The new prince of pop

Sam Smith’s quick — and shrewd — rise to pop best-seller and the big winner at the 57th Grammy awards.

By: New York Times | Updated: February 15, 2015 12:38:16 am
Sam Smith at the 57th Grammy Awards. ( REUTERS) Sam Smith at the 57th Grammy Awards. ( REUTERS)

All through his most recent American tour, British singer Sam Smith has been stunned by the size of his crowds.

When he first played in Philadelphia in March, it was at a bar too small to fit his full band; last month he filled Temple University’s basketball arena. His New York debut, in August 2013, was at the tiny Mercury Lounge, and a few weeks ago Smith sold out Madison Square Garden, where thousands of fans sang along to his slow-burning anthems like Stay With Me.

“This is a really big, big place, isn’t it?” Smith, who at 22 has cherubic cheeks and a high-piled wedge of brown hair, said as he surveyed the crowd at the Garden. “I never thought that I’d be standing on this stage in only a year-and-a-half.”

Barely known to American audiences a year ago, Smith became a breakout pop star in 2014 with an emotive brand of blue-eyed soul that drew comparisons to Adele. His first album, In the Lonely Hour, a song cycle about a troubled affair, tugged at the heartstrings of listeners, and was one of only three new releases last year to go platinum. Last Sunday, the 22-year-old crowned his breakthrough into music’s top ranks by winning four awards: best newcomer, best song best record and best pop vocal album.

Key to Smith’s success has been his sweet tenor voice, which climbs to intense, androgynous peaks. Yet his rise is also a sign of what can still happen in the struggling music industry when everything clicks — when the right balance is struck between online seeding, mass-media blitzing and live appearances. To a degree rarely seen in brand-new acts, Smith and his label seemed to get nearly everything right, from an early appearance on Saturday Night Live to business details like the management of digital sales.

“He is the perfect new artist in this world we live in,” said Steve Barnett, chairman of Capitol Music Group, Smith’s label. “People talk about how there are so many things wrong in the modern music business, but five years ago you could not have done what we did in the last six months.”

In person, Smith is soft-spoken but makes it clear that stardom has been a lifelong ambition. Born in London, he grew up idolising pop divas like Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan, and he spent his teens singing jazz and musical theatre. His future direction was sealed by 11, when he heard Amy Winehouse’s first album, Frank, with its blend of jazz, contemporary beats and unabashed sexuality.

“The grittiness and honesty in her music, it started to affect my singing,” he said. “I started becoming Sam Smith, the singer, instead of trying to be Jean Valjean in Les Miz. I was creating an identity in my voice.”

Three years ago, hustling for his break in music while still working at a bar in London, Smith met the dance-music duo Disclosure. Guy Lawrence, one of the two brothers behind the group, remembers being stunned by Smith’s voice on a demo recording and inviting him to a writing session.

“I thought he was going to be a black woman,” Lawrence recalled.

Latch, the song they wrote with Jimmy Napes, one of Smith’s regular collaborators, is a buoyant house track punctuated by Smith’s signature high notes. Released in 2012, it went to No. 11 on the British chart, leading to more guest spots on dance songs (including Naughty Boy’s La La La, which went to No. 1) and making Smith a budding star in Britain.

Signed by Capitol, he began to develop the theme of his solo debut. It came together once Smith, who collaborated with other writers for every song, let himself be guided by the most intimate feelings about his own unrequited love for another man. “I showed the writers my text messages,” he said.

The album touches on various styles: I’m Not the Only One and Stay With Me have a spare, retro-soul sound; the upbeat Money on My Mind features one of Smith’s most acrobatic vocal manoeuvres.

Smith said that he never hesitated about exposing his feelings but was cautious about how and when to reveal his sexual
orientation.

“I wanted my voice to be Story No. 1 when you Googled my name,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be ‘Sam Smith, the gay singer’. I wanted it to be ‘Sam Smith, the singer who happens to be gay’.”

With In the Lonely Hour, Capitol employed a strategy for online sales, withholding the album from streaming services for a month to drive sales. It worked. In the Lonely Hour opened at No. 2 and has sold 1.3 million copies in the US —last year only Taylor Swift and the Frozen soundtrack sold more.

“Without Amy and Adele, the path to Sam’s success would probably have been harder,” said Nick Raphael, president of Capitol Records UK.

When asked about the Adele comparisons, Smith at first politely demurred. “It’s a huge compliment,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s correct.” Then he took the opportunity to take a jab at the pop music world at large, suggesting that he and Adele are among the few singers “just standing onstage singing songs,” without making prop use of their rear ends.

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