INTERVIEW: Sam Smith On… the Beauty of One-Night Stands, Whitney Houston and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Musical

May 27, 2014 Interviews, Long Reads, ST021

Photos by Sunny Shokrae

Last January, we spoke to Sam Smith a few days before he was set to walk the red carpet at the GRAMMYs, the end of a whirlwind couple weeks that included several profile-raising appearances with Disclosure. Now that his debut album is out in the UK (In the Lonely Hour’s stateside release is June 17th) and set to finally overshadow the singer’s work on Disclosure’s hit single “Latch,” we thought we’d share the full version of the abbreviated interview that ran in our iPad magazine recently…

Have you had any time to decompress back home over the past couple months? It seems like you’ve been going nonstop lately.
Yeah, but I’m loving it. It’s better than working in a bar. For the first time in my life, I flew non-economy, which was great fun. I got to lie down and chill, which was really nice. It’s all go-go-go, but I’m really happy at the moment.

If things keep going this way, you won’t have anything to write about for your next record.
Well you would have said I had nothing to be upset about last year, but  I was pretty sad.

What’s the most surreal or strange thing that’s happened to you recently?
Well I met Sting and Mary J. Blige. They came to one of the Disclosure shows where I sang. I met them afterwards, and they were very complimentary. That was really overwhelming for me; having my musical peers say I’m good is just crazy.

You can essentially say Mary J. Blige warmed the stage up for you too.
I was shitting myself. It was so scary—going last. The whole day I was asking, ‘Why are you making me go last?’ It’s just a song though, isn’t it? “Latch” is such an anthem; people love it, so it was great.

“I hope this album reaches people, but I wrote it very selfishly, for me and me only, to help me survive”

Wasn’t one of your first shows with Disclosure at a festival?
Yeah, I was really thrown into it, but I think that’s good. For the first year, most of the shows I was doing was with Naughty Boy or Disclosure, so I was getting these great opportunities to just practice my trade. Now I feel more confident at my own shows. I still get nervous but that just adds to the performance.

You seem like the kind of person who can’t wait to get out there and just belt it out.
You know what? I love it when I’m out there, but it’s also really hard for me because my songs are really personal. I feel like I’m singing my diary, so when I get on stage it’s so emotionally draining. Because you’re reliving all these experiences as you sing. I do find it tiring because I’m so connected to my songs. The best part of it is meeting people and thanking them for their support so far.

A lot of performers put an emotional distance between their songs and their performances. It doesn’t seem like you’re able to do that.
Yeah. The album’s not just about one person I fell in love with last year that didn’t love me back; it’s about loneliness. I’ve never been in a relationship before, so it’s about how I try to find the beauty in one-night stands. And it’s about jealousy when you see someone you love with someone else. I’m still not with anyone, so I think I’ll be able to relate to this album until I experience that other kind of love. I hope this album reaches people, but I wrote it very selfishly, for me and me only, to help me survive.

Do you feel like you’ve mostly experienced lust in life rather than love?
I feel like lust and love can be the same thing, although the people I’ve loved who didn’t love me back, that wasn’t lust. I really loved them. And one-night stands can be a form of love too, as can loneliness. It sounds weird, but I feel in love with my loneliness. I got set in my ways a bit. I’m very romantic at the end of the day. Like I’m a huge believer in love.

I couldn’t tell.
Yeah. [Laughs] I love music so much that I’m looking for someone I love more than that. I want someone else to take the top spot, and I won’t settle until I find the best thing. I think that’s why I’ve never been in a relationship before. I don’t want to settle for anything less than perfect. Which is probably bad but…

Well it’s a good bar to set for yourself. It’s better than tricking yourself into thinking you’re in love when you’re just a teenager or whatever.
I’ve watched too many people throw around the word ‘love’; do you get what I mean? People in silly relationships saying they’re in love. It’s put me off the idea. I think when you’re truly in love, you don’t really say it. It’s such a huge emotion you can’t even say it. I’m just looking for someone to punch me in the face.

