If you happened to hit the gay clubs in London last year, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen Sam Smith knocking back a tequila, kicking it in the smoking area and being generally – in his own words – “off-my-face drunk”. This is not necessarily the behaviour of an Oscar-winning pop star whose 2014 album ‘In The Lonely Hour’ made history in America as the fastest-selling debut by a British male solo artist and whose life experiences seem far removed from yours and mine. It is, however, the behaviour of a man who’s been through a bruising break-up.
“I was out gay-clubbing three or four times a week, smoking and drinking too much, giving my heart away a bit too easily,” he tells NME. “It was fun – it was super-fun – but it wasn’t me. I didn’t feel like I was treating myself with a lot of respect at that time. It was all because I broke up with a guy. I wasn’t in love with him, but it was more the hope of what it could have been. That hurts more, sometimes, because I was so close to something being so amazing. It just killed me because I wanted it to happen.”
It was during this freewheeling period that Sam began to work on his new album, ‘The Thrill Of It All’, released today (November 3). Although aimed squarely at the mainstream, with big, swooping choruses that showcase his vocal acrobatics, it’s a record that sees him explore new musical terrain and subtly provocative lyrics. A gospel influence runs throughout the record. This is only hinted at by the soulful lead single ‘Too Good At Goodbyes’; standout album tracks ‘HIM’ and ‘Burning’ positively soar with jubilant gospel choirs and powerful religious iconography.
The album is so intensely personal and revealing that Sam has previously described it as “dangerous”. He tells NME, “I don’t want to be an easy listen.” The aforementioned ‘Burning’ at first sounds like a typical Sam Smith piano ballad – albeit one with the moving lyric, “I’ve been burning up since you left” – before a booming gospel choir crackles with so much emotion that the title seems almost literal.
“It’s just painful to sing that song now,” he says. “It’s about fame and that relationship that ended. I got to a point last year where I didn’t care any more about myself. I was being completely reckless and not looking after my body and my mind and heart and literally burning. I don’t know if I’m ever gonna be as personal again in music, because I really had to go to a weird place to get the music out. I was in a bit of a dark place. I just didn’t really like myself that much when I was making this record. But I’m starting to be happier now.”
‘HIM’, also adorned with a soulful gospel hook, is musically reminiscent of ‘As’, the celebratory Stevie Wonder track that was later covered by Mary J Blige and George Michael. In September, Sam performed a mash-up of ‘Father Figure’ and ‘Faith’ at the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, where he described Michael as “my favourite artist of all time”. When the singer passed away in December last year, Sam tweeted this tribute: “Words can’t express how much you and your music meant and means to me… I would not be the artist I am if it wasn’t for you.”
He saw his hero perform at Wembley Stadium at age 15 and says now, “That was the moment I decided I wanted to do pop music. The Live Lounge was the most nervous I’ve ever been singing a song because I wanted to do it justice. He’s become more of an idol of mine in the last three years – I relate to him so much because he was an openly gay pop singer. I look to him for guidance because there’s not many acts I can look to and idolise in that way.”
‘HIM’ features the lines, “Holy Father, we need to talk / I have a secret that I can’t keep / I’m not the boy you thought you wanted / Please don’t get angry… It is him I love”. Sam is keen to emphasise that the track isn’t personal, but a narrative meant to convey a specific aspect of the gay experience. “That song is a coming-out song from a boy to his dad,” he says. “It’s just a general story. It’s not my story. I wanted to make that song for my community, for the LGBT community.”
Sam moved to London when he was 19, having spent most of his adolescence in Cambridgeshire. Although he’d come out at 10, he “didn’t really meet many gay guys” until he relocated to the city. Then, when it became apparent that ‘In The Lonely Hour’ was poised to make him very famous indeed, he chose to discuss his sexuality in an interview with music magazine The Fader.
“When that article came out, it felt like I was coming out again,” he says. “It was really weird for me. I didn’t know how to deal with it. People were throwing around words like ‘spokesperson’ and things like that. I got a bit nervous because I didn’t want to offend anyone. I didn’t know how to speak about a community that I didn’t really feel a part of because I’d only just moved to London. But now I feel like I know what to say. I feel confident speaking about it.”
That newfound confidence can have pitfalls. Take last year’s Oscars ceremony. Sam won Best Original Song for ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, the James Bond theme he co-wrote for 2015’s Spectre, and dedicated the award to “the LGBT community all around the world”. Unfortunately he also implied, incorrectly, that this was the first time an openly gay man had ever won an Oscar. He’d read an article in which Sir Ian McKellen bemoaned the fact that no openly gay man had ever been named Best Male Actor at the awards ceremony. As many said on social media, it seemed Sam had misread the quote and ploughed in without checking the facts, thereby – unwittingly – undermining the achievements of others before him.
