'It's Scary Being As Open As I'm Being': Sam Smith On 'The Thrill Of It All'

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 9:58 am

The first thing you notice about Sam Smith is that voice: soulful, a little sad and able to dip from deep octaves to falsetto in a matter of seconds. But behind that voice is a man who found fame — and then found a need to hide from it.

Three years after his debut, he's re-emerging with a new album. It's called The Thrill Of It All, which is a pretty good way to describe where he's been since he first topped the charts. His first album asked the question, "Will I ever find love?" This time around, he's asking if love is really worth it.

Love songs have always shaped Smith. He tells NPR's David Greene that he used to sing in the back seat of his parents' car. It was their idea to send him to vocal lessons, where he learned his first song, Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me." He remembers being bad at school; singing was the one thing he felt he was good at. ("I still feel that way," he adds.) It was his escape from the homework, the insecurities and his feelings about boys.

Smith's sexuality is intrinsically connected to his ambitions. While his dad hoped he'd be a jazz singer and tour local clubs, Smith dreamed of filling an arena. That goal got him through until he moved out on his own, came to terms with his identity and heard his first hit on the radio while bartending in London. Soon he was standing on stage at Madison Square Garden.

But fame had its consequences. Smith's debut album, In The Lonely Hour, sold millions. He went on to claim four Grammys, and he hung out at Taylor Swift's birthday party with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The gossip columns buzzed about who he has dating. His theme for a James Bond film landed him an Oscar. But it was on that stage that all that praise turned to criticism.

In his acceptance speech, Smith suggested he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar — he wasn't — and the online backlash was intense. For the first time, Smith was embroiled in controversy. And after a world tour and grueling press schedule, the pressure got to him. He developed an itchy skin condition, lost his voice for a spell and abandoned social media. He retreated to find himself.

The Thrill Of It All is packed with the lessons he learned after he bowed out. They were hard lessons, he says, but by stepping out of the spotlight, he finally got to figure out who he was.

"I feel like I have become a gay man in the last three years," he says. "Now I've been to so many amazing gay bars around the world, and met some amazing friends. I just feel more comfortable and confident with who I am."

This time around Smith isn't writing about unrequited love. One can hear how far he's come on the lead single "Too Good at Goodbyes," where he's not only fallen in love but grown jaded by it too: "Every time you hurt me, the less that I cry / And every time you leave me, the quicker these tears dry."

He also turns his eye to his critics. During his fall from grace, Smith took heat for saying he did not use gender-specific pronouns in his lyrics. He explained he wanted his songs to be more universal and not alienate people who might be uncomfortable with gay relationships. Fans called him a coward. But on the new song "HIM," there's no mistaking who Smith is singing about: "Say I shouldn't be here but I can't give up his touch / It is him I love, it is him."

It may be a testament to global attitudes around sexuality that a man who has remained largely apolitical throughout his career, who will probably sell more copies of this record than most other artists releasing albums this year, can sing explicitly about loving another man.

"It's scary being as open as I'm being, because you've just got to always accept that there's probably going to be someone in the room or someone close who really, really, disagrees with who you are," Smith says. "But that's always going to be the case. Well, hopefully it's not always going to be the case, but for the time being it is."

Smith is a colossal force in contemporary pop music, and he's one of few to claim the throne without having to keep his sexuality a secret — if not quite the first. But being knocked down a peg meant that, like so many of the gay men and women to come before him, he had to find his own voice all over again.

And that sounds like quite a thrill.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The first thing you notice about Sam Smith is that voice. A couple of years ago, you probably couldn't escape it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY WITH ME")

SAM SMITH: (Singing) oh, won't you stay with me.

GREENE: I mean, it's almost too perfect, isn't it? Well, behind this voice is a man who found fame and then found the need to hide from it. He's avoided the spotlight for the last year and a half, but now he is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO GOOD AT GOODBYES")

SMITH: (Singing) But every time you hurt me, the less that I cry. And every time you leave me, the quicker these tears dry.

GREENE: His new album is called "The Thrill Of It All." And it's a pretty good way to describe where he's been since he first topped the charts. We found him in one of LA's most historic recording studios.

You're at the famous Capitol Studios, right?

SMITH: Yeah. I'm actually sitting in Frank Sinatra's chair right now.

GREENE: What?

SMITH: Yeah. They have his chair here they used to record in. And I can't believe they still let people sit on it because it's pretty rackety (laughter).

GREENE: Have you ever done a Sinatra song?

SMITH: "Come Fly With Me" was my first song I ever sang in my first ever singing lesson when I was like 9 years old.

GREENE: So, like, when your parents when they heard your voice when you were growing up and you were that 9 year old, were they grooming you to be a pop star? Did they see that future, do you think?

