of Fraser’s production work? He tells me that he doesn’t have one. Put simply - he’s not a genre producer; he’s an artist’s producer. “I’ve thought about this a lot” he says, “because people often ask, what’s your style? If you are looking for someone who has a certain type of snare sound, I’m not that person. There are amazing people that you can go to that write a certain kind of song or who will deliver a certain production style, but that isn’t me. I’m the producer who has empathy. As an artist you come to me because you have a vision but you need help to realise it. I’ve got strong opinions, but ultimately I’m the artist’s right hand man. I think it stems back to being the guitarist in the band … Can I share a story with you?” he says, “I had a meeting with Seal’s (now) ex-manager as he came in to listen to some music. He was quite confused by the breadth of it all. He said what am I going to tell Seal? I said – tell him that he should come in and we will jam and talk about what he wants to do. I will have an opinion, no doubt he will too. We will work through it together because we are on the same team and we will get to a place where we will know the right thing for him to do.’ He concludes – “Production is all about perspective.”
Perhaps it’s Fraser’s empathetic quality that allows him to produce results. He has been through the highs and lows and goes to great lengths to connect with the artist, but also understands their commercial realities and that he needs to deliver for them. He has the discipline and the compassion required to facilitate the creative process; You would try anything once with Fraser. “One of the biggest lessons I learned from Craig during our time on tour was the psychology of it all, of being an artist. We might be up working on a song all night after the show, but then all I’ve got to do the next day is eat breakfast and play guitar; for him at 5am the alarm goes off, he’s off to do promo, has to look amazing and has all this pressure.”
I mention that Fraser couldn’t necessarily be described as a patient man. As he tells me his stories, I learn an underlying sense of frustration as he’s built his career; possibly more to do with his own self-imposed pressures – “maybe I’m not so patient with myself, but I’m learning. In the studio it’s more excitement. I want to get stuff done and I’m ambitious and I have a lot of energy. So I think it comes from wanting to do more.” He says. “I think I’m quick to know when we are wasting our time. I’m a bit long in the tooth now to be overly polite. If it’s not working, then it’s not working and that’s fine. We can just go for a beer; we don’t have to fall out over it. But usually I take it on myself -like 99% of the time it works.”
Empathy and determination are such common themes in our discussion. As a producer, songwriter and mixer, one only needs to look at the scope of his work to see that the man has a very good understanding of the importance of a strong vocal and how to support it. Recall Adele’s gut-wrenching 2011 hit Set Fire To The Rain – co-written, produced and mixed by Fraser. Imagine the beautiful combination of D Minor chords, rhythmic drums and her soulful vocals - It’s all about those vocals.
“I have thought about this a lot as well. Nine times out of ten the vocals that you hear are the vocals that are done in the writing session. It’s the same with Set Fire to the Rain. When you come to record vocals at the end of the process its like, OK so now - dim the lights, light the candles, have some throat coat, don’t drink milk and don’t smoke. The reality is that when you’ve written a song, you’ve had 16 cups of coffee, probably 10 cigarettes, dog's barking in the room; she goes into the booth, sort of rustling around paper and all of that kind of thing, but I think the magic is there because we have been writing the song for two solid days and she is in the same emotional place as the lyric. Her boyfriend is finishing the relationship, we are writing this song, and she can’t even spark a cigarette up and that’s where that lyric comes from. She is so in that place where something really emotional just overrides a pure vocal performance. It can become very homogenized - that process. You always sort of try it to see if you can better it, but it’s very rare that it happens.”
I wonder about how that collaboration came to be. After the success of Adele’s debut album 19, the list of collaborators for her follow up would have been meticulously selected – “I think her manager called and said she wanted to come in; she definitely wanted something rhythmic; something that had some real energy from the drums. I think she had heard some of the stuff that I had done with Kano and Plan B. The original remit was that Rick Ruben would be producing the whole thing, so we just really concentrated on the song.”
That song won a Grammy and went on to sell over 4,552,000 digital downloads in the United States alone.
