Sam Smith, 2017
Magazine Feature

Sam Smith on His Recent Struggles, Triumphant Return and Having His Eyes Opened in Iraq

Sam Smith -- all six feet, two inches of him -- sways gently at the microphone stand, his song sung, when the director requests another take. The singer looks briefly to the heavens, or at least toward the uppermost rafters of this small church in East London. He has been here, on a mild September afternoon, since midday to sing a few songs from his forthcoming second album, The Thrill of It All, for the purposes of what the record company is calling “extra content.” Unlike many of his peers, who release a steady stream of ­content between albums to keep their profile up and fans sated, Smith has been silent for the past year-and-a-half. His ­reemergence into the spotlight requires fanfare.

Today’s live performance will be sent out ­during the next few months into the online world, announcing the return of the preeminent British male soul star of his generation. As such, it will capture him in his element, for while Smith’s songs are highly polished, radio-friendly affairs, the man’s main selling point is his voice, which is a thing of wonder.

Most pop stars can carry a tune, of course, but Smith cradles it with a dramatic flair that brings to mind Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse. It’s part tenor, part ­falsetto, soft as a Persian cat, a voice that Beyoncé has called ­“buttery” and Mary J. Blige says “covers you.”

“He is just a phenomenal singer,” says British pop artist Jessie Ware, who has been a close friend of Smith’s for four years now. And she says that he is ­improving all the time. “When you see him sing live” -- as Ware did a week previously, at a secret show -- “it’s breathtaking: his control, his ­technique and emotion.”

Unfiltered emotion is what ultimately elevates Smith’s voice: It is shot through with the kind of ­melancholy that paints its author, an openly gay (and currently single) man, as particularly ­hopeless in matters of the heart.

“I haven’t been very lucky in my romantic life, it’s true,” he will tell me. “I’ve found it all pretty difficult, and I guess in my songs it all just comes spilling out.”

In church, dressed in shiny silk and pressed cotton and looking dapper in a Rat Pack kind of way, he assesses the assembled crowd -- production staff, record company types, me -- every time he reaches the end of a song, as if seeking, in the absence of fan applause, our approval.

A day later, when we meet at his London record label headquarters, he tells me that that was precisely what he was looking for. “Oh, I’m very self-conscious about my singing voice, always have been.”

Even now, I wonder? Even after he has moved 4.4 million equivalent album units of his 2014 debut album, In the Lonely Hour, in the United States (according to Nielsen Music); won four Grammy Awards; three Billboard Music Awards; and, for “Writing’s on the Wall,” his theme song to the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, an Oscar? He nods eagerly. “Absolutely! Now more than ever! Even when I’m singing in the studio, I will study people’s faces afterward to see if I’ve done a good enough job.”

It’s almost five o’clock in church, and Smith has been running through one new track, “Burning,” over and over again. Like many songs on the new album, "Burning" is an exercise in self-flagellation. “Respect for myself?/That river ran dry,” he sings. Once finished, he asks to hear a playback. If he enjoys the sound of his own performance, he doesn't show it. At its ­conclusion, he makes to leave. The director ­intervenes. Can we do one final take, he asks.

“No,” says Smith. “That’s enough. It’s fine as it is.”

A pause. Diva behavior is perfectly acceptable for someone with genuine bragging rights to that label, but Smith cannot play the diva, not yet at least. He may be tired and hungry, but he’s polite too, a people-pleaser. He quickly relents and is soon back in front of the microphone, swaying again. As he sings, he closes his eyes to the world, and you sense that the ache he felt when he wrote the song is an ache he feels still.

Twenty-four hours later, the 25-year-old is reclining on a leather sofa at his record label, dressed in a black hoodie and blue jeans, sneakered feet stretched out in front of him. On his face sits an unambiguous smile.

“I’m in a good mood,” he announces. “I feel great.”

He runs a hand through his hair, which has recently been cut short enough to make running fingers through hair difficult: There just isn’t enough of it. He hasn't just lost several inches off the top, but around his waistline, too. Ever since the paparazzi took unflattering pictures of him ­frolicking on an Australian beach a few years ago (“I looked fat, horrible”), he has become a gym junkie: three times a week, personal trainer, lots of cardio, too many weights.

