“I remember being about six years old and I was panicking — I’d keep my mother awake for hours trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I felt in my head that I had to have a path, and I used to choose all of these different careers and then write out plans for them.”
Sam Smith certainly chose the correct career path it seems, having recently won Grammys for “Record Of The Year”, “Song Of The Year”, “Best Pop Vocal Album” and “Best New Artist” after being around for only two short years. He came onto the scene in full force after working with Disclosure on the track “Latch”, in 2012. His next single hit number 1 on the UK charts, and the rest was history, so to speak. Smith recently teamed up with John Legend to support the charity Comic Relief with a new recording of his hit “Lay Me Down.” Now with four Grammys under his belt, he’s preparing to embark on an extensive tour this summer that will take him all across the US. The month-long run will kick off July 17. Smith took a moment out of his busy schedule to have a chat with The Untitled Magazine about his meteoric rise to fame, and how he always knew he wanted to be a pop star.
Indira Cesarine: So how did you get started in the music industry?
Sam Smith: Well, I started singing from the age of eight— it was a passion of mine. I ended up being really sad as a kid because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I was older. I remember being about six years old and I was panicking. I’d keep my mother awake for hours trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I felt in my head that I had to have a path, and I used to choose all of these different careers and then write out plans for them. It’s really odd. When I hit about eleven years old, I knew that I wanted to be a pop star, and I started immediately. Throughout school I was constantly in the recording studio practicing my trade, though I had some ups and downs. I made an album with some people and that went a bit wrong and went through quite a few different managers. I moved to London when I was eighteen and then started working in the bath, cleaning toilets. I was just really hustling when I was eighteen. I was really poor! It wasn’t until I got off of my ass and started socializing and meeting people that things started to really kick off. Then, it was almost like a domino effect. I wrote “Lay me Down” and then Disclosure heard that, and I wrote “Latch” and then Naughty Boy heard “Latch”, and then we did “Lalala” and it just felt like ten years in the making. And then one year, things clicked.
IC: Do you remember the first time you performed in front of an audience?
SS: I wrote a Christmas song when I was ten, and had to perform it for the whole school. So that was quite intense. Also, do you remember something called “Stars in their Eyes,” the TV show? In primary school, we used to do a mock version of it and I dressed up as a cartoon character, Tweety, from “The Tweeties.”
IC: And what about your first performance as a professional musician, do you remember that?
SS: My first performance professionally, when I felt like I properly came into my own, was only a year and a half ago or two years ago, at a place called ‘Blue Flowers’ in London. That was when I felt like an artist. I’d written the music, and I felt like I should be on stage, if you know what I mean. Whereas before, I felt like I was a bit lost.
IC: I actually saw you perform at Soho House in New York, when you were here, and one thing I thought was very interesting was your choice of music and sound. Obviously, it was a great performance, but aside from that, it was quite different from what we might hear from you on the radio or commercially. What was your reason for the direction that you went with on that performance?
SS: It’s funny you say that, because on one side, people would say that my music is becoming very radio-friendly, but my main motto is that anything is possible, and I need to be completely limitless as an artist. We’re in this world where if we put a name on it, or if we put things in a box, we understand it better. And I say, screw that, because things aren’t meant to be presented to you in that manner sometimes. I want my audience, my fanbase, to think a little bit. To use their brains. You know I can perform any song I do with a piano and a voice. But that doesn’t mean that I’m just an acoustic singer, because I’m also on tour singing “Do I Wanna Know” by the Arctic Monkeys, which is a rock song. I want to be a chameleon in that sense and just do whatever I feel like doing, and it just so happens that at that gig you saw, I felt like it needed a smaller production and I just wanted to showcase my voice.
IC: What inspires your songwriting?
SS: My life inspires it. I write very autobiographically. I want to write about things that are happening in my life at that time. So, it’s almost like I’m documenting it.
IC: How would you describe your sound?
SS: When I go to the studio, sometimes I wake up and I want to sound like Beyoncé and then some days I wake up and I want to sound like Joni Mitchell and so that’s exactly what I do.
IC: I love that. Can you tell me a bit about your album?
SS: The album is called In the Lonely Hour. I’ve never been in a relationship before, and I wanted the album to be honest and wanted to write how I was feeling at the time. I wanted to address this whole subject, because I don’t feel like it’s addressed enough. I feel like people are scared of being sad. Even my A&R! He’s amazing but when I came up with the title In the Lonely Hour, he panicked for a second. He thought ‘Is this too depressing?’ and I just don’t care because that’s how I’m feeling! People do get sad and I just wanted to do a body of work that focused on my loneliness. I needed it to help me, more than anything. I needed to do it for me. And I did.
IC: So it’s quite autobiographical, like you mentioned before.
SS: Yes, I would go out the night before I did sessions and I’d get drunk and kiss people and then write about it the next day.
IC: I love that. It’s brilliant that it’s coming from such a personal place.
SS: Yes, 100%. And that’s what hits people, lyrically. That’s what I feel, personally.
IC: So you do a lot of collaborations in your work, right?
