From the serotonin sugar-pop of Romy’s ‘Lifetime’ to Headie One’s club reincarnation on the ‘GANG’ mixtape, via the powerful solemnity of FKA twigs’ ‘Don’t Judge Me’, multi-instrumentalist and producer Fred again.. has undoubtedly been responsible for some of the UK’s most impactful new music since the world went into lockdown last year.
At 27, Fred Gibson is no stranger to mind-boggling success. In 2019, the UK charts were quite literally a case of Fred again.. and again, and again after his collaborations with Stormzy and Ed Sheeran remained at the number one spot for 15 weeks running – he had a writing or production credit of a staggering 30% of the Number One singles that year. Not long after, the south Londoner became the youngest-ever recipient of the BRITs’ Producer of the Year award, honouring his forays into genres as diverse as K-pop and drill.
The xx’s Romy is full of praise: “Meeting and working with Fred feels like walking off a plane from grey London out of the airport and into the sunshine, being around him is a joy, he really radiates a lightness, ease and and passion for making music that is infectious.”
Fred Again.. is now stepping out of the producer’s chair and into the solo artist sphere with his debut album ‘Actual Life’, an electro-pop project that sounds like social media set to a club soundtrack. As is to be expected from the UK’s most in-demand songwriter, though, its release is being squeezed into a non-stop schedule. “I’m excited to share it with the world, but since finishing the album a month or two ago I’ve already been busy making new material,” he tells NME over Zoom from his home studio in London, fresh from a 5.30am writing session and a week away with his mentor, the hallowed producer Brian Eno.
“I was 16 when I first met Brian at a local a cappella singing group that he organises in London,” Fred explains. “He took me under his wing after seeing my production work on Logic, and from there I got to work on the Eno and [Karl] Hyde collaborations in 2014. He’s always in touch and giving me advice, but it’s been a while since we’ve collaborated together on a project. We thought it was time to start something new: an album inspired by ambient [sounds], but pushing the boundaries. Making it has been a very therapeutic experience, just cycling from a little cottage in Norfolk every day to making these slow, meditative, healing pieces in his studio.”
Fred says that Eno helped spark ‘Actual Life’ into life three years ago. “I’d been busy working with other people, and one day he just texted me saying: ‘Enough, Fred! Time to get back to your own stuff!’ I feel infinitely blessed to have him in my life: the older I get, the more I appreciate his rarity.”
Much like his mentor, Fred Again.. takes a visionary, futuristic approach to his solo music. ‘Actual Life’ is a sample-heavy kaleidoscope of part-euphoric, part-melantronic compositions, formed from a smorgasbord of random video reels and personal voice memos.
“It all started from a chance encounter with a construction worker called Carlos in Atlanta,” explains Fred. “He just had this infectiously fun but sincere energy – I keep saying I need to find him again and buy him a chain or something! He was the first person I sampled into a song on my phone, and I’ve just been honing it since. Most of the samples are from people I know, and when it’s not I’ve always asked permission on social media. I was very concerned about that initially, because obviously you want to honour them properly. But so far they’ve all been blessed, which is encouraging”.
On the uplifting ‘Dermot (See Yourself In My Eyes)’ the Irish musician Dermot Kennedy’s voice melts into an Instagram clip of Young Thug dispensing some sage advice (“fall in love with someone that enjoys your weirdness”). Tracks like ‘Sabrina (I Am A Party)’, on the other hand, take a darker turn as a monologue about depression (“it’s just not that much fun having fun when you don’t want to have fun”) is weaved into a claustrophobic rave soundscape.
Influenced by the emotional purity of Burial and Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon, the 16 tracks on ‘Actual Life’ are a technicolour collision between endless online scrolling and the sounds and sensations of everyday existence. For Fred again.. it’s a long-term approach to songwriting that will transcend this album. “The plan is to do two albums a year of this because I want it to feel like a rotating diary that just keeps existing. I want to carry on sampling the world. Before, in a session, you would write a song based upon someone’s account of a night out, for example. But now because everything’s filmed, you can literally make something from that night out. I find that really, really exciting”.
Breaking free from the confines of the studio, Fred’s creative process for ‘Actual Life’ also took direct inspiration from his home city. “I very much like working in places where there are people. On every tune I do, even if it’s quietly, I play in the background of the place where I made it. Before the pandemic, I’d be on Logic in art galleries and train stations because there’s just such a conveyor belt of humans there. But the equivalent of that for now is the South Bank and the tube! I have definitely sampled the tube loads. That horrific ugly sound when it brakes – if you put that through auto-tune, it becomes quite beautiful.”
Amid the everyday noise of ‘Actual Life’, mid-way track ‘Me (Heavy)’ quietly and sombrely details the deteriorating illness of a close friend in a hospital ICU. “I want to run in there and steal you out / Unplug the wires and kiss your mouth,” Fred intones over brooding synths, laying himself bare as a vocalist. “I think I’m still working out how I feel about singing,” he tells NME. “Often I’m hesitant, and it’s been a case of people like lovely Romy from The xx or my brother encouraging me to sing on record. But with a track like ‘Me (Heavy)’, it would be weird if I wasn’t doing the vocals because it’s such a personal song.”
Fred again.. is just as modest when reflecting on his already illustrious career. The producer extraordinaire’s proudest achievement to date was recording a conversation between Jay-Z and Stormzy while working on Sheeran’s ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’ in Johannesburg. Quelling the grime MC’s doubts ahead of his 2019 Glastonbury headline set, the New York rap titan can be heard saying “culture moves the world… when you step on that stage you’re going to see it, because the world is ready for it”. The recording was then used to open Stormzy’s historic Pyramid Stage set – which Fred witnessed in-person in the crowd at Worthy Farm.
“I had sent Stormz the clip but hadn’t heard anything, so it was a surprise when suddenly my face popped up on the big screen – I thought they would at least crop me out!” Fred recalls with a laugh. “What I care most about is how music exists in culture. It made me so happy to be involved in a totally menial and engineering capacity in the passing of the baton from Jay-Z to Stormzy. I genuinely mean that my favourite contribution that I’ve made to music was turning on my iPhone camera that day.”
True to ‘Actual Life’, you never know what may happen when you press record.
Fred again..’s ‘Actual Life’ is out April 16