A Young Man's Loneliness, And His Soulful Falsetto

Jun 16, 2014
Originally published on February 9, 2015 9:28 am

The British singer Sam Smith broke through with a dance song: His is the voice snaking through "Latch," by the electronic-music duo Disclosure. It became an international club anthem.

In the U.K, he's mentioned in the same breath as superstars Adele or Florence and the Machine. He already has a sold-out U.S. tour, and he has performed on Saturday Night Live. Smith, 22, is now releasing his debut album, In the Lonely Hour. His songs of love and loss are powered by his moody, soulful voice.

He recently spoke with All Things Considered host Melissa Block about his burgeoning career and the unrequited love behind his new album.


Interview Highlights

On the song "Stay With Me"

"Stay With Me," for me, is my own personal anthem to the 'walk of shame' ... that we've all gone through. It's the feeling after a one-night stand of not wanting that person to leave, even if you don't love them and don't even like them. It's about having that body next to you. I wanted to say it from a guy's perspective, as well, because I think we forget sometimes that guys are emotional.

On his falsetto, and taking after singers like Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Amy Winehouse and the members of Destiny's Child

I used to get very angry as I was getting older, because my voice was breaking. So I've trained my voice so religiously through my teenage years, because I wanted to be able to hit the notes that those females hit. And I can, which is great.

It does come naturally, but I also work at it. I try and make it look like it's effortless, but it's not. That's the same as anyone, you know? You look at runners in the Olympics, and watch the way they run. You think, 'I can do that.' Uh, you can't.

On his long-term future:

It was only two years ago [that] I was working in a bar — I was cleaning toilets in a bar. I remind myself of that every day, at the moment, because I don't want to take anything for granted. So you know what? I don't want to think about what I'm doing in 20 years. All I want is I want to be happy, and I hope my family are healthy. And that's all, really.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Get ready to hear a lot more of this voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATCH")

SAM SMITH: (Singing) You lift my heart up when the rest of me is down. You, you enchant me even you're not around.

BLOCK: That's the British singer Sam Smith and the hit song "Latch" with the band Disclosure. It became an international club anthem. Sam Smith is now releasing his debut album titled "In The Lonely Hour," songs of love and loss powered by his moody, soulful voice. He already has a sold out U.S. tour, he's performed on Saturday Night Live, snagged a couple of big deal British music awards, is mentioned in the same breath as stars Adele and Flourence and the Machine - and did I mention he's just 22.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

SMITH: (Singing) Guess it's true, I'm not good at a one-night stand. But I still need love cause' I'm just a man.

BLOCK: Sam Smith joins me now from New York. Sam, welcome to the program.

SMITH: Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: You know, when you listen to the songs on this album, I think you hear a theme running through of unrequited love or maybe, in the case of this song, unrequited longing?

SMITH: Yes. Yes. I've never been in a relationship before ever in my life...

BLOCK: Ever?

SMITH: Ever in my life. And I wanted to make a statement that I do know what love is. And that's what this record's about.

BLOCK: Well what does love look like? Or unsatisfied love look like from your perspective?

SMITH: Well for me it wasn't the prettiest. It was a lot of heartache and sadness. But there was amazing moments, there was gorgeous moments, but it just meant that the low moments were really, really low if you know what I mean?

BLOCK: And on this song in particular, on "Stay With Me"?

SMITH: Well, "Stay With Me" for me - it's my own personal anthem to the walk of shame.

BLOCK: The walk of shame.

SMITH: The walk of shame that we've all gone through. It's that feeling of after a one night stand of not wanting a person to leave even if you don't love them and you don't even like them it's about having that body there next to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

SMITH: (Singing): And deep down I know this never works. But you can lay with me so it doesn't hurt. Oh won't you stay with me. Because you're all I need.

SMITH: I wanted to say it from a guy's perspective, as well, because I think we forget sometimes that guys are emotional.

BLOCK: You know, you're talking about this walk of shame - a gospel choir gets woven into the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

BLOCK: It's sort of an interesting contrast of message and the voices.

SMITH: That's not a gospel choir that's all my voice.

