Interview: Sam Smith

October 09, 2013

The charismatic crooner behind Disclosure's "Latch" steps out of obscurity and into the spotlight

Sam Smith is going to be a big deal. Actually, he already kind of is. His voice—which is rounded and husky, lived-in but also wide-eyed and exuberant, has helped make a handful of huge singles: Disclosure's "Latch," and Naughty Boy's "La La La," as well as his solo song "Lay Me Down." Now, he's just released Nirvana, his first EP. It's mostly brooding and somber, but it doesn't feel exhausting or tired. Smith knows how to mine emotions for all the little subtleties they contain. Over the phone, he's optimistic and in love with his new life as a singer, like he knows he's going to be successful, but still can't quite believe it.

Can you tell me about where you grew up and how you got into singing? I grew up in a countryside village in the middle of nowhere. Like a 50-minute drive to the first shop. I started singing when I was eight. I was trained by a jazz singer, and then I started doing musical theater. I got my first manager when I was 13. I went through about three different managers, actually—I created an album and was constantly singing until the age of 18. I only loved listening to female singers. Just the girls. I just replicated Whitney [Houston] records and Chaka Khan records—that's all I did. I turned 18 and moved to London and worked in a bar job. Actually, December just gone, I was in the bar working full-time. I met a guy called Jimmy [Napes], and we wrote "Lay Me Down," and Disclosure heard "Lay Me Down," and then we did "Latch."

You've been touring, right? I did a four date tour and it was my first ever one.

And that was you premiering your solo material? Yeah. I never used to do loads and loads of solo shows. It's just getting the ball rolling, I guess—to set up my band and get that performing team around me and showcase some new material. It was so much fun, and it rekindled my love for playing live again, because the crowds were so amazing.

Were you not into playing live before? I used to get so nervous that I forgot to enjoy it. Also, I was doing shows and people didn't know my music. It's a huge difference when you're singing songs that everyone knows. Hearing them sing back is so special. The other lovely thing is I went and met everyone after every show I did. I went outside and met every single person I could. It was a massive ego boost, but it's also just really nice to see the reactions and what the music's doing. It's really lovely.

Were you nervous going into it? Yeah. I had to stand there by myself, and it was all on me. I said on the mic most nights—"I cant get used to the fact that that you're here to see just me sing." It's very weird. It changed my perception of performing live.

I noticed you make acoustic versions of some of your songs. Is that how you write? It's not the way I wrote those songs, but every song I sing I will be able to take it and strip it back. I love that I can do both of those things. I love "Latch" as a song so much and to be able to stand on stage with Disclosure and sing it at these massive festivals where people are going crazy and they're all off their faces and they're dancing–to be able to sing to that crowd and then be able to sing the same song to a smaller crowd and nearly make people cry and see that kind of reaction is so incredible. By doing these acoustic videos, I really do get the best of both worlds.

I was listening to the Nirvana EP, and I noticed that compared to the bigger songs you've been part of, like "Latch" and "La La La," it felt a bit more subdued and somber. My music is quite melancholy. I love r&b and soul music—my issue is that I love all types. So basically, after "Latch," I've been in the studio constantly. I decided when I was doing my sessions to not do sessions with one type of writer. I really just did everything, and it got to the point where my album was taking shape, but there were a few songs that didn't sound like they were going to be on the album. I loved them so much and i just thought, Why am I not putting this music out? I think people want to hear good music. That's what I did with this EP—it was a brave move from everyone. Instead of launching into my main singles and album, I wanted to show people the progression of what I'm doing and what I'm working on and my journey. "Safe With Me" and "Nirvana" are very different from what is going to be on the album, but they're part of the journey. I hope that people feel like they're seeing the growth.

It sounds like you've been working a lot, but are very selective about what music ends up in the world. There isn't much Sam Smith music out there. I've been working on my album. I've been enjoying myself—having fun. It's a complete life change for me. I was working in a bar for two years, and this year I'm just doing what I love every day. I'm taking my time. I'm enjoying myself. Just living. What's really important to me is going out and having fun and making mistakes, because that's what makes good music. Doing things. That's what I can write about. I've been enjoying it all. I will always forever be putting out music. You say that there's not a lot of music out, but from the day that "Latch" dropped, I haven't stopped putting out music, whether its acoustic videos or my EP. But you're right—I'm cautious of what I do put out. I want to tell the story in a certain way.

It feels like a lot of artists, at similar stages in their careers, end up feeling the pressure so heavily that they just hole up in the studio and forget that making music can be fun. I know it sounds really bad, but I don't want to take it too seriously. I really do think it's so important just to have fun. My music is so honest—it's a documentation of my life. I was in LA recently, and I was working with Linda Perry, and I met some friends and we went out. It was basically the decision: do I go out before a Linda Perry session, or do I stay in the hotel and be prepared and go in feeling not hungover? In my mind, I just thought, Fuck it. Go out. I'm in LA, I've never been here before, go out, drink too much, kiss someone. And then I walked into the session the next day and I wrote a beautiful song with her about what had just happened that night. That was a real lesson for me, actually—just to really love and live each moment, because it could end tomorrow and I don't want to be stuck in the studio and then go straight home to bed. It may be the sensible thing to do, but I don't think sensible creates…I don't know…crazy, truthful stories. If I'm going to put myself on the line—my music, my lyrics—I want to be able to back it up with that experience. When people hear a song, to tell them, I know exactly what that song is about, who it's about, where it's about.

Ideally, your music would present a clear vision of who you are. I never used to be this open until I started writing and realized how good it made me feel when I was singing the truth, basically—when I was singing stuff that was really personal. People would hear it and get me a little bit more, understand me more. I really hope people enjoy listening to the story. I might have a really boring life next year, and no one will want to hear about it.

Interview: Sam Smith