Interview with FRASER T SMITH, producer/songwriter for Tinchy Snyder, Adele, Taio Cruz, Cheryl Cole - Mar 22, 2010
“The only thing you should be doing as a writer and producer is making sure the artists have records they feel in their heart really represent them.”
It may sometimes seem fleeting and faddish on the surface, but pop music is underpinned by talents with experience that runs deep and wide. When promising young rapper Tinchy Stryder (UK No.1) embarked on a hugely successful partnership with producer-songwriter Fraser T Smith he was tapping into a rich reservoir of musicianship and industry experience. From prog-emperor Rick Wakeman’s guitarist to R&B pop star Craig David’s right hand man, pub cover bands to theatre productions, Smith is a testament to the fundamental truth that the industry’s key players are grafters not chancers.
His inspired efforts in transforming Stryder from a rapper in a uncommercial genre into a British pop superstar has pushed Smith’s career into new realms, with recent projects now including Cheryl Cole (UK No.1), Taio Cruz (USA & UK No.1) and Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo (USA & UK No.1).
Smith talks to HitQuarters about balancing artist integrity with hit parade aspirations, the genre-led restrictions of US radio and creating a U2/Coldplay/Killers supergroup.
After first picking up the guitar at the age of 5, what from that point was key in finding your own musical vocabulary and developing your musical chops?
I think playing with as many different artists and musicians as I could, and finding myself in so many varied musical situations.
I started out as a session guitarist, literally having to do anything I could to earn money, which meant playing in shows like La Cage aux Folles, playing in cover bands, hotels, pubs, clubs … I also got the opportunity to go on tour and record with artists such as Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, and Rick Wakeman - I’ve played on about fifteen of his albums.
The variation was also important - one day I was playing guitar on a Lemar track and the next minute working on a progressive rock record.
With such a varied experience there must have been numerous career paths to pursue so why did you finally decide to devote your time to the studio?
I wanted more control. When I was in bands, I always enjoyed co-writing the songs and getting other people to play the stuff I’d written [laughs]. So, I think moving into production and songwriting was a logical progression from playing the guitar.
What does your name stand for now do you think?
It’s funny, because at the moment it feels like my career is split between the pop/urban stuff and more traditional songwriting, which hopefully makes it difficult to pigeon hole me. I'd like my name to stand for variation, but also quality and innovation across all genres.
Currently I’m working on the Clare McGuire album, which is writing and production. I call it ‘epic soul’ because it’s got some big beats, epic orchestration and Clare’s voice on the top of it, which is just jaw dropping.
I’m also writing songs with Tim Rice-Oxley from Keane, Cee-Lo [Green] and Adele. Obviously with all of the above, the focus is firmly on the songs, whilst hopefully bringing some exciting production to the table.
Your most successful work recently has been with Tinchy Stryder, who emerged from the London grime scene. Were you matched with him to help bring his talent into a more pop and chart friendly realm?
Yeah, definitely. Tinchy had no shortage of beats and cool sounding production, but I think he wanted to try and break through into the mainstream, and I had some experience crossing urban over into pop having worked with artists like Kano and Craig David.
I felt that with my experience of beat driven music, coupled with a traditional songwriting background, together we could write songs that had killer hooks and exciting tracks.
How did you first come to work with Tinchy?
He MySpaced me initially. I then met him when he was supporting Kano on tour. At the beginning, he was literally paying me with money that he’d earned from gigs and selling T-shirts out of the back of his manager’s car.
How did you decide on the sound you achieved on Stryder’s record – it seems to be characterised by auto-tune effects, big trancey synths and synthethic strings?
It was quite interesting because we didn’t really have a masterplan.
We started off with a track called ‘Stryderman’, which bought Tinchy some attention from Radio 1. Tinchy then signed to Island Records, we worked closely with Tinchy’s management, Jack [Foster] and Archie [Lamb] and Ben Scarr over at Island Records.
We just tried to push it track by track more and more into the mainstream. After ‘Stryderman’ we wrote a song called ‘Take Me Back’ with Taio Cruz on the hook, which I think got to #3 in the charts, and then we thought, “You know what, we’ve got a chance now to push this even further.”
We then wrote a song called ‘Number 1’ with Dappy from N’Dubz and that went to #1. The next track was ‘Never Leave You’, featuring Amelle [Berrabah] from the Sugababes. That also went to #1.
We were constantly returning to the drawing board, having to write the next one, thinking, “How do we do something bigger, different and more exciting?”
