The ex-Free bassist on surviving AIDS and cancer, his new album and why songwriting is something he HAS to do
hen British blues-rock demigods Free formed in 1968, bassist Andy Fraser was still only 15 years old. Not that 15-year-olds joining bands is that unusual, of course… it’s just that most of them haven’t already been members of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the loose 1960s collective whose other alumni include Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie, and Rolling Stone Mick Taylor.
Clearly something of a musical prodigy, Fraser nonetheless took a back seat in terms of songwriting on Free’s first album Tons Of Sobs (1969), but later albums Free (1969), Fire & Water (1970) and Highway (1970) were all made up primarily of songs credited to Fraser/Rodgers – that is, Andy and vocalist Paul Rodgers. The band then broke up, but reformed for 1972’s Free At Last, in an (unsuccessful) bid to help rescue guitarist Paul Kossoff from his spiralling drug addiction; all songs on that album are jointly credited to the entire band.
By the time of 1973’s Heartbreaker, Fraser had left the group. But his subsequent projects, Sharks and the Andy Fraser Band, failed to make much impact – despite recording one album at the legendary Muscle Shoals – and in the late 70s he moved to California and concentrated on songwriting rather than performing, penning hits for Robert Palmer, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Rod Stewart, Paul Young, Randy Crawford and many more.
A solo album entitled A Fine, Fine Line emerged in 1984, but other than that Fraser remained out of the limelight for most of the 80s and 90s, before reappearing with an album called Naked & Finally Free in 2005. The album dealt with Andy’s having been diagnosed with AIDS – and with Karposi’s sarcoma, an associated from of cancer – in the 80s, and his subsequent coming out of the closet as a gay man. That album was followed by On Assignment last year, a more political opus which includes the environmentalist anthem This Is The Big One.
Coming right up to date, Fraser is currently touring the UK to promote On Assignment and his forthcoming single Beautiful, along with his protege, a very talented young guitarist called TOBI. Songwriting caught up with him on the phone from a hotel room somewhere near Winchester…
Let’s start in the present day Andy… how’s the tour going?
“Oh, we’ve been having great fun. We got here and my heart sank, because it was raining and last time I was in England, it rained for three months solid! But no, the weather’s been great, the audiences have been great, and the musicians are fantastic. It’s great to be working with Chris [Spedding, ex-Sharks, a renowned session guitarist] again, we’ve got Chris Page on drums, and we’ve got a great opening act, Malcolm Bruce, who’s Jack Bruce’s son.
“And Malcolm’s mother is one of our backing singers as well, so it’s a real family affair, we all travel together and it’s a really nice vibe. So I’ve actually surprised myself in terms of how much I’m enjoying it – the worst thing about it has been the security at the airport.”
Glad to hear you’ve been enjoying it… because for a long time in the 80s and 90s you were effectively out of the music business, weren’t you?
“Yes I was… and that really was all about me coming out of self-denial about being gay. That took me a couple of decades, basically! The thing is, I can’t stand on a stage unless I’m comfortable in my own skin… unless I could stand there naked. And coming out was a big hurdle for me – I mean, I was married with two beautiful daughters.
“But I’d been in denial all my life. I remember when I was 19, my Mum said one day, ‘If I found out my son was queer, I’d kill him’. That kind of thing makes an impression… and then being in Free which was very much a band thing, it was just… I don’t know, self-denial is a very strange thing. But eventually I had to face up to the truth – first I had to come to terms with it myself, then I had to do it in a public way.
“I was one T-cell away from death”
“What eventually dragged me out of the closet was AIDS – I was one T-cell away from death at one point. But thankfully that’s all in the past now – today I’m running round skipping about like a teenager. I haven’t felt this good for years!”
“That’s not the whole story, though. The other thing was, I was quite disillusioned with the whole music industry. Major label executives who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing, basically. First they were anti-CD, then they were anti-Napster, anti-MP3… at the moment they’re anti-streaming. It’s like they’re always trying to turn back the tide, they don’t want to acknowledge that this is the age of instant, digital access to music. That’s why I decided to set up my own company and put out my music myself.”
Ah yes, McTrax… tell us about that
“Well, I launched the label, which is a digital-only label, to release Naked & Finally Free in 2005. And now we’ve signed TOBI, who’s the first artist to sign to McTrax who isn’t me, and we’ve got a motion picture division now as well, McTrax Moving. So things are going well.”
Did you do any songwriting at all during those ‘wilderness years’?
“Oh constantly – I was always writing, it’s just that I was doing it for myself. See, I’ve played piano since I was 5, and guitar since I was 12 – making music, writing music, is just something that I do. And something that I have to do – it’s my therapy if you like. You know, some people paint or write poems… I write songs.
“So yes, during all those years I was still writing – I’ve got shelves of songs stacked up at home. All about my hopes and fears, about my political thoughts, about the ups and downs of life generally. And some of them, other people sang; I’ve been blessed in that way. But then, I’ve always sort of felt that there was someone up there looking after me.”
In fact we understand you’re quite religious these days, is that right?
“I wouldn’t say religious… but I found God about the same time I came out. See, I separate God from religion. God has always been, and always will be; religion is a recent, man-made invention that’s mostly used to control people. But separate God from religion, and you’ll get to the real deal. For me, it happened when I was sick: when all the fame and money and doctors on the planet can’t help you, God’s all that’s left. And of course, here I am today.”
So are any of those ‘shelves of songs’ likely to see the light of day at any point?
“Oh, I expect I’ll get around to them eventually. Certainly next time I need to do an album I’ve got no shortage of material! At the moment, running a record label takes up most of my time… there are budgets to work out, PR people to pay, all sorts of business-y things. But to my surprise, it’s going well and I’m really enjoying it.”
Your most famous song, All Right Now, recently won an award for being played over one million times on US radio. But what songwriters do you most admire?
“I guess a lot of the obvious ones: the Beatles, the Stones, Stevie Wonder. A lot of soul and R&B guys actually: Holland-Dozier-Holland, Marvin Gaye, Ashford & Simpson. In terms of current artists, I’m quite inspired by John Mayer… and by TOBI of course.”
“All I do is just try and learn from the best”
So which of those are you as good as – or nearly as good as? Or better than, even?
“That’s definitely one for other people to judge! All I do is just try and learn from the best, and realise that however well I think I’m doing, I could always be better.”
What song would you like to be remembered by, if not All Right Now?
“There’s quite a few, really. Be My Friend… Heavy Load, there’s some real maturity in that song. I still love a lot of those old Free songs; that band stands up for me, as it seems to for a lot of people.
“Also Every Kinda People, which was a hit for Robert Palmer and which quite a few people have covered. I wrote that just after I’d moved to the States – there was too much rain in England, and too many people dying of overdoses – and as soon as Robert heard it he said, ‘I have to record that’. We were old friends, I knew him from even before the Vinegar Joe days, and I miss him terribly. It’s weird for me, seeing that so many of my contemporaries are gone… although I was nearly gone too, I get the feeling now I’m not going anywhere for a while!”
Speaking of going… sadly our time is nearly up. But before we leave you, do you have any tips for the aspiring songwriters out there?
“Look inside yourself. Welcome your differences: they’re what makes you special, embrace them. Be honest and express yourself – your hopes, fears, dreams and emotions – without worrying what other people will think.
“It’s easy to go along with things and say what everyone says and be one of the gang. But when someone like Lady Gaga says, ‘I’m gonna be me’… that’s when you get something great happening.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
On Assignment is out now on McTrax. Andy Fraser’s autobiography, All Right Now: Life, Death And Life Again (co-written by Mark Hughes) will be out later this year.