How Fred again.. hit the big time by turning his life into a symphony - Features - Mixmag

How Fred again.. hit the big time by turning his life into a symphony

After years spent as a crucial behind the scenes producer, Fred again.. has stepped into the limelight. He talks to Gemma Ross about sampling his life, being mentored by Brian Eno and taking his Granny to the BRITs

  • Words: Gemma Ross | Photos: Theo Batterham | Creative Direction: LOOSE | Art Direction: Vassilis Skandalis
  • 15 November 2021

“You know what I’m quite into at the moment?” Fred asks from across the room, leaning over his laptop in search of some background listening. “When I can’t find the right ambient tune, I like to quickly make something. Just whip something up,” he says nonchalantly. I’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting introduction to the producer’s home, which sits on the periphery of London’s South Bank, just along the same river where Fred again.., real name Fred Gibson, has made the bulk of his discography. It’s a bitter Monday night in London — the kind of evening that calls for a Guinness in hand and the slight semblance of atmospheric lighting. Fred, illuminated by his laptop screen and the distant view of London’s rainy skyline, adds: “What’s beautiful about it is that you can take three minutes to make a piece of music that lasts 40.”

The DIY nature of his Fred again.. project was born out of the laptop he sits in front of — the foremost piece of equipment he uses to make heady beats and chart-topping tracks. It’s this, his iPhone and iPad that have combined to create ‘Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)’, ‘Kyle (I Found You)’, and plenty more tracks now racking up millions of streams. “This is my entire setup,” the producer explains, with a certain gravitas, when I mooch about his studio space, which also features a few run of the mill speakers and a Korg MIDI keyboard connected to his laptop by USB. It’s a refreshingly simple approach that highlights the on-the-go attitude of this producer, who’s been a stable undercurrent throughout electronic music for the past five years.

After creating that promised ambient track, all within the space of two minutes, he makes himself comfortable at home where the conversation turns to his mentor and maestro of ambient music, Brian Eno. “As I get older, I realize just how rare his mind is,” Fred says. “You realize that he’s operating on a currency far more powerful than music theory.” At 16, Fred magically landed Brian as a mentor after an already decade-long stretch dabbling in classical music. It was here that the future producer - who would come to have a hand in creating 30% of the UK’s number one singles in 2019 - really came into his own. Although, laughing, Fred explains that at that age, he created an electronic symphony under the guidance of Brian Eno with so-called “delusions of grandeur”. He jokes, “I found out that to call something a symphony, you just have to make a piece with lots of different sounds. So I was like, ‘what?! So, I can just get my own symphony? Sick!’ I thought you had to have a PHD or something.”

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Fred references Brian’s early efforts as a key influence as well as boasting him as a mentor, paying homage to the years of musical legacy left before him. Now Fred has become omnipresent in the world of music since making his start in production and helping to create some of the most played tracks of the past near-decade - George Ezra’s ‘Shotgun’, Charli XCX’s ‘After The Afterparty’, and an entire Ed Sheeran LP from front-to-back. “I was making music in the framework of other people’s artistry,” Fred says, adding, “but I just felt like I had this thing that I needed to make. It was a leap.”

After becoming a crucial producer behind the scenes of many hits in the UK, the Balham-born artist felt compelled to showcase more of his own ideas and step into the limelight. In November 2019 he released his debut solo track ‘Kyle (I Found You)’, the first taste of his soon-to-be-hit EP ‘Actual Life’ which landed the following May and catapulted him towards becoming a household name. A year on in the spring of 2021 his debut album ‘Actual Life (April 14 – December 17, 2020)’ dropped to the delight of the enormous fan base he now commands, bringing across two cuts from the EP and adding 14 new tracks and interludes. Made during the lockdown of 2020, between April 14 and December 17 as its title indicates, the phenomenal debut full-length catalogues almost an entire year of his life.

The ‘Actual Life’ series is set to be extended again on November 19 when his second album ‘Actual Life 2 (February 2 - October 15 2021)’ drops. The musical anthology has become Fred’s answer to a diary, creating sonic timestamps of a space and a time in his life, like quick photographs or brief snippets into his world. “This is like the makeup of my camera roll made into songs,” he says. “There’s something so exciting to me about how you can make music from the world around you now, where that wasn’t possible before. You had to go into a recording studio previously - now, if you went on a night out that was really cathartic, you could just sample it.”

All of his tracks are built around a sound, a vocal, a poem, or something in the same vein taken by the producer either from “scrolling too long on social media” and stumbling across the perfect sample, or simply mid-conversation using his phone. “Everyone hates the sound of their own voice on those pristine podcast microphones, there’s no room for the world. But when you record something with your iPhone and stop speaking for a second, it amplifies the room around you. Everything,” he says. “It has these very crass compression algorithms that I love, so I record everything from drums, vocals, piano, all on my phone.”

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The raw anatomy of Fred’s song-making is something to behold, giving his music a distinct identity. There are snippets of actual life: drones and background noise from pubs, cafés, bars, and the hustle and bustle of day-to-day London sitting below drunken voice notes, gritty spoken-word moments, and soulful vocal samples. When asked how he knows when he’s hit the perfect sample, he says he only uses things “that fundamentally jump out as something pure or honest. I love how little I feel like I’m able to control or predict what works”. By reworking and reworking tracks, sometimes taking months to tune one single sample and its surrounding sound to the cadence that he sees fit, Fred paints these samples a different colour, making those voices rhythmic, melodic.

