As an aspiring British soul singer, you know you’ve made it when one of America’s hugest sketch comedy shows, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, invites you to appear, long before your debut album is even released. So Sam Smith, then only 21 and virtually unknown outside of his homeland, felt a little wind beneath his fledgling wings this March when he strolled out on the show’s stage to croon a passionate, Gospel-school rendition of his latest single “Stay With Me” to rousing, rafter-rattling applause. Who was this kid with the cherubic good looks and Boy-George-charismatic voice? folks wondered. And where in the hell had he come from, seemingly overnight?
No one is wondering any more. From that fateful moment on, Smith’s career has been on a skyward-bound, rocket-velocity trajectory, culminating in the recent news that his debut disc – In the Lonely Hour, which streeted in May – had earned him no less than six Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist. And he had a triumphant return engagement on SNL on its Christmas episode last month. Sort of. The program opened with comedian Taran Killam, dressed like the singer in his foppish finest, under the hilarious title of “A Very Somber Christmas With Sam Smith.” “Christmas is about spending time with the ones you love, which is why I’m all alone,” Killam’s overly sensitive Smith character intoned, before the broadcast cut out, only to be pre-empted by Mike Myers, in bald-headed Dr. Evil mode from his Austin Powers films.
The skit, of course, poked fun at the most topical subject of the week – North Korea’s anger over the controversial (and hastily pulled and re-released) flick The Interview. But in passing, it made its own humorous little point about Smith’s gut-wrenching, heart-on-sleeve album: In his own interviews this year, the artist, now 22, has revealed that he’s gay, and that most of his album lyrically concerns his lifelong battle with unrequited love.
Chances are, he wasn’t actually going stag this Yuletide, as Killam insinuated, since Hour is one of the two biggest-selling pop records of 2014, second only to Taylor Swift’s monster hit 1989. But the fact that Smith – in nine short months – had acquired such a recognizable, albeit spoofable, profile was news in itself. Wherever he was this holiday season, Sam Smith, you can rest assured, was 100% certain that he finally had hit the big time.
The operative word here? ‘Finally.’ Smith has been taking his career seriously ever since childhood. Long before he even had the terminology to call it a career. “Singing is something I work hard on, but it’s never felt like a chore to me,” says the affable, self-deprecating performer, who first came to prominence in 2012 as the guest vocalist on Disclosure’s hit “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” “And I would personally say that my real teachers of music were the artists I would listen to, and for that, I would thank my parents. Because all my mom did was play Whitney Houston or Luther Vandross or Stevie Wonder from a young age. And I remember – as much as I don’t listen to male singers – listening to Stevie’s tones, and it was just so spot-on-the-nose, so warm. And now I’m really, really critical of myself – if it’s not spot-on-the-nose, then I’m not happy.”
By age eight, Junior knew what he wanted for Christmas – vocal lessons from renowned jazz singer and instructor Joanna Eden. And that wasn’t the concept of a starry-eyed stage mom, he swears. “That was me pushing my mum, because I was very hungry to do something from a very young age,” he says. “And Joanna took me up when I first started singing, so I feel it’s just all about the way you’re taught from a young age. I had jazz training, and I also had musical theater training, and each genre uses the voice in a completely different way. So I feel like floating in and out of all those genres really loosened my voice as a child. And also, only listening to female singers and replicating them is why I can sing so high.”
Smith adds that he’s never had a past-life regression to discover if he’s lived before, perhaps been a Vaudevillian song-and-dance man or a Southern blues growler. He has no idea why he just happens to be so creatively driven. “But I remember being very young and getting very upset when I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was older,” he sighs, chuckling at the absurdity. “It was always something that had to be clear to me as a child, and even now, I think about my career every second of every day. I’m always thinking ‘What next? What are we going to do next?'” Believe it or not, he says, he already has the design for the cover of his as-yet-unrecorded sophomore album mentally mapped out. “I may not even make one,” he counters. “But it’s already set in my head. I have to have at least a couple of years ahead of me planned at all times. It’s a bit weird. It may be an OCD thing.” (Obsessive-compulsive disorder is something else with which he struggles from time to time, he’s admitted.)
A past existence might be out of the question. But it’s easy enough to regress Smith back to his halcyon, wide-eyed youth. After all, it was only a few years ago. And it almost feels like a therapy session, as he stops to focus on certain particular moments that he now sees as significant, even prophetic. “It sounds really weird for me to say this,” he admits. “But I remember being 12 when I was told by my teacher to create a poster, and to stick pictures on it of what you dream of doing, and just writing it all down and stuff. So that’s what I did.” He pauses, draws a thoughtful breath. “And a lot of the things on that poster have now come true, which is really, really crazy. One of them was to perform in 02 Arena and another was to have a #1 single. And all of that stuff – loads of that stuff – happened, which I kind of dreamt up. Because I stuck that poster in my room and I looked at it every morning.” The poster still exists, he adds – it’s salted away somewhere in the family home.
