Have you ever heard the name Albert Woodfox before? Albert Woodfox was the longest-serving isolated prisoner in US history. At age 26, Albert entered a 6×9 feet cell, which he would not leave for 23 hours a day, for 43 years. Despite his conviction being overturned three times, it was met with consistent appeals by Louisiana state officials, keeping Albert in solitary confinement at the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as, ‘Angola’, named after the former plantation occupying the land.
The prison itself has also been nicknamed ‘The Bloodiest Prison in America’. Why? It’s haunting past on the grounds of which it’s built and it’s symptomatic present, evidenced by the case of Albert and so many others. An agonizing truth for millions suffering under a regime of oppression, capitalization and supposedly, democracy. A democracy which is under threat, debilitating itself from the inside, yet we keep on going. The conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people allows us to. The most extraordinary thing about Albert’s story? Despite his physical limitations, shackles and chains, he was free. In his own words, he had achieved ‘mental, emotional and philosophical freedom.’ The ability to control his environment and move his values and beliefs from within himself to outside himself, all from within his 6×9 foot cell. Should we take anything from his story, it should be that there is hope.
“Well, the questions came first…” Fraser T Smith recounts on his attempt to reach Albert Woodfox. “I had come to the end of these three amazing records (Made In The Manor, Gang Signs And Prayer, Psychodrama) and great experiences and everything else. I really wasn’t sure what the next move was.” He recalls absorbing all of the year’s happenings and more as the catalyst for the founding of the 12 fundamental, philosophical questions, serving as the foundations of the new project. “Something told me that these questions would be great if they were answered by some amazing people, I could have fun making the music that, for me, was so personal that maybe I hadn’t put onto records before. So that really appealed. I came up with the concept that we’re going to do the record [12 Questions] and one of the questions was, What’s The Cost of Freedom?”
“We tried so many different ways to get in contact with him.” He continued, after recalling coming across Albert’s story in a newspaper.. “I felt weird to even ask any of his time, you know, this record is super important to me, but he was so gracious and such a wonderful human being. He suggested that I come out to New Orleans. So I flew out, pre lockdown, and sat like we’re sat now, in his front room, and talked to him for two hours and recorded it and it’s just an absolutely life changing conversation, you know, to see how someone like Albert has been locked up for so many years, just has no resentment and has no negativity and is all about the future and positive and how his story can help change the terrible things that are still going on and in the judicial system in America, and how that can translate around the world and to such a positive human being. And then truly interesting then, feeling that we were moving into or at the time we were moving into the first lockdown and how his words are so positive, you know, in terms of being able to free yourself, in your mind, even though you may be locked up in a cell 23 hours a day, you know, he made the conscious decision to be free. I think he said at the age of 43 or so. So essentially 30 years of solitary confinement where he felt free because he chose that.”
And I think that that conscious decision to choose, what you want to do is so empowering.
The ability to look inwards for the solace we crave during times of distress is both admirable and pertinent. That search is one we’re all familiar with and for some, music is the answer. Such was the case for a young Fraser who had discovered his affinity for music at a young age. “Music was the thing that just always, I could just lose myself in it, and then got my first guitar, quite young, and just used to love playing that and, and just music was just really like my life. Growing up, It was always a place that I could go that would give me solace from whatever was going on, you know, it’s when you grow up. Things can be pretty tough. So it was always like a place that I could just lose myself in and it’s still the same now.” At age 14, Fraser attended school with Tom Rowlands, one part of a British electronic duo, Chemical Brothers, hailing from Manchester, someone who seemed to influence a young Fraser greatly with musical talents. “He was an amazing guy to introduce me to artists. He introduced me to Public Enemy, Jimi Hendrix, New Order, Joy Division, you know, just giving me vinyl. And I’d go home and just, like, ingest this amazing music and you know, growing up, as a kid round here, there’s not a lot going on culturally. So I think you’re even more receptive to all this amazing music that you’re hit with. And you, you don’t really understand where it’s been made. Or you can’t just at the time, I couldn’t just go and Google Public Enemy to kind of get a feel, but you just got this, this sense of like, power and an unease and unrest, you know, and, and then obviously, the older I got, the more I learned about, you know, these amazing artists and, and became like, very inspired by the stories.”
The result? A production career spanning over two decades (and still going strong) with countless collaborations with artists from Adele and Sam Smith to Stormzy and Dave, all culminating into his new home. An old converted barn-turned prodigious studio out in the sticks, playing host to some of the biggest names in music, period. The move marked the end of a chapter for Fraser, as he wrapped up what had been a trio of groundbreaking UK albums; Kano’s Made In The Manor, Stormzy’s Gang Signs And Prayer, and of course, Dave’s Psychodrama. “I think good things come in three…” explaining “…so those were the three albums for me creatively. I just felt like I didn’t want to repeat myself. And I think that studios have their time. You know, maybe this is a studio for the rest of my life. I don’t know but I definitely feel you can evolve by changing your physical location. So we decided to move out of London. And, yeah, we’re here out in the country.”
I love London and it is great for getting things done. But I think for absolute creativity, being a bit close to nature is really good.
