Sam Smith turned heartache into a goldmine with his lovelorn 2014 debut ‘In The Lonely Hour’. Now, with his Bond theme the first to top the UK charts, Barry Nicolson meets a man pondering how to move on from instant mega-stardom.
You can tell a lot about a person from their favourite Bond. Are you a Connery classicist or a Lazenby hipster? Do you go for the arched-eyebrow absurdity of Moore, or Dalton’s grittier, more grounded entries? Until recently, Sam Smith was a Daniel Craig modernist: “He was my favourite initially, because I’m 23 years old. I hadn’t seen all the old movies, and I loved how modern his take on Bond was,” he says over the phone from Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’s playing the penultimate date of his current US tour. “But when I went back and watched them all, I realised that it’s Connery and Moore who I love the most. I love how classy and clean-cut they are. I think I’d like the next Bond to be more of a return to that.”
As a pop star who extols the virtues of doing things the old-fashioned way – “standing onstage in a suit and singing”, as he puts it – Smith’s preference for the elegant, urbane 007s of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s isn’t surprising; indeed, the sweeping, John Barry-esque strings and dramatic delivery of ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, the theme song he’s written for Spectre, feel like a deliberate throwback to that era. Not for nothing was Smith always the bookies’ favourite to land the gig.
“In my first meeting with Sam [Mendes, director] and Barbara [Broccoli, producer], my pitch was that I wanted to create something genuinely timeless and classy,” he explains of the track, which made history this month by being the first Bond theme to go to Number One. “Sam was talking about how a lot of Bond songs are love songs, and how love is an underlying theme in all the films. I write love songs – that’s all I do! – and I felt that was something which could play to my strengths. So that’s what I set out to create, an epic love song.” Becoming the first British male solo artist in 50 years to front a Bond theme caps a remarkable couple of years for Smith, in which he’s gone from guest-spots with Disclosure and Naughty Boy to being a pop phenomenon in his own right. ‘In The Lonely Hour’ has sold 8.5m copies worldwide (2m in the US alone), spawning four Number One singles, four Grammys and three Brit awards.
Bond, however, “has been a whole different monster. Before my album came out, I wasn’t bothered by what anybody else thought of it. This was my album and I was so proud of it, and no bad reviews were ever going to get to me, but with a Bond theme, you’re being compared to some of the greatest songs in the history of music.” Smith is a sensitive sort who doesn’t read his own reviews – “I genuinely believe, especially in England, that people are just waiting to give me bad ones,” he says – but while critical consensus has been divided, “The general response to the song has been amazing, and to get to Number One was just incredible. You’re never going to please everyone and not everyone’s going to love it, but I’m so happy with it. I feel like I’ve done a good job.”
Smith intended the mournful tone of ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ to reflect what Bond goes through in the movie: “You see him bleed, you see him battered and bruised, and I wanted the track to have that kind of vulnerability,” he says. Vulnerability is his forte, after all: Smith is the guy who could sell heartache to the heartless, and occasionally it does feel that clinical. He talks about “wanting my music to appeal to everyone”, and of getting ‘In The Lonely Hour’ into “every single person’s lap” – impulses that were perhaps too evident on the album itself.
Yet Smith is comfortable being typecast as Mr Misery: “I don’t have any problem with being the guy whose album people put on when they’re feeling sad,” he says. “In three years’ time, that might completely change, but right now, I don’t mind being the go-to CD when you’re having a glass of wine and feeling a bit sorry for yourself. I like that my music can be this kind of crutch for people.”
Melancholy, he continues, is second nature to him. “I’ve had an amazing life, but I think I was born with a little bit of sadness in me. I’ve always been attracted to those things, whether it’s sad movies, sad music… when you’re sad, you feel everything in a greater way than you do when you’re happy. I’m a vulnerable, sensitive person. I overthink everything. I’m insanely self-conscious about my body, about my music, about everything in my life, and that self-consciousness is what’s keeping my feet on the ground at the moment. If I didn’t have it, I’d become a bit of a pr*ck. I’m thankful for my sadness.”
