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Fred Roberts is finally ready to claim his spotlight

February 28th, 2024

Fred Roberts beams at his phone with the sort of bashful grin you’d expect from someone who’d just received a message from a crush. Yet as he passes the device to NME, it transpires the Chorleywood-raised songwriter is instead eager to show us a recent Substack essay on his breakthrough single ‘Disguise’, written by veteran SiriusXM host Larry Flick. Leaning against a sofa chair, Roberts watches on intently as we scroll through the piece, his smile extending by the minute. “‘Disguise’ doesn’t aim to exist on the shapeshifting edges of pop music,” it reads. “Rather, it proudly lives in plain sight.”

It’s a neat summary of the track, which was released last December; an unforgiving look at the aftermath of a young, unrequited love, here Roberts describes being hidden from everyone in an ex-partner’s life. “You loved me through the darkness of a cinema,” he sings. “Where movies played but none of them ever told our truth.” ‘Disguise’ may be set to a backdrop of well-rendered, steadily building guitars – not too dissimilar from Inhaler’s usual fare – but its arrestingly messy emotional core can instead be drawn from the lyrics: it’s clear that Roberts found relief in the multiple epiphanies that followed his breakup.

As a document of queer pop’s current trajectory – which has seen UK acts like Arlo Parks, Dhruv and Baby Queen all enjoy international success in recent years – ‘Disguise’ proves that Roberts is a leading name among the current crop: he turns his private woes into anthems, with a powerful, bruised-hurt vocal that could silence a bustling room. Upcoming appearances at a string of indie-focused festivals, including Truck and Brighton’s On The Beach in July, suggest that he has crossover potential.

Credit: Jono White

“I get overwhelmed thinking about how my music is already resonating with people,” says Roberts. “And I am fortunate to be in a place where I can accept and understand what I have been through.” Sitting in a café down the road from his childhood home – located 20 miles out from central London – Roberts seems to take pleasure in describing his Chorleywood life as “quiet”, eyes widening as he scans the shelves of local produce next to our table.

This new, calm, hope-filled reality is a world away from where Roberts was little over four years ago. At only 21, he has lived multiple lives already: in 2019, he dived headlong into the industry after appearing on the first and only series of The X Factor: The Band, for which he was scouted off the back of the covers he had posted to social media as a teenager. He would go on to make it to the final as part of vocal group Unwritten Rule, who disbanded mere months after the show premiered.

But Roberts didn’t quit: he turned against the big plans that the reality TV execs had for him and pushed himself to level up. He reached out to producers via email, engaged with Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright records, and, he confesses with a laugh, watched back his audition tape multiple times. It was the latter experience that made him realise he didn’t feel connected to the performer he presented himself as on that fateful day, having been told by judges that “the girls would go crazy” for him. Only after this period of upheaval was Roberts able to approach songwriting with fresh eyes.

Roberts’ currently-unannounced debut EP – which is expected to arrive later this spring – is the sound of a performer realising their own worth. Having recently come out of a longterm relationship, as well as reestablishing his artistic identity, Roberts has earned the right to a little levity: these warm, uptempo songs feel akin to crescendoing waves of euphoria. His new music is proof, too, that Roberts simply needed one key component to make the jump to a career that now has plenty of eyes on it: self-belief.

NME: What were your original intentions for going on The X Factor: The Band?

“I didn’t have the confidence to get up on stage on my own; to be on live TV… I couldn’t have done that by myself. I needed a wall to hide behind, which became the band. The pressure wasn’t solely on me, particularly when producers were asking us questions about our experiences on the show – if I was made to talk about my personal life or relationships at the age of 17, I would have lied.

“When the band broke up, I gained a better understanding of why I had started pursuing music in the first place. I didn’t want to be seen as a vehicle for success – there was no space for me to tell my story with so many other people around me.”

How did it feel to have to figure out who you were while coping with the pressures of being in the public eye?

“Being on a big machine of a show like that, [the producers] have to try and commercialise or market everyone on there based on their style, but at the time, I wasn’t out about my sexuality. I was being told, like every other young boy who has gone on talent shows: ‘The girls are gonna love you!’

“It was weird, because obviously I knew I didn’t care about all of that attention… but then it triggered a lot of anxiety inside of me, like, ‘When am I gonna tell everyone [that I’m gay]?’. It was a very intense first experience in the industry, as everything was all very new to me.

“I have a very specific memory of being in an Uber back home from the studio in London, and I was staring out the window and feeling like [the show] wasn’t going to be this big, life-changing thing in the way I had anticipated. But there was also a huge confidence boost that came with getting through that first audition – it did, in a strange way, make me realise I could start doing music, particularly as I had no other connections beforehand.”

fred roberts
Credit: Jono White

Do you still feel connected to that version of yourself?

“I think I have grown so much in recent years, but much of my new EP is about what happened in my life between the ages of 14 and 19, so in some ways, I have reignited parts of my younger self while working on these songs in the studio. I am telling these stories for him, you know? He wasn’t open with how he felt; he just hid away and didn’t tell anyone when he was struggling. When I think about all the steps I have taken in order to be able to write and sing about that time in my life, I almost feel a little overwhelmed, as well as proud.”

When working on your new music, were there any topics that felt difficult for you to write about?

“To tell the story of ‘Disguise’ was hard as it is extremely specific in its lyrics. But the purpose of the song was to help people see themselves in it. I spent a lot of my teenage years looking forward, but working on this new EP made me pause and reflect on what had happened before – I’d reached a new level of maturity to unpack everything. I never kept a journal when I was growing up and instead would bottle everything up, so songwriting became the release I needed.

“Also, I went to an all boys school, and when I was alone in lockdown, I came to realise that I had tried to copy all the traits of people there. It made me think, ‘What do I actually like about myself? What am I passionate about?’. I couldn’t release a song there and then, in the pandemic, as I needed more time to process what had been on my mind.”

“I have reignited parts of my younger self while working on new music”

How do you think Gen Z artists approach pop music differently than those who came before you?

“You can be so much more open about who you are now. When I discovered Troye Sivan as a teenager, he was one of the only queer male artists around at the time; before I heard his music, I knew who I was inside but I didn’t know how to articulate that feeling and put it to music. It was [Troye’s 2015 album] ‘Blue Neighbourhood’ that represented the experiences I’d been having… he was the spark that allowed me to be more accepting of myself.

“When it comes to my own music, I don’t want my sexuality to be the entire story, but it is contextually important [to the lyrics] because there are certain experiences that queer people have that straight people don’t. By using [male] pronouns in my songs, I’m making things clear.

“If I can have the same impact on someone as what [Sivan’s] ‘Fools’, ‘Wild’ and that era of music had on me, then that transcends anything else. No amount of money can buy that connection you can form through music with someone you haven’t ever met before.”

Fred Roberts will play London’s Courtyard Theatre on March 7 

This content was originally sourced and posted at NME »
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