Your obsessiveness with the very idea of love seems to put a unique perspective on your writing, keeping it from sounding cliched.
Well I grew up listening to music, and I never heard of body of work that was about loneliness. So that’s what I wanted to do.

Never? There’s certainly lots of songs about it. You just feel like there hasn’t been an album you’ve related to?
There’s albums I’ve related to; just not ones that are purely about loneliness.

You learned how to sing from female performers. Is there any reason why you always gravitated towards them?
It was probably their independence. I’m also a very emotional person, and guys don’t tend to show their emotional side. A lot of the guys I listened to had a facade of being powerful, whereas all these amazing female artists belt out their insecurities. It just really resonated with me. I could never really put my finger on it. Even now, I can’t. I really try to force myself to like [male singers]. Like I’m really into John Legend at the moment, but you’ll still find me listening to the new Beyoncé more. The majority of the females I hear are singing from the heart.

What’s one singer you obsessed over as a kid, one you tried to emulate every time you got home from school?
God, Whitney Houston, man. I remember the first song I ever listened to was Aretha Franklin’s “Say a Little Prayer.” So I’d emulate that, but I slowly got into Whitney and “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay.” I actually just had lunch with Darkchild, who made that record, which was kinda weird. I love divas.

Could you relate to what they were saying?
Sometimes, but I never connected to an album the way I’ve connected to my own. Now when I have a one-night stand and I wake up in the morning and feel like shit about it, I can listen to my tune “Stay With Me.” It’ll make me feel completely fulfilled because I can relate to it. That sounds really big-headed of me but it’s therapy. I wanted to write songs that just hit the spot, you know?

It’s interesting getting into the phase of playing the record for people. Some people love it; some people don’t. It’s just great. The only thing I want to do is connect to those lonely people. That’s the most important thing to me—reaching the little boy who can’t stop listening to female vocals and is lonely in their bedroom.

Sam Smith

You had a chance to make an album when you were younger but it didn’t end up going anywhere. What made you trust the music industry again?
I really owe my confidence now, and my outlook on the industry now to four people: [songwriter/producer] Jimmy Napes and my managers. Those four guys changed my life. They took me from my bar job and made me believe in the music industry again. They made me feeling like I had a family. They are the reason why I’m here, and why I have such a positive outlook on things at the moment.

Didn’t you make an entire album before and it just never came out?
I didn’t write it. I had an album written for me when I was 14, which was interesting. I’ve had my ups and downs in the industry. Even now, I’ve met some unkind people.

Well there’s a lot of them out there.
Of course there is. But it’s the same in any industry isn’t it? My team is great, though. That really is key—to be good at what you do, and have good people around you.

Tell me a little bit about Jimmy Napes. Not too many people know about him yet, but I feel like he’s a big part of what you and some other people—like Disclosure—are doing.
Jimmy’s been writing for years and years and years. He’s an incredible songwriter. Everything just kinda spiraled out of control since our first session. Me and him just worked our asses off. He’s got some amazing hits on the Disclosure record. And I originally wrote “La, La, La” but when I wanted to change the second verse, I took it to Jimmy. I have such a special relationship with him. He really gets my voice. The main thing about Jimmy is he understands that vocals are an instrument, and they’re just as important as the production. Too many people think the production is everything, and that you’re a smarter musician if you know how to play instruments but I want people to know my voice is an instrument I work on every single day of my life.

That’s probably the ballsiest thing you’ve done—putting your vocals out there unadorned, like with your acoustic videos. There’s a lot more people ‘crooning’ these days but they’re often hiding behind electronic production or pitch-shifting.
Even people relying on tone. There’s a lot of singers who rely on that. You can hear they don’t really work on their voice.

How do you mean?
I just mean it’s important to practice what you do every day. You need to excel at your instrument; know what I mean?

