Cover Story: Sam Smith
The about-to-explode pop singer opens up about love songs and his sexuality in his cover story from our Summer Music issue.
From the magazine: ISSUE 92, June/July 2014. This is the third of four covers from our annual Summer Music issue.
Sun ping-pongs off the skyline beneath the 11th floor of a hotel in West Berlin as Sam Smith cups his cappuccino and counts the cities he’s visited in the last 10 days: New York, Chicago, Toronto, Los Angeles, Sydney, London and Amsterdam. Dissecting differences between European and American audiences, he talks blithely, with an appreciable daze incurred from crossing so many datelines. His sea blue eyes dart between his hands and the view of Kurfürstendamm, which rolls on endlessly. “I’m sorry, I just have to take a picture of this,” he says, pulling out his iPhone. He filters the photo and Instagrams it immediately. Moments like this remind you of Smith’s age; it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22. Most of the time, he seems far beyond his years, with a 6’4” frame, a polite eloquence and a subtle, mischievous charm that stems from a near lifetime of professional grooming.
Born in the rural county of Cambridgeshire, England, Smith was placed in formal vocal training with a local jazz singer at the age of 8, after his parents heard him singing along to Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love” one morning on the drive to his Catholic primary school. Much of his childhood and adolescence, thereafter, was spent in theater rehearsals; his mother, then a prominent banker in London, often asked her son to perform for friends and associates at dinner parties. From the age of 12, Smith’s career was handled by six different managers, with guarantees of fame that never came to pass. Meanwhile, burgeoning reality TV singing competitions like American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent were rocketing common folk with uncommon voices to stardom. When he was 16, his mother was fired from her job for “gross misconduct,” after supposedly spending too much company time on his budding pop career. (Smith denies his mother’s over-involvement.) His formative years were spent pursuing fame, but it eluded him, leaving him with a persistent desire for the things he couldn’t have—love included.
Smith moved to London at the age of 18 and tended bar in Essex, where he met songwriter Jimmy Napes. Together, they wrote “Lay Me Down,” a forlorn ballad that Napes forwarded to Disclosure’s managers in 2012. Smith was still unsigned at the time, but co-wrote “Latch” that same year, a collaboration with the house duo that featured his brawny and luscious falsetto. That voice provided a runway for “Latch” to crack the UK Top 20 and charmed Capitol Records president Nick Raphael, who signed him. It was a breakthrough made possible by something Smith hadn’t yet explored musically: contrast. His voice is inherently traditional and lends itself to old standards; he has covered Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan to great effect. But pairing up with Disclosure (and later, with Naughty Boy on the #1 UK hit “La La La”) added a contemporary edge to Sam Smith that made him sound, for once, as young as his age. Suddenly, he was relevant.
His debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is richly and deliberately pop, as expected from an artist who’s long been made-up for the masses. The production is taut, and Smith’s nuanced delivery is spotless. His honeyed tone injects illusions of joy on sorrowful songs like “Leave Your Lover,” in which he begs an object of affection to do just that, and “Stay With Me,” another pleading track about a one-night stand. Whitney Houston, an idol of his, created a similar emotive effect with her voice but from a different path. She was a girl from hardscrabble Newark whose vocal punch came straight from the church; her ability to make pop songs sound both sad and rhapsodic was the brilliance of her gospel roots. Much of the soulful inflections in Smith’s singing, however, stem from study and emulation. But on record, that’s still impactful, and the album’s confessionals sound like hymns of unrequited love, with coils of precariousness and languishing heartache.
For a vocalist so dynamic, his speaking voice is without affect. Years of theater training can do that to an artist’s speech, rinsing distinguishing tics like regional dialects, of which Smith has none. The person behind his voice remains largely a mystery, too. That anonymity has been part of Smith’s major-label manicuring—he’s been packaged so that his singing voice speaks for itself. But fame often demands a sacrifice of privacy. Earlier this year, tabloids linked Smith with model Daisy Lowe (he publicly confirmed their relationship was platonic), while the romantically ambiguous video for “Leave Your Lover” has many commenters questioning his sexuality. For a singer so readily associated with the love songs, he has remained vague on who he’s singing about—until now. Today, with refreshing candor, Smith speaks about dreams of stardom, love songs and the man who inspired them.
How did you get started with music? My mum put me in vocal lessons once a week with a jazz singer named Joanna Eden. I remember our first lesson: I sang Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” and “Get Happy” by Judy Garland. You know when your parents say you are good at something? You are just like, “Yeah, whatever.” But when my teacher said, “You’ve got something here”—I had never received a compliment for anything, because I was always quite average. For someone to hear my voice and be like, “Wow”—I really fed off that.
