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?”