Sam Smith is the Voice of Freedom
In conversation with friend Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Smith ruminates on his evolving sound and refreshingly honest yet hopeful mind-set right now.
In conversation with friend Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Smith ruminates on his evolving sound and refreshingly honest yet hopeful mind-set right now.
Photography: Nicola Formichetti
Styling: Anna Trevelyan
Text: Alexandra Ilyashov
This article originally appears in the pages of V11, on newsstands 1/11/2018. Pre-order your copy at vmagazineshop.com.
Sam Smith is exactly the voice of freedom we need right now: disarmingly honest about his sexuality, sense of self, and fame. Here, the immensely talented artist leads the charge for an eclectic, vibrant cast of new faces and creative forces shaping today’s dynamic cultural landscape. In an intimate conversation with friend Sarah Jessica Parker, Smith candidly reflects on his emotionally charged career trajectory and personal life, and shares his renewed sense of hope about what lies ahead.
SAM SMITH: Hello, this is Sam!
SARAH JESSICA PARKER: Hi Sam! Who said big recording artists aren’t punctual!
SS: [laughs] I’m very punctual. How are you?
SJP: I’m well. How are you?
SS: I’m good. I’m sitting here having a glass of wine. It’s really nice. The last three or four weeks have been absolute madness.
SJP: First of all, congratulations! I’m so excited to be talking with you. When the first single came out, I was completely gobsmacked, and the album is just magnificent. I expected nothing less, but I feel like you’re the real troubadour of our time.
SS: Aww, thank you so much. I’m so happy you like the new music. I’ve been so nervous about keeping fans from the first record onto the second.
SJP: A sophomore album must be very scary—all your own expectations and what you want your audience and fans to experience. You sort of disappeared for a period to take time for yourself, write, and record. How do you maintain that relationship [with fans] and also move forward as an artist and as a young man growing up, whose ideas about himself are changing?
SS: The key to getting back into a creative space in the last year and a half was home. I needed to be around my family and friends again. After the success of the first record, and especially after the Oscars and everything, I felt like my job and life weren’t relatable to my family and friends, and that really scared me. It was important for me to prove to myself that I could get back to normal, and then, I could write music from a real place again. I went home, living with my best friend and my sister, and we did the things that you do at age 25. It was very, very boring [laughs]—a lot of nights just sitting around, watching TV, and talking. But I got a crash course in being my age again. I grew up a bit too quickly, getting a record deal and with what happened with In the Lonely Hour. I got a lot of money and I didn’t know how to deal with that. All of my other friends who are 25, they don’t have money, they’re still struggling to pay their rent in London.
SJP: The relationship with money is so curious, strange, and complicated.
SS: As a kid, I was very lucky: For five or six years of my life, my mom came into a lot of money. The opposite also happened, where she lost a lot of money and we didn’t have anything. So, I experienced two different sides. When my family hears about the money I make, they’re not celebrating like, “Oh my God. This is incredible.” If anything, they’re helping me try to figure out how to deal, because I find it scary. I get to travel, eat in beautiful restaurants, and take my family on amazing holidays. I feel so lucky and blessed, but I also am very aware that money is scary and it can change people. I’m not a massive spender. My friends and I love chill- ing at Nando’s [laughs], this really good chicken shop where we just watch TV and eat chicken. It’s about getting back to the simple things. Pretending that I was just a normal 25-year-old guy, I kind of convinced myself that I am.
SJP: Well, I think you are. Everyone has a version of normal. Your intense desire for connection, for finding who you are in the world—developmentally speaking, those are spot-on mid-20s questions. You are such a great interpreter of love, loss, and solitude, and there’s this interior monologue on your first album. But your second album feels sort of like an exorcism [laughs]. You talk about love in a very different way, like you’re more in control of it. You’re not cynical at all, but you sound less naïve. Did that coincide with things happening politically in your country, in our country, and to you maturity-wise?
