Day two of the music industry’s annual jamboree in Brighton began with Music Week’s In Conversation session with Fraser T Smith in The Old Courtroom.
Heavily decorated as a songwriter and producer behind a list of hits from acts including Adele, Sam Smith, James Morrison and Britney Spears, Smith is still riding the wave created by Stormzy’s debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer, made over 10 months in his Fulham studio.
Smith has worked with rappers before, notably on Kano’s Made In The Manor, but since Stormzy, he’s helping shape the sound of Dave, Ramz and Not3s. But we begin by rooting much deeper into his career, to the days when he toured the world as Craig David’s guitarist having worked with the Southampton singer on Born To Do It.
Something clicked inside Smith, he told us, and he chose to swap life on stage and on the road for the studio. “We were on this amazing rollercoaster, but I gracefully said to Craig that I needed to do production full-time,” Smith said. “I was about 30 at the time. As a producer it was amazing to see how the music was connecting on a global level. It was good for me to see how hard artists work, going into the studio after hours of promo or being on the road. All those pressures I could really relate to.”
Over the course of our hour with Smith, it emerged that this compassion and ability to relate to artists is what defined his special skills as a writer and producer, two disciplines he said come from the same source inside.
Gang Signs & Prayer ranks as the work he is most proud of, and he was visibly animated as we discussed it. “The quality that shone through was his vision. He made the right decision to shut himself away from everybody, he was so hot, it was his debut. Everyone wanted a grime star to come through and it was clearly going to be him, that was a huge weight.”
Smith said Stormzy dealt with it all by remaining focused and uncompromising, leaning on Smith’s cross-genre experience to make a record that straddled grime, R&B and soul. “We just made a very uncompromising record. It was equally exciting and scary at times.”
As we navigated stories of placating a bored CeeLo Green with champagne and the pop star who mistakenly referred to Smith as ‘Tim’ even after six hours in his company, candour, frankness and humour were never far away.
His answer to a closing question about the biggest lesson the producer has learned over a life in music seemed to sum hip up neatly. “Be grateful,” he replied, simple as that.
Then it was back outside and into the fray with Of Empires making a racket at the East Street Tap that drew a crowd on its way to Heavenly Recordings’ showcase at Horatio’s on the pier. Music Week On The Radar star Hatchie’s fuzzy love songs hit a sweet note, before Anna Burch’s propulsive folk-rock wove some dreamy textures.
Pip Blom and The Homesick turned in two of the day’s strongest sets in Komedia’s darkness, while upstairs at the convention, the biz delved deep into untangling the Chinese music industry.
After that we were back in The Old Courtroom, to end a day of panels right back where we started – discussing the magic of pop songs. BASCA gathered songwriters Iain Archer, Nerina Pallot, Victoria Horn and Gomez’s Tom Gray with the intention of finding out how to make a hit, but a hot debate went far deeper than that.
“Writing with other people is a process, I have written with people in the room but I've probably pissed off a lot of labels and publishers by sending artists back and saying 'you don't need me,” said Pallot, who is troubled by the similarities most hit singles share today.
“We're moving to an area of homogeny which is really troubling.” That last comment drew applause from BASCA’s Crispin Hunt, seated up in the back rows.
"A hit doesn't necessarily mean an amazing, great song these days,” added Horn, who is currently working with Cher Lloyd. “If you want to get on major radio, you have to play the game a bit and use the right language. As a writer you have to make a choice."
Iain Archer reminisced over co-writes with Liam Gallagher, Jake Bugg and James Bay, and told the crowd that songwriters’ best work comes from seeking out the truth. “We like to shroud a lot of our truth in poetry, we try and hide those things. Getting to the truth, that's how you do this.”
There was plenty of truth in Ten Tonnes’ opening set on the Music Week On The Radar stage at Coalition, the young Warner Bros artist packing out its cavernous arches with a healthy mix of industry and excited fans. His spiky guitar songs bounced off the bricks nicely, before Lion (aka Beth Lowen) followed up with her own brand of rock’n’roll.
Lo Moon slowed things down with layers of noise heavy with emotion, their set allowing for a rare moment of reflection at The Great Escape. But it couldn’t last – Canadian foursome The Beaches turned the volume up once more with their glam-infused rock’n’roll before our headliner Børns smashed the venue to smithereens with big-hearted pop.
In between those two, we dashed up to Patterns for Northampton rapper Slowthai, who made a simple basement feel like the centre of a volcano, his grimy set punctuated by quaking bass and chaos.
Finishing the night with a nosebleed wasn’t what we had in mind, but that’s exactly what we got with Amyl And The Sniffers. During the penultimate song of a loud, dirty and triumphant set from the Aussie pub rockers, drummer Gus Romer was thwacking his kit with serious intent. He didn’t notice the stream of blood from his nose at first, and when he did, his reaction was to lap it away with an outstretched tongue.
His bandmates wreaked havoc around him, finishing with a cover of AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds and imploring, “Buy our shit so we can afford to eat.” It was brilliant.