After publicly coming out to the press, the soul singer arrives in the United States with an unfailingly frank album full of melancholy.
Maybe it’s the sunshine on this unseasonably warm mid-May day in London, or maybe it’s just a gnarly hangover, but Sam Smith is having a little trouble remembering what year it is.
“2014 was last year, right? It’s 2015 now,” he says on a break from tour rehearsals in a horse stable-turned-studio space in South London. He has just come off a brief European tour that wrapped less than 48 hours ago in Paris, which culminated in a night of drinking and partying while filming his latest music video, “Leave Your Lover.” The late night left him puking all the way home on the train back to London.
A friendly reminder of the calendar year perks him up, though. “No we’re not. No we’re not! We’re in 2014?! I thought this was 2015. I’ve been writing ‘15’ on all the plane things — you know, those sheets when you arrive at customs? Oh, shit!” He lets out a loud cackle. “No, that’s not good.”
If Smith’s head is spinning, it is only because he still is adjusting to the daily demands that come with being the most-hyped British singer since Adele. It’s a lofty comparison oft-made to other potential Brit breakouts in recent years, but all of them female thus far. Only Smith seems poised to carry the mantle, and not just because his debut album, "In the Lonely Hour" (due stateside June 17), takes a similar back-to-basics approach to soul-baring vocals about love gone sour.
For starters, Smith and his global label Capitol (headed by Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who signed Adele to Columbia in a partnership with XL Recordings in 2008) have learned a few tricks about artist development in the six years since Adele’s debut, "19." He experienced significant commercial success in the United Kingdom from a pair of guest vocals on Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La,” which earned him the Critics Choice Award for the 2014 BRITs, plus new fans in the United States, where the two hits are still climbing the charts. Capitol also leveraged Smith’s showcases in Los Angeles during Grammy Week and at March’s South by Southwest gathering to help secure a coveted booking on "Saturday Night Live" in late March to premiere his debut single, “Stay With Me,” which became his first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit, rising from No. 19 to No. 10 on the June 21 chart. Smith also has been touring aggressively, working his way through clubs in the United States and Europe before playing summer festivals like Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits as well as a few amphitheaters this fall.
Beyond the industry savvy, there’s a list of other uncanny parallels to Adele at work: Both were discovered by their first labels after playing the same venue, West London pub Blue Flowers; Smith met one of his three managers, Elvin Smith, after he opened for Adele in 2008 at Shepherd’s Bush Empire; Adele’s guitarist, Ben Thomas, plays in Smith’s band; and Adele collaborators Fraser T. Smith (“Set Fire to the Rain”) and Eg White (“Tired”) both contribute songwriting and production to "In the Lonely Hour."
“I ultimately think our music’s completely different, but if I’m going to be compared to anyone, it’s amazing,” says Smith.
And it’s all thanks to a voice with enviable range and distinct timbre that can leap from throaty purr to soulful wail in half a phrase — one that is in remarkably fine form today at Smith’s tour rehearsals in South London, despite his own post-hangover nausea. Smith and his band are playing album track “Good Thing” together for the first time before adding it to his sets, and Smith is nailing the open-hearted emotions of the bridge like an old pro, giving it his all despite the fact that he’s playing to an audience of three at the moment. “I put everything out there/And I got nothing at all,” he sings in a hushed near-whisper, before ramping the volume back up to a soaring chorus.
The lyric is evocative of much of "In the Lonely Hour," written primarily when Smith was 20 and 21 and a hopeless romantic who never had been in a real relationship. The songs, all co-written by Smith, are unfailingly frank about the complicated emotions that come with unrequited love, even when the object of affection loves you back, but “Not in That Way,” as one key album cut details. The album is also rooted in a classic, Dusty Springfield-meets-Sam Cooke blue-eyed soul sound.
But even at 22, Smith is a 10-year overnight sensation. Raised in North London by a banker mom and stay-at-home dad, Smith signed to a management deal at the age of 12, where he was being positioned as a young vocal-jazz prodigy. He had made several failed attempts at a music career before he connected with his current management team at Mansion Artists — and key songwriting partner Jimmy Napes. They’re the ones responsible for the sudden wave of success Smith currently is enjoying on the back of Disclosure’s “Latch,” which became a breakout hit immediately upon its release in the United Kingdom in October 2012. London Records’ Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington took early notice, too, and signed Smith to a U.K. label deal within two months.
