By Dee Lockett
During the course of a three-day stint in New York City, fresh off a flight from Holland, one of the UK’s most lauded rising stars, 21-year-old Sam Smith, did about as much work as you or I would in a month. Brooklyn photo shoots, back-to-back interviews, performances at all three of Disclosure’s sold-out Terminal 5 shows where he brushed shoulders with Mary J. Blige and Sting, and, to cap off the weekend, his American television debut alongside Disclosure on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. “The kind of work I’m gonna have to put in this year, it’s scary because it’s a lot to do,” he tells me when we sit down at the Hudson Hotel on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a familiar environment for the singer who’s been living in the often-dreary city of London for the last two years.
Next Tuesday, Smith will re-release his Nirvana EP—an “introduction to my world,” as he calls it—in the U.S., and come May, he’ll put out his debut album In the Lonely Hour. With such a packed schedule on the horizon, it’d be fair to assume he’s got a lot weighing on his mind, what with the added expectations that come from winning the BBC Sound of 2014 and the Brits Critics’ Choice Award. To put the significance of each accolade in perspective, Adele won both in 2008—a year later, she won her first Grammy.
But as we enter the hotel’s dimly lit Library Bar, the room’s decor distracts him. He’s particularly fixated on a peculiar-looking Jean-Baptise Mondino print of a cow with a women’s hat on its head, one of many similar photographs that line the wood finished walls. “I have to take a picture of this,” he says, exuding a smile in his voice that becomes a constant presence throughout our conversation. Thrown into the music business’ pressure cooker a year ago after a feature on Disclosure’s breakthrough single “Latch,” Smith remains far too swept up in the joys—small and large—of seeing his decade-long journey to stardom finally realized to let industry bullshit faze him.
For nearly 30 minutes, we discussed the making of his debut album, unrequited love, what he thinks about the growing Adele comparisons, and much more. Read the interview below.
You just performed with Disclosure last night. Is the crowd different here than it is overseas?
I prefer American crowds. Do you know what, I can’t say that ‘cause I love England so much. It’s different. I mean, at festivals in the UK people go nuts and it’s amazing. But the crowds over here are like the festival crowds but in venues. It’s different, London crowds are a bit more subdued. Then Manchester crowds are crazy. But over here, people kind of ‘whoop’ at the right time [laughs].
When and where did you write and record your debut album In the Lonely Hour?
I started writing the record at the end of 2012. And then the whole of 2013 I was writing probably most days every day. And it was recorded all in London. One song was in Manchester, but it’s all been recorded and written in London. I live in London; I’m 21 now and I moved there when I was 18. It just felt right, felt like home. I was just talking with a lady from my label about how I definitely want to move to New York City for my second album.
I think for the second album I wanna—it’s probably way too early to talk about it. If I get the opportunity to do it, I wanna be somewhere else. I think it’s important to be inspired by different places when you write music.
I definitely want to move to New York City for my second album….it’s important to be inspired by different places when you write music.
What inspired you about London?
There was a loneliness in London. The album’s called In the Lonely Hour, and I actually walk a lot around London. So I used to do sessions, probably about a two-hour walk away from my house, and then after a session I’d walk home. There’s just a lot of space in London to kind of just be by yourself and take in everything, and I guess it helped in a way with the album because I really wanted to write an album that focused on unrequited love. ‘Cause I’ve never been in a relationship before.
That surprises me because all your songs sound so genuinely about love. Where does that believability come from?
Well, the only song that’s really about “love love,” like being in love, is “Latch,” and I kind of had to pretend in a way that I’d been in love when I wrote that. All the boys that were in the room with me when we were writing had been in love, so I was really channeling something that will be, if you know what I mean. But all my other songs are about brief loves and one-night stands, which I try to find the beauty in. What’s really important to me in this album is trying to find the beautifulness of love that’s not between two people. I think we all get a bit confused sometimes that you can only feel love with another person, but it’s not true. You can learn to love you and almost fall in love with your loneliness which I felt like I have over the past year. It’s really deep [laughs], but I wanted to channel a different form of love in this album and I feel like I have.
I get really scared every day that I’ve written a really depressing album. But it’s real. That’s what’s honest, and that’s what real.
Do you think the emotions that pertain to self-love are the same as loving someone else?
