The Simply Sophisticated, Fred Again
Perusing the Top 40 Charts over the last few years, you may be surprised to see the name “Fred again..”, and again, and again. Credited on massive hits for the likes of Stormzy and Ed Sheeran, Fred Again has quietly established himself as one of the most successful young producers and songwriters in the UK. Now, as he emerges from behind the scenes and into the spotlight with a new solo project, we take a deeper look at the magic behind the under-the-radar hit-maker.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the name Fred John Philip Gibson, AKA “Fred Again,” it’s time to get acquainted.
Having collaborated with everyone from Little Mix and Ellie Goulding, to Headie One and the legendary Brian Eno, the 26 year-old British producer-songwriter has quietly been responsible for some of the UK's most influential songs over the last half-decade.
In 2019 alone, Fred had his hand(/laptop) in twelve top 40 hits, spending roughly 30%(!) of the year on the charts, including a mind-blowing run of fifteen straight weeks at number one thanks to smashes by Ed Sheeran (“I Don't Care,” with Justin Bieber; Beautiful People, featuring Khalid) and Stormzy (“Take Me Back to London,” with Ed Sheeran).
The prolific music creator showed no signs of fatigue as he stepped into the new decade, co-penning and producing 2020’s first number 1 single (Stormzy's “Own It”, featuring Ed Sheeran and Burna Boy), teaming up with FKA Twigs and Headie One for the powerful social justice track, “Don’t Judge Me”, and helping craft the debut single from the XX’s Romy (“Lifetime”). Fred also became the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious BRIT Award for Producer of the Year, adding his name to a prominent list of past winners that includes Calvin Harris, Steve Mac, and Fred’s aforementioned collaborator and personal mentor, Eno.
2021 has seen Fred take yet another pivotal step in his illustrious career, emerging from behind the scenes to launch his critically-acclaimed debut solo project, “Actual Life.”
Listening to Fred’s productions and songs reveals his musical identity. He’s a child of the British electro-pop crossroads. His melodies and harmonies are warm and comforting, almost naive. His lyrics are not particularly sophisticated or rich, but minimalistic, almost economical. He needs no more than two solid catch-phrases to pen a hit.
Fred makes music production look effortless. His low-fi style seems to convey the message that all you need to conquer the world is a DAW, mini keyboard, and laptop. He has a charming, relatable persona and an unassuming look. With his trademark headphone chords dangling out of one ear, he appears to be telling us, “anyone can do this.”
A more profound listening to his work, however, reveals that, in reality, not just anyone can be Fred Again. He has a unique approach to vocal production, and a knack for highlighting the voices of his star-studded crop of collaborators. His talent appears grounded in its repetition and simplicity.
A deeper analysis of his songs through MyPart’s SongCrunch platform sheds further light upon Fred's success as a hitmaker. SongCrunch extracts wide-ranging data, including chord progressions, harmony, melodies, song structure, lyrics, and production. In this case, we examined twelve of Fred’s songs (solo and credits) against hundreds of contemporary hits from the past decade.
The data corroborates what our senses perceived as straightforward, palatable characteristics. For example, Fred uses fewer chords and chord changes (“harmonic rhythm”) than your average pop hit. This is even more significant when considering the fact that contemporary pop hits have even fewer chords than their 20th-century predecessors. Roughly 80 percent of his songs are in major scales, while the average of the pop world is about 50 percent. Fred’s songs trace no modal connections, modulations/modal interchange, or secondary dominants, and over 90 percent of his tracks are completely in key (while the pop world average is less than 80 percent). His songs use more cadences than the average pop hit, which also lends to the familiarity, simplicity and warmth of his music.
His melodic lines have a wider range than those of his peers, which implies special attention given to the vocal qualities of his productions. Fred uses repetition just as frequently as his contemporaries, but there is a sense of variations in the way that he does so that gives his music a sense of uniqueness.
On the lyrical front, SongCrunch gives us information in two fields: (1) Theme & Mood, and (2) Writing style. Starting with the latter, Fred Again scored a “higher” grade than the average pop hit regarding his use of repetition and word echoism. He tends to repeat his refrain and use more similar lines than the other songs on the charts. Fred also tends to use fewer slang words in his work. In fact, he rarely uses slang in his songs whatsoever. He also features virtually no profanity in his lyrics.
Fred Again's lyrical density is slightly higher than that of other songwriters on the charts, but his use of perfect rhymes is slightly below the average of a billboard hit. In perhaps what is considered one of the most important linguistic features of tune-smithing: perfect rhymes at the end of lines, Fred is well below average. This further supports the notion that his unique talent does not rely on rich lyricism. All in all, his vocabulary data reveals that he is no different from the average lyricist. He unremarkably uses the same standard of modern pop's English vocabulary.
The semantic range (Themes and Moods) in his songs is relatively scattered. Unlike many of his contemporaries who exemplify a clear, coherent thematic line (see a previous piece we published on Dua Lipa), Fred does not seem to focus on any one subject or field. His song themes range from infatuation to alienation.
“I’m a fan of all the artists I work with. Therefore, when I’m in the studio I know what other Stormzy fans will want to hear both sonically and lyrically. For my own music, I’m still figuring out what it is that I and others want to hear.”
As Fred launches his solo career, we also aimed to assess how his debut record stacks up to the hits he’s written and/or produced for other artists (though, admittedly, the analysis would be more effective with more than one albums-worth of data).
Regarding aesthetics, Fred scores higher on repetition in his solo work than in songs he’s penned for others. The choruses generally arrive later on in his solo tracks than in his other works. He uses even less slang throughout “Actual Life”, and employs more perfect rhymes at the end of lines. The melodic ranges of his solo tracks are a bit lower than on his songs for other artists, and no less importantly, he uses more melodic hooks in his works for other artists.
To us, Actual Life’’s strength lies in Fred’s creativity as a beat-maker. Reminiscent of fellow super-producers like Jamie XX or Mura Masa, he’ll sample sound bites from just about anything- from Dermot Kennedy’s instagram story, or a FaceTime chat with The Blessed Madonna, to real life audio, such as the brakes on London’s tube - and masterfully transform them into art.
While his productions for superstar artists like Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora are unsurprisingly vocal-centric, his solo tracks leave more room for instrumentals, perhaps indicating a lack of confidence in his new role as front man.
Fred’s credits for other artists are happier (think George Ezra’s “Shotgun”) and more “danceable”/calibrated for partying (Clean Bandit’s “Solo”) than the tracks off his solo record, which could correlate with the fact that “Actual Life” was created during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
In truth, the album, which scores higher on mood theme categories such as sad and dark, was inspired by the deteriorating illness and untimely loss of a close personal friend. On tracks like “Me (Heavy)” and “Big Hen (Steal My Joy)”, Fred masks heartbreaking lyrics like “I don’t want to get over you” and “I wanna run in there and steal you out, unplug the wires and kiss your mouth”, with glitchy, electro-pop beats.
It’s that clever juxtaposition that helps make Actual Life feel both cathartic and joyous, equally appropriate to be played while preparing for a night out on the town, or alone crying in your room. The album reflects the ups and downs of, well, actual life. While feelings of pain, grief, and loneliness permeate the record, its lasting message is one of optimism and hope. Singing lines like “we gon’ make it through” and the Bon Iver- inspired, “it feels like...it might be over soon,” Fred calmly reminds us of the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
On the record’s closing track, “Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing),” The Blessed Madonna laments the pain of losing “hugs with friends,” “people that we loved,” and “all thеse things that we took for granted.” She ultimately reassures us, however, that, much as we hope for the promising future of Fred’s career, “what comes next will be marvellous.”