Our talk of Grammys invariably turns to talk of style at The Grammys. “I made a real effort actually! I had been to two award ceremonies previous to that, one in LA and one in London. In LA it said black tie, and I was receiving an award for Break your Heart, and I arrived in a full dinner suit, and everyone was wearing jeans! I felt so embarrassed. I walked into this big ceremony, not really knowing anybody and some guy came up to me and said, ‘oh can you get me two glasses of wine and a gin and tonic’. (Laughs) I’m like – Sure. If I can find it, I’ll get you that.”
Fraser is indeed very English. I wonder what is his drink of choice? “Stella!” he says. “I think I’ve still got the pikey gene - when you’re sort of well-mannered but you’ve still got a bit of lad in you. Sometimes (although not very often now) I like to go out with my mates and just get on the Stella.” Somehow I can’t completely imagine Fraser hanging out down the pub, drinking Stella and chanting Chumbawamba songs. “It comes out after a few pints. I think it comes from being in the company of so many women; that I do physically change when I am in the company of a lad artist. Perhaps getting them in a lead lock…” says Fraser. His eyes sparkle with knowledge. “But I also enjoy a Guinness on a Sunday with a lovely lunch.”
P A R T T W O
A few months have passed and I am making my way back to the Matrix Building for a follow up conversation. Since we last met, The Manifesto spent time with Fraser and Sarah in their home, drinking coffee and shooting the photographs that accompany this feature. I have spent time meeting and conversing with three key people in his life – his wife and manager Sarah T Smith, Janice Brock – who is his publisher and VP of International Acquisitions at Sony ATV and Colin Lester – who is the artist manager for Craig David, a personal friend of Fraser’s and a fast talking, rather witty conversationalist. It was during my time meeting Colin that he explained, “All producers go through phases of being cool and then falling out of fashion. Fraser will continue to succeed in his career as a producer because of his ambition, and because he is a great musician – he is one of the greatest acoustic guitar players in the world. He can produce across all genres, Fraser would give you a brilliant result whether it be a country record or an R&B record … I would love to see him work with Coldplay. I think that deep down Fraser is a rock man”.
On the morning of our third rendezvous, Fraser is already in the full swing of his daily routine. He has been for his morning run, completed his online correspondence studies, and is working on his production in preparation for an artist who is coming in for a session at midday. In between all this he has allocated time to talk and play me some music.
For this visit we sit right up at the main console, and he ensures that my swivel chair is positioned in the right spot so I can get the best listening experience. I learn that in recent times he has been working with Lily Allen, Birdy and Luke Pritchard. After we listen to the first demo, a smile of pure pleasure crosses my face. At that point I’ve become so relaxed that I catch myself unconsciously punching him in the arm - “holy shit that’s cool!” He looks up – “thanks so much. You’re very kind.” What is most impressive from listening to the work is how much he is able to capture the individual essence of the artist he is working with. Today we are listening to a Lily Allen demo, and Janice Brock is indeed on the money when she says that he “infuses an energy into his productions that so many other producers haven’t figured out how to do.”
The vivacity in the production, met with how he supports the vocals is evident as we move from song to song. Clearly the man knows what he is doing, although as we listen to each song there is a genuine attentiveness in how he asks for my feedback. Fraser T Smith wants my feedback? “It’s easy to get lost in the production” he says. “When it’s all said and done, if you want to write a song that’s going to stand the test, the sound of the vocal is the most important thing. When I mixed Set Fire To The Rain, to be honest 75% of my time was spent on the vocal. You can obsess over the high hat or kick drum and it’s all valid to a degree, but the time you spend on making the vocal sound amazing, that’s where you are making your connection; that’s where everybody – a man in a van; the person who doesn’t really care about the song or know the artist – that vocal is really going to make them get it and that’s what I’m most concerned about.”
I alert Fraser to the fact that our time is up, and he now has his scheduled midday session. “It’s no problem at all,” he says. “I was able to get all my production preparation done this morning. It’s been good to chat. I enjoyed our conversation. Be sure to send me those songs you were talking about.”
As I walk out of the Matrix Building, I look up and see a large black motor vehicle driving into the studio. It’s Adele.
The Manifesto wishes to thank Sarah T Smith, Janice Brock and Colin Lester for their assistance in making this profile possible.
All photography is shot on location at the T Smith home.