I think loving yourself is a very minute part of what I was talking about. Everyone says you’ve gotta love yourself before you can love someone else, but my main focus was the unrequited love thing. I personally feel that unrequited love is as strong if not stronger than real love because it hurts, and pain is what hurts the most. It’s the hardest feeling you can get. I remember I was watching Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present recently and she said you can only make good art through something sad. And this album is kind of proof. I get really scared every day that I’ve written a really depressing album. But it’s real. That’s what’s honest, and that’s what real. And when I’m happy, I’ll write happy music. I document my life in my music.
Going back to the album title, what it is the loneliest hour for you?
I’ve had so many over the past year because I’ve been in loads of huge festivals and I find them quite lonely. I stayed at The Redbury hotel actually in L.A. a few months ago, and the rooms are huge. I remember saying to the guys, “I hate this so much, I feel so lonely.” I use the word too much now, but a year ago I couldn’t have said that I was lonely because I found it quite daunting to say that, but now I can. There’s always a lonely hour. Do you know what, even people in relationships have lonely hours. My explanation of it is that moment at nighttime when you’re in bed and you’re by yourself—whether you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend or whatever—you just text someone, don’t you? Even if you don’t like them, you text them just because you feel a tiny bit lonely. And everyone has that, so that’s mainly the lonely hour. And it’s always at night. Late at night. Even when you’re out clubbing and you take someone home that you shouldn’t: that’s in the lonely hour.
You’re huge in the UK and now you’re just beginning your crossover into America. Does winning the BBC Sound of 2014 poll and the Brits Critics’ Choice Award put some type of pressure on you or overwhelm you at all?
It’s overwhelming and it’s a little bit scary in the sense of just what’s to come. The kind of work I’m gonna have to put in this year, it’s scary because it’s a lot to do. But I don’t feel pressure because it’s all about the music. And I really just want the best possible platform for my music, my songs, and my album. And these awards give it this beautiful platform. I found out just before Christmas that I got both of them and it was amazing, I couldn’t believe it. But it wasn’t until [it was announced] that I actually got the Sound of 2014 poll and the Brit like last week that I really realized what it does. It kind of projects your face and you to the whole of the UK and even across here people are talking about it, so it’s mad. But I don’t feel pressure because I have too much belief in my work.
What was the concept behind your “Money On My Mind” video? The Las Vegas setting is very contrasting to the song’s theme.
So, “Money On My Mind” is about a certain person in the industry who really upset me last year, and I just wanted to write a song about it to get it off my chest. I couldn’t be too specific in the video because I would’ve probably got in trouble, but Vegas just felt like the right place. It’s where money is. What was beautiful about this video is we went there and the actual main strip, no offense, I don’t like it. It’s too much for me and I didn’t wanna capture that and I feel like it’s captured too much. Me going to Vegas but then watching it on the movies, there’s a huge difference. It’s not like it is in the movies, so me and Jamie Thraves, the director, really wanted to capture in this music video the real side of Vegas. It’s mental.
Quite a lot of the people in the video actually in the desolate scene were like drug addicts and were living there and we were witnessing their lives. It was quite incredible. That’s why I captured like—even someone who takes drugs, the money is a big part of it. They’re almost doing it because they love it so much, do you know what I mean? I wanted to capture that and even the marriage thing. There’s the older man with the younger girl, they genuinely could love each other but people think that it’s money. But it’s all juxtaposing itself; I just wanted to capture that realness of money and love.
If you don’t mind me asking, what was that negative experience you had with the music industry that inspired the song?
It was just—I’ve had nine managers in my life now from the age of 12. For the first six managers, I was in school and I experienced a really horrible side to the industry of just a lot of rejection. I was very young and it upset me. I moved to London and I just felt so alone in it. But then I found three unbelievable managers who’ve completely changed my life. And what they did is they made me kind of switch all my opinions in my head. I had thought that this industry was one way, but actually when you find the right people, it’s a beautiful place. And for the whole year of 2013 it was amazing and I was meeting so many nice people, having lots of luck, and it was great. But then towards the end of 2013, I then experienced again a little nasty side of it.
I’ve had nine managers in my life now from the age of 12. For the first six managers, I was in school and I experienced a really horrible side to the industry of just a lot of rejection. I was very young and it upset me..
