Fraser T Smith has had his name on a lot of hits. The numbers speak for themselves. He's worked on 18 number one albums, had two US number one singles, eight in the UK.
There's plenty of industry bling on his mantelpiece. Grammy? Check. Ivor Novello? Check. But it is the different styles he operates in that gives you a better idea of his sensibility, and it makes him all the more interesting as songwriter and producer.
Smith produced and co-wrote Adele’s Set Fire To The Rain, has worked with Florence and The Machine, Sam Smith, and Gorillaz, yet brought bass, punch and the whiff of cordite to Stormzy's debut, Gang Signs & Prayer (more industry bling right there, with the 2018 Brit Award for Best Album).
As this 10 Songs... feature proves, this taste for eclecticism doesn't come out of nowhere. It is built up over time, influences siring new inspirations and passions.
If the recorded works of Hendrix all but taught him how to play guitar then you've got Roddy Radiation opening his eyes to British multiculturalism's impact on popular culture, and Public Enemy igniting the potential for radicalism in song and verse.
That sense of radicalism is writ large in Smith's Future Utopia project, which makes its debut with 12 Questions. Heavy on the guests, with the likes of Dave, Idris Elba, Mikky Ekko, Arlo Parks, Bastille and more joining him in the studio, it is an audacious work of urban poetry and avant garde hip-hop.
The power of suggestion can be too seductive for its own good but looking at the 10 songs he has listed here, and the artists behind them, and you can hear their influence – the cool jazz approach to structure, the unsparing moral fire of Public Enemy and the listless angst of Messrs. York, Greenwood, O'Brien et al.
Smith kicks things off with something more elemental, with a guitar player and an artist of nigh-on supernatural gifts...
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1. Jimi Hendrix – Hey Joe (Live at Monterey, 1967)
“I was 14, and used to jam with Tom Rowlands from the Chemical brothers in the school music room in our lunch breaks. He was the coolest kid in the year. He had a drum machine, longish hair, guitar pedals and a great taste in music. He gave me this album and it floored me.
“I’d never heard the guitar played like that, and I spent months learning the solo to Hey Joe after I’d recorded Tom’s vinyl to my cassette recorder. I finally had it to where I could just about play along with the record, and was excited to see that Jimi’s performance at Monterey was being televised.
“I watched it and my jaw hit the floor when it came to Hey Joe. Jimi played the first solo behind his head, and the second with his teeth. Back to the drawing board!”
2. The Specials – Concrete Jungle (The Specials, 1979)
“Growing up about an hour west of London wasn’t particularly diverse in a musical or cultural way, so my record collection was a ticket out of the safe, predictable world I’d been bought up in. The Specials were the first multicultural band I’d ever listened to, and I loved the mix of punk, ska and rockabilly.
“The lyrics took me a while to understand, but had a profound impact when I understood that the band were singing about the threat of racist attacks throughout the country, and, in this case, on the cold, hard streets of Coventry.“
3. Miles Davis – Freddie Freeloader (Kind of Blue, 1959)
“I grew up thinking that jazz was like an exclusive club, reserved for musical prodigies who would look down at anyone daring to play a song with less than five chords in it. Miles Davis changed this.
“Cool jazz felt way easier to digest and I found myself able to explore John Coltrane and Bill Evans’ other work once I’d understood this song and the album. It opened up a love of jazz for me, and showed me that in writing and solo’ing, less is definitely more – and taste is everything.“
4. Kanye West – Crack Music
“Taken from Kanye’s second album, Late Registration – I still marvel at how groovy, menacing, cool and effortless the beat and Kanye and the Game's flows are on this record. Jon Brion’s musicality is all over this record too which affected me deeply – realising that played instruments over Hip Hop beats could be a thing. This track and all of Kanye’s music opens my eyes to endless possibilities in music. Truly inspiring.”