The weight loss has exaggerated his already distinctive features -- strong chin; wide, Disney-drawn eyes -- and stretches the smile he is currently exercising wider still. If he is one of those vocalists who achieves what all pop stars aspire toward -- making the miserable seem beautiful -- in person, his buoyancy is disarming. I’d expected Eeyore.

“Oh, but I’m a happy person!” he insists. “Well, most of the time. But I tend to keep that for me and my family. It’s when I go into the studio that I let out my sadness. I find it easier writing sad songs than I do happy ones.”

This is borne out on the new album. If his debut was "a gin and tonic with friends, moaning about boys," then this one is a whiskey late at night, ­consumed alone. “It’s bleak. It’s not a happy record.”

Nicole Nodland
“I wanted to write about how I’m now starting to open my eyes, at 25, to what is going on in the rest of the world, and that it’s not always pretty.” Smith wears a Berluti coat, Louis Vuitton shirt, Marni sweater, Raey pants and Dries Van Noten shoes. 

Its first single, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” co-written with StarGate, is an attempt to appear armor-plated when inside he is wailing, and even the gorgeous croon of “Midnight Train” is offset by yet more lyrical misery. Lest his army of fans come away convinced the poor man is suicidal, he points out that only three of the 10 songs on the standard release (the deluxe has 14) are about him.

“The ­others are about situations my friends might be going through, or the world in general,” he says.

And so the track “Him” is a general coming-out confessional, while the closing “Pray,” a gospel-tinged ballad in collaboration with Timbaland, was prompted by time spent in Iraq with the ­charity War Child.

“I spent five days in Mosul and came back ­embarrassed that I had known so little about the world and other people’s lives,” says Smith. “I went back to that great Nina Simone quote, that it is important to speak about the times you live in. I hadn't done that; I’d just written a bunch of songs about love. So I wanted to write about how I’m now starting to open my eyes, at 25, to what is going on in the rest of the world, and that it’s not always pretty.”

But it is the aforementioned “Burning” about which he is most proud, the most personal song he has written yet, he suggests. “Such a ­burden, this flame on my chest,” he sings in reference to both a romance gone south but also, he points out, the ongoing pressures of global success. The latter is another theme he returns to frequently: what it’s like to be a young, gay man with the world at your feet, and how, in such a position, one’s sanity can feel like it’s slipping.

“After the Oscars [in 2016], I started going out too much, not respecting myself, drinking loads and smoking,” he says. “I’m normally quite healthy, but back then I wasn't, either physically or mentally. I wasn't looking after myself; I was going into a bit of a spiral. I’d lost contact with friends, with family. It wasn't good.”

The fact that he had been perpetually ­single hardly helped (although he was recently photographed in New York holding hands with 13 Reasons Why actor Brandon Flynn). “I do feel I’m a bit behind in my relationships,” he confesses. “I wish I’d been in a long-term relationship by this age. But then, I didn't move to London until I was 19. I’d grown up in an area where I was the only gay guy in school, the only gay guy in my village. I’d definitely be emotionally richer now if I’d had a long-term ­relationship, but if it wasn't easy while I was growing up, it’s hardly going to be any easier for me now, is it?”

Smith was raised in a small town in rural Cambridgeshire, the oldest of three (he has two sisters). His mother was a banker while his father stayed at home to raise the family. Smith ­discovered that he could sing early on, and landed his first manager -- a part-time painter and decorator -- by the age of 11, signing his first recording contract at 16. But success would not follow swiftly.

It was in late 2012, at age 20, that he at last found some traction. He was featured on “Latch” by U.K. dance act Disclosure, which would reach No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, and then, in 2013, the Naughty Boy single “La La La” (which peaked at No. 19). It was around this point that his future boss at Capitol Records UK, Nick Raphael, was moved to utter: “Fuck me, when can I speak to him?”

Raphael signed him shortly afterward, allowing him carte blanche in the studio, and Smith rose to the challenge. Where, say, George Michael had a frivolous period with Wham!, enjoying the fun of pop before settling down into his ­fetchingly overwrought comfort zone, Smith was seriously eyebrowed from the start, more “Jesus to a Child” than “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Like Adele, his music oozes gravitas; if you’ve had your heart recently broken, then trampled upon, it is to him you flock.

