Sam Smith really wants you to buy his album. He really wants me to buy his album, too, which he loudly proclaims to everyone in his Berlin hotel suite after I mention receiving an advanced copy of In the Lonely Hour, his upcoming debut, from his publicist. “He should pay for it!” he scolds.
He’s joking, of course, though it’s a little hard to be sure. At 6'3", with another two inches of pompadour on top, the 22-year-old British singer-songwriter, who first appeared on electronic duo Disclosure’s 2012 hit “Latch,” is an imposing figure. But the real force doesn’t lie in Smith’s physical stature as much as the sheer power of his personality. To call Smith a character is a bit of an understatement. He’s more like a fit constantly on the verge of happening, and whether that outburst is one of pure joy or utter sadness doesn’t seem to make a difference. One minute he is brashly ordering glasses of champagne for the room, and the next, he’s wickedly offering to “get dark,” before going into confession mode about the subject matter of In the Lonely Hour.
“This album was almost a form of self- harm,” he admits, referring specifically to the five out of 10 songs that directly address an autobiographical story of unrequited love that took place during the recording. “I was so lonely and in love with a person who didn’t love me back. If I weren’t writing the album, maybe I would have cut the person out and not spoken to them. But because of my situation, I courted it a bit. Literally went out and set the fire.”
That level of honesty has become Smith’s calling card, in interviews as well as in his music, and he delivers it with aplomb. It can be heard on the album’s lead single, “Stay With Me,” which starts out as a quiet confessional of a one-night stand gone wrong, until the gospel choir suddenly cries out the chorus, pleading for the stranger to remain. It’s dramatic in the way all good pop music should be, and refreshingly absent of the sheen of swagger that coats most radio tracks these days. In its place are Smith’s plaintive tales, delivered in his soulful voice with a doe-eyed stare that’s equal parts Boy George and a pre-stubble Justin Timberlake.
From that sincerity standpoint, it’s appropriate that Smith’s breakout moment stateside took place on an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Louis C.K., a comedian whose mega-success has resulted from unabashed honesty in the face of his everyman tribulations. The biggest difference: While C.K.’s middle-aged struggles are usually resolved with a comedic “fuck it,” Smith’s youthful naïveté means he’s likely a long way from a similar resolution. And while that’s probably good for fueling his songwriting fire, it’s hard not to feel a touch of sympathy when Smith’s headstrong denials kick in.
“I think the album has completely, once and for all, killed my obsession with unrequited love. I’ll never put myself through that again,” he insists. When I joke that he, like everyone, most certainly will repeat that particular mistake, Smith’s huge blue eyes become steely: “If I start fancying someone who is unobtainable, I will run the other way. I promise you.”
Then again, there might be good reason to believe in his determination; he has conquered challenges before. An overweight child, Smith battled his issues with the help of his father, who went so far as to become a certified fitness instructor to coach his son. Smith says that his emotional openness comes from the Y-chromosome as well.
“We don’t think before we speak. We say how we feel. We live with our hearts completely out there,” he says, comparing himself to his dad. But Smith is careful to include his whole family in the support network that helped In the Lonely Hour through its difficult birth. “My family was on the other end of the phone every night when I’d ring up sad. In a way, it’s a magical album for them because they were there living it with me.”
Despite his family’s intimate participation in the making of his music, there may still be a few confessional surprises for them on the album. Smith begins to squirm a little when he thinks about it, although there is a sense of extroverted thrill mixed in with the trepidation. “The things I say in my songs are things I won’t say to my mother. And the whole world is going to know now,” he says.
While that vulnerability is both scary and exciting, Smith admits that it’s a necessary part of finding himself as an artist, as well as growing as a person. And he knows that ultimately, his soul-baring is the reason why the audience has responded to his music in the first place.
“I always get panicky because I get so emotional in everything I do,” he says. “I call my mum up, and she says, ‘Sam, it’s your job to be emotional.’”
-words by Joshua Glazer-photographed by Anna Rose