Emotive British neo-soul singer Sam Smith recently opened up about his sexuality in an interview with Fader magazine, sending minor ripples through the broad pool of music press on both sides of the Atlantic.
As Smith prepares to release his spine-tingling debut In the Lonely Hour in North America on June 17, he acknowledges that he watched closely to see how his comment – that the album’s lovedrunk gut-punches were inspired by a guy he fell for last year who didn’t return his feelings – would reverberate.
“I don’t read album reviews, but I’ve been reading the stories about my personal life – which is completely fine,” the 22-year-old said in a recent telephone interview from London. “I was expecting it. I said what I said for a reason.”
And in the hurricane of interviews and coverage, does Smith feel accurately portrayed? “Oh, one million per cent,” he replied. “You’re getting my personality spot-on. I am highly emotional and also very loving and caring and I’m just an honest person. And I think people are feeling that honesty.”
They’re certainly feeling some element of Smith’s sound, which marries his expressive, opulent vocals to elegantly uncomplicated backdrops, ranging from the dignified piano and strings of Stay With Me to the buoyant electronics of Money on My Mind.
Both those tracks have topped the chart in the U.K. – and his Naughty Boy collaboration La La La breathed the same rarefied air – while Stay With Me has climbed to No. 10 in Canada, too.
His success at home isn’t necessarily surprising; he received both the BBC Sound of 2014 Award as well as the prestigious Brit Awards Critics’ Choice trophy. But he’s stunned about the quick development of his career in North America.
A goosebumpy choir-aided performance on Saturday Night Live in March certainly helped, but there’s also the fact that Smith draws from predominantly North American influences, citing Etta James, Joni Mitchell and Beyoncé as the artists he listened to most while making his record.
Still, Smith concedes that the attention is a little overwhelming. He’s only years removed from attending high school in the sleepy commuter town of Bishop’s Stortford. He moved to London at 18 and wrote his debut album two years later while mired in a deep funk.
“It was pretty lonely,” he said of first moving to the city. “London’s a big place. All my friends were back where I’d grown up in the countryside. And also I fell in love with someone who didn’t love me back when I wrote the album – which probably made it easier to write music but harder to live life.”
He thinks unrequited love is largely unexplored territory in pop music. “I feel like there hasn’t been a body of work that’s really properly dealt with it head on in a simple pop way or a soulful way,” said Smith, who has performances scheduled in Toronto and Vancouver in September. “I wanted to write a love album from a different angle, basically.
“What I’m trying to say on the album [is] just because a person didn’t love me back doesn’t mean I wasn’t in a relationship in a way. I have experienced love even though I’ve never been in a relationship properly yet.”
That said, Smith’s debut is hardly the funereal drag one might expect given the heart-wrenching inspiration. His unflagging romanticism imbues the record with a sort of uplift.
“When I called the album In the Lonely Hour, I think I kind of shot myself in the foot in a way, because it’s a sad title,” he said with a laugh.
“But I thought of it more as a brave title. Calling an album In the Lonely Hour is brave to me because I’m opening myself up so widely to everybody. And it’s such a personal record. I’m proud and I feel brave for doing what I’ve done.”