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Sam Smith: 21st Century Boy

By Breanna Murphy; header photo by Josh Shinner on June 16, 2014


Sam Smith: 21st Century Boy

Sam Smith is living in the moment. Well, kind of.


“The other day, I thought it was 2015,” he confesses. “I completely forgot, and I thought we’d already done a year.”


At the moment in which we speak to one another, I wish him good morning from Los Angeles; he wishes me good evening from London. Next month, in June, he will release his debut record. Tomorrow, in May, Sam Smith will turn 22. Last night, his new single went to Number One. Two months ago, in March, he made his solo Stateside television debut on Saturday Night Live and two months before that, in January, he won both the influential BRIT Critic’s Choice award and the tastemaking BBC’s Sound of 2014 poll.


“The things that have happened in the past five months have been pretty ridiculous, it’s mental. It has been a complete roller coaster, if I’m honest.”

His complicated grasp on time is completely understandable.


After all, and even farther backwards to just 18 months ago, in 2012, Sam Smith was working full-time in a London bar, struggling to find the time to write or sing at all. He did, eventually, begin working with his now-frequent writing partner Jimmy Napes and, along with writer Elvin Smith, penned a track called “Lay Me Down.” Smith’s performance on the song—a stunning display of vocal range and emotion—seized the attention of the then-mysterious electronic project Disclosure, comprised of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, who invited Smith in for a writing session. Alongside the Lawrences and Napes, together they wrote “Latch,” a beat-laden, building masterpiece, anchored by Guy and Howard’s echoing, spelunking nighttime production and Smith’s verse-chorus transitions from assured charm to fearless falsetto—“Now I’ve got you in my space/I won’t let go of you,” Smith promises. At the time of the single’s release in October 2012, neither the Lawrences nor Smith were past 21 years old. The wild success of “Latch,” which landed at Number 11 and Number 34 on the UK and US singles charts, respectively, propelled Smith and Disclosure into 2013 and beyond, where Disclosure released their Grammy-nominated debut to critical acclaim.


Besides a couple of singles from 2013, 2014 has been Sam’s year. His aforementioned appearance on Saturday Night Live—only the second musical guest in the last five years to appear without an album (next to Lana Del Rey’s 2012 performance)—was a significant debut for the Englishman to American audiences. His soaring, soulful renditions of “Lay Me Down” and “Stay with Me” will appear on the troubadour’s upcoming In the Lonely Hour. Which, he is keen to stress, is not strictly as depressing as its title might suggest. For in Sam Smith’s loneliest hours, he is constantly self-examining, exploring the universal and complex emotions of unrequited love—we have, after all, all been there—and transforming his personal, present and past pains and vulnerabilities into future strengths and, beautifully, songs. How thoroughly modern.



What was performing on SNL like? It was quite an introduction to your music for a lot of people.

Unbelievable. When I got the call saying we were going to do it, I actually rang up my manager and my team: “What are we doing? This is stupid, we should be waiting until the album’s out. We should be waiting until people know who I am.” In the UK, we’ve played the game in the sense of I released “Latch” and [Naughty Boy collaboration] “La La La,” and the public in the UK started to kind of feel familiar with my voice, but “Latch” and “La La La” are still climbing the charts now in the US. So I thought this was a completely mental move. Also, I’d never performed “Stay with Me” or “Lay Me Down” on television ever in the world, so to do it in front of seven million people for the first time was petrifying, but I’m so happy that I yet again trusted my team because it has done amazing things for me in America—and worldwide, actually. Those people, the [SNL] producers, all taking a chance on me kind of showed something to everyone. I love that I was part of that brave move. 

Before your attachment to that massive single “Latch,” what were you doing musically?

I moved to London when I was 18 and I was working in a bar, very depressed about everything. I was working full-time, so I didn’t have many chances to sing. I remember when I got the call from Disclosure to come in for a session, I had to take a day off work. Throughout the entire release of “Latch” I was still in that bar. So I didn’t really have an opportunity to sing a lot because I was working so hard.

How have you adjusted to this kind of lifestyle and all the attention; has it been hard or have you been able to find a balance?

There’s been some ups and downs over the past year and a bit. I was working so hard every day, I was really hustling. And when you get what you want, it’s a little bit of a shock. My biggest lesson in the past year has been to sit back and really soak in what’s happening now and stop worrying about what’s happening next. Sometimes when you’re releasing a single, you’re thinking, “When’s the next single coming out?” When you’re releasing the next single, you’re thinking, “When’s the album coming out?” I’m trying to teach myself how to chill and enjoy the moment. Other than that, I’m really loving it. The fear of not doing this is the only thing that I’ve struggled with in life in the moment—the fear of not being able to do this for the rest of my life.