SMITH: Oh, my God, 100 percent not. My dad's dream for me was to be a jazz singer and sing in tiny bars for the rest of my life. He doesn't love big arena shows. They were never pushing me in that way. That was on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOO GOOD AT GOODBYES")

SMITH: (Singing) I'm way too good at goodbyes. I'm way too good at goodbyes.

SMITH: (Singing) I'm way too good at goodbyes.

GREENE: Yeah. As a kid struggling with his sexuality, Sam Smith had these dreams about making it big.

SMITH: Of course, that was my escape. I do think a huge part of it is school and boys and being teased a little bit here and there. And I think this idea of fame and becoming a pop star was an escape in my head and almost like a I'll-show-you kind of thing.

GREENE: What were you escaping from?

SMITH: I think a sadness that I have had in me and something that felt like it was missing. And then when I did become famous, I thought that everything was going to be OK and that hole would be filled, and it isn't. That's what the last three years of my life have been about actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT FIRST")

SMITH: (Singing) I never feel like this. I'm used to emptiness in my heart.

GREENE: So Smith hit the top. His first album won four Grammys. He won an Oscar for a James Bond theme. But at the same time, the stress was wearing on him. He developed this itchy skin condition. He lost his voice for a time.

And then there was his 2016 speech at the Oscars when he suggested that he was making history as possibly the first openly gay man to win an Oscar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: And if this is the case, even if it isn't the case.

GREENE: Yeah. It wasn't the case. And Sam Smith took a lot of heat for that gaffe.

SMITH: Oh, my God, yeah (laughter).

GREENE: You don't want to go there, do you?

SMITH: No, I can go there. I could speak about it all day because it's just a mistake. And when you make a mistake like that in front of 90 million people, it, you know - actually, you know what, though? That experience - mucking up the Oscar acceptance speech - I think that was kind of a saving thing for me because it made me really stop and figure out what the hell was going on in my head.

GREENE: There's a song on the new album called "Burning."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING")

SMITH: (Singing) I've been burning. Yes, I've been burning. Such a burden, this flame on my chest.

GREENE: I wonder if this relates to what you're talking about here.

SMITH: Yeah. It's my favorite song I've ever written in my life. It's about a relationship, but it's also about fame because there's parts of fame which just ruin everything. And I was in a relationship last year, and I felt like it was such a huge factor of that relationship. The relationship ended. And then I remember just sitting down just asking myself, was this the right choice? Have I chosen the right life?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING")

SMITH: (Singing) No insurance to pay for the damage. Yeah, I've been burning up since you left.

GREENE: I read - when I was doing the research to chat with you, one quote really stood out to me. You said that you feel like you're a bit behind in your relationships. Grew up in an area where you were the only gay guy in school. As you put it, the only gay guy in your village. How much did that affect your relationships today?

SMITH: Oh, massively. I never had boyfriends or girlfriends in school, you know? When all my friends were in those innocent young relationships, I wasn't. I was by myself and very lonely and just falling in love with straight guys basically.

Now when I'm dating, I do feel like I'm a little bit behind. But I think a lot of gay guys feel like that because a lot of people come out a lot older, as well. So it's kind of nice in a way because you get to feel really, really young when it comes to love.

GREENE: I just think about the opening lyrics to the song "Him" on the new album - Holy Father, we need to talk. I have a secret that I can't keep. I'm not the boy that you thought you wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIM")

SMITH: (Singing) It is him I love. It is him I love.

GREENE: It's so powerful.

SMITH: I wrote that in the shower.

GREENE: Oh, really?

SMITH: And I just felt like I needed to say it. It's not about me. It's not about my coming out story. It was just a general coming out story.

GREENE: Well, there's this tradition in pop music of gay singers performing love songs without using pronouns that would reveal the gender of the person. With "Him," you decided not to do that at all. You just said this is him.

SMITH: I mean, I feel like I have become a gay man in the last three years. You know, when I was releasing "In The Lonely Hour," I'd only been hanging around or dating guys for two years. Whereas, now I feel I've been to so many amazing gay bars around the world and met some amazing friends. I just feel more comfortable and confident with my sexuality and who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIM")

SMITH: (Singing) It is him I love. Oh, oh, oh, oh.

GREENE: It really sounds like you're coming into your own as the person you want to be with this album.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it's scary being as open as I'm being because you just got to always accept that there's probably going to be someone close who really, really disagrees with who you are. But that's always going to be the case. Well, hopefully, it's not always going to be the case, but for the time being it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY")

SMITH: (Singing) And I'm going to pray, lord, pray.

GREENE: Sam Smith, it's been a real pleasure.

SMITH: Thank you. I hope we meet one day (laughter).

GREENE: I would really like that. Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY")

SMITH: (Singing) Won't you call me? Can we have a one-on-one please? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.