Stretched out on the sun-dappled balcony of his fancy LA rental, Fred Gibson looks every inch music’s go-to super-producer. Even dressed down in an embroidered oversized sweatshirt, Gibson’s Zoom screen-dominating smile suggests things are going Quite Well. Having overseen hits for everyone from Stormzy to Rita Ora, Ed Sheeran to AJ Tracey, Gibson was responsible for a third of 2019’s UK No 1 singles. A year later he won the Brit award for best producer, before launching his own dance-leaning artist project, Fred again.. in 2021, the same year as spending 15 weeks at No 1 via two Ed Sheeran co-productions.
But looks can be deceiving. When I suggest he got the better deal vis-a-vis interview locales the 29-year-old south Londoner replies with a misty-eyed “I long for where you are”, which is too nice a thing to say about the south-east London suburb of Brockley. He balks, too, at the super-producer tag (“That’s quite gross”), while mention of his Brit is met with a polite shrug. “I’m not really fussed,” he says. “I don’t want to shit on something that matters to people but it’s just so not why I do it.”
Gibson is in LA as part of a sold-out US tour ahead of his third Fred again.. album, Actual Life 3 (January 1 – September 9, 2022). Formatted like a musical diary – his first two albums are similarly time-stamped – the tactile, deeply personal Actual Life series is not made up of big-hitting guests like typical producer-turned-artist projects, but a tapestry of ambient audio recordings, taken from Gibson’s phone, featuring friends and strangers, as well as viral social media posts and snatches of poetry. These are then cocooned in delicate piano, percolating beats and, when a specific mood can’t be found online, fresh lyrics sung in Gibson’s hushed tones. A key character throughout is a construction worker called Carlos whom Gibson met in Atlanta. His exuberant, life-affirming phrases such as “we gon’ make it through” now adorn the bodies of Gibson’s fervent fans (his forthcoming three shows at London’s O2 Academy Brixton sold out in under a minute). “I’ve seen hundreds of tattoos of Carlos’ words on people,” he smiles proudly.While Gibson started thinking about turning his cache of recordings into a musical project pre-pandemic, Actual Life part one – subtitled April 14 – December 17 2020 and released in April 2021 – chimed with a collective sense of digital saturation post-lockdown. With all the recordings compressed through his phone, and the tracks then finished on his laptop, there’s a palpable feeling of close comfort that reflects our months spent communicating remotely. “For a lot of people the albums are lockdown records,” he agrees, “but I was already right down the rabbit hole with it [by that point]”.
The trio of albums also carry an overarching sense of emotional purging, another big lockdown mainstay. Eloquent, thoughtful and buoyed up by a music nerd-like enthusiasm throughout our conversation, Gibson seems on less solid ground when discussing personal specifics, his answers becoming fragmentary. “Essentially it’s about falling in love with someone who got very unwell and then …” He drifts off. Later he mentions how difficult it was visiting hospitals during lockdown. Actual Life 3, he says, is about “drawing a line in the sand … because I need to give myself permission to do something else. And write about something else.” Initially he assumed he would be able to neatly chart his process through grief with each album, ending in resolution, “but it’s not how this aspect of emotion works”. On the album’s gorgeous single, Bleu, a ghostly voice sings “I just know that it gets better with time”.
Even as Actual Life 3 became more club-focused than its predecessors, naturally influenced by the last year of “playing out in raves again”, it maintains a sense of dancing through the pain. It has been a process of creative catharsis that’s ultimately helped shift Gibson’s mindset from producer-for-hire to artist. “The messages I read from people telling me how much [the albums] mean to them have changed my life,” he says, full-beam smile switched back on. “I now make music in a totally different way to how I did before.”
Born in London, but educated at the Wiltshire boarding school Marlborough College, Gibson’s focus rarely shifted from music. At the age of eight he started making classical piano pieces on his aunt’s tape recorder, while at school he’d often bunk off lessons in favour of decamping to the music room. “I was fortunate enough to not even be slightly good at anything else,” he says, “so I had clarity of focus.” When Gibson was 16, a family friend invited him to a neighbour’s a cappella group rehearsals. That neighbour was Brian Eno, and that a cappella group would often include the likes of Annie Lennox. Gibson helped make tea and tidy away the song sheets, often grabbing time with Eno to discuss new synths he’d uncovered. “I’d then not sleep for six nights making 100 song sketches,” he smiles, giddy at the memory. “I’d come back the next week and try to make it look really casual.” After two years of mentorship, Eno asked Gibson, then just 18, to co-produce his two 2014 collaboration albums with Underworld’s Karl Hyde.
Further production work quickly followed for UK rap heroes such as Roots Manuva, Flowdan (who gave him his artist moniker), J Hus and Stefflon Don, before pop came calling via Charli XCX, Clean Bandit and George Ezra. In 2019 he co-produced the majority of Ed Sheeran’s guest-heavy No.6 Collaborations Project, as well as three songs on Stormzy’s Heavy Is the Head, highlighting an ability to flit between genres. “The whole thing of ‘what type of music do you like?’ is such a dated concept and I’m so thrilled that’s the case,” he says. “Everyone I work with has grown up listening to everything and seeing it in the same way.” He is not interested in any sniffiness towards pop, and Sheeran specifically. “I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone who thought what someone like Ed does is easy. It’s just so obviously ignorant.”
Prior to becoming pop’s go-to producer, Gibson had struggled to make various artist projects work. “Essentially there was something I needed to make that I couldn’t do via the lenses I was looking through,” he says. It was Eno who gave him clarity. Utilising Gibson’s preferred medium of the voice note, Eno sent him a message saying that, while cleaning his kitchen to the soundtrack of a shuffling iTunes, he’d race to check what amazing song was playing only to find it was something Gibson had sent him. “He was like: ‘Enough now Fred, you have to go back to this stuff, it can’t just be sat on my laptop.’”
There is more than a hint of Eno’s influence in Gibson’s unique approach to finding inspiration and how that connects to the practical side of music-making. Much of the Actual Life albums were made while on the move, be it via long train journeys, or on meandering tube excursions (“I’ve had a lot of pointless flat whites in Harrow and Wealdstone” he laughs). This sense of restlessness is reflected in the artwork, with each album featuring a filtered selfie of Gibson either walking, on a tube, or sitting in the back of a cab. He’s also prone to wirelessly sending works in progress to unsuspecting people’s phones, be they fans at his shows or strangers on planes.
While most people utilise a phone camera to document a day out, Gibson’s preferred medium is sound recording. “I think it’s about finding places where you get a conveyor belt of humanity to subconsciously affect you,” he says, recommending London’s South Bank. “You can’t help but be excited by hundreds of excited humans.”
Actual Life 3 is released on 28 October on Atlantic Records.