Like a slightly barmy English teacher, London-based symphonic pop alchemist Fryars, aka 22-year-old Ben Garrett, is talking me through the concept behind his second album, Power (“I'm only one major label short of the full set,” he laughs, in reference to the label moves that delayed the album—it's finally out in November). The story of an engineer from the north of England who moves to America, invents an expensive replica of the sun, which then subsequently causes a nuclear winter forcing him to flee to Asia, it also carries a subplot in which the engineer's wife commits suicide, and the engineer himself is captured and put to death. Wantonly artful, sonically multi-layered but alluringly immediate, it is, at least on the surface, a way for Garrett to keep his art hidden behind an elaborate concept that marks him out in a pop world seemingly only obsessed with the concept of dancing in a club, and as the antithesis to the soul-baring emotional directness of singers such as Sam Smith or Adele.
As you may have guessed, Fryars isn't like other pop stars—he's too knowing about how the industry works for starters—and yet his influence is slowly seeping into the mainstream. As well as teasing pop into elaborate new shapes on Power—which channels everything from squelchy synth-pop ("Prettiest Ones Fly Highest") to elaborate pocket symphonies ("China Voyage") to gloriously sadface balladry ("On Your Own")—he's also written and produced songs for the likes of Lily Allen, Mika and newcomer Rae Morris, suffusing each collaboration with a sort of downcast yet strangely beautiful fragility. (He's also just completed extra production work on the forthcoming Marina & The Diamonds album and, after a few pints in an east London member's club, let's slip about a possible upcoming collaboration with a massive American pop star). “I feel like it's almost a trendy thing to say you make pop music now,” he states when we talk genres. “I try and think about how I explain it to relatives and I say I make contemporary music. There are things on the album that are out and out pop, but the art comes from there being a vision for it.”
It's a lack of vision that he sees as destroying the current pop landscape. “Pop stars aren't singing about anything,” he sighs. “In all forms of entertainment, everything's quite ephemeral. Even as people, with religion, the idea is that we could live forever but instead we want to be buried in a cardboard box. That's what it is: you want to listen to Miley Cyrus and be buried in a cardboard box. I want to have a fucking tomb built,” he laughs. Ambitious, thoughtful and confident in a way that absorbs just the right amount of arrogance, Garrett seems to spend a lot of time contemplating the state of pop (he's a massive fan of Kanye West and Mike Will Made It, but also admires Max Martin's songwriting and is thinking about starting an EDM side project). “Music needs to have some sort of intention," he continues. “There are big characters around pop, and big imagery, but the songs are an aside.”
So while he admires the cohesive iconography surrounding the last Miley Cyrus album, he's dismissive of pop's most lauded megastar: “The thing about this last Beyoncé record is that I found it disingenuous as a piece. Yes, it's got all these ideas but there isn't really a defining one—it's more that she just wants it to look like there are all these ideas. It's hugely collaborative but there's no sense of vision of one person. I do love Beyoncé, but she's not an artist, she's a singer and a dancer. Don't pretend there's anything else there,” he says in his scattergun manner. “The reason everyone's going crazy about Kate Bush coming back [to play live shows in London] is because she has artistic vision. Nowadays if you have sonic indicators, like a certain beat, it can trick people into thinking it's a banger, but the lyric is beyond generic. It's good to have something universal but it needs to have some sort of twist.” Even with the people he works with, there needs to be some semblance of a concept or overriding idea. His two songs for Lily Allen's Sheezus album, for example, came about after a conversation they had in which Fryars suggested she could try and create minimal, Drake-esque odes to humility, with the glacial "Miserable Without Your Love" tapping into Allen's enduring vulnerability (Would you show me how I lost my grip, will you stand by me? runs one of the lyrics).
In a music landscape battered by falling record sales and constant cries marking the death of the album, Garrett has created a sonic narrative that simultaneously subverts this latter notion and seems to agree with people like BBC Radio 1 boss George Ergatoudis who recently said playlists would eventually replace albums. “I don't really see the point of albums now unless it's a focused body of work,” he says matter of factly. “So it should play from start to finish and it should be a journey, and if it's not then you might as well just listen to your favorite song from it and then listen to something else.” That's not to say that the songs on Power, which are purposefully more direct than the lyrically convoluted ones that made up his now deleted debut, Dark Young Hearts, can only be enjoyed in one sitting as an excluding slice of pure art (listen to an outtake from the Power sessions above). “I'm not naïve enough to think that people will sit down and listen to it from start to finish, but it's probably the closest to integrity in anything I'll make ever again.” So while the artist in him initially saw releasing singles from Power as “like someone giving you pages of a book rather than the book”, he's also keen to shift some copies of it. “I always wanted to release singles and for it to be on a major—it's not wantonly obscure.”
“Music needs to have some sort of intention. There are big characters around pop, and big imagery, but the songs are an aside.”
With pop's current obsession with authenticity of emotion being magnified by TV talent show tears and over-singing, and with lost love balladeers such as Sam Smith ruling the pop roost, there's a sense of a return to very direct and prosaic emotional blood-letting, a trend Fryars seems to be the antithesis of. “Historically there's loads of amazing music like that but the question is do you believe it now? I personally don't,” he states. “I also think the whole X Factor thing has retrained people's brains to hear talent as one particular thing, which is very cabaret. It can be interesting if it's true to you and if you're being super honest, but it's possible to make things that are relatable from the standpoint that the world is this huge place with loads of different opinions and loads of different people.” While pure emotion is currently equated with singing as loudly and clearly as humanly possible, Garrett pushes the majority of his vocals on Power through a strange, ghost-like filter; disembodying the plaintive "On Your Own" and the ghostly "Love So Cold," while adding a sheen of irony to the radio-friendly bounce of "Cool Like Me." Again, there are purely selfish reasons behind it: “I like the frequency of the vocal through a filter,” he shrugs. “I like to be able to clearly hear the melodies.”
That's not to say that the album is coldly unemotional. With the concept acting mainly as a guide for Power's lyrical content and its artwork—an image of Garret sat in front of the gigantic sun machine against a post-apocalyptic backdrop—the songs are “genuinely empathetic” and “based on my life of being around other people, but not necessarily about my own experiences”. In a strange, mad professor-esque example of life imitating art, he's also aware of how, over its protracted gestation, Power has come to symbolize something else for him personally. “I feel like in a way the album's more true even now,” he explains. “My life has become a microcosm of what the record is. I see the album as the sun machine, which I've put everything into, and people were giving me money to do it and then it didn't work and then I broke up with my girlfriend and then there was that time between labels.” He pauses. “It will end better for me though.”
Ambitious at a time of mainstream creative panic and music box-ticking, Fryars feels almost like an anti-pop star, but one working from the inside to try and fuck about with it. “I feel like I'm both the outsider and the insider,” he says of his place in the pop fraternity. “Power was an indie album in that I made pretty much all of it independently, as in I funded it off an old publishing deal, but it's obviously coming out via a major.” He's drawn to the idea of trying to bring out aspects of their music they'd perhaps not tapped into before. “I think there are Fryars themes,” he says of his style. “Triumphantly fatalistic, is how I'd describe it. One of the choruses on the record is, despite what it's throwing at me, life is a thing of beauty. That sums it up.”
Fiction Records will release Fryars' Power on November 17th (pre-order it here). A new mixtape, titled The Boy In The Hood, will follow soon (listen to "Mystic Pizza" from it premiered above).