SS: Oh, completely. In the past few years, I became a gay man properly. When I wrote that first album, I was in love with a straight man, he didn’t love me back, and I was very comfortable in my longing. With this record, I became a gay man. I started having proper relationships with men. Sometimes they were in the wrong and treated me in a bad way, and sometimes I was in the wrong. Being gay also falls into politics and what’s happening in the world right now. In the time I [took a break], Trump became president. I also went to Iraq, to refugee camps 40 minutes from Mosul, with a charity called War Child [an NGO that works to assist children in conflict zones]. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life. I’m very ashamed that as a kid, I didn’t read the news that much. I was more bothered about going out with my friends than about what was going on [politically], because the news was just depressing to me. After that trip, I felt a huge amount of guilt. I feel like a grown-up, and I’ve opened my eyes to what’s going on in the world. Also, with what’s happening politically, as an artist and songwriter, I always go back to what Nina Simone said about writing about your times and using our voices. I feel like art in general can really save us all right now.
SJP: You talked about how you feel like you finally became a gay man. You’re of a particular generation where ideas about “the rules”—how one is supposed to be in the world, that there’s a right and wrong way to be a gay man—I don’t know that that applies anymore. I think it’s so interesting you’ve felt that you fell short in some way of being the right kind of gay man. I just read that New York Times article [about Smith, which highlights how he frequently cries during the interview] and I was like, Hmm, what an interesting discussion about making someone feel like they didn’t do something right. It’s peculiar to me.
SS: That article set me free in a way because I feel like people can really understand my truth. My biggest aim in my life is to just be a kind, good person. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
SJP: I know that about you. It’s palpable.
SS: Thank you. When the New York Times [ran] that and people took it the wrong way, it was just really heartbreaking. I’m just figuring out what it means to be gay. When I made that first album, I was 19. I had never been in a relationship. I didn’t have any gay friends. Now, I have gay friends, and it’s changed my life. I was not aware that with fame, people really start to pay attention to what you say about everything. I wasn’t wised up enough. I’m too honest sometimes. I was just so shocked at how unforgiving the media can be sometimes. But I’m really happy with that article because people can see that I’m coming from a good place. Also, I don’t have a lot to go by as a gay man in music: Even the George Michaels and Elton Johns weren’t out at the beginning of their careers.
SJP: You haven’t had a reference to emulate. What do you feel hopeful about now?
SS: It’s exciting seeing people walking the streets and fighting for what they believe in. It’s nice to see people protesting—that excites me. On a personal level, I’m in a relationship right now and for the first time, I think I deserve to be happy. I’m actually asking myself if I’m going to be writing some happy love songs soon. Also, I’m really proud because, even with this whole dreaded second album thing the industry makes everyone concentrate on, I’m putting out a second album that couldn’t be more me—and it couldn’t be gayer. I’m so proud of that. I’m excited to be singing songs like “Him” in parts of the world that maybe aren’t as open in terms of sexuality. To be that raw in front of people is daunting and scary, but the high is incredible.
SJP: It must be so thrilling. When you’re shooting for film or television, it then goes through this whole period of post-production. By the time it comes out, often I feel so far away from the work. You’ve had new experiences since finishing your second album. It must feel like a younger person, even though it’s a much more mature, informed album.
SS: It’s very weird. When I released In the Lonely Hour, I was still very much in love with the person I wrote the album about, so the songs were a real form of therapy. I was singing them as I was in pain. With this album, it’s very strange, I really am past some of the dark things I’m singing about. I can get the message across more because, looking back, I really understand why I wrote these songs. A lot of this album for me is about self-love. When I was writing it, I had a really bad relationship with myself. I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror, and now I really kind of like myself. I enjoy my own company and I feel like I deserve to be loved back. It makes it easier to promote the album. It’s like showing people an old photo album: Sometimes you’re cringing at the bad outfits you’ve worn in the past, but you’re still looking back with love and respect.
SJP: Between now and when you go on tour, how much of the time is yours?
SS: It’s a lonely process and sleep deprivation is a huge part of it. The most important part of being a pop music singer is the team you surround yourself with. My team knows how emotional and sensitive I am and they’re very passionate about me, making sure I have days here and there to see my family and friends.
SJP: You’re so lucky that you’re surrounded by people who really have your best interests in mind. There are so many cautionary tales of people who’ve just been wrung out. How do you protect your voice?