When did you find the time to work on your vocals while you were working at a bar a few years ago?
When I was working at the bar, I was working full-time, so I didn’t really have time. On my downtime, I’d write, and try and meet people and write with them. I’ve never sung as much in my life as I have in the past year.

Did you just stop singing while you worked at the bar then?
Kinda. I was working at the bar for two years. And in the last year, there was a moment where I said, ‘I’m gonna give this just one more year and then I’m done. Because I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t clean toilets while I watch my friends live their lives.’ I wasn’t growing as a human being; I felt like I was stuck in that job and not enjoying my life.

Did you even know anyone in London when you moved there?
Not really. I had probably three or four friends in London, which was tough.

Did the bar force you to be social and meet people?
The bar I worked in was in the financial district and the people who worked with me were actually quite older. It wasn’t like meeting people my age and stuff. It was very different. But I’m good at meeting people, so I had a bit of fun. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

“I need it to balance the person I project… We’ve all got different sides to ourselves, haven’t we?”

How did the London you grew up idolizing compare with the London of today?
You know, I have a love affair with London. It’s home for me. I’ll listen to music and write songs as I walk there. And I like finding secret spots where there’s good food. London is just so vast; it’s incredible. I love it so much. My mom’s actually moved to London now, so it feels more like home.

What’s one of your secret food spots?
There’s many. There’s a place called the Fentiman Arms, which is in South London. It’s just incredible. There’s another place across from Jimmy’s studio where we wrote most of the album. It’s called Look Mum, No Hands!. It’s just the most incredible coffee shop. The coffee is addictive.

Do you see yourself moving to New York once this album is out so you can immerse yourself in a different city?
It’s so funny—talking about my second album when I haven’t even finished my first. But I know exactly what I want to do. I want to move to New York and venture into soul music more.

Wouldn’t you call what you do now soul music?
This album has soul all over it, yeah. There’s even country on it, like this one song called “Leave Your Lover” is almost like soulful country. Since I was a kid, all I’ve listened to was soul music. My manager the other week said, ‘I think you’re a pop guy.’ And I was like, ‘No!’ I like pop, but what I really love is stuff that’s influenced by soul music. You can hear that in my voice. Like I think I can sing over a country song and still make it sound soulful. Even “Latch”—something that’s pretty electronic—has a lot of soul to it.

Is it important to present your music as a more unadorned version of soul, something that isn’t trying to replicate another era or, say, a Motown sound?
Yeah. I’m not trying to replicate anything. If something sounds like something else, it’s probably an accident, based upon something I’m inspired by. When I’m in the studio, I’m just me. That’s it. And all of the songs on the album are me being myself. When something happens, I just want to talk about it and how that end product sounds isn’t really up to me. It’s just how it sounds. I’m just myself.

You sound really comfortable doing interviews, really open to discussing such a personal record. Do you worry about how touring behind it for the next year or so might wear on you?
Do you know what? Me in my everyday life, I can be a bit crude sometimes. Especially once I get to know people. I can be a bit over the top sometimes. I kinda put on a bit of a mask. My music is me. That is me from my heart, from my soul, me as a person. That’s why I love doing interviews and singing for people—because I get to be me. When I go to parties and stuff, I put on a bit of a mask because I’m trying to constantly impress people. But when I’m writing and performing, I’m not trying to impress anyone. That’s why I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of being this honest and open. I need it to balance the person I project, if you get what I mean. We’ve all got different sides to ourselves, haven’t we?

What’s one of the crudest things you’ve done in the past week?
I can’t tell you. It’s just my sense of humor. I’m quite dry and sarcastic with close friends. But I’m an insecure guy. I’m very paranoid about what people think of me. Music is the only place where all of those worries and insecurities go away. I just get to sing from my soul. That’s why I love it so much.

You worry more about what people think about you, one on one, than what they think of your record then?
No, I worry about that too because I want people to like it. But you’re right; on a personal level, I just want people to like me.