Stryder was open to the new more commercial sounds you were introducing in achieving this push into the mainstream?
Yeah, definitely. He’s very much into pop music, but also wanted to maintain his integrity and roots by keeping the verses relevant, and he really worked hard on those.
Looking back on those tracks, he’s still very true to himself in the verses. They still represent him as an artist. I don’t think he was selling out. The hooks were big and represented what we were trying to go for.
Ultimately the only thing you should be doing as a writer and producer is making sure the artists you're working with have records that they feel in their heart really represent them.
As you say, Stryder is still keeping true to himself in verses he writes, but did you feel any responsibility in keeping some of his grime roots within the actual production?
I think to a degree. I’ve had experience of making more underground sounding records and realised what did or didn’t work on radio. I wasn't really thinking too much in terms of genre though, I just wanted to create high energy tracks that could work both in the club and on radio.
Is it a challenge pleasing his old fans while at the same time trying to seek out a new and wider audience?
Yeah, I think so. I went to see Tinchy play before Christmas last year and it was fantastic to see so many different people loving the show, because you never quite know what the demographic is going to be .
I thought it could be full of 13-year-old girls, but his fanbase was right across the board. There were hardcore fans that have been with him from day one, yet also a new pop crowd, ranging in age from 14 to 30.
In his genre Stryder is uncharacteristic in that his lyrical subjects are more focused on relationships than urban street life. Were you involved in helping write the lyrics or influencing their direction?
Definitely. I’m not just a track guy. That’s principally what I do, but I love to get involved in concepts and lyrics too. We all, and Tinchy as well, had a hand in driving the concepts and certain lyrics.
As an example can you guide us through the inspiration and creation of ‘Never Leave You’?
On the surface of ‘Never Leave You’ it’s about Tinchy talking to a girl, how he’s going to be with her forever, but beneath the surface it's more directed to his original fans, his East London roots and to grime music. It's a song about success and staying true to yourself.
We'd done 3 up-tempo tracks in a row when it came to writing 'Never Leave You', so I also wanted to try a different tempo.
The album features numerous guest appearances. Who decides on this and at what point during the song’s development?
On ‘Take Me Back’ we were looking for a feature. Taio came along, wrote the hook and just sang it so brilliantly that we thought there could be no one else that could do it justice.
On ‘Never Leave You’ Taio wrote a hook and he sang it and it sounded great, but we felt it should be a girl singing. We knew the kind of sound we were looking for and then Amelle came along and did great job.
So, to answer your question, it’s usually at the end. We haven’t written anything yet where we’ve been, “Let’s write this song for so and so and then pitch it out to them.” I think that it means that the song could be stronger.
How did Dappy (N’Dubz) get involved with ‘Number 1’?
It wasn’t necessarily going to be Dappy on the hook. I’d worked with him on a track called ‘Strong Again’, which is an N’Dubz track from their first album (‘Uncle B tour’), and I wanted to work with him more because he’s an amazing talent. So 'Number 1' came about from a co-writing session. Dappy put the hook down and it sounded so good that we thought it had to stay.
Would you say you prefer co-writing to writing solo?
Ideally I like writing with artists. I have written songs all alone, but I wouldn’t say they’re great. I much prefer writing with an artist or an artist and top-line writer.
On the subject of collaborations, was ‘Broken Strings’ written specifically as a duet for James Morrison and Nelly Furtado?
No. That came about when James [Morrison], myself and Nina Woodford were writing the song, and Nina put a harmony in as a backing vocal idea. The more we listened to it, the more we thought, “Hey, this could be an interesting duet.”
I think Nina’s voice is fairly similar to Nelly’s. I guess that’s what the label had in their minds when they contacted her.
Was the song intended as a way to break Morrison across the Atlantic?
I don’t think so. We were just trying to write the biggest song that we could.
Do you think you will be working with any more US artists?
I’m doing some trips out to the US. I don’t feel that I’ll fully relocate, but I love going out there.
I’m writing with artists like Britney [Spears] and some amazing top-line writers like Heather Bright, Shelly Peiken, Kasia Livingston, Stacy Barthe …
Working in the US is really opening my eyes to some amazing writers and artists, but here in the UK I’m really spoilt for choice – as well as working with Clare McGuire, Cee-Lo, Adele, and writing with Tim Rice-Oxley for Kylie, I’ve also been working with Liam Bailey, Ed Drewett, Ellie Goulding … The talent pool here in the UK is incredible.
