If the past winners of the BBC’s annual “Sound Of” award are any indication (see: 50 Cent, Adele, and Ellie Goulding, to name a few), Sam Smith is undoubtedly set for success. Prior to nabbing the title earlier this year, the 21-year-old soul singer had already achieved a fan-favorite hit in his homeland of England as guest vocalist on DJ-duo Disclosure‘s “Latch,” as well as a number one smash on producer Naughty Boy‘s “La La La.” Midas-touch evident, Smith proved he could triumphantly fly solo, too, by stepping out from the shadows and accomplishing the same chart-topping feat with his own “Money on My Mind,” a single from his upcoming debut album In the Lonely Hour. Life+Times spoke to Smith on the final day of his UK tour to talk unrequited love, gin-induced sadness, crossover success, and, well, the Avatar soundtrack.
L+T: Oh, have you noticed a difference between US and UK audiences yet?
SS: US people “whoop” at the right times. They’re really responsive to my chat and the stage presence. And the UK’s interesting. London crowds are great, but they hold back a lot. But I’m currently in Edinburgh and I was in Birmingham last night and the crowds were amazing, so it’s similar everywhere—it’s just certain cities where you can tell there’s a lot of industry people in the audience.
L+T: Well, “Latch”—your hit song with Disclosure—has finally made it to US radio and on our charts! Is your goal to go mainstream here?
SS: Oh my gosh, of course! Do you know what? To me, music is about reaching everybody. I want the best singer in the world to like my music. I also want a tone-deaf builder to sing my songs. That’s the most important thing to me. If I’m gonna get deeply into it, this whole ‘mainstream’ thing just annoys me because whether I’m writing [my song] “Nirvana” or my next single—which I feel is quite classic and everyone could sing it—I put just as much soul into each song and if one song appeals to a massive people, that’s amazing; that doesn’t make it any less of a piece of music and that doesn’t make it any less good than something that only appeals to a small audience. So, yeah, of course I do. I want as many people as possible singing my music.
L+T: And are you happy with “mainstream” music?
SS: Um, I’m not satisfied with it actually. I feel like the minute anyone gets a lot of success, there’s a backlash and people turn around and think they’re selling out, but I think that you have to have a remedy. Like, I find pop music incredible because you’re finding a recipe that appeals to everybody and that is just as clever as finding a really, really, insanely complicated chord. I always say that. I find that there’s complexity in the simplicity of music and just because it’s pop music and just because there’s little girls singing it and not musos singing your song, you know, people are singing your songs! You know what I mean? Like, I’m not working in the bar, so it’s great!
L+T: I’ve seen your music described as pop. And soul and R&B, too. What would you say your genre is?
SS: You know what? I don’t wanna sound preachy or sound like I’m trying to make a point, but I don’t want to have a genre of music. I’m a singer. I concentrate on my voice religiously like it’s an instrument. And if I wake up one morning and want to sound like Beyonce, I can; I have the right to do that. And if I wake up one morning and sound like Joni Mitchell, I also have the right to do that. So my genre of music, I mean, if you’re going to put it in a bubble, it would be soul music, but I present it to you in different ways. Whether it’s electronic or kind of country or anything, there’s soul to the music, but I want it to be genre-less. I want it to appeal to everybody.
L+T: Let’s talk about the album. What do you want people to do while listening to In the Lonely Hour?
SS: I always say Disclosure’s album Settle is what you would listen to in the club on a night out, but my album is what you would listen to when you’re walking home the morning after from a one night stand [laughs]. Or the album you’d listen to when you’re home at night and you’re lonely and you’re going to text someone that you shouldn’t be texting. You listen to this album in a quiet moment because, in my quiet moments, I had nothing to listen to that really hit everything on the spot, so I want to be that voice for you when you’re in your lonely hour.
L+T: Which song on the album was the hardest to write?
