Photography by JUCO | Retouching by Anna Glen at Wet Noodle
The Moment: October 14, 1977: “Heroes,” by David Bowie, is released.
Have we ever had a pop star like Sam Smith? In a business currently powered by hip-hop, EDM, and Katy Perry, the thought of a man trying to forge a career as a swoony blue-eyed soul singer once seemed almost absurd. But a gay male artist with a debut album documenting his unrequited love for another man achieving mainstream success? That just seemed impossible. Yet within a matter of months, the 22-year-old English crooner has shattered expectations to emerge as one of 2014’s most promising new talents.
“I feel no pressure to live up to anything,” says Smith, just hours before he’ll make his first appearance on The Tonight Show. “I say what I think, act how I want to act, post what I want to post. There’s no one telling me to do this, lose weight, look like this, sing like this, write songs like that. I’ve just been allowed to be me, and from all the nightmares you hear about the industry from a young age, I never thought that would be the case.”
By the time Smith put out his record In the Lonely Hour this past June, he’d already scored three number 1 singles in the U.K., topped the BBC’s Sound of 2014 poll, won the 2014 BRIT Critics’ Choice Award, and delivered a choir-backed, showstopping performance of his song “Stay With Me” on Saturday Night Live (an event he recalls as “horrifically frightening” but also “one of the happiest moments of my life”). He had also unveiled the video for his track “Leave Your Lover,” a clip that saw him cavorting through Paris with model Daisy Lowe and a well-dressed gentleman in a modern take on Jules and Jim, its final seconds revealing that the object of Smith’s affection had all along been his male companion. Six days after it was posted to YouTube — and three weeks before In the Lonely Hour was due to hit the U.S. — The Fader published an interview with Smith in which he divulged that his forthcoming album was, in fact, inspired by a man he’d fallen for who didn’t return the love.
The press deemed this his “coming out,” but Smith explains his candor almost as an act of necessity. If writing the album was a way for him to cauterize his wounds and move on, interviews have given the musician an opportunity to champion a cause. “My aim is to tell people how good it’s been for me so that, hopefully, gay men or parents with gay children can look at my story and think, Wow, that’s how it should be. That’s what we can work towards. That’s been my whole motive — to not make it a talking point. My music should be a talking point. My voice should be a talking point.”
Indeed, it is Smith’s staggering vocals, which can bolt from a tender croon to a rafter-shaking falsetto, that have propelled him to the top of the charts. Upon its release, In the Lonely Hour soared to number 2 on the Billboard 200, the fastest-selling debut album ever for a U.K. male solo artist. Call it the Adele Effect — Smith’s is a classic case of “belt it and they will come” — but an openly gay British man pouring his heart out in a collection of torchy, old-school ballads has proven to be exactly what America wants.
The fact that Smith’s sexuality has become a mere footnote in his journey this year is mostly a testament to his undeniable gift — ultimately, it’s the songs that speak the loudest. But it also signals a cultural sea change. Simple, stripped-down honesty, it seems, is the new formula for success. “When I was in the studio, I completely forgot in a year’s time that my face was going to be plastered around major cities with the word lonely underneath it,” Smith says. “When it did happen, it was like, Wow, what I’m doing is taking a risk.” And as long as he’s still singing the blues, it’s a risk he vows to keep taking. “Music is about reaching the masses, having a message, getting through to everyone, and trying to make some sort of difference,” Smith says. “Music, to me, is that powerful.”
Shot at the Mondrian, West Hollywood on August 25, 2014
Styling by Lauren Armes. Groomer: Chechel Joson. Jacket by 3.1 Phillip Lim. Shirt by Gucci.