When his classmates saw that artwork, some snickered, Smith recalls, while others simply shrugged their shoulders in ‘Whatever, dude’ apathy. Now, he somehow finds it comforting that no one took him that seriously. Victory is so much sweeter since he’s proven all the naysayers wrong. “Because you know, all kids have dreams, and all kids have aspirations,” he says, waxing philosophical. “But when you become 18 or 19, a laziness hits some children, and so people lost that passion for what they once had and replace it with the passion for just going clubbing and having fun with your friends. Which is all fine. But I always wanted something more than that. And it’s nice now to be able to look back and think that there were certain people who’ve been in my life who never thought I would do this. But I did!”
In the Lonely Hour deserves all the acclaim. And sales figures. It opens with another single, the finger-popping “Money on My Mind,” which lets Smith’s rich, retro-R&B voice leap from trapeze to trapeze over jagged beats. And he’s just getting warmed up. “Stay With Me” follows, in two stunning versions – his skeletal Sunday-sermon take and a bonus-track take featuring Mary J. Blige (with whom he just penned several tracks for her critically-kudoed new album “The London Sessions”). Then there’s the simple acoustic strummer “Leave Your Lover” (unrequited love to the maudlin max), a stomping roadhouse rocker called “I’m Not the Only One,” the melancholy, operatic piano ballad “Life Support” (unrequited, times umpteen), and the bubbly “Restart,” which sounds celebratory until you pay closer attention to the hand-wringing wordplay: “It was a Monday night when you told me it was over/ And by the Friday night I knew that I would be okay.” The songs are all good, solid soulful efforts. But it’s Smith’s elastic, truly elegiac throat that elevates them to neo-classic status.
Smith once saw the now-omnipresent Idina Menzel open the musical Wicked in his native London when he was an impressionable youngster. And he knows the old ‘How do you get to Broadway?’ asking-for-directions joke, and its cutting punchline: ‘Practice, practice, practice!’ “And I look after my voice really well,” he declares. “I train every morning and I’m as healthy as I can be. I try not to drink and I keep as quiet as possible. I was trained by some amazing people, and I’ve taken their secrets and tips, and I wake up every morning and do 15 or 20 minutes of vocal exercises. And then I’m set for the rest of the day. So I work hard at this, I really do.”
Smith’s worst enemy? The common cold. A flu bug could grind his exacting performances to an embarrassing halt. “But you know what?” he chuckles. “Sometimes when you get a cold, you get a cold, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And do you know what’s really horrible about it? It’s all in your head. And if I can’t sing, there isn’t a show, and you feel really responsible for that. So that’s the only thing that’s really annoying. Other than that? I’m fine.”
And there have been some incredibly scary vocal moments. Heading over to Austin’s South by Southwest music festival this year, the singer felt a tickle in his throat. He’d had a cold a few weeks before, but he thought he’s defeated it. “But as soon as I got on the plane, I could feel the cold coming back,” he says. “So I went to do the festival, and my voice was just on its last legs, basically. And this is really descriptive, but the fan (onstage) was hitting the phlegm in my throat and it was all drying up. And it was horrible – when I was singing, it felt like I was going to cough all the time. But I got through that. And I still did the show. And as much as I’ve been losing my voice, I haven’t cancelled one show. Not ever.”
Has Smith ever considered getting his voice insured? In a Lloyd’s of London sort of deal? He cackles. “Oh, you can’t do that!” he exclaims. “Uhhh…can you? I’ve never thought about that…” And he has another famous person he could turn to advice – UK pop diva Lily Allen, to whom he’s actually related. “But I’ve only met Lily once,” he says. “She’s my third cousin, and I honestly think she’s amazing. I’ve been a massive fan of hers, from her very first album.” Now, of course, a duet or two might be in order for Smith’s hugely-anticipated follow-up.
Many vocalists reluctantly admit that – when they first hear themselves singing on playback – they’re struck by how alien, even dissonant their own voice initially sounds. Smith understands the strange phenomenon. “You know what? I don’t enjoy listening to my voice played back sometimes,” he cedes. “Especially through TV. I also feel that television is not suited for singers with range. And I’ve studied this really intently, just through watching TV performances for the last five or six years. And then seeing those same singers live myself, it’s very, very different. I mean, think about the speakers that are on your TV – they’re very tiny, so they can only take a certain range. So singers that rely more on their tone of voice, or singers that have a small range, they normally come across better on television than a singer like me. Because my range is quite big, it’s hard for the audio to control it and compress it down. So I really don’t enjoy doing television for that reason – I don’t feel like when you watch me on television, you’re getting the real experience, because you’re not hearing what my voice is actually like.”
No, for the full 360-degree Sam Smith experience, you’ll have to catch the blustery Brit on his upcoming return tour of America, where he’ll be playing more sonically-appropriate theaters. But – since the lad is so gifted – what’s it like for him in smaller venues around the holidays? Like the family living room, after Christmas dinner? Are there resounding requests from relatives to break into seasonal song?
No, they haven’t asked me yet,” he says. “And if they did, they’d be receiving an argument from me instead! But you know what? I don’t do that. I find it really weird doing that. It’s like if you were asked in front of your family to get up and be a journalist – do you know what I mean? I would find it really, really odd if people asked me to do that stuff.”
Appearing 1/23 at the UIC Pavilion