Soulful crooner Sam Smith's debut album is a lot bleaker than what we have come to expect from him, but his songs are inspired by the pain of unrequited love.
Published 21/02/2014 | 14:30
Sam Smith's big dirty chuckle is a thing of wonder. He deploys it sparingly – but every time he does, it stops you in your tracks. Day & Night discovers this when we ask if he can remember where he was the day he went to number one with the mega-smash La La La last summer. All of a sudden he's doubled over, cackling like a fish-wife.
"On the toilet," he says, with a thigh-slapping laugh (seriously – he actually slaps his thigh). "On the toilet! My sister was downstairs in the kitchen, screaming 'you're top of the charts, you're top of the charts'. It was quite surreal. I was drunk, which probably contributed."
Strictly speaking, Smith was merely an accessory to La La La, an r'n'b thumper credited to producer Naughty Boy (Smith is listed as a 'featured' artist). As with his earlier Disclosure hook-up Latch, however, the tune is all about Smith – his soulful vocals, the way he turns a meat and veg outing into something sad and thrilling and strange.
"It was peculiar. I was working in a bar the week La La La came out," he says. "To see it go up and up and up was... odd. I had no idea I could ever find myself in the position I am in now. It's weird, looking back. Actually, it's weird looking at where I am today."
Smith, as if you don't know, is the hot new face in British music. Winner of the BBC Sound Of poll, a reliable barometer of arriving talent, and recipient of the Brits Critics' Choice Award, he's the anointed up and comer – the debutante the entire UK record industry hopes/suspects/believes will shortly be headlining arenas and moving product by the tonne.
There are, it's worth pointing out, a number of dissenters. As news of his Sound Of nomination broke, sectors of the media, in particular, could hardly contain their guffaws. The writer who described Smith's coronation as a 'joke' was speaking for the substantial group that has started to weary of the endless parade of sweet-voiced soul men upon which British music, broke and desperate, appears to be hedging its future. If ever there was a case of the backlash overtaking the hype, here it was.
"I couldn't give two shits," says the singer. "My name is Sam Smith. I've been through a few things in my life. I've written about them. If you don't like, don't listen – don't buy my songs."
Written down, it sounds like a proper diss. In fact, Smith is such a sweet young man he can't even deliver a smackdown to the cheeky journos writing him off (before his record is even here), without breaking into a broad grin. That's the way he is – a big, huggable pop teddy, with silly Jedward hair and an endless repertoire of vaguely frazzled smiles.
We're meeting at his label's London headquarters, which sounds incredibly glamourous but is rather less so in the flesh (the HQ is above a Cafe Nero and next door to a newsagents). The topic of conversation is supposed to be Smith's soon-to-be-huge career – depending on who you listen to he is either the new Amy Winehouse, this year's Emeli Sandé or the spiritual successor to Boy George. Some 'pundits' reckon he might be all three in one, though they probably haven't listened to his LP, In The Lonely Hour, which proves far bleaker than those teaser hits with Naughty Boy and Disclosure might suggest.
As it turns out, Smith isn't much interested in talking about the parade of fabulousness his life is soon to become (unless In The Lonely Hour fails to take off, in which case he'll surely be back slopping out pints by the end of the year). He'd prefer to discuss his big broken heart – the subject of practical every song he's written over the past 18 months.
"I'm brutally honest. A bit too brutally honest," he says. "My album is about a person I fell in love [with] – someone who didn't love me back. I've never been in a relationship. What happened is purely unrequited. To talk about that, especially if you are alone, was difficult."
His one-way crush became all-consuming. Even as his career rocketed off the launch pad, it was all he could think about. The world was his for the seizing and he just wanted to cry in his bedroom.
"I was in love with the person. Nothing physical ever took place. I was sure they loved me – not in the way I wanted them to. I pursued them 100 per cent. It was painful. If there's an upside it's that I was writing. I guess I got a record out of it, even if that only increased the hurt."
Garlanded with awards, Smith might at first glance pass for an overnight success. Actually he's worked at this half his life. He signed with his first manager aged 13 and went through a further dozen or so. Some of the partings were amicable, several were not. It's fair to say he is no starry-eyed ingénu.
"I've had some experiences where the managers were fucking horrific. It was an eye-opener. I think I benefited from it. Very little was happening with my career. Then, one day, I wrote an honest song about the music industry. That was the song that got me signed. It was the first time I had sung completely from the heart, put my feelings out there."
Smith was born in 1992 and grew up in Cambridgeshire, north-east of London. A gifted singer from childhood, he studied jazz and piano at school and, at 17, placed third in the prestigious From Twelve to Twenty talent contest. However, his charmed existence was rocked off its axis a year later as, out of the blue, his parents separated. The pain of the split had a lasting impact.
"They are best friends now. They did it in a lovely way. Subconsciously it affected me. It definitely got to me, yeah."
For those who know Smith only for Latch and La La La, it is fair to say his solo releases will come as something of an upset. The party boy is gone, replaced by a sob-wracked soul crooner. Does he worry that casual fans may expect a party record and walk away underwhelmed? He shrugs.
"It's my voice. I should have the right to sing what I want to sing. If I wake up and want to sound like Joni Mitchell, I'll do that. If I wake and want to sound like Beyoncé, I'll do that.
"I've had so many shit jobs in my life – cleaning glasses, cleaning toilets. Now I have an amazing job. I don't want to have any restrictions. I don't want to be told what kind of music I can or can't make. I'll do whatever I want."
Sam Smith's new single, Money On My Mind, is out now. The album In The Lonely Hour is released in May.
Say It Again Sam: Smith On ...
...the pivotal moments of his career as a writer and performer
Winning The Sound Of prize
"At first I didn't worry about it. The closer it got, and the more of a possibility it became, [the more] I wanted [it]. Purely because it would help the music. I want the best possible platform to reach people."
Early Struggles With Stage Fright
"I did musical theatre from a young age and had always been given stage direction. To go from that to suddenly being up there, without having someone tell you what to say, was difficult. I found it tough."
Writing His Debut Album
"I panicked. I didn't know what to sing about. Then, I thought, 'hold on a second, I have been in love, so, I'll write about that'. The message of the album is that unrequited love is as strong as 'real' love."
The Dangers Of Fame
"The thing that wrecks your head is when people come out of the woodwork – individuals who weren't very nice to you and now want you be your friend because you've had a bit of exposure. I've had a little bit of that already. It messes with you."
Day & Night