When did you start performing for audiences? I bought an amplifier when I was 11 years old. We had a conservatory in our house, which has, like, three really high stairs going up to a kind of stage area. Whenever my mum had dinner parties and when she was drunk, she used to make me go up on the stage and sing to everyone. I did, for some absurd reason.
Did you like it? I did. At first, I used to be like, “Mum, no,” but she wasn’t a pushy parent. It was actually my dad that used to push me. I think she was just very proud that her son could sing. But instead of going home from school and chilling and watching TV, I’d go and turn on the mic, and just sing to backing tracks by myself. Then I started doing musical theater, and backup singing for my jazz teacher. I used to go to jazz clubs, and my teacher would bring me out to sing “Feeling Good” with her as a duet. I was 15 or 16. I got thrown in the deep end sometimes.
A lot of talent managers took interest in you when you were young. When I was 14 or 15, I was promised stardom. It was sad, actually. [My managers] would literally say, “You’re going to be this famous by next year.” I was thinking, “Great, I can leave school at 16.” They’d tell me things, and I’d go to school the next day and I’d be like, “I’m going to be doing this in a few months, I’m going to be singing a song with this person.” It never materialized, and I looked like a complete idiot. I remember when Lady Gaga was coming out, watching her and hearing her story of how she hustled in New York for everything. I remember thinking “Right, that’s what I need to do.” I left the management and I started writing music. I moved to London and wrote a song called “Little Sailor,” and one of the lyrics was Six different managers all filled with good intent/ Promised me the world but I haven’t seen anything yet. It was a song to myself to say, “Hold out for one more year, and if you’re still being let down and you’re still being promised the world and nothing’s happening, life’s too short. Go and travel and be a 20-year-old boy.”
“I had never received a compliment because I was always quite average. For someone to hear my voice and be like, ‘Wow’—I really fed off that.”
What was it like growing up around strong women, between your mother and your two sisters? Well, my great aunts were some of the first-ever female bankers in London, and my mum was, too; she was the provider for the family. My dad was a house husband, so the roles of women in my family were so strong. The guys are amazing in our family, but they are more feminine. The females are the providers, which has turned me into a complete feminist. When I was young, my mum and dad use to have me and my sisters come downstairs to dinner parties, and we used to sit at the table with groups of my mum’s work friends. I’d watch my mum hold her own until the very end with these men, who were hard businessmen. Just watching her has turned me into someone who really fights for things I believe in, and who has a lot confidence in what I do. There’s a lot of independence, which has left me a bit lonely every now and then.
There are reports that your mother lost her job due to over-involvement in your career. Was she a stage mom? It was the most horrible situation. My mum was working in London—she was very powerful. There’s so much to it. My mum is a very honest person and she did nothing wrong. When I was a kid, we lived in a big house in the countryside. We called it “the pink house.” We had a swimming pool, we had all these amazing things. If my mum spent an hour a day on me, we wouldn’t be living in that house. Also, if my mum was managing me, then what the fuck was my dad doing? My dad was with me all day, every day. That was my dad’s job. I didn’t have a pop career. I was in school every day from seven in the morning until five at night. All I had time to do was record some songs. The only thing I got mad about was that my mum was being presented as a stage mom. It actually takes away from me. The reason I’m in Berlin right now with you—yes, my mom and dad had a massive reason to do with that, but this is my work. This is me moving to London, and me singing and honing my craft. This is my choice. This is my passion and my drive.
With all your time spent focused on music, do you feel you had a proper adolescence? I was doing shows every day, or I’d be doing rehearsals for shows. So no, every single day after school I’d go to rehearsals and then sleep. I remember the first time I drank was at an after-school party when I was 16. When I turned 17, I stopped doing musical theater and I was making up for lost time a little bit. I went a bit mental. I remember my friends all wanted to go to bars and I just wanted to be a street rat and sit on the streets and drink because I never got to do that.
You sing a lot about love and relationships. What’s been your experience with love? I’ve never been in a relationship before. I’ve only been in unrequited relationships where people haven’t loved me back. I guess I’m a little bit attracted to that in a bad way. In the Lonely Hour is about a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn’t love me back. I think I’m over it now, but I was in a very dark place. I kept feeling lonely in the fact that I hadn’t felt love before. I’ve felt the bad things. And what’s a more powerful emotion: pain or happiness?
Does he know he largely inspired the album? He does. I told him about it recently, and obviously it was never going to go the way I wanted it to go, because he doesn’t love me. But it was good as a form of closure, to get it off my chest and tell him. I feel better for it. I feel almost like I signed off this part of my life where I keep giving myself to guys who are never going to love me back. It feels good to have interviews like this, to chat about it and put stuff to bed. It’s all there now, and I can move on and hopefully find a guy who can love me the way I love him.
