On a recent Friday night in Manhattan, pandemonium surrounded a waffle truck parked on the corner of 56th Street and 11th Avenue, as thumping beats and the aroma of fresh batter poured from within. An enthusiastic young woman thrust an inflatable giraffe head festooned with a red glow stick through one of the truck’s windows, bopping it to the music. A security guard ripped it away.
Inside the vehicle, holding court, stood a grinning Fred Gibson, the 29-year-old British songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist better known as Fred again.., who was following up a show at the Hell’s Kitchen venue Terminal 5 with an ad hoc after-party.
“Chaotic,” he later happily proclaimed the impromptu event, where he previewed tracks from his third album, “Actual Life 3 (January 1 — September 9, 2022),” out Friday. “Just great.”
“Actual Life 3” is the culmination of music that Gibson — a pop hitmaker for Ed Sheeran, BTS and the British grime star Stormzy — started releasing at the end of 2019, after his mentor Brian Eno urged him to forgo writing for others and prioritize his own work. The result is lush electronica-rooted piano balladry, wistful nu-disco anthems and the occasional U.K. garage firestarter, all threaded with samples culled from the far reaches of YouTube, Instagram and his iPhone camera roll — a sonic bricolage of digitally documented lives.
A few days after the concert, Gibson — a smiley, ebullient, occasionally sheepish presence — rolled a cigarette on a West Village bar patio and recalled Eno needling him when he was experiencing a peak of commercial success but had a brewing fear of artistic complacency. He had met Eno at one of the artist’s occasionally star-studded a cappella gatherings as a teenager, and wowed him with his production talents, which led to Eno (“a wizened cliff-pusher,” as Gibson described him) bringing him on as a producer on some of his projects.
“I know that Fred has sometimes referred to me as a mentor, but actually, it works both ways,” Eno said by phone. “What he’s doing is quite unfamiliar — I’ve actually never heard anything quite like this before. He always seems to be doing it in relation to a community of people around him — the bits of vocal and ambient sounds.”
Eno was referring to the basic construction of a Fred again.. song. Many tracks start with Gibson using one of thousands of ambient drones Eno once gave him. From there, he’ll go into his digital scrapbook of found footage. While some samples employ familiar voices — the moaning rap of the Atlanta superstar Future, an Instagram Live freestyle of the rapper Kodak Black, vocals from a call with the Chicago house D.J. the Blessed Madonna — the vast majority are relatively obscure. They include a stadium worker Gibson joked around with after a Sheeran show, audio from a nightclub he recorded with his iPhone, spoken word poets and burgeoning bedroom pop singers he caught glimpses of while scrolling his various social media feeds.
Gibson then cuts, distorts, pitch-shifts, stretches or compresses the samples into shimmering cinematic soundscapes, and sings atop them in his soft, pleading croon. Some are cavernous, others dense, but they all retain the deep warmth of something homespun — the ideal foundation for lyrics about feeling too much and not nearly enough that map thin fault lines demarcating love and loss. The result are tracks that leave listeners both laughing and weeping on the dance floor.
Gibson estimated that he’s experimented with thousands of different ways to turn the speech of complete strangers into something musical. “You’re constantly trying to create as many vacancies as possible for accidents to happen,” he said. “But at the beginning it was very labored, quite tortured, if I’m honest,” he added. “It felt like I was distorting their spirit.”
One track was crafted from footage of a young Toronto-based performance artist named Sabrina Benaim performing her piece “Explaining My Depression to My Mother,” which would go on to become the thumping dirge “Sabrina (I Am a Party).”
The source material is a full-tilt confessional characterizing the vicissitudes of anxiety and depression — not exactly the kind of thing obviously complemented by beats from a successful pop producer. “I was anxious with everything I was putting onto these people,” Gibson said. “I felt like I was projecting onto them.”
Speaking by phone from Toronto, Benaim remembered hearing the finished track for the first time, after Gibson reached out over Instagram. “It was the wildest thing,” she said and laughed. “It was like I left my body. He handled the emotional center of it so well — he just cared so much about not ruining or soiling the poem in any way. It’s coming from such a careful place.”
Romy Croft — a singer-songwriter in the xx who tapped Gibson to produce her own debut solo single, “Lifetime” — worked with Gibson and Haai on “Lights Out,” a song released earlier this year, in nearly the same way. Croft had given Gibson an xx demo that never came to fruition; a year later, Gibson mentioned having done something with it.
As she explained in a recent phone call, she was gobsmacked by the result, a dance track that mixes laser squelches, piano chords, a skittering beat and Croft’s wistful vocals. “He had just given it a new lease of life,” Croft said. To her, the record reflects a thematic link in his work: “A thread of emotion and vulnerability within it that ties it together, as well as a lot of joy.”
Eno said he finds many of Gibson’s samples to be “tender and beautiful.” “To marry that with the kind of energetic chaos of the music he does is, I think, a beautiful combination,” he added. “It’s romance, in a sort of maelstrom of emotion.”
The new album may be the apotheosis of this aesthetic. Gibson’s first two LPs, made during and immediately after the pandemic lockdown, concerned the illness of a close friend and its aftermath, and are often pensive affairs. “Actual Life 3” is an unfurling of sorts, a more cathartic, misty-eyed dance-floor moment. Its unlikely collaborators include Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. the electronic musician and producer Four Tet, known for the kind of dense, protean electronica compositions that rarely (if ever) abide anything close to a typical pop song’s structure.
“He pulls me in a direction I wouldn’t normally be working in,” Hebden said on a recent FaceTime call. Gibson’s songs, he explained, are “great melodies and chord sequences, elegantly done. The work that has been done is considered. It doesn’t always sound ridiculously slick — there’s nothing very cynical about it. It’s quite direct, and honest; it just feels deeply refreshing, isn’t hidden away, and isn’t super mysterious.”
“But,” Hebden paused, “the mystery of it is: How can anybody make it look so easy?” He laughed.
At the waffle truck earlier this month, after playing the last in a series of then-unreleased songs to his increasingly hyped crowd, Gibson told Hebden — who was among his mischief-makers that night — to pick a final song. Hebden looked at him knowingly, and changed tracks. Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” blasted over the speakers. The crowd exploded into verse, and Gibson danced along, laughing. The musicians made their way out of the truck and back into the venue thronged by fans, another memory made in the night, soon to be posted for posterity — potentially, the start of another song.