With UK grime star Dave winning Mastercard Album of the Year for his debut Psychodrama at last night’s BRIT Awards, his acclaimed producer Fraser T Smith gives PSNEurope an exclusive look inside the making of a modern-day masterpiece. Dave adds this landmark award to his win of the 2019 Mercury Prize for the record.
Here, in a piece penned exclusively for PSNEurope, Smith – who has produced records for the likes of Stormzy, Sam Smith, Kano, Adele, and Craig David – reflects on the production process of one 2019’s defining records…
I’ve known Dave since he was 17. I was in the middle of working on Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer album and my friends Jack Foster and Benny Scarrs who manage Dave introduced us. We immediately hit it off and put in a studio session. We wrote ‘Picture Me’ during that session and the relationship developed into us working together on Dave’s first and second EPs 6 Paths, and Game Over.
I never want to repeat myself creatively, and was wary about replicating the unique processes and dynamics which had made my working relationships with Kano and Stormzy so special, but Dave is a one off – namely because our music comes from jamming in the studio. His piano playing and musicality are phenomenal, as well as the diverse influences we both draw from, so it’s a great blend. I started off, and will always think of myself, as a musician, so we complement each other perfectly.
Dave typically creates ideas on the piano, and I’ll sometimes sit down the other end of the keyboard, adding bass notes or chords, or will grab a guitar or bass or be playing on the Akai MPC4000 or Ableton. We record everything.
He spent a long time coming up with the title and concept for the album. I could tell that once he had the concept we could really start work. Divided into three sections, Psychodrama was always going to be a very ambitious project. The first ‘act’ is ‘Environment’, the second ‘Relationships’ and the third ‘Social and Moral Compass’. The overarching theme was to document Dave’s life up to this point in terms of his upbringing, his life in South London as a young black male, the struggles, the joys, the uncertainty, the ambitions, hopes and fears.
We knew from the beginning that we’d be drawing from a very wide musical palette of strings, brass, harps, and hard-hitting drums and synths. I love to blend acoustic instrumentation with electronic elements. Manon Grandjean, my long-standing engineer, beautifully captured Dave’s piano, guitars, drums and vocals at my studio in Fulham.
Occasionally we’d have some of Dave’s friends in the studio – it provided a welcome break from the intensity of the music and the lyrics. Dave’s an old soul – he’s incredibly deep in his thought processes, but his circle of friends bring him back to the fact that he’s still just a 21-year-old kid who loves to do what other normal 21-year-olds do; go out to clubs, play FIFA and have fun.
On a technical level, we had to be ready to record anything at any point, so it was important that our recording chains were optimised for this. We used my Sony C800 microphone on Dave’s vocals tracked through a UTA mic pre, summit TLA 100 compressor and then the UTA Unfairchild compressor. I love the clarity of the C800G. It doesn’t work on everyone, but for Dave it’s great. The Summit compressor is very punchy, and adds something in the high end which I love, and the Unfairchild just smooths things out, making everything we run through it sound immediately expensive and expansive. On the piano, we’d use my Neumann KM84s – it’s a dark sounding Kawai piano, so these mics are perfect – bringing out the detail without colouring the sound the way that a pair of Coles 4038s might.
We’d often work with incredible young producers on the album. Kyle Evans, TSB, 169, Jae 5, Nana Rogues. I learned so much from working with these guys. Their immediacy, their instincts, their musicality.
We had a release date of January for the album and roughly worked for a six-month period on it. Having done the two EPs together meant we could quickly get into the swing of things, rather than going into the unknown as two strangers. The intensity ramped up towards the end of the process as Dave had a heavy commitment in filming his role in the Top Boy TV series. This took him out of the studio a lot, but I think he learned a lot from the process of acting – the discipline, the incredibly long hours. It also gave Manon and I a chance to work on the music.
It was always the plan for us to mix and master the album in-house. I mixed all of my early records and have been mentoring Manon over the past few years, and she’s progressed amazingly. I approach mixing from a musical production point of view, but know enough of the technical stuff to get by. I’m always pushing Manon and she always rises to the occasion.
We mixed Gang Signs and Prayer together but by the time Psychodrama was ready to be mixed, I knew she was ready to do this on her own. She not only mixed it but mastered it as well. It gives me so much joy to see her succeeding as an engineer and to see her personality and confidence grow – she works so hard and is able to deliver the sonics that I demand through learning my processes, bringing her own to the table and having become familiar with all the varied pieces of equipment that have become the mainstay of my sound over the years.
There were the usual bumps in the road as we neared the completion of the record – tracks not being cleared, last minute changes, working through the night to meet deadlines, etc. But experience has shown me that it always comes together in the end. I reminded myself and Manon that if you want to make rap records, you’re going to have to get used to staying up late…
Ultimately, however, the process is secondary to the end result. I’m immensely proud of Dave for what he delivered, and of myself and Manon for giving him a safe creative space to play in. To listen back to the depth of the lyrics, the phone call with his brother Christopher from prison, his views on domestic abuse, the documentation of his life up to this point, I feel incredibly privileged to have been involved.