Sam Smith on Grammy Nominations Eve: 'I Can't Think About It'

Sam Smith
Austin Hargrave

Sam Smith photographed January 25, 2014 ar Siren Studios in Los Angels by Austin Hargrave.

Who knew, a year ago, that a name as seemingly short and indistinct as Sam Smith's would be the one on everyone's lips come the end of 2014? Any lack of individuality ended right with his moniker, of course, as the British soulster went on to have not just the top-selling debut album of the year but, in the days leading up to the calendar year's close, the No. 3 album of 2014 overall (trailing only the Frozen soundtrack and new pal Taylor Swift). Now he's considered a leading candidate for the Grammys -- not just for Best New Artist, where he's as close to a shoo-in as we've seen in years, but in the top categories, where In the Lonely Hour and "Stay With Me" have the chance to pull the kind of sweep not seen from a freshman since Norah Jones.

Grammys 2015: News & Predictions

Billboard spoke with Smith about his anticipation and avoidance of Grammy fever, along with some of the key events of his not-so-lonely 2014.

Are people in your circles telling you to be prepared for what could happen with the Grammy nominations Friday morning?
People do talk to me about it quite a bit at the moment, yes, but whenever anyone mentions it, I just say, "Can we not speak about this?" Because I can’t think about it. The Grammy to me is everything, and it's something that I've dreamed of from a very, very young age. I lose my sense of humor when people start talking about it, because it's something that I really don't take very lightly. So anything that happens… If I get to attend again, I'll be happy.

2015 Grammy Nominations: The Final Predictions

You were a sort of MVP at the American Music Awards, not just for performing and winning, but because you contributed to the new Mary J. Blige single "Therapy." It doesn't seem like you'd have a lot of time to write for other people right now, but when you get a call to work with her, you probably take it pretty seriously.
I do. I'm very careful about that, because I'm firstly a songwriter for myself, and I think about myself when I write my music. I don't sit there writing songs thinking, "This would be good for Rihanna." I don't want to be pitching out like that. But obviously Mary J. Blige is a huge influence to me, and I adore her. And I would have jumped at the opportunity of course at any time, but the way it happened was so amazing. I almost got to know her before I even began. The song "Therapy," which she sang at the AMAs, I wrote for my record. But then she heard it and fell in love with it and she sang it. And I actually only took two days off, actually, to go in the studio and write. [Besides "Therapy," Smith has three other co-writes on Blige's new album, The London Sessions.] But I feel so emotionally invested in it, and it's so weird for me to say that Mary has now become my friend. Seeing her perform that at the AMAs, I was so proud. It was a raw performance, and everyone was playing live, and it just showed the type of artist she is.

Of course, you stood out at the AMAs as much as she did, by performing live and without accoutrements. The contrast was even more stark at the MTV VMAs a few months back. Was there ever any worry that, in the midst of all that massive choreography, what you were doing might be too subtle to make an impression?
Oh, hugely. I just feel like everyone should be on stage just singing their hearts out. I just feel you shouldn't have to be doing all this crazy stuff to get the best performance. It's great that people are noticing [the contrast], and I'm shown in a really great light because of it, so I'm moaning about something that's amazing. At the same time, I love pop culture. And I watched Taylor Swift open the show, and it was the most incredible thing I've ever seen. So the thing that I'm sitting here moaning about, I also love -- watching big, crazy performances. So I'm playing devil's advocate with myself.

Let’s talk about a few of the milestones of the year. What stands out?
So much has happened that I find it hard to put it down into a few, but I would say the beginning of the awards shows with the VMAs; my album going to No. 2 in America; selling out Madison Square Garden. One of my main achievements for me was: I was sitting in the car a few months ago in L.A., and it was summer, and all of the songs on the radio were dance songs. And then "Stay With Me" came on. And I'm so proud that that song has had the effect it's had on radio, and the fact that people accepted that at that time of year, you know? I just feel like it's not a radio song. Well, it is now, but it's a very odd song to be a radio hit. It's gospel-influenced, and it's not the certain speed that a song should be in in the summer. I'm so proud that we managed to cut through and have that playing everywhere.