BLOCK: That's all your voice? You are the gospel choir.

SMITH: I am. Yeah. I went into the studio just laid my vocals up. But I think that kind of juxtaposes it - it contradicts the whole loneliness, you know, thing. I like how it sounds busy but it also sounds lonely at the same time.

BLOCK: Well, you know, it's interesting because I've seen the video for the song and there is a gospel choir in the video so no wonder I'm confused.

SMITH: I know, I know it's my little secret that I tell a few people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

BLOCK: I know you've been singing since you were really young. Did you have singing icons when you're going up - people you just kept listening to over and over idolizing?

SMITH: Yeah. And, you know what, I still listen to them now over and over again. I loved things like Destiny's Child and Amy Winehouse's first record came out when I was 11 years old. But as a young, young child I was just surrounded by Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan - just massive soulful voices.

BLOCK: Would you try to imitate each of the singers in their style, could you do that?

SMITH: Yeah, I think especially female singers. I used to get very angry as I was getting older because my voice was breaking. This is why I've trained my voice so religiously through my teenagers years because I wanted to be able to hit the notes that those females hit. So, and I can which is great.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a little bit of the song on your album "Life Support."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE SUPPORT")

SMITH: (Singing) I've been waiting for an answer. Because I built this bed for two. I'm just hanging on your answer. I build this bed for me and you.

BLOCK: so that soaring falsetto Sam Smith - where does that come from?

SMITH: I just train every day. I look after my voice and just don't drink too much and don't do drugs. (Laughing). All of that stuff.

BLOCK: Yeah. Does it come naturally or do you really have to brace for it - I'm going way up high here.

SMITH: It does come naturally but I also work at it, you know. I try and make it look like it's effortless but it's not - that's the same as anyone, you know, you look at runners in the Olympics and watch the way they run. You think I can do that - you can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE SUPPORT")

SMITH: (Singing) Could you see that I am yours? So will you be my life support? You're my life support.

BLOCK: I mentioned that you're 22-years-old. Do you think you're going to look back on these songs written when you are young and these songs of, you know, loneliness and longing and think - God I was so young, I know so much more now?

SMITH: Yes, I am. I think I'm going to look back and think - oh my gosh shut up about being so lonely. But, you know what, that's the beauty of it - when you look at pictures of yourself as a kid, even me now and I look at pictures when I was 16-17, I'm insanely embarrassed of some of the stuff that I've done - but that's life, that's going up. And I thought what a beautiful way to capture something that was so sad to me, something I really sat last year, I really sat by myself and felt sorry for myself that I had never been in a relationship before. I can only imagine how beautiful it's going to be when I've fallen in love and I can look back on this and think - you know, it wasn't that bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE YOUR LOVER")

SMITH: (Singing) I don't have that much to give but I don't care for gold.

SMITH: Even now, some of the songs meant so much to me then. The person I wrote some of the songs about meant so much to me last year and now they don't.

BLOCK: But you did tell him that these songs were about him, I think, right?

SMITH: I did. Yes. I told him and that was like a weight lifted off. It wasn't the best response I could have asked for either, I kind of - I knew that, I obviously knew that they weren't going to fall for me but I also - I think the person kind of enjoy the fact that some of them were about him. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE YOUR LOVER")

SMITH: (Singing) Pack up and leave everything don't you see what I can bring? Can't keep this beating heart at bay.

BLOCK: Sam when you look forward, what's the future you see for yourself? Can you picture yourself 10-20 years down the road?

SMITH: I'm really trying not to do that in the moment because it was only two years ago I was working in a bar - I was cleaning toilets in the bar and I remind myself of that every day at the moment because I don't want to take anything for granted. So, you know what, I don't want to think about what I'm doing 20 years all I want is a want to be happy and I hope my family are healthy and that's all really.

BLOCK: And maybe a little bit less lonely.

SMITH: A little bit. I already am though but yeah - a little bit less lonely, that would be nice.

BLOCK: Well, Sam Smith, it's been great talking to you. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Sam Smith's new album is "In The Lonely Hour."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE YOUR LOVER")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.