“I messed up,” he admits. “I actually meant to say Best Male Actor and I didn’t. I obviously did know that I wasn’t the first gay person to win an Oscar. I was gutted – there was 90 million people watching that show; I wanted to say something positive and I f**ked up. When I mucked that up, I lost a lot of confidence. I can’t express enough – it really upset me. It made me realise that what I say can be damaging.”
The mishap hasn’t, ultimately, scared Sam away from being outspoken. “I don’t want to be a robot,” he says. “I don’t want to have everything prepared. I want to make mistakes. It’s important to. I’m 25; I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m still trying to figure stuff out. But I wanna be human in that way. With my first album I was a bit scared and guarded at points because I didn’t know what’s correct to say or what I should say. Now I’m just like, ‘let it all hang out’, really.”
This is perhaps why Sam has become so forthright with his music. ‘In The Lonely Hour’ was the only album to shift more than 1 million copies in both the US and the UK in 2014 and sometimes sounded focus-grouped for mass appeal (he’s confessed that its more commercial moments, such as the lead single ‘Money On My Mind’, now leave him a little cold). There are, for instance, few gender-specific pronouns used throughout the first album; he could be addressing a male or female lover. ‘The Thrill Of It All’ is much more open and direct.
“I am gay and my music is gay and what I speak about is gay,” he says. “I can’t help it be a thing. With my job, I travel around the world and get to meet so many amazing people. I’ve seen so many different aspects of the LGBT community. I feel like if you’re a true artist, you’re gonna speak about what moves your core.”
Where detractors often described his previous album as ‘safe’, the new one has the potential to help queer the mainstream, to bait homophobic s**ts and reach people who grapple with their sexuality. “I think it’s so important to talk about this right now. What’s going on [in America] is scaring the s**t out of me. I want to make people feel uncomfortable. We should be addressing these issues. There are not enough openly gay men or women in the music industry – any industry. And we need to be at the front, talking, shouting, so that those little kids that live in the middle of nowhere can hear it and hopefully be inspired.”
Sam Smith is a vulnerable and emotional pop star. He talks openly about his feelings and says, “I’ve got a bit of depression in me, I think, and I’m always fighting it. It’s a heavy word to use and I wouldn’t say I have depression, but I have a depressive nature. I can slip into sadness. I always say that I feel everything entirely. Even when I’m feeling nothing, I feel nothing entirely.”
It’s impressive to see such a mainstream star refuse to conform to harmful, traditional stereotypes about what makes a man. In engaging freely with his feelings, exposing his weaknesses and even in admitting that he makes mistakes, Sam Smith is the opposite of toxic masculinity, which dictates that men should be ‘strong’, never wrong and always emotionally withdrawn. His father, Frederick, was a role model in this. “My dad is so emotional,” Sam says. “He’ll sit there and cry. He’ll tell me ‘I love you’ and hold my hand and kiss me on the cheek. He’s so – I don’t want to say ‘feminine’, but he’s so soft in that way.”
As a result, Sam has grown up unable to understand why more men can’t be vulnerable in this way. At the same time, though, he admits that “sometimes my softness and openness emotionally bite me in the f**king arse.” Why, then, choose a career where you’re so exposed?
“I don’t know, honestly,” he says. “Good question. I’m insecure. I think I’m an attention-seeker – obviously, because if you wanna stand on stage and sing in front of that many people, there’s something missing. Like a hole inside. When I’m onstage, I feel fulfilled. I feel really content. And when I’m offstage, something leaves and I don’t know what it is. The saddest moments in my life are when I walk offstage after a show. I think that those moments are the things that make people do drugs and drink loads; those are the moments that kill pop stars.”
Sam’s been off the booze for three months now (though he’s looking forward to getting back on the wine at Christmas). He confesses he “could go off the rails 100 per cent”, but for now has found contentment in friendships, a new relationship and newfound confidence in speaking about issues close to him.
He poured this feeling of belonging and peace into ‘Palace’, his favourite track on ‘The Thrill Of It All’. “It’s a love song,” he explains. “My heart is a palace and in every single door of the palace there’s a room that opens to a past lover, a ghost of my heart. It was about coming to terms with everyone I’ve ever loved and saying that real love – if that’s what we had – is never a waste of time.” Sam Smith, a man who’s declined to keep his heart under lock and key, seems stronger than ever.