“I remember hearing ‘Latch’ and thinking, ‘No person can go through that many vocal ranges at one time without going through a computer,’ ” says Raphael. “And then he played ‘Lay Me Down,’ and I remember getting in the car afterward, calling the business affairs guy and saying, ‘Whatever we do, we must close this deal.’ ” Adds Charrington, “We’ve never heard a voice like that in our 20 years of working together.”
Work on "In the Lonely Hour" began at the same time that “Latch” started to rise on the charts, peaking at No. 11 on the Official Charts Company’s U.K. singles tally. And although Raphael and Charrington saw the soul vocalist behind the pop sheen, it took a little more time for Smith to find his musical footing. “As ‘Latch’ grew more and more, I was working with people who’d written Rihanna songs, and I’m going, ‘I want to make a Rihanna record.’ But then I’d go into the studio and just start pouring my heart out, because I was completely in love with someone, and they’d say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t give everything away.’ ”
Another collaboration with Napes, Naughty Boy’s “La La La,” soon proved that Smith’s success with Disclosure wasn’t a fluke, and went on to become the top-selling British single of 2013, even as Smith himself remained a bit of a mystery by not appearing in either hit’s official music video. It wasn’t until his first official solo single, “Money on My Mind,” was released at the top of the year that he unveiled his own identity as an artist.
Since then, Smith’s 2014 has been a bit of a blur. He has done extensive touring and TV promotion with Disclosure and Naughty Boy, shared stages with Taylor Swift and Mary J. Blige, and blown away U.S. audiences with that fateful "SNL" gig on March 29. "In the Lonely Hour"sold over 150,000 copies in the first two weeks of its U.K. release, making it the year’s fastest-selling debut there. It’s no wonder that when Capitol’s Barnett flew to London last spring for a Smith concert at Islington’s Town Hall, he texted the label’s executive vp Michelle Jubelirer halfway through to say, “I’m watching somebody who could change the future of this label.”
Barnett put together a global deal after Smith’s gig in Islington last fall that coincided with the rebranding of London Records to Capitol U.K. (“The house that Sam built,” as Raphael says.)
There’s a promo blitz afoot, too: Clear Channel will host Smith for a live streamed performance, as well as service a new duet version of “Stay With Me” featuring Blige; NPR streamed the album through its "First Listen" program the week of June 10; MTV and VH1 will feature him on-air as an Artist to Watch and You Oughta Know artist, respectively; and Smith will perform on "Late Show With David Letterman" and "The View." He’ll also play New York’s iconic Apollo Theater the night of "In the Lonely Hour"'s U.S. release, where Barnett (“My human genie,” says Smith) is flying Smith’s parents into town to see their son play.
It’s all leading up to a release week that will handily blow Adele’s "19" out of the water (6,300 U.S. copies sold in its debut), and perhaps even Capitol labelmate Jennifer Lopez, whose eighth disc, "A.K.A.," also arrives that day. Just one week shy of the album’s U.S. release, preorders for "In the Lonely Hour" stood at 53,000 copies, with total singles sales at 1.3 million downloads. That already is enough to beat Ed Sheeran’s chart record for the biggest Billboard 200 debut by a U.K. male artist (42,000 copies and a No. 5 entry for 2012’s +). And Smith will be the first artist to simultaneously crack multiple formats since Lorde’s genre-defying “Royals.”
Yet the most noteworthy aspect of Smith’s newfound fame is the detail that didn’t seem to merit much noting at all until recently — his sexuality. Smith seemed to be letting the music speak for itself when he released the video for “Leave Your Lover.” In the clip, Smith is filmed traipsing the streets of Paris as a part of a love triangle with model Daisy Lowe and her presumed boyfriend. But a last-minute plot twist shows that Smith had been pursuing the boyfriend all along, showing up for a dinner seat that appears to have been taken by another man — a scenario based on the real-life man who inspired much of "In the Lonely Hour," as Smith detailed in a cover story with "The Fader," which also served as his coming out.
“After writing the album, I felt I’d given everything out, and I’m willing to keep doing that with my music for the rest of my life,” says Smith, weeks before the Fader interview is released. “But I’m not going to do it every day or in interviews. If I did it every day, I’d kill myself. I’d be so emotional. Why can’t we tell all these secrets in the music and the art?”
Besides, Smith has yet to experience his first true romance — one where both parties are fully committed and on the same emotional page — let alone his first real breakup. And he can’t wait. “I’ll be excited when I get my heart broken properly for the first time. I’ll be like, ‘Thank God I’ve experienced something. Someone wanted to kiss me.’ That’s when it’s going to be interesting: When you break up, they’re taking a piece with them.”