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The Liberation of Sam Smith

He went from London barback to pop’s king of pain. Now he can finally smile

Patrick Doyle Feb 13, 2015
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Sam Smith. Photo: Theo Wenner

Sam Smith. Photo: Theo Wenner

He’s hard to miss: a broad six feet three, wearing a plush, navy Armani overcoat and trademark silver cross earrings, leaving a faint trail of Bleu de Chanel, which lingers on you if he gives you a hug. “My grandma wore Chanel No. 5 my whole life,” he says. “I chose Chanel because of her.” It’s a clear evening three days before Christmas, and Sam Smith is turning heads in London’s posh Knightsbridge neighborhood. He walks a few feet behind his bodyguard, a tall, no nonsense bearded guy named Adi, as they proceed down the picturesque Motcomb Street on the way to Smith’s hair stylist. “This is my dream street,” he says. “The houses are amazing, everything’s clean, very Dick­ensian. Maybe I’ll be able to afford one by Album Four.”

As we turn onto a busy commercial street buzzing with last-minute shop­pers, Smith gets recognized more. “Are you him?” a man in a suit asks, holding up his iPhone; Smith gives a half nod and shakes his hand. A minute later, a young father approaches: “I know it’s cheesy, but it’s Christmas ”“ can my son have a pic­ture?” Smith agrees and poses with the bundled-up little boy, before Adi moves things along.

This is one of the few times Smith, 22, has walked around London since becom­ing, perhaps, the biggest new pop star in the world. “Three months ago, I could walk down here no problem,” he says. He stops at the corner of Harrods, the four-and-a-half-acre luxury de­partment store that he has been coming to during the holidays since he was a kid. The exterior is lit up like the Golden Nugget, blanketed with Christmas lights and sev­eral over-the-top windowfront displays ”“ a robotic Santa Claus with flying reindeer, futuristic nutcrackers. “Isn’t that amaz­ing?” he says, taking it in for a moment.

“Not as amazing as your voice!” inter­jects a middle-aged man in a knit hat who has been eavesdropping. Smith chuck­les; as we begin to cross the street, the man adds, “I hear you’re putting Adele out of business!”

Smith has been hearing a lot of this lately. He starts walking faster, letting out a nervous laugh: “Did you hear what he said?” Since he broke through last year with the spare anthem “Stay With Me,” he’s been tagged as the male Adele. It’s easy to see why ”“ they’re both Brits with great voices who sing about heartbreak and don’t look like they were engineered in a Disney lab. Smith calls Adele “my Michael Jack­son” ”“ he’s been a fan since he was 16 ”“ but says, “We’re very different, and I feel like the constant comparisons might piss her off.” He adds, “It just annoys me that peo­ple can’t digest two pop stars singing real­ly personal songs who don’t look like nor­mal pop stars.”

Just a couple of years ago, Smith was working a few miles away as a barback in the city’s financial district, eating custom­ers’ leftover fish and chips for dinner. On off nights, he says, he’d sometimes sit at home drinking a bottle of wine to work up the courage to hit the gay bars alone. He wrote about the loneliness of that time in “Stay With Me,” a gospel-steeped confes­sion about the aftermath of empty sex. “I had a lot of one-night stands,” Smith says. “I met a few dodgy friends, people I’m def­initely not friends with now.” Around the same time, Smith fell in love with a mar­ried man. Several of the songs on Smith’s debut album, In the Lonely Hour ”“ such as “I’ve Told You Now,” about the time he drunkenly spilled his heart to a guy who he thought was leading him on ”“ de­tail that heartbreak. “I fell in love with a straight guy last year, and he didn’t love me back,” says Smith. “I got trapped in my own mind.”

Lonely Hour has become a Top 10 hit around the world, selling more than 3.5 million copies. This Febru­ary, he’s up for six Grammys, includ­ing Best New Artist and Album of the Year. Less than three weeks from today, Smith begins his first arena tour, with sold-out shows from Minnesota toMadison Square Garden.