‘I just want to be loved!’
[Laughs] Yeah, I just want to be liked and seen as a nice person. I think I am. I’ve asked my mom about this and she’s said, ‘That’s what being a teenager is about. You worry about what other people think.’ I’m not a teenager anymore, shit. But I think it’s okay to be like this.

“It’s just not something I want to do. Songwriting is too therapeutic for me.”

Did you spend your teenage years always worried about what people thought of you then?
No. I’m making it sound like I’m this massive worrier! But yeah, I think every teenager is insecure. I was quite overweight when I was a little boy. I was really overweight, so that didn’t help at all. I was like every other teenager, though, and very lucky to have a supportive family.

Your parents are separated right? It sounds like you have a good relationship with both of them.
Yeah, my whole family is just incredible. I had the most beautiful childhood. My mom and dad are still best friends even though they’re not together. To know I have that no matter what is just incredible.

Do you remember when you realized you wanted to be a performer? It’s okay to be honest too; like it’s alright if it was when you performed South Pacific as a teenager.
[Laughs] You’re bringing that up! I love it. South Pacific—no. It was probably when I was backup singing for my jazz teacher. I did jazz concerts with her, including one at Kenwood House where she supported Buena Vista Social Club. I loved it. It was such a huge crowd. I remember thinking, ‘This is it.’ South Pacific was fun as well, though.

What other musicals did you do?
Les Mis, My Fair Lady, so many.

What’s one musical you could see yourself performing on Broadway five years from now?
I wouldn’t do it again.

Why is that?
I lost my love for musicals when I started writing my own songs.

Because you’d rather perform something that’s personal to you?
Yeah, I started to want to be myself on stage. I found it so much more rewarding to be myself, but all my friends still do musical theater. I still go and watch them. And I still love it. It’s just not something I want to do. Songwriting is too therapeutic for me.

What’s one musical you went to recently that was really compelling? I feel like musicals have become so expensive that younger people don’t even go see them anymore.
Yeah, you’re right. You know what? You’re gonna laugh but I went to see Lord of the Rings a little while back…

There’s a musical version of it?
There was a few years ago. The music was incredible. It was this great Irish stuff. I loved it. Weird right?

So they turned Lord of the Rings into Irish jig music?
No, it was just epic Irish music. Go download the album. You might like it.

Before you go, what’s on your mind right now?
What’s on my mind is I can’t wait to wear the Armani suit I got for the GRAMMYs. I’m super excited about wearing some nice clothes. You know what else is on my mind? I want to get drunk. I haven’t gotten drunk in so long. So we’re going to go out tonight and get drunk in L.A.

Why didn’t you drink on the plane earlier? You were in first class.
I had a few Champagnes but they just put me to sleep. Not exactly party vibes.

What’s your drink of choice usually?
I’m either a gin and tonic guy, or champagne.

Simple tastes, then.
And if I’m in a mood where I don’t give a shit about my weight, I’ll drink beer.

You have to watch your figure now?
I want to. I want to fit into these clothes at the GRAMMYs, you know what I mean?

Nice suits can be quite constricting.
It’s true. But it’s all about the feeling and vibe.

You’ve gotta own it.
Yeah.

Since most people haven’t heard the record yet, is there one song you’re just dying to get out there?
Yeah. It’s called “Good Thing.” I wrote it two days after I decided to get over the person I was in love with and didn’t love me back. When I was writing  and recording it, my face was almost numb because I hadn’t cried at all. It was almost as if I was crying inside my face. It felt really weird. When you listen to the song, I don’t really belt at all. I was just completely knackered from loving this person for so long.

So you never cried over this person?
God no. I don’t cry. Even when my mom and did split up. I don’t like looking back. I want things to get better. I want to be happy.

So you’re a hopeless romantic that doesn’t cry too much?
Yeah.

Actually, you’re more of a hopeful one.
‘Hopeful Romantic’—that should be the title of your piece.

Or your next album.
There you go.