Have you noticed any difference in writing for the US market?
It's different in America because of the way that radio works. In terms of the track, you have to really be focused on the brief, whereas in England you can write a track that might incorporate some guitars, it might have a hip-hop beat, an opera singer on it, you never know. In America too much variety within one track wouldn’t necessarily work. Although I think things are starting to change.
What is working in America at the moment would you say?
In my opinion, it’s left of centre urban dance music.
Although Taio Cruz’s #1 ‘Break Your Heart’ has quite a masculine swagger in its lyrical subject, it was supposedly originally written for Cheryl Cole, is that right?
I think that that’s maybe been slightly misconstrued. Taio and I spent a week together and wrote seven or eight songs, and some of those circulated around the labels.
I sent 'Break Your Heart' over to Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] (HQ interview) but he felt it was a little too close to 'Heartbreaker', (the song Cheryl had written with Will.I.Am) for this album. So, taking a step back from the track, Taio decided to use it for himself. Good move.
So when you wrote ‘Break Your Heart’ or ‘Stand Up’ – a song Cole did record – you weren’t thinking about what lyrical content and music styles would suit her and accepted by her?
We just wanted to write exciting up-tempo tracks, with big chords and hooks.
I think we wrote ‘Break Your Heart’ in the morning and ‘Stand Up’ in the afternoon. We sent them both over to Ferdy and he initially loved ’Stand Up’. We didn’t really over think it in terms of what Cheryl would or wouldn't say.
When you recorded ‘Stand Up’ was the track ready waiting for Cole’s vocal or did she work on the song with you in the studio, contributing ideas etc.?
We’d pretty much written it by the time she got in and she was happy with that. We did put some ad-libs over the rap though, which worked really well.
Would you say you find it easier working with Tinchy Stryder where there’s not the same level of expectation and where there’s perhaps more room to try new things?
I think that every project presents its own challenges. With Tinchy, the challenge now is to raise the bar in terms of songwriting and the overall sonics. You've got to keep it fresh and exciting. And because of his success there is now a high level of expectation.
Can you tell us what inspired the bold brassy production of Pixie Lott’s ‘Boys and Girls’?
When I received the parts, I thought the production was great but felt very retro. I wanted to make it a little more current and more urgent - I wanted to make the drums hit a little bit harder, and I wanted to make Pixie's voice sound a little bit fuller.
How did you come to work on this song and were you given a brief before you started on the direction and sound of the song?
I was working with Joe Kentish from Mercury. He was in two minds about track, in that he really loved it but felt that it needed more drive and urgency and needed to work on the dance floor and on radio as well.
How were you approached to collaborate on the War Child charity release ‘I Got Soul’?
There is a manager called Chris O’Donnell, who put together a Brits aftershow last year that culminated in members of U2, Coldplay and The Killers singing ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ by the Killers. At the end where everyone’s singing, “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” he thought that would be an amazing hook to incorporate within a charity record. He was working with War Child and was looking at who was producing tracks at the time and got in contact.
I had an amazing day at Metropolis [Studios] where every artist we’d invited came down. The raps weren’t written, so everyone worked amazingly well together. Everyone sang brilliantly. I left Metropolis with 160 tracks of vocals to go through though. My engineer got a bonus at the end of that [laughs].
Do you have any advice for upcoming producers hoping to follow in your footsteps and make the jump onto a professional level?
I would say it’s quite easy to come up with beats nowadays - you can get an Apple loop, and you can put a couple of things together and all of a sudden you’ve got a track - but I think the key to longevity within the industry is knowing how to write a good song or how to spot a good song, how to come up with a melody, how to guide a top-line writer, how to come up with concepts … So, my advice would be to develop that side more than anything else.
And just learn about music, learn about classical music, jazz, rock, reggae, all kind of influences because that will always help you, and it means that you can always bring something fresh to the table.
Are they banging on your door for advice?
I do get a lot of people contacting me, and I always say pretty similar things. People send me beats and say, “What you think of this?” And I say, “Well, I can’t really judge it because it is what it is.” I’ve heard what people have considered to be ‘hit beats’, but without a hit concept and a hit melody and a hit lyric, it feels like a strange thing to ask. I’ll take a hit melody, lyric and concept any day over a hit beat.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: #1 Billboard producer Eddie Galan on making a name for yourself from behind the mixing desk
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