He’s entered a world he used to dream about as a theater kid growing up in the English countryside. He texts Rihanna. (“I fucking love her.”) He sang next to Bono, Seal and Chris Martin at Bob Geldof’s re­cent Band Aid charity session. (“That was surreal . . . and Seal is so buff.”) He was in­vited to Taylor Swift’s 25th birthday party (“She let me hold her Grammy”), where he traded Paris restaurant recommendations with Jay Z and Beyoncé. Tonight, he’s a lit­tle stressed because he hasn’t responded yet to an Elton John e-mail.

Smith with Lorde, Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift and Jessie J (from left) at the '14 AMAs. Photo: Christopher Polk/ AMA2014/Getty Images

Smith with Lorde, Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift and Jessie J (from left) at the ’14 AMAs. Photo: Christopher Polk/ AMA2014/Getty Images

Swift, an early fan, remembers inviting Smith onstage at London’s O2 Arena early last year. “I’ll never forget the moment I was standing onstage at soundcheck wait­ing for Sam to walk out, and my band and I heard him sing into his mic from the side of the stage in our in-ear monitors,” she says. “Everyone just stopped what they were doing and looked at me like, ”˜Wait a sec­ond.’ We were all completely stunned that this person sounded even better live than he did on his recordings.”

Beyoncé recently told him his voice is “like butter.” “Everyone has a break­ing point in their voice, which is where it goes from being your chest voice to your falsetto,” says Smith’s writing partner Jimmy Napes. “But Sam’s is so ridiculous­ly high that it’s impossible to reach. What most sing in falsetto, he can sing in his chest voice, and with power. He’s a very, very rare talent.”

An hour later, Smith emerges from the salon, his coif only slightly shorter. We head back to his dream street, taking a seat at a bar outside under purple, glowing snowflakes, and he orders a lager. Napes, a cheerful 30-year-old in a leather jacket, stops by. He can’t stay long; his wife is due to give birth soon. Napes has asked Smith to be the child’s godfather, which Smith is taking very seriously. “I’m going to upset so many people with that christening,” says Smith. “Even if there’s a show, I’m gonna cancel it. I’m going to make the baby gay.”

“I’m going to strap him to my chest and take him to G-A-Y,” Napes jokes.

“That’s a gay bar,” says Smith. Adds Napes, “If it wasn’t obvious.”

Soon, more members of Smith’s circle start showing up, including his three man­agers, his 19-year-old sister, Lily, and his roommate Tiffany, a stylish brunette he’s known since he was five. Smith and Tiffany have lived together for four years, recently upgrading to an East London apartment, overlooking the Thames, where he likes to take long baths and listen to Lana Del Rey. They don’t see each other nearly as much as they used to, like when they’d come back from work, eat chicken wings and watch Lost, or the time they dressed up in funny hats to watch the royal wedding on a giant screen in Hyde Park. “We downed a bottle of red wine at five in the morning and were nearly puking,” Smith says. “For the major­ity of the wedding, we were asleep.”

Smith and his sister are planning to get tattoos on Christmas Eve with their other sibling, 18-year-old Mabel: a Roman nu­meral three on their wrists to signify their bond. (Their dad wants one too. “We said no. That kind of ruins it,” says Lily. Smith nods.)

Soon, everyone heads into sleek black vans to go to one of London’s best Indian restaurants, Gymkhana, in Mayfair, for an unofficial celebration of Smith’s big year. “This is like the Last Supper,” Smith says, posing for a mock-serious photo as he set­tles into the center of the table in the pri­vate room. He orders an “Ooty Town Gim­let,” a very sweet, ginger-and-liqueur drink with rose petals on top ”“ which six oth­ers order after he does. He also orders red wine all around. As Dixieland jazz plays, waiters bring dishes off the seven-course menu like quail shish kebabs and wild-boar vindaloo.

When Smith goes out on the town, he goes all-out. (Tonight, we’ll run up a bill so high his label rep will complain, “I’m so over my budget. I’m going to get ham­mered for this.”) His iPhone cover-screen photo features an image of him next to a stripper’s ass. In June, on the night Lonely Hour was re­leased in the U.S., he cele­brated with rounds of marti­nis and tequila, and ended up “flapping around like a fish” on his hotel-room floor while his friends poured Fiji Water on him. “If you watch me on Letterman the next day, it looks like a hanging,” he says.

