A little over a year ago Sam Smith was curled up inside the Redbury Hotel between two sold-out gigs at the Troubadour, shows that served as his L.A. debut.
Largely known for a pair of exuberant, infectious electronic dance collaborations, the British singer-songwriter was anxious for the release of his debut album but was worried about how it would be received.
“Obviously it’s nerve-racking going into your own stuff,” referencing the album’s intimately personal lyrics. “You’ve just gotta hope.” Outside, a view of the classic Capitol Records building, where he’s signed, lingered in a nearby window.
Since then, the 22-year-old with the vulnerable, yearning voice has become one of pop music’s biggest breakout stars. But as tempting as it may be to label his rise as an overnight success, Smith’s journey included no shortage of hard work — and heartbreak.
“In the Lonely Hour,” released in June, was 2014’s largest-selling debut and one of the year’s biggest releases (behind Taylor Swift and the “Frozen” soundtrack) and landed him six nominations and a performance slot at Sunday’s Grammy Awards with nods in the top four categories, including best new artist.
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015
“It’s a sad album. And it’s lonely. But there’s a fearlessness in it. The fact that I’m talking about my emotions and my deepest and darkest feelings,” Smith said when asked about the album’s success. “I think people like that. I’d like to feel like I’m saying the things people maybe can’t say.”
He’s played festivals around the world and packed the Greek Theatre for two more sold-out gigs in the fall. Mary J. Blige used him for inspiration and as a collaborator for her latest album. He takes selfies with the Kardashians and is tight with Taylor Swift. And while summer was dominated with hedonistic club anthems, he ruled the charts with “Stay With Me,” a fragile, gospel-touched ballad about wanting a lover beyond one night.
Not bad for a former bartender who had gone through six managers before he turned 18.
The other day, Smith was seated inside a stylish game room reserved for performers at the Forum in Inglewood. A sold-out crowd awaited him for the first of two nights at the L.A. stop of his tour (the second show was also at capacity). He’s having the time of his life, even if he’s yet to absorb how far he’s come.
“When this album slowly slows down toward the end of this year I’m going to go back to London and be in one place for a few months. I think that’s going to be the moment where [this] all hits me,” Smith said. “I may just keep going, going, going and not deal with it.”
Smith might not have had much time to absorb his dizzying rise to fame, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been immune to some of its peril.
Howard Stern recently made disparaging and homophobic remarks about Smith’s appearance (he’s proud of his broad 6-foot-3 frame, although he is dieting for the Grammys, like the rest of the music industry).
His Grammy-nominated “Stay With Me” faced controversy when the songwriters added Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s names to the song’s writing credits after finding it coincidentally bore a resemblance to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (the matter was handled last year but the story broke weeks before the Grammys).
And the singer had his first run on gossip sites, after a short romance with a handsome dancer he met on the set of his “Like I Can” video late last year recently fizzled. “It was nothing malicious, and there was no drama. We just realized it wasn’t working. And that’s it, that’s the story,” he said.
Before he entered the Forum, Smith was fitted for the outfit he plans to wear at the Grammys (“I can’t tell what I’m wearing, but it’s nothing crazy,” he assured), and while he’s the first to admit the honors mean the world to him, he’s trying not to put much thought into the night.
“Six [nominations] is just ridiculous. We put all this pressure on it, but it’s a celebration,” he said. “The most important thing for me was to sell records, be able to perform at arenas for people and for my message, my music, my story to reach as many people as possible. I’ve already won. My dreams have already come true.”
“And if I get a Grammy it’s a bonus — a beautiful gold outline on what I’ve done,” the soft-spoken Smith continued, a smile sweeping across him. “But still, everything is very much OK.”
A perceived favorite in a number of categories (he’s competing against Beyoncé for album of the year and said he hopes she wins), if given the choice he’d walk away with new artist. “You can only win that once. The things me and my team have accomplished on a first record is so amazing. It takes my breath away, and getting new artist would really highlight that,” he said.
Singing at 8
Smith’s story has been well documented as his profile rose over the past year. Born to a middle-class family in London, Smith has been singing since he was 8. He trained with a jazz vocalist for years before studying musical theater, and as an adult he was slinging drinks in London, hoping to eventually catch a break and going through a spate of managers.
After meeting frequent collaborator Jimmy Napes through his seventh and current manager Elvin Smith, the two crafted the aching ballad “Lay Me Down,” which was inspired by a friend’s deceased grandparents. The track caught the attention of British electronic duo Disclosure and spawned 2012’s “Latch,” a pop-soaked dance gem buoyed by Smith’s soaring vocal that exploded in the U.K.
Smith followed “Latch” with the infectious “La La La,” a collaboration with British producer Naughty Boy that became one of the fastest-selling singles in the U.K. in 2013. Listeners soon took notice of Smith’s solo offerings, sending an acoustic version of “Lay Me Down” past the million-views mark on YouTube (well over 13 million have watched since) and his EP, “Nirvana,” had already logged hundreds of thousands of listens on SoundCloud before it was officially released in the States.
“In the Lonely Hour,” which he crafted alongside a small team that included Napes (who did most of the heavy lifting), Two Inch Punch and Adele’s co-writers Eg White and Fraser T. Smith, delivered on the substantial pre-release buzz.
“It’s soul music, but I give it to you in different ways,” he told The Times in 2013 months before the album was released. “But it’s honest. I do sing the truth to the point where it’s hard to listen to certain songs because they are brutally honest.”
Smith grew up listening to female voices and only recently began listening to male singers. He counts Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga among his key influences, and the raw honesty of “In the Lonely Hour” packs an emotional wallop that stands out on pop radio in a way that’s been compared with another recent Grammy favorite, Adele.
Adding to the honest nature of the project was Smith’s matter-of-fact approach to his sexuality.
The album is dedicated to Smith’s unrequited love for another man, but predictably the tender video for “Leave Your Lover” — showing the singer pining for the affections of a male friend — ignited rampant media speculation about a sexuality that wasn’t being hidden. Smith kept his response low-key, making sure the press knew that he was, indeed, singing about a same-sex relationship. “I want to be clear that that’s what it’s about,” he said at the time.
Smith admits he’s had “more issues in the past year with people having issues with my sexuality than I’ve had in my entire life.”
“It’s new ground for me to deal with. I’m gay, and I’m very, very proud to be gay. But for some people it’s like you saying you love the color blue and someone going, ‘But you don’t,’” he said, breaking into a laugh.
“As I keep saying, I want to be a spokesperson for gay people, and I’m trying to be. I put out the record, I’m saying ‘him’ in a lot of the records, I explain what it’s for. Its just odd ... it makes you realize we’re not in the best place we could be,” he said.
“The fact that it’s still a headline makes me feel uncomfortable. There aren’t headlines talking about how Lorde is straight or how Beyoncé is straight. I look at it from a very equal perspective. I want them to talk about my music. I want them to talk about my singing.”
If he feels any burden in the prospect of becoming the first openly gay man to win a Grammy, Smith doesn’t show it: “If I win, it would be incredible. OK, I’m the first openly gay man, and that would be an amazing thing, but I try not to think about that stuff. A Grammy’s a Grammy. A singer’s a singer. A boy’s a boy,” he said.
Smith has already started working on his next album, which he says will be “the most honest thing” he’s ever written and confirms it will be another concept record — albeit more broad than the unrequited feelings for one person. He even spent a chunk of his two vacations last year in writing sessions for the project.
“There’s so much in my life that I want to talk about. It’s going to be a broader experience,” he said. “Who knows, by the end of it I may have had four or five boyfriends and I’ll want to talk about it.”