“What if you doubt the universe’s moral arc?” opens producer-and-songwriter-extraordinaire Fraser T Smith’s debut solo work, 12 Questions, recorded under his moniker of Future Utopia. Smith poses 12 questions — 12 thoughts surrounding how we are living this life — cushioned by spoken word snippets, musical interludes, samples and even a touch of classic rock remixed. Assembling some of the talent he’s worked with over the years as a collaborator, from Stormzy to Dave, Bastille to Arlo Parks — Smith’s album captures the fears but also the faith at the center of his queries.
“I’d reached the end of an amazing artistic chapter of my life, working for 5 years on records by Stormzy, Dave and Kano, and took some time out to decide what to do next,” Smith tells American Songwriter. The Buckinghamshire-based Smith wanted to work on something that would challenge him, that wouldn’t repeat anything he’d done before.
As a sought-after Grammy and Ivor Novello-winning producer and songwriter, Smith has a career full of accolades for helping create Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” and James Morrison’s “Broken Strings,” among others. His work with British rappers Stormzy, on his debut album Gang Signs & Prayer, Dave on Psychodrama, andKano, throughout his career, has helped shape the UK grime scene. For his own project, Smith took a very different approach.
“I started watching and reading more and more world news and became anxious at the rise of division, inequality, the wealth gap, the state of the environment etc,” he says. “So I started writing down these deep philosophical questions, not knowing whether the project was going to be a film, a documentary or album. I’d never really planned to put out a record, it just happened that way.”
Smith tapped not only his musician friends to tackle the questions, but also former Black Panther member Albert Woodfox, who spent 40 years in solitary confinement, and responds to “What’s the Cost of Freedom?” It’s one of the most affecting moments on an album full of them.
Smith began thinking of the questions two years ago. “Once I had the 12 Questions, I started coming up with music. Full tracks, interludes, instrumentals, samples,” he says. “When I’d come up with my dream list of collaborators, I’d invite them to the studio and we talked about the question I’d picked for them and then I’d play them the tracks. I’d spent a lot of time working out who’d be perfect for each piece.” Along with Stormzy, Dave and Kano, he features an array of voices on the album — from actor and DJ Idris Elba, who speaks on the track “Fear or Faith? Pt 2, to UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, and American spoken word artist, Alysia Nicole Harris, who opens and closes 12 Questions.
Most of the album was made before the global pandemic hit, and before Smith helped bring together 24 musicians for BBC Radio 1’s biggest ever virtual Live Lounge, creating the charity cover of Foo Fighters’ “Times Like This.” The track went to the top of the charts soon after. “I think “Times Like These” helped from the point of view of being able to make a voice note recording work on a record,” he says. “I’d made 85% of 12 Questions pre-Covid, so had to work out how to finish the process whilst in lockdown. We sent a hard disc recorder and sterilized microphone to Tom Grennan to record “Do We Really Care?” And Kano sent me a voice note of his verse to “Freedom.” The strings were also recorded remotely partly in London, partly in Wales. I think we made it work, but I’m glad that we had the body of the songwriting down whilst we could interact more freely.”
The two tracks he recorded with Arlo Parks were done in studio, bringing out a more tender side of the album. On one track with its AI-powered intro, he asked her, “What Matters Most?” and Parks answered in a short poem.
With the pandemic now heavy in the air and other urgent social issues at hand, Smith’s project, like others released this year, reverberates a little differently from when he first conceived of it. “I think the lyrics resonate way more strongly now as a result of that introspection,” he says. “So much has happened, from Covid, to George Floyd to the current crisis in Nigeria. People are seeing that music can be a vehicle to positively affect change which I think is a real step forward. I’m hoping the 12 Questions will also prompt people to discuss current issues and challenge any outdated beliefs or narratives.”