You and your team did a number of things during the year that could have been considered risky, starting with playing Saturday Night Live well before your album was out.
Yeah, I would say SNL is 100 percent the riskiest thing I feel like we've done in our project so far. I thought it was wrong to be doing it, but it worked out so incredibly well, and it just cut through.

Did the "Leave Your Lover" video feel a little risky too, or was that something that you strongly thought needed to be done?
Yeah. I mean, it wasn't like a sit-down, "I'm gonna make a video with a reference to homosexuality, or my sexuality" -- it wasn't that kind of thing. It was more like, when I write my songs, I see the videos to them the day I write them. And I saw the video to "Leave Your Lover" the day I wrote it. The risk was getting my vision across, but again, it turned out to not be a risk, but something that was amazing. And I'm very proud of that video. I love it.

How about the statistics that people bring out, like biggest debut for a male U.K. artist in U.S. history, or the Nielsen Music stats that have you as one of the top three sellers of the year, on top of being the best-selling freshman artist? Are you cocky enough that these are the kinds of things where you say, "Well, of course!"
[Laughs] No! Not at all. Not at all! I'm a very insecure person. I know I'm happy, and I know that things are just going amazingly, but I don't pay attention to things like that. I try and have a smile on my face and accept it, but this is the beginning for me. Some artists get so comfortable now after even one or two albums and think "I'm the biggest artist in the world," but it's like, yeah, you are for now, but you've gotta work so that you're remembered further, and that's what I'm trying to do.

There were remixes on this project, of course, that made a big impact, and Rodney Jerkins has talked about how you were surprised when Mary J. Blige suddenly showed up on one of your songs as you were listening to it. And you had A$AP Rocky as well. Were you very open to the idea of remixes broadening the appeal?
I was, actually. I love collaborations. And with Rodney… We'd finished "Stay with Me," and Jimmy Napes produced it mainly, with Steve Fitzmaurice, and what you hear on "Stay With Me," the majority of it was the demo on the day that we wrote the song and recorded, really roughly, the vocal and everything. It’s all just a demo. We gave it to Rodney and he added a few elements, which obviously then led to Mary J. Blige jumping on the track. So it's all very organic, how it happened. That's so important to me. I never want things to come from the labels, in a way, or to be arranged by people. I want it to just organically and naturally happen. I also like showing the songs in a different light, because I don’t think about genre when I make music. And just when you’re thinking "I'm Not the Only One" is maybe a jazzy soul record, it becomes a hip-hop record when A$AP jumps on it. I like surprising people like that.

Do you have any idea how many singles you'll get out of this record?
Well, I think I've got one or two more singles after "I'm Not the Only One." In the U.K., we're going to have four singles, I think. I really don't want people to get bored. I'm also kind of proud that my album's not full of singles, because I didn't want it to be. I wanted to make people think a little bit more, and have songs that maybe took a few weeks, a few listens, for people to actually get into. I think sometimes we take audiences for granted as artists, and as labels, and as the music industry. I think we take the consumers of music for granted, and think they’re a bit dumber than they actually are. Just as an example, I had to battle to even call my album In the Lonely Hour, because it was maybe a bit too long, and it was a bit of a sad title, but I fought for it. My idea for the title of the next album is even longer than the first. So I’m already nervous about the arguments I’m going to have. Same as the title for my song "Money on My Mind." We were gonna call it "For the Love," because we thought "Money on My Mind" was quite negative. And I was like, well, no, f--- that! I'm not gonna change the title of my song just because a few people are stupid enough not to actually put on my record and listen to the lyrics and realize that it's actually a positive message rather than a negative… Sorry, I went on a rant there. I apologize!

It seems like you have a lot in common with Taylor Swift, in terms of thinking about emphasizing the album form even more than singles, which has been kind of a campaign for her. It's a rare emphasis to find these days among people who are making pop music, but special when we get it.
Oh, completely. Me and Taylor were together at the AMAs, and it's the first time I got to sit and chat with her about everything. She's an amazing artist, and I really respect her. It's a concept record, what she's done, and it was the first Taylor Swift album that I bought and listened to the whole record. She's done the right thing, and that's what Beyoncé did with her record, and that's what Adele does with her records. I think the key is in what I’m saying: they’re records. We want people to listen to records, to a whole body of music. I want you to buy into my life, not just one subject in my life.

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