You may know Fred again.. without even really knowing it. The British producer is behind some of the biggest songs by Ed Sheeran and Stormzy. In fact, in 2019, he had a part in 30% of the songs that topped the charts in the UK. Now, however, he’s turning his attention to a solo project, called Actual Life (April 14 - December 17 2020).
The producer-turned-artist album is not a rarity. It happens all the time with big-name producers like Benny Blanco, Marshmello, Metro Boomin, Mark Ronson, and plenty more releasing albums in the past. Usually, they bring in the biggest artists in their orbit and continue to make hits under their own name. Considering Fred’s production discography includes Sheeran, Stormzy, BTS, and AJ Tracey, he could’ve made one hell of a collaborative record.
Instead, however, he’s turned his attention towards club music - the type that leaves a lump in your throat. It’s expansive, beautiful, and emotive centering usually around one subject and one sample. Each of the songs on his debut album Actual Life are named after people or places. Some of the people featured are famous - Julia Michaels, Dermot Kennedy, and The Blessed Madonna all feature - but some of them are clips that he found on social media that made him feel something.
While the samples may not have been recorded in this period, Fred worked on the songs from March to December of last year. Given the world shut down due to COVID-19 in March of last year, it was a particularly difficult period and it’s all captured here. Fred wants to use these records like a diary, to capture exactly where he and his subjects were at the time.
“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,” he told NME.
“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”.
Chances are, you’re going to resonate with a lot of the sentiments that pop up on this record. It finishes with a sample of The Blessed Madonna, talking about the lack of clubs in the past 12 months. “This year, we’ve had to lose our space, we’ve lost dancing, we’ve lost the hugs, the friends and people that we loved... all these things we took for granted,” she says as a dense, jubilant house beat dance around here. “If I can live through this, what comes next will be marvelous,” she continues, before the beat flourishes. It’s both hopeful and melancholic - a reminder of what we’ve lost and a hopeful statement of what’s to come.
Julia Michaels is one of the best pop songwriters on the planet right now but on this record, we hear her in a casual space. She giggles and talks candidly about falling in love as Fred repeats her phrase, “I’m deep-diving into your emotions.” It captures in real-time the giddy feeling of falling in love and it’s spectacular.
Elsewhere, Australia’s very own Angie McMahon appears with a sample from her song Pasta. Fred took a field recording of her at Australian festival Groovin The Moo in 2019. “I’ve been lost,” she sings as a shuffling electronic beat engulfs her. It’s sad but there’s an optimism to the production that Fred uses. “I’m really trying,” gets a special emphasis as the production builds. You end this record feeling emotionally drained but also positive. It’s a strange juxtaposition and a reminder of that complicated reaction you can have at the clubs when a particular sentiment pulls you out of a slump, even just momentarily.
It’s one thing to make music that emulates an emotion you once felt but it’s another to directly use samples that capture in real-time what someone was feeling. Fred uses Dermot Kennedy’s soulful voice singing, “If only you could see yourself in my eyes.” Later, Young Thug is sampled as he says, “Fall in love with someone who enjoys your own weirdness, not someone who talks you into feeling normal.” The beat collapses for a moment but then Kennedy returns in a moment of triumph.
Kennedy and Thug would likely have never found themselves together on a song but it works. We’ve lived this year online, scrolling the timeline while talking to friends on Zoom. We’ve been forced to find inspiration in non-tangible places and so pairing together a vocal with a clip from an interview feels right.
Who knows when we’ll be able to hear these Fred again.. tracks in a club or festival setting, but for now they act as a sonic diary for a time when the clubs went silent.