Sam Smith might only just be about to release his debut album, but he’s already crammed several careers’ worth of work into his life so far.
Now 22-years-old, the Cambridgeshire-born singer has been preparing for this moment since he was 12, the year he got his first manager. By the time he was 18, and moving to London, he’d already recorded an album that’d been written for him (it’s never been released), written and discarded many songs of his own and been through several managers.
“By 18, I was already sad about my career and how things were going,” he says with wisdom beyond his years, adding that all his friends were at university at this time, while nothing was happening for him.
“I felt like I’d tried really hard. At the same time, I didn’t want to waste my youth. I didn’t want to be that guy who was trying to a singer for my entire life. Other things are important to me; I want to travel, I want to fall in love, to see the world and so on. I was worried I was missing out.”
Fortunately, that sadness and frustration also inspired him to write a song called Little Sailor, which he describes as his “first really honest lyric”, and caught the ears of his current managers.
They put him in touch with another of their charges, dance duo Disclosure, and during their first meeting they wrote a song called Latch. Released in late 2012, it eventually charted at No 11, while shortly after, Disclosure’s album Settle went to No 1.
“I was working in a bar when Latch was released,” he says. “It used to come on the radio when I was working, and a friend in the restaurant next door would run in every time it was played. We had balloons and champagne to celebrate it going to No 11, but I’d still have to serve customers.”
Shortly after that, Smith left his bar job to concentrate on music full-time, or as he puts it, to “really take music by the balls”.
Make no mistake, Smith is ambitious, maybe no more or less than any other singer in his position, but he’s certainly more open about it than many, with none of the faux-modesty that often comes up when talk turns to record sales and fame.
He talks about his “career” a lot, and makes no secret of his desire to be a huge star in the UK and the US, but then he seems to be a student of the music industry, reeling off stats about other British stars and how well they’re doing around the world. He knows his stuff, and his current success is the result of a lot of hard work and calculated risk.
Not that this takes away from his obvious talent. It’s all about Smith’s voice, which is something very special; it’s little wonder that after the hit with Disclosure, another British producer wanted to use it on a track of his. That’s when Naughty Boy’s La La La came in, which, when released in 2013, became the fastest-selling UK single up to that point that year.
The successes carried on coming. Smith came top of the BBC’s Sound Of 2014, won the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits, and was nominated for a handful of other similar accolades.
Things have also been going rather well in the US, a country Smith’s become increasingly enamoured with. “Would I rather be big in America or the UK? Oh, don’t ask me that, I couldn’t choose,” he says diplomatically.
The way his career has taken off across the Atlantic, it might not be up to him, however. Earlier this year, he appeared on US TV institution Saturday Night Live, in a slot normally reserved for the likes of Justin Timberlake or Katy Perry. “I’ve not had an album out anywhere, so I was scared at first and thought it was a bad move to go on there this early,” says Smith, laughing at just how wrong he turned out to be.
Following the appearance, which went out to a live audience of around seven million people, his single went to No 3 in the iTunes chart and his forthcoming album, In The Lonely Hour, went to No 4 on pre-order.
“My fan base has grown massively,” he says. “People know who I am. There’s nothing in the UK that has that sort of impact really. The Graham Norton Show maybe, but that’s about it.”
Talking of his album, it’s a surprisingly subtle affair which showcases Smith’s voice without the sort of bombastic production many solo singers opt for. Essentially, it would be very easy to make Smith the male Emeli Sande, but he manages to have swerved that.
It was finished just before Christmas, with Smith sitting on it “like a chicken sits on an egg” ever since.
“I used to see songwriting as therapy, but I don’t want to write any more at the moment, so I have to use interviews as therapy. I feel like I wrote so much last year, and I want to live a little bit; go drinking, enjoy my gigs, meet my fans and all that, before I get too heavily involved in writing again. Then I’ll have more to write about.”
In The Lonely Hour was written with a number of co-writers, the almost ubiquitous Eg White and Fraser T Smith, among others, and Manchester artist Simon Aldred, better known as Cherry Ghost, who shares Smith’s philosophy that it’s better to write a handful of songs you love, than hundreds you kind of like.
“I just wanted to make an album,” says Smith. “I think people are greedy for singles, so I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be honest, to be a guy that was speaking about his emotions in depth. When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about whether a song might be a massive single. It was more about whether I was being honest, and whether the music would connect with people and touch them.
“It’s soul music,” he continues passionately. “I wanted to bring back the art of the singer and the art of the song, because sometimes it feels like that’s lost,” he adds. “And I think the world needs imperfection. We’re surrounded by so many things that aren’t true or real. And with this record, I feel, as a singer, I sing from my soul. It would have been a waste to make a record of pop smashers.
“I’d rather make an album that 10 people love, than millions of people think is OK. I want to make an album that lasts forever, so I have to be happy with it. And I really am.”
Sam Smith kicks off his 2014 tour on October 23 with a gig at the Glasgow O2 ABC