Because you got bigger.
Yeah, and I just wanted to make it clear before I did this album that I write music to be honest and true and to document my life. I do not do it for money. And also my family’s going through this stage at the moment of a bit of financial difficulty. It felt only right to just state that money’s secondhand to everything else.
Speaking of your family, tell me about where you grew up.
I grew up in the countryside near Cambridgeshire in a tiny little village. I had the best childhood I could’ve ever asked for, it was incredible. My family’s amazing. We’re all very, very close. It’s quite funny when I tell this story because people think it’s sad, and it’s not sad. My parents actually split up in New York. We went on a holiday for a week and on the first day, they split up. But it was actually the best holiday we’ve ever had in our lives because we were all stuck in New York together for the whole week and had to kind of get on with it as a family. It’s the reason why we’re all so close now. It’s mad, isn’t it? My parents had like the nicest breakup you could think of and they’re best friends now. So New York always reminds me of that.
Were they supportive when you moved to London at 18?
Yeah. I think back to that now and it kind of warms my heart a bit cause when I left school at 18, every single person at the school had a plan to go to uni or do something. And I remember sitting with my career advisor at school and she was like, “Right, so what are you doing? Have you figured out what you’re doing?” And my answer was literally, “I’m going to move to London and be a well-known singer.” That was it. And you could see she was just like, “What the fuck are you doing, you’re crazy.” She thought I was crazy, but my parents never doubted me. Not once. They let me move to London by myself and pay my rent by myself and work in a bar for two years. I really hustled and grinded and it just shows they had such a belief in my voice.
Tell me about the song you released for free this past week, “Make It To Me.” Was that a leftover from the album?
No, there’s no leftovers from the album. “Make It to Me” was a song that I did with Howard from Disclosure and a guy called Jimmy Napes. It’s actually the last song on the deluxe version of my album, which I haven’t told anyone. The album is about being in the lonely hour; it’s about this hoping and that loneliness. But “Make It To Me,” it was kind of amazing to release it now because that is my link between this album and my future. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but that song is basically like a mating call [laughs]. That’s how I explain it. It’s basically me saying, “I’ve been lonely, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve been in love with people who don’t love me back. But now I’m saying, whoever you are out there to come and fall in love with me so I can write my second album.”
“I’ve been lonely, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve been in love with people who don’t love me back. But now I’m saying, whoever you are out there to come and fall in love with me so I can write my second album.”
That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.
That’s kind of it [laughs].
When I was looking at your album tracklist, I noticed it’s all you. There are no other featured vocalists, right?
No. I think it was nice because I’ve come from two features and I’ve also done the Niles Rodgers song with Disclosure and Jimmy Napes. And I’ve got a few bits that I could release during the album; they’re separate things with people. But I really just wanted this first album to be all about me. I’ve been walking on stage as a feature and being at events as a feature for the past year. And as much as it is great, I have been doing this from the age of 12 and my main focus has always been my career. And Disclosure are incredible, they’ve nurtured me. They’ve really helped me grow as an artist over the past year. This album almost feels like they’ve said, “Naughty Boy and Disclosure have gone. There you go, it’s your time.” I like that it’s all about me.
Recently a lot of the emerging vocalists in the UK get their start on features with Disclosure and Rudimental, these electronic artists. Why do you think that is?
I think it definitely started last year with this whole feature thing. It happened so naturally that—Disclosure and Rudimental are not just dance artists. They are musicians, they’re incredible. They are highly, highly talented at what they do. Obviously, they wanted their music to reach the masses instead of staying underground I think. Disclosure have managed to stay underground and also be massively commercial, I feel. Adding a feature onto your track I think makes the music more accessible immediately. Having these distinct vocals like Ella Eyre who are on these songs kind of takes it to that level where it reaches the masses.
I also just think it’s really healthy for the feature. If you’re a strong artist who knows what you want and is a strong songwriter/singer with a presence, oh my god it’s amazing. It’s literally just like practicing before you do your own thing and the pressure’s almost a little bit off. You’re doing these incredible shows and practicing your trade, it’s a dream. Normally, you get signed and it’s just go, go, go. You learn in front of everyone by yourself. But I’ve gotten to learn behind a screen.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from Disclosure?
