ABOVE: SAM SMITH
“I used to sing Chaka Khan tunes in the car with my mum when I was eight years old,” British singer Sam Smith tells us over the phone. “My mum and dad got me singing lessons with a local jazz singer.” The lessons certainly worked; whether he’s adding a melody to a Disclosure song or belting out one of his own tracks in a live acoustic session, Smith has a powerful, entrancing voice. “The thing is I’ve trained for a long time,” he assures us. “I loved singing. It was more my hobby, my love.”
While most know Smith through “Latch,” his track with the brothers of Disclosure, or “La La La,” his song with UK producer Naughty Boy, the singer is quickly developing his own following. This week, Smith will release an EP with two new songs, “Nirvana” and “Safe With Me,” and an acoustic version of “Latch” and “I’ve Told You Now.” His debut album will come out next May.
“I feel like it allows you to listen to the lyrics,” Smith says of his acoustic tracks. “Take ‘Latch,’ for example. The beat that Disclosure made is just unbelievable, and when you listen to that version it make you want to dance; it makes you want to go crazy, and it’s euphoric,” he explains. “Whereas I feel like the acoustic version tells the other story of the song, and that is a beautiful love song. It shows the sentimental side, which sometimes doesn’t cut through when there’s a massive beat behind the track.”
EMMA BROWN: Why were you listening to the P.S. I Love You soundtrack?
SAM SMITH: [laughs] I was in a bit of an emotional state yesterday, so I got it up on my Spotify, and I was just listening to it. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine.
BROWN: Did that help ease your emotions?
SMITH: Yeah, I got it all out of my system. I get ready to film music sometimes—probably because I’m so dramatic. I’m just pretending I’m in a film. It got me ready for the day.
BROWN: What’s your favorite soundtrack?
SMITH: You’re going to laugh at this. My favorite soundtrack is Avatar. [laughs] It’s the best thing in the world. I love it.
BROWN: Is “Nirvana” about a one-night stand?
SMITH: There were four of us in the room and we all wrote it about things individually. It’s about doing something at nighttime, one night, and not worrying commitment or worrying about anything else in life. It’s about something—a person, a thing—taking over you and taking you to somewhere just for a little bit.
BROWN: When you write songs, are they generally personal or do you write from the point of view of a character?
SMITH: As a youngster when I started writing and stuff, I did actually write more from other people’s perspectives. When I hit 18 and something happened to me that hurt me, I discovered that writing the truth is really therapeutic and amazing. Every single one of my songs is about something very personal to me and I could tell anyone what it’s about, each song. Like a diary, basically.
BROWN: Does that make it hard to talk about?
SMITH: No, I think it makes me a bit of a raw nerve at all times. Before I started writing my album, I didn’t tell people many things. But because I’m going to the studio every day and telling strangers my deepest and darkest emotions, it’s made me more of an open book. I wear my heart on my sleeve a lot more now than I did.
BROWN: Do you think there’s a benefit to that?
SMITH: Yeah. I think a lot of people don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. I think people should, but a lot of people don’t. People may be a bit taken back sometimes about how honest I am and how open I am. [But] I’m happier this way—it’s a good thing for me.
BROWN: How did you meet the Disclosure boys?
SMITH: I basically got introduced to a man called Jimmy Napes, who’s an incredible songwriter, and I co-write most of my stuff with him. He wrote “Latch” with me. We wrote “Latch” [during] our first ever session. It was incredible.
BROWN: That’s very productive.
SMITH: Very productive. [laughs] And I went to their studio. It’s called Red Hill. I had the best burger I’ve ever had in my life that day.
BROWN: Fate. When you come on stage at Disclosure shows, is the crowd very different from when you’re playing your own show?
SMITH: Yeah, completely different. A few years ago I had a weird relationship with performing live. I didn’t enjoy it as much because the nerves took over. My first ever gig was with Disclosure at Bestival. There were so many people, thousands and thousands of people. It’s been an amazing start to my live shows, to experience that type. My only aim [when I] perform with those guys is to make sure the crowd has the best time. You hype them up. The energy is crazy. It’s completely different, but I need both of them because I love dance music, but I also love soul music and slower, acoustic stuff.
BROWN: How did you get over your stage fright?
SMITH: I used to have a little whisky before I went on stage. I realized that could have slowly turned into something a bit more serious. [laughs] I get hyped up. I also think doing it a lot, you get used to it. You get more confidence. It’s confidence building, really.
BROWN: Did you perform as a child?
SMITH: My mum and dad used to make me stand up at dinner parties and sing to their friends. I had this conservatory in my house—three steps went to up to kind of a raised part of our kitchen. I used it as the stage. Every night after school I used to download backing tracks of songs I loved and perform to myself. My mum was trying to cook and I was pretending I was at the O2 arena.
BROWN: That’s funny. What sorts of songs did you sing?
SMITH: Absolutely everything. I used to love singing Norah Jones because her voice was low enough and I could really go for it. I attempted the Britney tunes, but that was when my voice hadn’t broken. Suddenly it broke and I couldn’t sing them anymore. That was upsetting. I love pop music and current music.
BROWN: What do you think makes a good pop song?
SMITH: A good pop song is a song that anybody can sing, even if you’re tone-deaf or you don’t even speak English. A good pop song is a song that everyone from every walk of life can sing it and can feel it.
BROWN: Why do you think love songs in particular are so compelling?
SMITH: Because love is probably the strongest emotion you can have, and I think it’s relatable to absolutely everyone, whether it’s unrequited love or love.
BROWH: Do you think unrequired love is more affecting than requited love?
SMITH: 100 percent. My album focuses on unrequited love quite a lot because I don’t think it’s spoken about enough in music. I’ve been through it myself and I found it hard to find songs that were about that, so I’ve definitely tried to make that a part of my album.
BROWN: Is there a song in particular?
SMITH: I have one song called “Leave Your Lover,” which is that emotion at its rawest. I can’t wait for people to hear it. When I was going through that, instead of searching for songs by other artists to relate to I could listen to my own music. I’d do a song in the studio and it would explain everything I’m going through so perfectly that when I went home and I felt down I could listen to that to make me feel better. It’s a documentation of my life. I think it’s just important to put it out there.
BROWN: Were you in South Pacific as a child?
SMITH: How’d you know this?
BROWN: I was looking at your Tumblr photos.
SMITH: [laughs] I did musical theater shows when I was younger, like 13 years old. I did do South Pacific. I was just in the chorus, a bit chubby with glasses, singing.
BROWN: You were wasted in the chorus.
SMITH: I know. I think me and my best friend Beth were in all the musicals together and we were really badly behaved, so they just put us in the back. Silly things.
BROWN: You should write them an angry letter.
SMITH: I should, shouldn’t I?
BROWN: Do you have a favorite other Sam Smith?
SMITH: It’s really weird you say that. I’m having an interview in a few minutes with someone called Sam Smith. He’s the first other Sam Smith I’ve met. I haven’t met him yet, but I hope he’s my favorite Sam Smith. [laughs]
BROWN: There’s an American basketball player called Sam Smith and apparently there’s a brewery as well.
SMITH: Oh, there is a brewery. I’ve actually tasted the beer; it’s quite nice. It’s called Samuel Smith, which is my actual name. It’s good beer. Maybe that’s my favorite.
BROWN: You should get a lifetime free pass to it.
SMITH: I should be the face of Samuel Smith Beer. That’d be great.