Sam Smith The freshmanMusic’s rising star on what comes from within, tiny flats and the melancholic dance-pop debut album that will make him a household name
The Red Bulletin: This year you went to the Grammys and have been all over Europe on a press tour. What did your life look like a year ago?
Sam Smith: A year and a bit ago, I was so poor that I had to walk for an hour-and-a-half to Waterloo station in London to exchange euros into pounds so I could get a train back home for Christmas day.
I was working in a bar as a barback: you clean all the glasses and the toilets. It was just horrible. People being sick, having to clean that up and then people smashing glasses into the sick.
Looking back, do you think that was an important life lesson?
I can’t tell you how important it is to work shit jobs. When I was coming home every night, I was knackered, but my mum would always say to me, “There is nothing wrong with working hard.” It’s true, because it means that when nice things happen, they mean more.
How did you get into songwriting?
I could never keep up writing a diary, but I always wanted to document my life. To do that in the music is incredible, it’s like therapy for me. When I sing certain songs, it’s like looking back at a photo.
A diary is personal, but you share your songs with the whole world.
I struggle a bit singing them to everyone. I’m not shy in general, but it takes it out of me emotionally. So every now and then I have a gig where I get really sad afterwards. I’m singing about things that have just happened a year ago.
Sadness is a big topic on In The Lonely Hour, your debut album.
I’ve never been in a relationship before, so I’ve always felt lonely to some extent. It was a moment on the phone to my mum, where I actually said for the first time, “I am really lonely.” And to me that was the bravest thing I could have ever done. So, for me to call the album In The Lonely Hour, it feels like a really brave title. That’s why I love it.
Some of the songs, like Money On My Mind, seem more like light-hearted pop hits than cries from the heart. Is that ambivalence intended?
That comes with production because I’m attracted to happy sounds. There’s this song on the album called Leave Your Lover, the lyric is “Leave your lover, leave him for me.” It’s about being in love with someone who is married. It’s a very sad song, but when you hear it, it sounds light, almost like a summery song, because it’s nice to juxtapose the two.
You have an impressive wide vocal range. Does it come naturally?
I had vocal trainers. But the main thing for me is that I never listened to male singers growing up. The voices just didn’t attract me and all I’ve ever listened to is female singers. I’ve mimicked them and I think my voice has quite a big range because I sang Whitney Houston too much [laughs]. Also, I did musical theatre. I was a backing singer for my jazz teacher. Lots of things.
In the theatre, you play one part among many. Was it a challenge to have all the attention on you?
I had to make this decision when I was 14. Do I carry on with musical theatre? You’re given a character, you’re given a name, you’re given a script, you’re told where to move on stage. Being yourself on stage is a lot harder, but I love it.
You won two prestigious prizes this year: Critics’ Choice at the Brits and BBC Sound of 2014. Do you feel more pressure because of that?
It doesn’t put me under pressure, purely because I keep the focus on the music. This is about my album; these awards just gave me the best platform possible to reach as many people as possible.
How does it feel at the very heart of the hype machine? Is it surreal?
There are moments like that every day. The night I got home from the Grammys, I hadn’t seen my roommates in three weeks. That was a moment where we just paused and were like, ‘Wow, what is going on?’ But it’s great.
You still live in a shared flat? No penthouse overlooking the river?
Definitely not [laughs]. It’s a tiny little flat in south London.
As you’re blessed with a rather common name, did you ever think about an artist alias?
When I was 19, I went through four months of giving everyone I knew hell because I decided I needed to change my name. I was getting everyone to come up with ideas. Some names were hilarious. But it was my dad in the end who said, why don’t you just call yourself Sam Smith. And now I love it. It’s so boring that it’s cool.