Swift remembers sitting with Smith at the American Music Awards in November. “We were front row watch­ing Ariana Grande, loving her performance,” she says. “We’re both really ani­mated when we’re watching other art­ists. At the end, she did some dance move that was so sexy and so cool, and at the same time, Sam and I both screamed out, ”˜Yas, bitch, yas!’ and then looked at each other and died laughing. I had this feeling that we’ll be friends for life.”

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Smith has a lot of plans for his U.S. tour. In Orlando, he says at dinner, he wants to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter; in Atlanta, he wants to visit Magic City, the famous strip club. (“I actually feel bad for strippers because I’m a bit feminist ”“ I just want to put a jacket on them,” he says. “But you can’t take things like that too seri­ously.”) They currently have a club named the Skylark booked for the Madison Square Garden afterparty, but he’s having second thoughts. “The Boom Boom Room is just so fun. And it’s gay! That’s where Beyon­cé and Solange had the fight. Should we do that, maybe? Let’s do that.” (They end up sticking with the Skylark.) And he doesn’t want to leave Vegas without seeing some pop divas. “It’s called the triple threat. You go see Cher, you go see Celine Dion, then you go see Britney.”

“Britney’s show is so bad,” says a member of the group. “It’s really depressing.”

Smith doesn’t care: “Blackout, that’s my favorite Britney album. There’s still some of her there. She was fighting for some­thing. Whatever it was, she was fighting for something. I also love Circus. I always say to myself, ”˜If Britney can make it through 2007, you can make it through this.’ ”

Soon, conversation turns to the Gram­mys. He went last year, and was bored for most of it. “But during Beyoncé, I was los­ing my shit,” he says. Smith is “100 percent” sure he’ll lose Album of the Year to her this year. His managers balk. “I don’t think anyone would call that a proper album,” one says.

“She deserves it way more than I do,” says Smith, who’s been known to sing “Drunk in Love” in the shower and knows all the moves from the video. “I’d be em­barrassed if I got it over her. If I got it, I’d give it to her.”

With younger sisters Lily (left) and Mabel. Photo: Sam Smith/Instagram

With younger sisters Lily (left) and Mabel. Photo: Sam Smith/Instagram

Smith grew up in a cozy, 400-year-old pink house with a swimming pool in Great Chishill, a tiny village near Cam­bridge. His mother was a trader for Tullett Prebon, a major brokerage firm listed on the London Stock Exchange. He notes with pride that his great-aunts were some of the first female bankers in London. The family took lots of vacations: trips to Abu Dhabi to visit his mother’s friends, as well as Spain and Italy. (“I used to love Tuscany as a kid so much,” Smith says.) His dad, a part-time personal train­er, stayed home to raise the kids. “I’ve had such a feminine influence in my life,” Smith tells me the next day. “My mom and my sisters are very strong women. My best friends are all girls. I think I’ve got a bit more woman in me.”

When Smith was nine, his parents bought him a sec­ondhand amp and a mic. While his dad cooked din­ner, Sam would sit on the living room sofa, singing hits by John Legend, Norah Jones, Britney and Beyon­cé over backing tracks. Sometimes, when his par­ents hosted dinner parties, at the end of the night they’d call on Sam to perform. “My mom and dad would have a bit to drink and be like, ”˜Sing a song!’ ” he says. “But every time I explain that, it sounds like they were pushy ”“ they weren’t.” By then, he was in vocal train­ing with a profes­sional jazz singer and getting acting roles like the lead in a chil­dren’s version of The Rocky Horror Show. (“It was talk of the town,” says his room­mate Tiffany.)

Sam’s parents found a theater coach who helped him grad­uate to London’s West End, where he sang at children’s showcases and in the chorus of musicals like South Pacific. “It was my first taste of every­thing, being in a dressing room, having people say, ”˜Well done,’ ” he says. “I was really addicted to that feeling.”

