Sometimes, the moments that change you are the ones that catch you completely off guard. People we meet who, without trying, enrapture us. Moments like standing in the crowd at a concert watching an artist you admire and all of a sudden finding yourself crying uncontrollably. These are two things that acted as valuable catalysts for Fred Roberts, a young British songwriter transforming the relatable revelations of his life into exposing, diaristic songs about self discovery.
What Fred Roberts makes is both anthemic and introspective; the work of a young gay artist thinking hard about his past, and making music that, in the future, will help others make sense of the tumult of modern-day growing up and reckoning with your identity.
Born in the suburbs of south London and raised in the Hertfordshire countryside, Fred has had a yearning to exercise his musical side since he was a toddler. His mother, a West End performer, was “the root” of it, he says. At 3 years old, he was stumbling around nursery singing “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, much to the amusement of his teachers. His mum, keen to cultivate it, let him go to piano lessons at just three years old. One day she hoped he’d become a concert pianist. But Fred eventually had bigger ideas: “I realised that I like creating,” he says. “Not playing everyone else’s stuff.”
His tastes were formed in his own time. His dad, a graphic designer, was band-obsessed in his youth, and passed on his catalogues of recommendations – The Clash, The Jam, The Smiths – to Fred. After a natural teenage reticence, he dove into them, finding flecks of inspiration in the melds of massive sounds, many of which inform the music he makes today.
Growing up, Fred went to an all boys school, trying to slip under the radar of a space that felt alien to him. He was playing rugby and hockey, “trying to fit in as much as possible,” he says. In the beginning, confused as to what his place was within it. He is gay, but at the time didn’t know who to tell or how to articulate it. “The conversation doesn’t exist at that age,” he says. Then, when he was 14, he found an artist – a film – that changed everything.
The artist was Troye Sivan, and the video was his Blue Neighbourhood trilogy: a 12-minute music video opus that charts a young gay couple’s relationship from its early stages, through a lustful, if tumultuous teen romance. It marked the first time he’d seen two men kiss, he says, “and it answered a lot of the questions I didn’t know I was asking.” When Troye announced his Bloom tour, a 15-year-old Fred got the train to London and stood in the crowd, surrounded by people like him. He cried for six minutes.
He kept his sexuality to himself at first, slowly letting it unfurl as he grew up. At 14, on a French exchange trip he whispered it into the ear of a girl-friend; his parents learned at 16. They were, unsurprisingly, lovely about it.
In the summer of 2019, Fred headed to Reading Festival. He saw some of his heroes on stage; the energy of it all unparalleled. It was like an implosive introduction to the world of live music: seeing artists like Clairo and The 1975. “I didn’t see myself on the stage, but it was like a physical embodiment of what I’d been listening to and learning about,” he says. He came home and it hit him: “I’m gonna record covers and put them on Instagram”. He had long been musical; on top of those early piano lessons, he played violin, and was part of a school choir in his early teens. Now, he was doing what most people his age do when they possess a talent they didn’t yet know what to do with, covering everyone from Billie Eilish to Lana del Rey.
Through that, he was scouted for The X Factor: The Band, which aired at the end of 2019. He auditioned and made it into the show’s final line-up as part of the male group. The heady rush of musical education taught him a lot, and it’s an experience he’s “fortunate and grateful” for, but when the pandemic landed three months later, things unravelled. He wasn’t back to square one, but the glittering path ahead of him went awry.
His mother picked him back up, convincing him to combine his musicality with his love for writing stories. He’d learned sheet music his whole life, but hadn’t considered what would happen if you were to deconstruct the chords, the elements, and build something of its own from the parts of it. “It was a turning point,” he says. “I just started recording for the fun of it.”
Now, songwriting is “innate,” he says, “but it was definitely almost supernatural once.” In the early days of the pandemic, between online school sessions, Fred wrote his first song called “Internet Crowd”, about, he says, “the weirdness of having a following but not seeing any of them”. It started a chain reaction: the realisation that these feelings he’d had inside of them made sense when he sang them.
By September 2021, Fred’s friends had gone off to university, but he’d deferred his place with the intention of chasing his dreams. Though it looked like he was killing time from the outside, his Instagram covers and post-X Factor notoriety had put him on the radar of songwriters and producers responsible for working with industry greats. From his bedroom – and thanks to a chance encounter with writer and now creative collaborator Andrew Wells (who counts Phoebe Bridgers, Halsey and Five Seconds of Summer as past collaborators) – Fred Roberts’ career began.
His work feels like the kind of anthemic rock-pop that fills stadiums: overwhelming, teeming with emotion, formed around a kind of to-the-point storytelling that propelled artists like Olivia Rodrigo, Shawn Mendes and his idol, Troye Sivan, into the spotlight.
Early tracks like “Rewind”, co-written and produced by Adam Yaron, capture the feeling of being 15, from a small town, and thinking the greatest years of your life are behind you; that someone you once loved slipped mercilessly through your hands.
But his big, bombastic run out of the gate is his debut single “Runaway”, written with Andrew Wells, Tom Mann (Lewis Capaldi) and Anthony Rossomando (Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding). The rousing guitar-rock track, which feels antithetical to the sound of most queer love songs, chronicles Fred’s encounter with a boy he once knew, and had drifted from. “I felt like I was seeing someone who felt like they were from a past life,” he says of its inspiration. “It’s about an acceptance of bad things happening in your life and realising that you can’t run away from them. I have a tendency to shove things to the back of my head, but the song is about not having anger towards someone for something that was, I realised, really necessary.”
It marked the beginning of a close collaboration between Fred and Andew, who together – both in London and LA – have made a handful of songs that speak to the same frank experiences of complex, young queer love and self acceptance. On his first trip to Los Angeles – the first time he’d left the country solo – he had the opportunity to reflect on the moments that led him to become who he was, and attempt to exorcise them. He’d seen Call Me by Your Name, and was enamoured by the idea of gay life containing an optimism he’d struggled to find elsewhere.
The music is still brewing, the memories of Fred’s past informing a catalogue of music that exists for the wider world to see themselves within. From his pains, a brooding, energetic body of work, full of feeling, is born: “I write songs with the specific intent of helping someone who is going through the same experience,” Fred Roberts says. “I want them to know it can be okay.”
INTRODUCING… FRED ROBERTS
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