IC: So it’s very musically focused… a little bit of a different direction. Do you have a favorite contemporary musician that you like to listen to? One that inspires you in any way?
SS: Oh gosh, so many. I’m a massive fan of Blood Orange, I’m a massive fan of Sky Ferreira at the moment; I think she’s incredible. I also love Beyoncé and Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, and all of these people. I’m pretty focused on the charts.
IC: If you could collaborate with anyone you want who would be your first choices to collaborate with?
SS: I think I’d love to sing with Chaka Khan, just because I’d love to do that for my family; they’re such huge fans. I’d also love to work with Earth Wind and Fire, and people like that. You know, I want to work with everyone. So that’s what I do; I work with everyone. To me, it’s all about the music. I just want to put out good music.
IC: As an up and coming artist, I mean, you’re only twenty-one—what would you consider the biggest struggle you’ve had so far in your career path?
SS: I got really sad last year about being lonely. That was one of [the struggles] but, I mean, professionally I think the biggest struggle so far is just breaking the boundaries of this whole drama thing. I was speaking about this with my friends—mainstream music frustrates me sometimes. If someone sells two, three million records, people say that they’ve sold out, or their music is not critically good or something like that just because they’re selling loads of records. I don’t understand that myself, because I feel like the more people you appeal to, the more magic your music has. I feel like there are deluded opinions out there on that. But people also listen to music in different ways and I respect that, but why can’t I make tunes like “Nirvana” which are cool and sexy, and then also make songs like my second single? My second single feels to me like it’s more mainstream and more classic. Why can’t I do both? That would be my only question. But, I don’t care what anyone says because I’ll just do it.
IC: Exactly. Have you ever had a mentor in your career?
SS: I’d say my first-ever singing teacher, Samantha Eden, really was a mentor of mine. She nurtured my voice from a very young age. Also my parents; my parents are my idols. I love them so much, and they inspire me every day.
IC: You mentioned before the loneliness that you sometimes feel as an artist. Do you think that that is part of the career path that you’ve chosen?
SS: Of course. I also feel like all artists have to be a tiny bit insecure to stand on stage and want thousands of people to clap and shout their name. I think all artists have a little bit of insecurity to want to do that. Especially if you’re a songwriter as well, I mean, we’re all a little bit crazy and I think that that’s good… just as long as we’re outputting it into the music. That’s all I’d say. And that’s what I do, whenever I’m sad or feel troubled, I output it into my music, and my performance, and then I feel good. I feel really good at the moment, and if anything I should be feeling more lonely now then I ever have because I’m on my own more than I ever have been because I’m on tour, but I feel really good because its almost like the music was my therapy, and it healed me.
IC: Do you have any words of wisdom or a personal motto that you live by to get you through day by day, or in a tough moment?
SS: I’d say ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ [laughs] and I’d also say ‘There’s complexity in simplicity.’
IC: I like that, that’s quite beautiful. If you weren’t in music, if you hadn’t gone down that path from such a young age, what do you think you would have ended up doing? I mean, was there ever sort of an alternative career? A back-up plan?
SS: I’ve always wanted to be a florist and open up a flower shop in Tuscany, Italy [laughs]. I want to be a character in a Woody Allen film.
IC: So this is our Legendary issue, and one of the questions we’re asking everyone is what does the word ‘legendary’ mean to you? When you hear that word, what do you think of?
SS: When I think of ‘legendary’ I think of someone, whether it be male or female, that has a presence that makes people listen. And for me, a ‘legend’ is someone who takes the power that they have, whether it’s their singing voice, their speaking voice, or their talent at playing instruments, or how good they play football, they take what they do, and they spread it to others and help other people. A ‘legend’ for me is just someone who uses their power and their talents for good.
IC: And are there any particular legendary artists that come to mind?
SS: Oh my gosh. I’ll say one word. Whitney.
IC: So, tell me, what are your current projects? You’re on tour at the moment; you have your album coming out…
SS: The album is completely finished and I’m on tour at the moment. Its grinding time: performing and traveling a lot and presenting my work.
IC: Do you have any other projects that we can look out for this year?
SS: I don’t. At the moment I just have my album, which is a lot of work and that’s coming out in May, but I’m thinking about things that I want to be doing. I’m quite an artistic person so I want to carry on doing loads.
IC: And are you planning on performing at any festivals or any sort of things like that?
IC: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention in regards to the album, or other stuff you have going on at the moment?
SS: Just, please listen to it and keep an open mind.
IC: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
SS: I would say you’ve got to love what you do, and you’ve got to remember that music isn’t everything. I’m not trying to sound weird or sad or anything but music is one part of life, you know what I mean? I love it so much, it’s my passion, it’s what I do, but I also love sitting around a table with my family and having a meal and talking about complete shit. I think that’s important to remember, its one little factor of life, its not the be-all-end-all.
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Photography for The Untitled Magazine
Stylist: Francis Urrutia
Grooming: Kristen Bode
Photographed at Shangri-La Studio
This article originally appeared in The Legendary Issue of The Untitled Magazine (2014).