Oh my gosh, they’ve taught me so much. The main thing Disclosure have taught me is class. I love music, and I love commercial music. I literally live in the Top 10. And they’ve helped me really—well, first I have my arms open to everything and anything—but they’ve helped me really hone in on what I do and what I love. And I kind of feel like I’ve got this brand, this niche, this “Sam Smith” thing. And it’s just picking things and people to write with in a certain way to make it beautiful, you know what I mean? I feel like I’m creating something specific now instead of just pissin’ in the air [laughs].
You’ve worked with Two Inch Punch and Jimmy Napes on the album. Anyone else?
It’s really important for me for this album to have a mix of classic big songwriters to write with, and every song’s written with me and someone else. So I really meshed the new and the old together. I worked with Eg White, who has done a lot of Adele’s stuff [“Chasing Pavements,” “Melt My Heart to Stone”] and is just a genius. I worked with Fraser T who wrote “Set Fire to the Rain” with Adele and he’s a huge writer, he was incredible to work with. Then I worked with Jimmy Napes, who’s family to me so that felt so natural. And then Two Inch Punch, that element of fresh, cool—he’s so talented. That’s it really. I’ve got Howard from Disclosure on “Make It to Me.”
I actually wrote one of the songs on my album with Zane Lowe cause he’s a producer and a songwriter, and he’s amazing. So he’s got a song on the album which is great. Oh, I also wrote with Matt Prime who’s a great songwriter. But it was a very select few; I did a lot of sessions last year. I knew immediately who I wanted to make the album with.
What do you want this album to say about you?
I want the album to really showcase my emotional side. I think guys put on a front sometimes in music—actually not just in music. In every form of life, they don’t show their emotions like a female does. And that’s something I love about myself, without sounding too big headed. I’ve spent my whole life around girls and all my friends are girls, so I really am in touch with my emotional side. I just hope that people see that and like that. It’s such a personal album. I make music for people to relate to but I make music as a therapy for myself. Every time I sing the songs I sing, it makes me feel a little bit better inside about my loneliness or someone that I’ve been in love with. I mean, the album’s also about someone I was in love with who didn’t love me back. And I want people to look at the album as if they were looking at my past and respect that love I had.
I want people to look at the album as if they were looking at my past and respect that [unrequited] love I had.
Does this person know that you wrote the album for them?
I don’t know, possibly.
Sounds very much like Adele’s 21 to me.
Yeah, but the Adele thing was about someone who she was in a relationship with. This person doesn’t know that I was in love with them. There’s a huge difference. I couldn’t tell them that I love them. And I couldn’t tell anyone around me that I love them, so I’ve done it through my music. It’s almost like a code.
You’re breaking my heart.
[Laughs] The album’s a memory and a diary. And I just want people to feel like they’re reading a diary.
Do you have a song in mind for the next single?
Yeah, I already know the next single. “Money On My Mind” is on its own in the sense of the subject. Next single is delving straight into In the Lonely Hour, straight into the real heart and soul of the album.
Going back to Adele, I have a dream collaboration between you and her in my mind. I can just picture your voices melting together. Could that or a collaboration with Jessie Ware’s or Ella Eyre ever happen?
Oh my god, who knows. I wanna sing a duet so bad. Obviously, obviously Adele is just unbelievable. I’m just more intrigued to meet her, she seems like the loveliest girl in the world. But, yeah, who knows? I really want to stay away from the comparisons between me and her because I think it’s just easy to put people in boxes and compare. I mean, there are similarities, I can see that, but we’re also very different people with very different stories. But, of course, I’d love to just get in a room with her and pick at her brain. She seems like a lovely lady. But also Jessie Ware. I really wanna do a duet with her, I really do. She’s incredible and also my friend and is actually the loveliest girl I’ve met in this industry.
Last question. I’ve seen from your Instagram that you’re very into the new Beyoncé album. Any chance of a cover?
Oh my god, can you imagine? Who knows. Maybe. That album has changed music.
I can hear you singing “Rocket.”
Oh, that’s incredible. D’Angelo style. Do you know, I wanna do some D’Angelo stuff soon. I’m getting into my soul music a lot more now, probably because of that album. I’m delving a lot into Prince and Luther Vandross.
The Nirvana EP will be available in the U.S. January 28. In the Lonely Hour will be released May 26.