Cover Interview: Sam Smith, Who Sings the Truth
When Sam Smith’s concert tour resumed July 3, St. Louis was perfectly positioned to be among the first US cities to hear the Grammy Award- winning singer’s post-surgery voice. The July 30 show at Chaifetz Arena is the ninth Ameri- can stop for the soulful British superstar.
Smith underwent vocal cord surgery in May after a hemorrhage forced him to cancel tour dates promoting his debut studio album, “In the Lonely Hour,” released last year. It earned four Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year for “Stay With Me,” a tune he wrote after a romantic setback.
Smith’s career has been picking up speed since 2012, when he was featured on the Disclosure single “Latch,” so the surgery was an unfortunate bump in the road. But he was cleared to sing in concert again within two months, and he’s been upbeat throughout. During the initial three weeks of totally silent recovery, Smith kept communication going in creative ways: He accepted the Billboard Music Award for top male artist via video by holding up cue cards; he posted updates about his vocal therapy and return to singing on social media feeds; and he took time for an interview with ALIVE via e- mail, where he reflected, shared inspirations and heartbreaks—and opened up in a way we never thought possible.
ALIVE: You’ve described your style as “iconic” in a way that supersedes trends in both music and appearance. Has that classic timelessness always been your goal?
Sam Smith: Yes, it has always been my goal to create music that lasts and stands the test of time. I also want the music to speak. We live in a world where so many other things come into account when it really should just be about the voice and the songs.
ALIVE: As one of the world’s most sought-after singers right now, you probably have less “everyday time” than you’d like. What are some ways you relax, on tour or at home?
SS: I relax mainly by watching films. I love “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” Basi- cally anything that takes me out of reality for a few hours.
ALIVE: What has been the most surprising thing about being on the road for concert tours?
SS: How homesick I get. I never thought I would, but I get it very badly.
ALIVE: I know you don’t have a lot of time to explore the cities you’re in, but St. Louis has a reputation for blues and jazz—which you sang a lot in your teens. There’s a lot of soul in music here. Do you have any thoughts on those genres?
SS: Of course. I love those genres of music so much. It is what I grew up on. I still listen to blues and jazz almost every morning, so I can’t wait to experience that when I come to St Louis.
ALIVE: Who were your earliest musical influences, the ones who inspired you to take voice lessons at age 10 or so?
SS: Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Maria Mena, Frank Sinatra and Stacey Kent are some of my earliest. It was mainly powerful vocalists who sang the truth.
ALIVE: Your current album is highly personal. Tell us a little bit about the journey to making it and now performing it for huge audiences worldwide.
SS: This album was made in a very small way. I thought that, at most, a few thousand might buy my record and hear it. I never, ever, in my wildest of dreams, thought it would reach this many people. I wrote this album for myself, to help myself get out of a horrible, heartbreaking situation. How beautiful that, in helping my- self, I managed to help others. It’s more than a dream come true.
ALIVE: You’ve been talking a bit about your next album—as you work on it, are there new musical influences coming into the picture?
SS: Yes, so many, all the time. I won’t go into it too much, as I want to keep it a surprise, but all I know is I am trying to be as limitless as possible. With music I am listening to, it’s Lady Gaga, then I will listen to Sarah Vaughan, then D’Angelo, then Grimes, then Lana Del Rey, then Judy Garland. It’s so important to me to listen to everything. In terms of subject matter, though, I am just trying my absolute hardest to act like a 23-year-old boy. A lot of the things I deal with in my life at the moment are very adult, and I forget how young I am. I am trying to make mistakes now, so that I don’t do it later in life. I am a sponge at the moment, trying to learn as much as possible.
ALIVE: The Grammys were such a huge night for you. What was going through your mind?
SS: Pure happiness. I have never been that happy. I was surrounded by all my loved ones, and I felt on top of the world but amongst everyone else. It was so important to me to win Grammys—but to win them and still remain myself and have my feet on the ground. I would rather stay the way I am and be poor than have to change to win golden trophies.
ALIVE: Which honors are on your list of future goals?
SS: I would love to win another Grammy, of course, but I would also love to win an Oscar one day. That is a dream. But I am not driven by awards. I am also not driven by album sales. I am driven by the hunger in me to have the most exciting life I can possibly have.
ALIVE: When you’re asked by young singers for advice, what do you tell them?
SS: This is a horrible industry, so please surround yourself with kind, honest people. I also say make sure you do it because you love it, not because you love what comes with it.
ALIVE: What parts of your personality are most reflected in your music?
SS: My vulnerability and the fact that I wear my heart on my sleeve. My music is only one side of me. There are many, many more layers to myself.
ALIVE: What else would you like our readers to know as they get ready to hear you perform?
SS: That I am genuinely just a 23-year-old boy who is highly emotional and confused and hasn’t figured it all out yet. But what I have figured out is that singing and writing music makes me feel good. And I hope it makes you feel good as well.
This story ran in the August 2015 issue.
Photos by Nick Dorey, courtesy of Capitol Music Group.