I put it to Fraser that the idealism of escaping into nature requires a different level of intuition within artists. With great art, comes greater vulnerability, and this is something Fraser is no stranger to. Vulnerability is the one thing that an artist maybe needs in order to elevate their music to heights that can reach depths of people. It’s a trait that Fraser has long identified and highlighted as “key”, as we begin to explore the concept. “Vulnerability keeps you grounded and enables you to see things as they really are. And I think that in itself is very humbling.” He continues before comparing the experiences he’s had with the likes of Adele… “If you speak to someone and they’re maybe having delusions of grandeur where they feel maybe their place which is bigger than where they actually are…I smell trouble at that point. Because you sort of hit the glass ceiling. Whereas the thing is that the majority of artists, great artists that I know, constantly beat themselves up and are constantly measuring themselves against the greats of today. And then even if you get to that point, then…legacy. Look at Adele, well, I know I would be saying, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve obviously, you know, done pretty well. But, how many records did Ella Fitzgerald make? Or Carole King or whoever the people were back in the day?’”.
Adele worked for just one short week with Fraser on the creation of Set Fire To The Rain, however, his relationships with Kano and Dave had manifested over a number of years, over 17 for the prior and the space of two EPs and of course the album with Dave. “I really think Made In The Manor (2016) opened the door for artists like Stormz and Dave, and J Hus to just come through in terms of being introspective and being able to be heartfelt on bars.” Paying homage to Kano’s critically acclaimed 2016 album before delving into his relationship with Dave. “I think the relationship that we built over the two EPs (Six Paths, 2016 and Game Over, 2017) was incredible and led us into the album feeling very relaxed around each other.” The pair have not only created a timeless masterpiece in Dave’s debut album Psychodrama, but have been able to take it far beyond the scenes’ ears onto the 2020 BRITs stage with that iconic performance of Black, delivering arguably the most pertinent political speech a British artist has ever given. “I’m going to push him but I’ve always got his back…” Fraser continues. “I think that that leads to special music. That’s really what it is in the studio for me, you know, you have lots of fun, and loads of jokes. But ultimately, that you’ve got each other’s back, you’re there for each other. And I think that’s such a special thing”
Dave has also lent his voice for the main focus and reason we had joined Fraser at his home, 12 Questions, the debut project from Fraser’s pseudonym, Future Utopia. Most striking about the last single, ‘Children of The Internet’ featuring the 22 year-old is his ability to pick up and dissect this subject matter of society and the social dilemma. The juxtaposition is noteworthy and speaks to Dave’s individual maturity and complexity. “Every amazing creative is able to just see what’s going on around them and just take those elements and put them into great art. You know, Dave’s just such a great example of a great artist that does that.” delving into the project. The concept of the project was Fraser posing 12 universal, urgent, human-based questions to some of the most creative minds across music, art and culture. Other guests on the project include Arlo Parks, Bastille, Easy Life, poet Simon Armitage, Kano, Kojey Radical, Tom Grennan and Tia Carys — the latter two featuring on the album’s lead single Do We Really Care? Pt.1.
“So the idea of 12 Questions is to ask the most incredible minds in poetry, rap, activism, singing… to give me and everyone that’s listening their interpretation of these big, deep, far ranging questions. I didn’t want to feel like this was a classic producer record where the temptation is, for people to think that, you know, I’ve called my friends in and, you know, I’ve got Stormzy and Dave, and all my other friends on the record, to do their thing, but this is more of a concept.” Fraser explained, which is more than a fair assessment of the project. It’s an unorthodox artistic mirage of exciting newer musical acts from Arlo Parks and Jelani Blackman, peppered with amazing abstract art from the likes of Katrin Fridricks to poet laureate Simon Armitage. Not to mention the profound presence of former black panther Albert Woodfox, voicing the narrative of a soul pounding Freedom featuring Kano. “ I think that it gives us such an incredible insight into the way that we’re all living in the modern world.”
This project could not have come at a more befitting time with these 12 questions addressing everything from freedom, fear and faith to connection and division, aligning to all that we have endured in 2020. As different events unfolded across the world from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement and the untimely, tragic passing of George Floyd and countless others, to even the US Presidential Election and its potential threat to democracy, it felt as though a light was being shone on our trails, exposing them for what they are. “I think that the negative sides of our planet are being exposed. From far right facist movements, lack of fairness, kindness and equality, diversity, it’s all being exposed. The light is being turned on. So change must come from that. I think that you have to stay positive.”
By putting the lights on it does show us how far we’ve got to go.
If anything, this past year has shown us how fragile our mere existence on this planet really is. The way in which we have been “living” has been paused, and we live in hope that huge change is imminent. The work an artist can offer is not only escape but also documentation, commentary, an insight into something that may, with hope, turn on the switch. With which, we leave on Fraser’s parting words… “Change must come and with hope comes change. The hope is that on a deep level, people connect with the questions and answers and that it can help raise debate, argument, enlightenment and consciousness. The questions are designed to do that. In a gentle, deep, immediate or philosophical way. If music can help to do that then it’s mission accomplished, on whatever level.”
Watch the full AAA Pass interview with Fraser T Smith below & Listen to 12 Questions here.