This is the first time you’re speaking publicly about him. How comfortable are you to be open in this way now? I am comfortable with myself, and my life is amazing in that respect. I’m very comfortable and happy with everything. I just wanted to talk about him and have it out there. It’s about a guy and that’s what I wanted people to know—I want to be clear that that’s what it’s about. I’ve been treated as normal as anyone in my life; I’ve had no issues. I do know that some people have issues in life, but I haven’t, and it’s as normal as my right arm. I want to make it a normality because this is a non-issue. People wouldn’t ask a straight person these questions. I’ve tried to be clever with this album, because it’s also important to me that my music reaches everybody. I’ve made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody— whether it’s a guy, a female or a goat—and everybody can relate to that. I’m not in this industry to talk about my personal life unless it’s in a musical form.
Why do you think people are so curious about your sexuality? In the short time I’ve lived on this Earth, all I’ve seen are boxes. People put things in boxes; it makes it easier to digest information. People say I’m the new Adele. Why is [my sexuality] a talking point? I’m singing, I’m making music, I’m performing my music—that’s what should be the talking point. If I come on record and start speaking about it in an interview, then mark my words, that’s your time to chip in; I’ve given you the passcode to my business and to my personal life. But I am an artist, and in interviews, speaking like this, it’s not my idea of art; it’s just my idea of exchange, talking human to human. It shouldn’t be an issue, but it will be an issue. It’s always an issue.
Do you worry about future relationships being brought into the spotlight because of your fame? I do worry about it. But I also have a very strong head on my shoulders and I’m not willing to be someone I’m not for the sake of other people.
“I want to be rich in all the foods I’ve tasted and all the places I’ve been and all the people I’ve kissed.”
Are you ready for what fame brings? At 22, you’re still very much figuring out your identity. You know what? I don’t know [who I am] and I’m really not trying to pretend like I know. I don’t know who I am. Did you know who you were at 22? I’m still trying to work out who I want to be. I know I want to be a singer, and it makes me feel good. Even going back to the writing thing—sometimes I go into the session and want to be like Beyoncé, so I try to do Beyoncé songs. But the only songs that work are the ones where I’m being myself. That moment never lasts though. Two years ago, I thought I was going to be a guy who was going to love parties and love mixing with stars, and be that kind of guy who soaks up the whole fame side of it. But the more I get into this, it’s the only part that makes me uncomfortable.
Part of being a pop star is opening yourself up to a lot of criticism. For female artists, that often involves their bodies. Do you experience that same kind of criticism? I do, actually. I got a comment on my Instagram recently—I posted a picture and someone said, “He’s getting fatter and fatter.” It boggles my mind. I can see why people would go crazy. I do care about the way I look; I used to be really, really big as a child, so my weight is something that I have always been very conscious of and sensitive about. But I don’t give a shit. I just need to have the best body I can and feel confident in that. I’ve had some horrible things said to me in my life, so I’m quite immune to things like that.
You represent a return of the virtuosic vocalist in popular music, much like artists you’ve idolized did in their time—Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross. Is that important to you? That’s why I make the music I make. I want to make the music that’s not there anymore. I’m so passionate about the singing voice. I genuinely feel like there’s a snobbery in the industry where people feel like playing an instrument makes you a better songwriter or musician. What I’m trying to do actually with my album is show that it’s my voice that’s leading. It’s my voice that’s the instrument. It’s hard, it’s difficult—I watch artists around me that have 200 fans waiting outside of hotels and venues for them and they can’t sing.
Does that make you angry? It makes me angry because the music isn’t there. I’m part of that MTV generation. I care about what someone wears when they go to the studio. All I’m asking for is a balance between people who can make thousands of girls scream, and people who can deliver and make music that can stand the test of time. Some of these artists today—as famous people they will stand the test of time, but their music will not. If we don’t have music that will last, what is the little kid sitting in the countryside in a pink house a hundred years down the line going to listen to for inspiration?
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What do you want? I want to grow down a bit over the next few years. It’s quite strange to say, but I feel like I’ve got quite an old head on my shoulders. I want to let go and have fun a bit more. But I want to be wise. I want to see the world. I want to be rich in all the foods I’ve tasted and all the places I’ve been and all the people I’ve kissed. I want to be rich in every single way.
Do you think fame will allow you to do that? I think it will. I hope it will to some extent. And if it doesn’t, I’ll be really disappointed because, in my head, fame and success were going to bring some magical things. I’m still hopeful for that.