SS: There’s a song on the album called “Good Thing.” You know, half of my album’s about someone who I fell in love with who didn’t love me back—I didn’t write it solely about that person; I kind of wrote it about all the unrequited love experience I’ve had in my life. And there’s a song called “Good Thing” and it was basically… You know, this person just didn’t love me and I decided one weekend on a Saturday that I would just stop what I was doing and instead of giving into this unrequited love, I’d fight against it and I almost became numb for a few days. I’d felt like I’d just broken up with someone because I stopped speaking to them as much as I was on my phone. And I went into a session with Eg White and I told him how I felt—and I’m a singer through and through and I really work hard on my voice—but on this song, “Good Thing,” I didn’t have any energy to sing because I felt so broken up about the situation, so it was amazing for me to make a song where I didn’t really belt or vocally do any acrobatics; I just kind of let the words flow out of me and it felt so natural.
L+T: So, would you say the majority of your album veers on the side of sad or sexy?
SS: [Laughs] I’d say this album…well, I came out with [my EP] Nirvana and there’s some sexy songs on that. I think “Latch” is a bit sexy and “Together” and things like that I put out and have that tone and I love that and I will forever make that music, but while I was writing this album, I just really wanted to be as honest as I possibly could and, if I’m brutally honest, I was feeling really lonely when I wrote it. And I’ve been true to myself and I’ve just basically lived in the moment and written an album about how I was feeling in that time in my life. So, yeah, it’s probably a little bit sad but, yeah, it’s true.
L+T: Which is your favorite lyric on the album?
SS: It’s really sad, are you ready?
L+T: [Laughs] Mm-hmm.
SS: I think my favorite lyric would probably be: “I’d never ask you / ‘cause deep down I’m certain I’d know what you’d say / You’d say, ‘I’m sorry, believe me, I love you’ / But not in that way.”
L+T: What song is that from?
SS: That’s a song called “Not in That Way” and it doesn’t get sadder than that! [Laughs]
L+T: Well, you’ve already mentioned your songs with Disclosure. You’ve also worked with Nile Rodgers and Naughty Boy. Who else is on your wish list of collaborations?
SS: There’s so many people. I love music. I just don’t know. I mean, my main thing, for the rest of my life, is just be completely limitless when I go into making music. That’s what I did with this album. I was doing sessions with Two Inch Punch, who is a beat maker, he makes incredible electronic beats, but then I was also doing sessions with Eg White who writes classical songs, so I have such a wide love for music, I’d really work with anybody.
L+T: Is there anyone you want to specifically do a duet with?
SS: I’d love to do a duet with Chaka Khan just to see the look on my mom’s face.
L+T: That’d be amazing.
SS: She’s one of my biggest vocal inspirations. To do that would just be amazing.
L+T: Is there anyone you think your fans would be surprised to learn you listen to?
SS: I really like Irish music which is a bit odd [laughs]. I listen to this woman called Cara Dillon; she’s an Irish singer and I don’t know why, but me and my sister absolutely love listening to her. It makes me really calm and makes me think about stuff. I also really love listening to the Avatar soundtrack.
L+T: I haven’t heard that! Is it all, like, instrumental?
SS: Yeah, yeah, it’s my favorite film. Whether I’m sad…I watch “Avatar.” Normally, at bath times actually, I put on the Avatar soundtrack and pretend I’m blue [laughs].
L+T: Whose career do you most admire?
SS: Uh, Beyonce [laughs]. I think she’s just incredible. I really do. I’m going to see her tomorrow.
L+T: Oh, so are you gonna drop a secret album one day, too?
SS: [Laughs] I don’t know, I think only Beyonce could have done that. I love it when people take risks in music. It’s one of my favorite things when you can see people making artistic moves which is just different. I love that.
L+T: What would you say were the greatest inspiration for the album? And you have to pick a person, place, and thing.
SS: The person would be the person I wrote some of the songs about. The place would be my flat in London. I love it, but it’s kind of where I felt a bit…well, in my kitchen probably, in London. What was the other one? A thing? Thing…thing…a bottle of gin.
L+T: Finally, what do you hope to achieve with the album?
SS: I hope that I appeal to the masses. I hope people feel less lonely when they listen to my album. I mean, personally, I hope I just get to carry on doing this as a job and I hope that I get the chance to make another album and I just wanna travel and see the world and enjoy my life because it’s short and that’s it really. And I say that I want everyone to listen to it, but you know what? Even if there’s just three people in front of me singing my lyrics, it means the world to me. I just want the chance to keep doing this forever.
Sam Smith’s US tour begins March 18. In the Lonely Hour will be released on May 26.