Speaking a week after he shared a stage with Louis CK and became the first ever UK artist to appear on Saturday Night Live pre-debut album, Sam Smith would be excused for being a touch arrogant. But this is a guy that managed to stay humble despite being cited as the definitive, no-competition sound of 2014. The terms “Sam Smith” and “2014 success” went together like 2+2. By the time he picked up a BRITs Critics’ Choice Award, even he must have been feeling a slight hint of boredom. There’s been an album up his sleeve for months. He must be chomping at the bit to release it.
“Of course, every day. It is tough,” he admits. “But what I love is that I feel completely in control of my work. Some would say after (Naughty Boy collaboration) ‘La La La’ that I should have released an album immediately to keep the hype going. Or maybe I should have released my album the week after the BRITs. I personally love the idea that I’m doing this at my own speed.”
Back in 2012, when ‘Latch’ wasn’t even on the map, Sam was doing bit-part jobs. Cleaning dishes, doing bar work, finding his way in a new city. Cut just twelve months forward and he was being spoken about as a shoe-in for 2014. Even America’s responded in turn. There’s been a rush of excitement towards his name, Taylor Swift support slots just being the start of it. “Two years ago I was a hormonal mess. I can’t pretend that I know it all and look like I do, because I don’t. I’ve got so much more to learn and see,” he says.
Sam makes it clear that “I don’t want to be riding on the hype.” That’s easier said than done. There needs to be a certain level of hype to ensure SNL slots and sudden appearances on stage with Taylor Swift. Right from the moment Disclosure collaboration ‘Latch’ put him on the map, this future-superstar’s had pressure on his shoulders. Two things have kept him going - the music itself and a no-bullshit mentality.
“I was working in a bar two years ago,” he starts. “Everything has completely changed. My life is completely on its head. But do you know what’s stayed the same? I’m still living in the same flat I was two years ago. I’ve got the same friends, I’m still seeing my family. Everything still feels normal, which is amazing.
“I also could have gone to every single party under the sun and slutted myself out. I’ve just been very cautious of the way I want things to be. I want it to be about my music.”
"It's my diary."
He cites himself as someone who’d prefer to catch up on Breaking Bad or New Girl than get messy on extravagant cocktails. The high life’s on his doorstep, but he’d prefer to experience things on his own terms.
“Once a month I’ll go out and go crazy. But I’m not that guy. When people listen to the album you’re going to get to know the type of guy I am. I’m very emotional. I’m quite reclusive, I like to be by myself.”
Debut ‘In The Lonely Hour’ - which finally arrives this month - is the sound of a 21-year-old documenting everything but the partying. There’s “my thoughts, my pains and my happiness,” according to Sam. “It’s my diary.”
Initially Smith tackled his own insecurities in trying to battle the fact that he simply didn’t know if he’d been through enough in his life to write a solo album. He’d never been in love, had barely struck up a relationship that didn’t go beyond a lack of reciprocation. But it was within this subject that Sam found the muse for the debut. “I was thinking ‘How am I going to write an album when I have no experiences?’ It’s hard. But then I realised I do have experience. I love people who don’t love me back and it’s horrible, and that’s what the whole project stems from. I learnt how to deal with my own idea of loneliness.
“I’ve always been a solo artist. My solo project is something I’ve always been confident in. That was my main aim from the beginning. If I was uncomfortable with how that was going, I’d never have done the features. For me it was this organic process. We came up with ‘Latch’ and that changed everything.”
The title of the album, then, can work in two ways. A ‘... Lonely Hour’ could be a tear strewn state of affairs enhanced by cheap wine, or it could be a relaxed period of isolation accompanied by acclaimed records and fine cigars. “That ‘Lonely Hour’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a sad hour. You can make it to whatever you want it to be.”
What’s most important above anything else is that all the flaws and rough edges of being a twenty-something are documented on this record. Moving to London and feeling like a stranger - that’s in there. This isn’t a cohesive debut, either. It’s a collection of ideas that sprung up in writing sessions spread over twelve months. It’s a journey of discovery, minus the ‘gap yah’.
“I hate - I hate, as a lover of music and a buyer of music - when I see an artist have their first video which is really low-budget, and then suddenly they go into fame and they have millions thrown at them all of a sudden,” Sam asserts. “They’re walking down the street, looking completely perfect, dressed in these designer clothes, when the reality is, the journey for these things is not like that.
“Even as a performer, in my head I want to be so much better than I am right now. It’s extremely important for me to grow and showcase the growth. Fans that I have now have almost grown up with me. They’ve seen me taking hold of my trade. Music videos - my first ever video was ‘Money on My Mind’, I wasn’t trained to do that. I know how to go into the studio and write and sing but… I like that people are seeing things that are imperfect.”
"I learnt how to deal with my own idea of loneliness"
The breakthrough SNL performance happens to be the first televised slot Sam’s ever been happy with. He’s forthcoming in stating that ‘In The Lonely Hour’ is defined by its own flaws. “The album is probably a little bit rough around the edges, there’s probably something wrong with it, there’s going to be songs people will hate. I’m learning, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a master of what I do.”
This “insecure” individual, whose only source of contentment comes from within his music, seems to have figured out the perfect formula for conquering hype: Don’t believe any of it for one second.