Around the age of 13, a schoolmate asked him if he was gay. “I turned ’round, and I was just like, ”˜Yeah,’ ” says Smith. “And everything changed.” Smith says his classmates were generally accept­ing, and his childhood was happy rough­ly “80 percent of the time.” As a young teen, he wrote a “really intense” love let­ter to a popular, artistic kid two grades above him. The student turned out to be straight, but he wrote a long, thoughtful letter back, saying he only saw Smith as a friend. “It makes me emotional, actual­ly,” Smith says, his eyes clouding up. “He looked out for me for the rest of school. He just made sure that if anyone took the piss out of me, he would stick up for me. He could have made it hell for me, you know?”

Some did make it hell for him. Once, he borrowed another student’s eraser and watched the kid wash it off afterward. “He was like, ”˜I don’t want to share my eraser with a gay man,’ ” Smith says. He pauses for a moment. “Prick. I hope he’s reading this.” Another time, as he was walking through town with his dad, someone drove by and yelled “faggot.” “I was just embarrassed that my dad had to see that, because I could only imagine how you feel as a parent. You just want to kill them.

I was always embarrassed for the people around me. It never actually deeply affected me. You just ignore it, you know?” Ironically, the worst incident happened after he moved out of his small hometown: Soon after arriving in London, he was attacked while walking around in makeup. “I got punched in my neck, just out of nowhere,” Smith says. “It wasn’t the easiest.”

Smith was a devoted Lady Gaga fan. When he was 17, he faked a note to his teachers, saying he was sick so he could get in line for Gaga’s Monster Ball at the O2 Arena. “I was front row, fully Gaga’d up!” he says. Unfortunately, he left the fake note open on a school computer and ended up with three days of detention and big trouble at home. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he says. “Without Gaga, I wouldn’t be here right now.” Today, Gaga says that knowing she inspired Smith is “one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as an artist. I was Sam. I still am Sam in a lot of ways.”

Smith came out publicly in an interview last summer. It’s perhaps a sign of progress that the announcement was met with little fanfare. Smith’s matter-of-fact approach to his sexuality has received some criticism from within the gay community, however: In August, Gawker published an essay titled SAM SMITH’S FUCKED-UP GAY CONSERVATISM, where the author took issue with several of Smith’s statements, including his criticism of dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, and quotes like, “I had to be careful [coming out] ”“ I want my music to be sung by absolutely everyone.” “[Smith’s] philosophy is, in short, to be gay, but not too gay,” said the writer.

“There was no depth to those comments at all,” says Smith. “I’m a romantic. I feel like with Grindr and Tinder, you just lose a bit of romance. You’re swiping someone’s face to the left. The guys I’ve fallen in love with aren’t the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen. I would’ve swiped them.

“I don’t know what I’m trying to do, but I am trying to do something, you know?” he adds. “I’m trying to change something for the gay community. I’ve always said this: I want to be a singer. I don’t want to have to be a gay singer, because I am a gay singer, do you know what I mean? Do you speak about being straight every single day of your life?”

Smith’s family life began to fray in his teens. In late 2008, when he was 16, his mother lost her job. Shortly thereafter, a Daily Mail piece appeared with the headline city banker is ”˜sacked for spending too much time on son’s pop dream.’ The article reported allegations that his mother, Kate Cassidy, lost her £500,000-per-year job for “gross misconduct” because she used the company’s “time and resources” to promote her son’s career. “It is not true, 100 percent,” Smith says. His mother disputed her dismissal in court. “My mom still gets upset about that now. She gets really upset about it, because it affects her finding work.”

Not long after, things got worse when the entire family took a weeklong vacation to New York. On the first day, they were walking under the Brooklyn Bridge when one of his sisters started crying; she had just seen her father texting another woman. That day, their parents told them they were getting divorced. “We had no choice but to go for walks through Central Park and talk about it,” Smith says. “My sisters would cry. I would cry. We all dealt with it suddenly.”