“I’ll spend months working on one sample just trying to find its emotional home. Sometimes I’d take the most extreme one that felt the most jarring, for example, ‘Sabrina (I Am A Party)’, which uses an unbelievably powerful poem, and I’d have to ask myself: ‘Is this okay to take such a real part of her and just pitch it around?’. I felt like I was patronising her emotion, but I’ve since learned that it’s just this phase of self-hate,” he explains, referring to his 2021-released track which sampled Sabrina Benaim’s poem ‘Explaining My Depression To My Mother’. Using Logic to manipulate these samples and find the corresponding BPM from atmosphere and emotion to beat and rhythm, such tracks can become steady house tunes, or better still, dancefloor anthems.

One recurring character throughout Fred’s current discography is Carlos, commonly heard by the lyrics of “we gon’ make it through” in different iterations through tracks and interludes. “He’s the only sample who I haven’t been able to find since. I’m going to America next year, so my plan is to find Carlos,” he says adamantly. “I owe this man an enormous amount. I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to keep Carlos present, like the last one there was a melody made out of his breath,” Fred laughs. “He was a construction worker who I met, and his whole vibe was just so infectiously wonderful. I woke up hungover the next day in an Atlanta hotel with that kind of low serotonin hangover, and I found the video and dragged it into Logic. I started playing chords along with him and became immediately obsessed with glorifying these seemingly mundane moments.”

It wouldn’t be a far cry to assume that Fred finds solace in the rush of London life. His unconventional production style, which sees the musician create tracks on trains, buses, and planes, has emerged from a new portable era, while everything compresses into compact formats. Always on the move, Fred’s home is situated right in the centre of the city, or “non-claimed London” as he calls it. “I love living in a part of London that has no identity baggage. There’s an excitement that’s very infectious,” he says. Using the city as a playground for his work and a backing track to his music, London is due to lay the foundation of his next album, which arrives this week, and the following part of his ‘Actual Life’ anthology too.

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“That first record was about my friend who became ill, which came to its natural end. Whereas, this next one documents those stages of grief. I was completely sure that it couldn’t end on ‘Billie (Loving Arms)’, because it would be so insincere. The theme, seeing it now more so than when I was writing it, is mostly about allowing people to help you and the power in that,” he says. “I’ve made thousands of songs that I’ll never release, I’m happy as long as I make an honest thing and feel like I’m getting better at it. Tracks usually reveal a journey by themselves, the parts of the puzzle piece themselves together as they go,” Fred digresses.

While the pan was already hot after his debut release in 2019, Fred wasn’t ready to let it rest just yet. In the same year, he upped the heat some more with production on another score of albums and tracks for UK artists, such as Mist, Mabel, AJ Tracey and Kurupt FM, bagging him recognition at The BRIT Awards where he won Producer Of The Year in 2020. “I don’t wanna be disrespectful to the thing, but I so don’t care!” Fred says after explaining that he gave the award to his brother. “I care a lot about making the good stuff, but it’s also been proven to us time and time again, decade after decade, that these awards are not the metric of that. It was a fun night out,” he adds, “I took my granny and got pissed with my friends.”

His humble rationale runs further than just his attitude toward musical hierarchies - it even made an on-stage appearance at All Points East, Fred’s first live show post-lockdown, and, in fact, first live show ever. The ascent from gigging with a few mates in a worn-out club to a 10,000 person live show had no natural progression due to the pandemic, leaving Fred baffled when he found himself on stage in front of the packed-out festival tent. “What the fuck!” he stammered over the microphone at the sold-out August bank holiday event. “I don’t know what’s happening right now!” he would add intermittently between tracks. Suddenly, the producer had gone from a world where he underpinned so much essential music behind closed doors to suddenly having one of the most recognisable faces in contemporary club culture. His steep ascent to success from the release of the solemn-sounding ‘Kyle (I Found You)’ has been matched by continued artistic evolution, with the recently released ‘Hannah (The Sun)’ seeing Fred explore jaunty club track territory.

“It’s a new thing for me, it’s definitely very present tense. It’s quite meditative because you’re in the now, and that’s something I find therapeutic,” he says on playing live shows. “All Points East was so fun but also quite chaotic. Right as we got into playing ‘Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing)’, we started this build-up where we extended a bit of her speech and played around with pads. I hold this chord just where she’s about to say ‘we’ve lost dancing’, and my laptop failed. The only thing I could do was shut my laptop,” he laughs. “But, musically, we kind of got away with it because it built up the tension. I just force quit in front of however many thousands of people!”

Sporting a coral crewneck and matching joggers, Fred lights a cigarette in his living room and comes to some conclusive thoughts: “It doesn’t matter what happens in life, I just want to make the musical aspect as pure as it can possibly be,” he says. “I’m happy as long as I’m making something honest”. Moving with the ebbs and flows of day-to-day life, Fred is nothing but genuine; his down to earth persona resonates throughout his music and the life and friends that wrap around him, all documented through sonic snippets and quick Instagram stories. Fred continues to break the mould, whether that’s through collaboration, off-kilter production methods, or simply toying with the city that he’s so firmly rooted himself into.

So, what’s next for Fred again..? With a new album incoming, its imminent release is sure to attract a new set of supporters, but for Fred, it’s just another chapter in his diary. As the final moments of the minutes-made ambient tune and soundtrack to our conversation ring out in his living room, a resounding reflection pops up. “I think I’ve committed to a certain mental path that, even if I look back in five years and think that I’d have done something differently, I’m at peace with the fact that it was honest to that time. Everything I’ve made is true by the very nature of what happened”. Piecing together his life one sonic stamp at a time, Fred’s musical weight can be felt across dance music, and staying true to the spirit of his moniker, we’re eager to listen to Fred again.. and again.

Fred again..'s album 'Actual Life 2 (February 2 - October 15 2021)' is out November 19, pre-save it here

Gemma Ross is Mixmag’s Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

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