A lot of that sadness stemmed from loneliness. Smith grew up in the tiny Cambridgeshire village of Great Chishill, where he had an “amazing” childhood with a loving, supportive (and well-off) family, “But I was out in the middle of nowhere, where there were no other gay people, and not a lot of people with the same kind of mind that I had.” He came out when he was 10 years old – a fact he made public shortly before the release of ‘In The Lonely Hour’ – but even now, he says he’s only had one real relationship, with the American model Jonathan Zeizel, which ended earlier this year. (Smith has “commitment issues” he’s trying to work out.)
Then of course there’s the not-quite relationship that spawned ‘In The Lonely Hour’. During his fourth and final acceptance speech at the Grammys in February, Smith thanked “the man who this record is about”, a casual remark of huge significance, considering the occasion. “I read an article saying I was one of the first openly gay men to do that on TV,” he says proudly. “I thought it was an impactful thing to do: to treat being gay as the new normal, on live TV in front of millions and millions of people across America. I’m trying to make it a non-issue, even though I’m fully aware that it is one.”
His determination to do that extends to his lyrics, all of which are written to be gender-neutral; even his cover of Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know’ was given the same treatment. Last year, Smith said he wasn’t trying to be a spokesperson for the gay community, though he got “angry and upset” when those words were misconstrued as a reluctance to talk publicly about the issues facing them.
“I’m a gay man who came out when I was 10 years old, and there’s nothing in my life that I’m prouder of,” he says. “What I was trying to say was that I didn’t want the album to appeal to just one community, I wanted it to appeal to all of them. I wanted anyone, gay or straight, to be able to relate to me singing about men, like I was able to relate to Stevie Wonder or John Legend singing about girls. I want to be a spokesperson. I want to be a figure in the gay community, who speaks for gay men. I sell records in countries where gay men get killed and that’s a big thing for me, because maybe one person in that country will pick up my album, realise it’s by a gay artist, and it might change their opinion.”
To that end, he says, “I have a few projects in the works that are about trying to attack problems happening in certain countries, but I’m very aware that I’m young, and I don’t know everything. I want to do more research, to travel to certain places so that I know what I’m talking about, and then start raising money so I can be a spokesperson in the way that I want to be.”
Since Daniel Craig would “rather slash [his] wrists” than return to the Bond franchise and Spectre looks like being the send-off for his hyper-masculine iteration of the character, does Smith think the world is ready for a black Bond, or a gay Bond, or any sort of Bond who isn’t a straight white male?“A black Bond would be incredible,” he replies. “I’m not sure if the world is ready for a gay Bond, but I’m ready for it!”
Smith plans to take some time off when his tour ends in December, so the follow-up to ‘In The Lonely Hour’ isn’t due any time soon, but it’s slowly taking shape – he has the album’s title and visual concepts in place, as well as three new songs slated for inclusion. “The most beautiful thing about what I’m doing now is that I’m writing when I’m feeling,” he explains. “When I wrote ‘In The Lonely Hour’, I was put in the studio for a year-and-a-half with this mission to write a record, but with this album, things are happening to me, and the day after they end or begin, I’m writing music. Every feeling and every emotion is raw.”
One of the new songs – possibly ‘Scars’, which deals with the subject of his parents’ divorce – he describes as “the saddest thing I’ve ever written”. Another is about the pressure he feels to conform to an industry standard of what pop stars, male and female, should look like.
Smith has struggled with negative body image since childhood, and even though he’s shed almost 50lb in weight over the past year, “I still feel pressured to look a certain way. For women, the pressure in this industry is horrendous and it’s got to stop. But it’s the same for guys, even though they won’t speak about it. I want to be a voice for that: just because I’ve lost weight doesn’t mean that I’m happy and content with my body. Because of the media, and because of what I feel I should look like, it’s always going to be a battle in my head.”He’ll later call that song “the happiest I’ve ever written”, before immediately qualifying the statement: “Well, at least it’s not too sad.” Either way, he says, “My first album was called ‘In The Lonely Hour’, so people shouldn’t be expecting anything too joyous from the next one. When I write sad songs, I feel like I’m sewing up a scar in me, and the outcome always feels so much better than when I write happy ones.”
It might seem as if everyone in the world knows Sam Smith’s name, but he remains the golden-voiced lonely man of pop. It’s a role that fits him like a well-tailored tuxedo.