Sam Smith was feeling the pressure. The English singer's 2014 debut, In the Lonely Hour, was one of the biggest hits of the decade, selling 12.5 million copies and winning him four Grammys. He was tagged the male Adele and went from playing clubs to arenas in less than two years. But by early 2016, Smith had returned to London after two years of touring and found himself creatively paralysed. "For the first two months, I really struggled," he says. He had trouble writing about himself, he adds, "because I realised I didn't actually like myself a lot". Most nights, he'd go out drinking. "When you drink a lot, when you go out too much, the next day isn't so fun. And when you're really supersensitive and emotional, like I am, it's just not good for you."
In the end, though, Smith would channel all those dark feelings for his second album, The Thrill Of It All, which expands on the throwback soul of his first album, branching beyond breakup songs into new territory, including religion, self-doubt and his sexuality. Smith's famous tenor is still impressive, but it sounds more weathered than before ("I've been smoking... more than 20 a day," he sings at one point).
"In the Lonely Hour sounds pretty to me," Smith says. "This album doesn't sound pretty to me. I want this to be more gritty. I want it to sound older, a bit more uncomfortable. In the Lonely Hour is a gin and tonic with your friends. The new album is a whiskey by yourself in a dark room, at night, thinking about life. I went into a deep place. I don't think I'm going to go into that place ever again, because it got a bit too deep."
Smith says the instant fame he found after his huge 2014 hit, "Stay With Me", "scared the shit out of me". He grew distant from friends and family: "It got to where the only time I would see my mum was after a show with record execs." On the road, he gained substantial weight. "A lot of people get a record deal and spend that money on stuff. I spent it on cheese, basically."
In 2016, Smith won an Academy Award for his James Bond theme, "Writing's on the Wall". But he was frustrated with his Oscars performance (he called it "the worst moment of my life") and became a target of Internet hate after he mistakenly suggested he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar. Smith ducked out of the spotlight, living with his younger sister in London and working on the album.
He got in shape, going on a diet and working out regularly: "I still don't enjoy it, but I force myself to do it." Smith also found time for a relationship, dating someone for about six months, but it didn't work out. "He was the loveliest person in the world," Smith says. "I just wasn't enough for him. That's OK. It actually left me just realising I had a long journey of self-love to go on."
Working with Jimmy Napes, who co-produced much of In the Lonely Hour, Smith overcame his early-session jitters. He wrote songs like "Burning" and the single "Too Good at Goodbyes", which describe the mental toll of a broken relationship. (Stargate, Timbaland and other hitmakers also worked on the LP.) Smith says he'd head to the studio around noon, work until dark, "and then I would go out with my friends, gay-clubbing in London".
As his mood grew brighter, the songs did too. A few cuts, like "Baby, You Make Me Crazy", are relentlessly upbeat, recalling Sixties soul. "But if you actually listen to the lyrics," Smith says, "they're desperately sad. I call them ‘dance and cry' songs. I love songs like that. Robyn does that for me."
Smith calls the sessions "therapy": "It's about me starting to love myself again." These days, he's stopped partying as he prepares for a two-year tour. "I want to be on my A game," he says.
In September, Smith released the stripped-down "Too Good at Goodbyes". It immediately became a Top Five hit, and at the time of press has racked up more than 146 million streams on Spotify. He gets emotional describing the relief he felt when he read positive reviews. "I cried my eyes out, because I was so scared to release anything," he says. "It just made me feel so happy, because it made me feel like all the fear was worth it."
From issue #793 (December, 2017), available now.
Topics: Sam Smith