SS: Well, tequila shots is a definite no. I didn’t drink for three months, but recently, because the album has done really well, it was important to give myself a little bit of a break. Depriving yourself of a good glass of wine can sometimes add more stress. I don’t really have dairy. And Gaviscon is my best friend right now, I take a high dose before I go to bed—it’s an antacid. Very sexy [laughs]. And I train my voice every single day, just like an athlete goes running. I treat my voice like a muscle: I do vocal exercises and actual vocal lessons weekly. It’s about treating those vocal chords in the way that they should be treated. They’re the smallest muscle in the body, so you’ve just got to treat them like a very fragile china doll. I think it’s important that people know in this pop music climate, the demand for promotion is so intense. A lot of artists mime and don’t actually sing. When Adele cancelled her Wembley Stadium show, it absolutely broke my heart, because she is incredible—she did hundreds and hundreds of shows and she didn’t mime once. People need to be more forgiving.
SJP: Yeah. I always ask about process because I think we don’t really know if we’re not in that discipline ourselves. Everybody looks to a new year with lots of hope, promise, and potential. What are you looking forward to?
SS: I hope I fall into a deep, beautiful relationship where I allow someone to love me back as much as I love them. I hope my family and friends get happier and stay healthy. I want to fall in love with music more—I’ll never, ever stop learning about and studying my voice.
SJP: I think dreaming and curiosity are the gateway to every possibility, hope, and potential, but so many people feel afraid. How would you encourage people to commit to those dreams, even when they feel really defeated, whether by environment, circumstances, lifestyle, or finances?
SS: Everything you need is within you—all your power and dreams—you just need to harness it. I did this thing as a kid, which I always tell people to do—it’s one of the main reasons why I’m where I am. I had my first manager when I was 11, a record deal when I was 14, and by the time I was 18, I felt quite exhausted, like I’d been robbed of my childhood. I said to myself, “I’m going to give myself a set amount of time and I might give up.” One day, I sat down and drew loads of pictures of all my dreams on one piece of paper. I drew myself performing in the O2 Arena in the U.K., a Grammy, me with children and a husband. I stuck that piece of paper onto the mirror in my bedroom, and every single day, I looked at it when I was getting ready. I almost feel like I manifested it. Your imagination is a powerful thing— use it, run wild with it. Who knows what will happen.
SJP: You and I have talked a little bit about self-image. How comfortable are you feeling on camera today versus two years ago?
SS: It’s completely different. I think that’s come with me losing weight. When I was shooting my first music videos, I just wasn’t happy with the way I looked, so I was trying to control the way the camera moved. I got a bit obsessive. I was constantly looking in the mirror, pinching my waist, weighing myself every day. Now, I’ve gotten to a place where I really love my stretch marks and I just enjoy my body. My job is very self-indulgent: I have to listen to my voice daily, I make decisions on what tour posters or album covers look like, I look at my face while sitting in the makeup chair. I get kind of sick of myself, so I trust my team. But my body image is always going to be an issue. I need to constantly train myself to watch the right sort of films, to not look at certain ads and think that’s how my stomach should look. It’s something that I’m fighting every day. I think men should talk about it more.
SJP: Most people feel the same way and struggle to compete with those same images. What does breaking the rules mean to you now?
SS: It means happiness [laughs]. It sounds really strange, but I became so comfortable in my loneliness. I became best friends with my sadness and I lost my friendship with my happiness. Not only to be happy for myself, but to make other people happy.
SJP: So, your desire to make other people happy is not in order to be liked, but so you can share happiness.
SS: It’s a whole new thing for me. I was waving the sadness flag for so long. Now, it’s quite a risky thing for me to wake up in the morning and be okay with the fact that everything is actually okay. If everything is okay in your life, then let’s make everything good in other people’s lives at the same time.
SJP: That’s a really nice, lovely sentiment, and especially right now, when there seems to be a delight in being unkind, unfriendly, and saying things to each other with impunity. Thank you for being so kind to me and letting me probe a bit. I’m so proud of you.
SS: Oh, thank you so much. You’re honestly such a beautiful influence in my life. It’s so lovely to talk to you and I hope we can go for a drink soon.
SJP: I’m waiting. I’m here whenever you have time.