Smith becomes palpably ­uncomfortable at the mention of his name alongside his idols. This is perhaps because fame remains, for now, an ill-fitting cloak. He says he wants to remain sane at all costs. He still takes the tube in London, the subway in New York. There is no security detail on his payroll, and when he goes clubbing, he goes with friends, not minders. He recently bought his first house, in Hampstead -- the posh London ­neighborhood George Michael also called home -- and lives with a sister and one of his oldest friends.

Nicole Nodland
“I can’t do things by halves — I feel every emotion fully.” Smith wears a Joseph jacket, 3.1 Phillip Lim sweater over a Marni sweater, Raey pants and Dries Van Noten shoes.

“I’m convinced it’s how you hold yourself,” he ruminates. “If you don’t act famous, you won’t feel it, and you won’t draw the attention. When I go to a gay club now, it’s mostly fine because I’m there to have a good time like everyone else. If I end up really drunk and someone comes up to me, I’m always polite.”

But he will ask them to refrain from taking a ­picture. “Because I’m drunk, and I’ll look awful. Who wants a bad picture of themselves out there in the world?”

For the first couple of years, Smith felt on top of things, in some kind of control. But then, abruptly, he didn't. In 2015, he agreed to credit Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as co-writers on his song “Stay With Me,” which has a similar chorus to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” (Smith said he had never heard the song; Petty insisted there were no hard feelings.) Shortly after his 2015 Grammy haul, he began suffering from insomnia and a curious case of itching. He has had sudden-onset illnesses before: Two years before, it was OCD. Now he couldn't stop scratching. “All over my body, it was awful.” The doctor suggested it was simply a physical reaction to such an unrelenting ­schedule and the attendant pressures of, among other things, suddenly being thrust forward as a global ­spokesman for the LGBT community. “I love being gay, I love being a gay man and representing my community,” he says. But he also admits that he didn't initially find it easy.

In his Oscar speech in 2016, he proclaimed that he was the first openly gay man to win such an accolade, the implicit suggestion being that he had broken barriers. But there had already been other openly gay winners, among them Elton John and Stephen Sondheim. The reaction was as predictable as it was inevitable, although new to Smith: mass ridicule on social media.

“Look, I was young, nervous,” he says now. “I made a mistake.”

And then his vocal cords hemorrhaged, for which he required laser surgery. “And I wasn't allowed to speak for three weeks. Three weeks of total silence!” He laughs. “It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me.”

For the previous two years, if either his mother or father -- who split when he was 18 but remain on good terms -- came to visit him on tour, they would have to wait backstage with everyone else. He had neglected returning their phone calls for the simple reason that there wasn't time. “Losing touch with them, and my friends, felt like I was ­losing my ­function to operate as a human being. So to be able to spend time around them after my operation, and not being able to talk, enabled me to ­listen, and to just be. I’d had enough of me, me, me for a while.”

But now here he is, with new music, about to make it all about him again. (Although Ware insists that while things may have changed around him, Smith hasn't. “Oh, he’s just the same -- loyal and generous, and so funny.”)

Smith says he is cautious of the album’s reception -- as is, publicly at least, Steve Barnett, chairman/CEO of Capitol Records.

“You can count on the fingers of one hand how many artists have eclipsed such a huge-selling debut album,” says Barnett. “Sam’s new album ­represents a huge leap for him as a singer and songwriter, so it’s hard not to have high ambitions. But we are taking it one step at a time.”

His caution might prove ­unnecessary. Much as Adele stormed straight back into global consciousness in 2015 with “Hello” after a couple of years of silence, so too has Smith. The single “Too Good at Goodbyes” debuted at No. 5 on the Hot 100, and he quickly added 5 million more monthly listeners to his Spotify page. He looks set, then, for another steep ascent.

“You know, I did think that by this stage I might start feeling more like a proper pop star,” says Smith, who, just a few years ago, was working as a barman. “But I don’t. I still just feel like... me. My family still talk to me like shit, and I’m glad. It keeps me normal.”

And “normal” means reining in his privileges. He expresses little interest in buying private islands, or private jets to get to them.

“I want to be healthy,” he says, “and I want to live as long as possible. I want kids, and I want to open a florist.” His face creases into laughter. “If a boyfriend comes into that mix somewhere, I’ll be happy. But if it doesn't happen, I’ll be fine with the flowers.” 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of Billboard.