“Stay with Me” is perhaps the lone dance-inclined track on the record and, along with your work on “Latch” and “La La La,” people may be expecting a very different-sounding record from you than In the Lonely Hour. Was the new direction toward the record’s sound deliberate?

Do you know what? It was hugely, hugely on purpose [laughs]. I’m a vocalist, I’m a singer, it’s something that I work on every single day of my life, and with my first-ever album that’s what I wanted to showcase. I felt like I showcased that in my features, like “Latch” and stuff, but I wanted to make sure—I wanted to show that I wasn’t a one-trick pony, that I can sing

Sometimes, I want to wake up in the morning and I want my music to sound like Beyoncé. Sometimes, I want to wake up in the morning and I want my music to sound like Joni Mitchell. And I kind of feel like—as a singer, as a vocalist, as a writer and an artist—that’s my prerogative, that’s my choice. Whatever the music wants to sound like, it can sound like whatever I want it to. But I was hoping that my voice was the thing that linked it all together. And, with this album, that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to showcase my voice. First thing and foremost. I wanted to bring the voice back because that’s what I’ve grown up listening to; Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston—their voices were the genre, if you know what I mean. And I wanted my voice to be the genre.

I love music that has soul to it and I believe that the soul of vocals can lay on any type of genre—on jazz tracks, on R & B tracks, on funk, they can lay on rock tracks or acoustic tracks—anything. I love soulful voices, full-stop. That’s what I’ve been inspired by and that’s what I try to bring to every one of my records.

How would you describe your relationship with your album and how does it represent you?

This record, for me, was to debut two things about myself: I wanted to debut my vocals, but also I wanted to talk about my emotions. I feel like with male artists, sometimes… Males show a bravado in their music, which I find quite unrealistic. I’m an emotional, sensitive guy. And I want to find the power in my sad times. I wanted to speak about loneliness and things that have upset me in my life, and still upset me in my life. I wanted to talk about them and face those issues head on. To give me the power, almost. That’s what I tried to do with this record: to really put my emotions and sensitivity on a pedestal, so that there is strength in sadness, sometimes. I tried to be an emotional, honest 21-year-old boy.


The record does have an overall theme of unrequited love and loneliness, and that’s quite appealing to a listener because there’s not a person on this planet that hasn’t suffered the slings and arrows of love. On some tracks, you’re very honest about being hurt and being sad, but on others you take that power back. It’s a very deep examination of unrequited love. 


From the title, I think people think it’s just a really sad album. But there are moments on the album I adore that have a strength to them. There’s a song called “Leave You Lover” and the lyric is “Leave your lover/Leave him for me,” and I feel like that’s quite a desperate message, a sad message. And then there’s a song called “Like I Can,” and the whole basis of that song is me saying to someone, “He will never love you like I can.” And, to me, that is not depressing at all; that’s me saying: I am better than the person you’re with. There’s a strength to that. I’ve tried to take my sadness and turn it into a tool.


Which song would you say means the most to you? Is there one in particular that was hard to write, but it felt so good to finally say these things?

I think that song would be “Not In That Way.” For me, it explains, perfectly, the feeling of unrequited love. It hits it on the head for me. And I think I’ve been wanting to make that song for my whole life.


Do you find writing personal songs cuts open old wounds, or is it a form of catharsis?


I find it so natural, actually, because I normally write every song literally that day. And the feeling that I’m talking about in the music has happened to me that day. I don’t really take down things and then write about it months afterwards. I tend to write about things that happen there and then. I use it more as a diary. That’s why it’s kind of tough for me to write sometimes because some days nothing really happens [laughs] and then some days something really big happens—and that’s when the magic happens. 


The thing that I do find tough sometimes is the whole performing live thing. I’ve been in situations where the person I wrote some of the music about has been in front of me when I’m doing my gigs. And that’s really, really tough. But, it’s something that kind of comes with the package, I guess. You’ve got to re-live these moments again and then again. But the sad thing, I think, is at some point the songs won’t—[but] not less meaningfully—hit the same spot as they did when I wrote them. Because I won’t be feeling that way…hopefully [laughs] at some point. F

This article is from FILTER Issue 56