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He’s planning to include a song about the split on his next album. The day after our dinner, during a break at a video shoot, he plays me some of it on his iPhone. “I haven’t played this for anybody,” he says. “It’s just an insight to how personal I’m going to go with the second record.” The ballad is called “Scars,” a letter to his parents. He holds the phone to my ear:

This is for my mother, from the older brother of your children, me. Glad you found your lover, ’cause it wasn’t our father who made you laugh and happy. It’s been a long five years, I’ve cried 1,000 tears, and here we are after the war. But we’re so much better now, the skies are clearer now.

“Do you like it?” he asks, turning it off after the first chorus. “It’s very deep. I’ve only played it for my family. They cried every single time I played it.”

The day before, Smith had called the divorce “the loveliest split-up of all time.” But today, he says, “I said that to convince myself. That’s what I did from Day One, you know? We pretend like we’re OK, but it did affect us.”

At 18, Smith moved to London and started working at the financial district bar. He recorded a now-prophetic song called “Little Sailor” (“Willing to do anything if I write a hit song/And I’ll ride this tide/I’ll put some makeup on”), which he sent to Elvin Smith, a singer he’d seen open for Adele. The song never took off , but Elvin became Smith’s manager and arranged for Sam to write with Napes, a songwriting buddy with few credits. “It sounded like the voice of an angel on this recording,” says Napes. “And it was even better in the room. I couldn’t believe it.” Together they wrote “Lay Me Down,” the real-life story about the death of an acquaintance’s grandfather; his widow had a heart attack at his funeral and died within days. It wound up in the hands of the dance-pop duo Disclosure. “We assumed it was a girl, because of how high his voice was,” says Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence. They re­cruited Smith to sing “Latch,” an upbeat, unconventional rave-up with jazz chords. Smith was working in the bar the day it started getting radio airplay. “We both tuned in and listened to it play on the radio for the first time on the phone to­gether,” says Lawrence. The song entered the U.K. charts in October 2012 and spent months in the Top 40. “It took off in a way that we never, ever could’ve expect­ed,” he says.

Most of In the Lonely Hour was record­ed in two weeks, roughly one song a day, in a converted Victorian school in up­scale St. John’s Wood ”“ the same studio where Adele happened to record her debut album. (Smith also worked with two of Adele’s co-writers, Eg White and Fraser T. Smith.)

With former flame Jonathan Zeizel, a dancer, last year. Photo: Jonathan Zeizel/Instagram

With former flame Jonathan Zeizel, a dancer, last year. Photo: Jonathan Zeizel/Instagram

One day at Napes’ base­ment studio during a writ­ing session, he and Sam were out of ideas. They went out for pizza with songwriting part­ner William Phillips and ended up hav­ing a frank conversation about Smith’s sex life. “I was really taken aback,” says Napes. “He was like, ”˜Let’s just go there,’ and then we did.” The three wrote “Stay With Me,” recording it just a few hours later, laying down simple drum, piano and organ tracks.

Napes recalls ordering Smith to stand in various parts of the studio at differ­ent distances from the microphone, singing the chorus’ harmonies over and over. “I had him running around, and he basically created a choir out of his own voice,” says Napes. “When we pushed play and all those vocals came in in the chorus, that’s when we all knew this was magical. I’ve never experiencedanything like that before. It was just such a moment.”

The label tried to take the song “down other avenues, sending it to many, many people,” Napes says. “But we just kept coming back to that same day. We’d al­ways say, ”˜Let’s try to beat the demo.’ And what ended up being on the record wasthe demo.”

Smith’s U.S. breakthrough came in March, when he scored a Saturday Night Live booking ”“ a rare feat for a relative unknown. “When I watched his per­formance on SNL, I knew how power­ful his gift was,” says Lady Gaga. “I was with my boyfriend, about to leave for tour again the next day, and Sam was sing­ing ”˜Stay With Me.’ We both had such anhonest emotional reaction. I remember thinking how unique it was to have such a visceral reaction to a modern artist.”