5. Frank Zappa – Zoot Allures (Zoot Allures, 1976)
“How can you not be hugely affected by Frank Zappa’s music? I saw this album live on TV and then dug into the album – Zoot Allures, the track, really stuck. Frank’s imagination, his ability to fuse jazz, rock and comedy together. The fact that it was so tongue in cheek, yet deeply rehearsed, deadly serious.
“There’s an exuberance to Frank’s music that leaves its mark – his dedication to music was unwavering throughout his career, forever pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo. His credits on the album read; Guitar, Bass, Lead Vocals, Synthesizer, Keyboards, and Director Of Recreational Activities.”
6. Carol King – You’ve Got A Friend (Tapestry, 1971)
“Again, music affects you so much as a kid. My mum used to play this song over and over again, and to me the raw soul of Carol’s voice, the simplicity of the lyrics, the chords and strings have stuck with me ever since.
“Tapestry opened me up to Carol’s incredible catalogue of songs, but also James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and a lot of the great Laurel Canyon artists. It taught me so much about songwriting – the pure essence of a hypnotising lyrics, and interesting turn of phrase... How, without a great song, no amount of production or studio wizardry is going to fix the record.”
7. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart (Closer, 1990)
“There’s some music which you can admire from a distance, but the best music draws you in and sometimes drags you down with it. Ian Curtis’ lyrics, vocal tone and the stripped back sound of drums, bass, guitar and the haunting synth line does just that to me. It’s impossible not to feel haunted by the isolation and nihilism of Ian Curtis’ performance.
“To me, the best bands make a single noise and it’s not about slickness or tightness per se, it’s a unified feeling, a oneness. And I always feel this from Joy Division. My wife and I got to see New Order play this live as the sun was setting one afternoon in Hyde Park, as a tribute to their friend and former frontman – they rarely play it, so was a pinch yourself moment for everyone there.”
8. Radiohead – Paranoid Android (OK Computer, 2007)
”I bought Ok Computer on CD, and went back to my parent’s house to listen. I listened to the album first on my Dad’s Bang and Olufsen oversized headphones, reading to every lyric. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the first listen, or understood what the hell was going on. All I knew was that I wanted to hear it again and again.
”It’s since become my favourite album ever. The songs, the mood, the production, the engineering, the emotions, melodies, chords, instrumentation, freedom, angst – I could go on.
”From the intro of arpeggiated acoustic guitar with that weird processed percussion to Thom’s intro line of, 'Please could you stop the noise? I'm trying to get some rest, from all the unborn chicken voices in my head,' I never grow tired of listening to this.
”It’s an epic piece, with different movements – the cosmic Jonny Greenwood guitar solos, the outro section that feels more like Fauré than a rock band from Oxford. It’s almost too much to take in, yet never feels excessive, like all truly great art.”
9. David Bowie – Life On Mars? (Hunky Dory, 1972)
“My mum used to play Hunky Dory a lot late at night. I’d try to work out the lyrics as a young kid as I lay in bed. I still can’t work a lot of them out, but I’ve never stopped loving Bowie’s music. The chords seem to be impregnated within me.
“I played guitar with Rick Wakeman in the late 1990’s and shortly before a theatre tour he asked me if I’d sing Life On Mars and Space Oddity with him and his son Adam during the tour.
“I’d never sang at these kinds of venues – I was a pub singing graduate – and to sing and play guitar with the man responsible for playing all the keys, mellotrons and organs on Hunky Dory was overwhelming. But I did it, and looked forward to it every night. When I listen back to the recordings, to me I sound like a very drunk Elvis Costello, but I think people liked it.”
Public Enemy – Fight The Power (
“My friend suggested we go and see Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing at the cinema. I came out a changed kid. I’d never hear Public Enemy before and through ‘Fight The Power’ was introduced to the power of music through the raw power of rap and hip hop music.
“It was a game-changing moment, and to have worked closely with some of the best UK rappers, such as Kano, Dave and Stormzy, who’ve used their words to question, to change, to stir debate, has been a humbling experience, and reminds me of the spirit of It Takes A Nation Of Billions To Hold Us Back.”
- Future Utopia's debut album, 12 Questions, is out now.