Backstage at atlanta’s Fox Theatre, Smith’s luggage sits open in the middle of the room, under a rumpled dress shirt, near a snack table stocked with Cheez-Its and Special K. “I hate when things are messy,” says Andrea, his cheerful personal assistant, picking up a candy wrapper and placing it in the trash while Smith does vocal exercises in the bathroom. Soon, Smith is looking over his relatively modest new tour ward­robe: five identical black button-down shirts with white collars he describes as “quite priest-y.” There’s also a lone all-white shirt. “I look a little too Michael Bublé in this one,” he says.

The tour starts tomorrow, and Smith had only a week to rehearse before the holidays. “I’m scared shitless, actually,” he says. “I’m doing an arena tour, basi­cally, with one album. And it’s only 35 minutes long!” He’s filling out the show by extending some songs, adding songsfrom his earlier EP and a cover of “My Funny Valentine.”

He tells a member of the crew to make sure no one goes out drinking. “I want ev­eryone on the ball,” Smith says. No Magic City tonight. The night before, his team opted for an early bar-food dinner that sabotaged his current cayenne-pepper-juice regimen. “It wasn’t great, actually,” he says. “I just want to lose weight for the Grammys, if I’m honest.” Smith just re­turned from an Australian vacation, where photographers caught him shirtless on the beach. “That fucking shot, I dreaded it,” he says. “I’m just very body-conscious. Some­times I’m really proud that I don’t look like other pop stars. But there’s also moments where I’m like, ”˜Ugh, I wish I had abslike Bieber.’ ”

For most of the vacation, he was joined by Jonathan Zeizel, a dancer Smith met on the set of his “Like I Can” video late last year. “He’s amazing. A really kind guy, and he’s very talented. He’s the most amazing dancer. He’s just very sweet.” On the trip, they stayed with local pop star Ricki-Lee, went dancing until six in the morning, and went skinny-dipping. (“Afterward, we were like, ”˜Maybe we shouldn’t have done that, because there’s sharks.’ ”)

Smith downplays his relationship with Zeizel. “I’ve allowed someone to stay in my bed more than, like, three times, which is the first time that’s happened in a long time.” (A couple of weeks later, a label rep­resentative says that the two are no lon­ger together.)

At soundcheck the next day, Smith looks nervous. He paces the stage in a gray T-shirt and hoodie, his cheeks a little red, tapping his index finger on his mic re­peatedly. He asks that the house lights be dimmed, and he looks irritated when it takes a couple of minutes. There is a false start to “Like I Can,” and then the band forgets the new intro to “La La La.” “You haven’t done that yet?” Smith asks them testily. A crew mem­ber at the sound­board assures Smith that they have, and it’s cued up.

Smith retreats backstage for a two-hour nap and catches up on a couple of ep­isodes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. When we speak in his dressing room, he’s fretting about the crowd. “It’s seated, so I really hope they stand up,” he says.

They do, from the moment Smith hits the stage, backlit, from behind a screen. Swift had it right: Unlike so many pop singers who strain to sound like theirrecords in concert, Smith’s voice seems big­ger, almost cruelly effortless. The audience, a mix of selfie-taking girls and dressed-up couples on date night, seems to know every song. They swoon at the end of “My Funny Valentine,” when Smith holds a rich a cap­pella note for what seems like forever. Be­fore “I’ve Told You Now,” he tells the story of the night he got drunk and confessed his feelings to his straight crush. “Has anyone ever been in love with someone who doesn’t love them back?” he asks, and the crowd roars. The room goes silent when he per­forms “Lay Me Down” over only a piano. Afterward, the entire audience stands, cheering, for more than a minute. He steps back to take it in for a while, smiling.

A half-hour later, between two meet-and-greets, Smith takes a seat in a hard chair on a tile floor. “That was incredible,” he says. “I’m a bit relieved. It felt more pow­erful. Last year, we left our shows going, ”˜Do you like it?’ But we left tonight going, ”˜You have to have liked that.’ ”

Smith pauses for a few seconds, re­membering that last moment onstage. “I literally thought in my head, ”˜I am really happy. Yeah, I am really happyright now.’ ”

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