Sam Smith’s Ascent to an Icon
Every year about an hour outside of Nashville, Tennessee in the United States, a crowd of just under 100,000 people pack onto a 700-acre farm in the reliably-sweltering heat of the South for Bonnaroo Art And Music Festival. For four days these loyal fans congregate around stages—whose names range from the “What Stage,” to the “Which Stage,” the “This Tent,” and, of course, the “That Tent— to see high-profile music acts like Elton John, Kanye West, and Lauryn Hill perform live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Years past have seen luminaries take the stage such as Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, and The Beach Boys.
Appearing at the 2014 edition of Bonnaroo this past weekend was a relative newcomer of just 22 named Sam Smith. The singer-songwritter performed a 12-song set at the “Other Tent,” just two hours into the second day of the festival that included his hit singles “Money on My Mind” and “Stay With Me.” With his album In the Lonely Hour now officially out this week in the US—fueled by the momentum of a guest appearance on Disclosure’s breakout hit “Latch” and a performance on SNL—Smith’s debut has him coming out the gate at a breakneck speed. Maestro Dobel Tequila, the world’s first crystal-clear aged tequila, set up an interactive piano/cocktail bar backstage where we snagged a bottle wrapped inside in a miniature guitar case and made our way over to Smith to chat and give him his first post-performance gift.
Essential Homme: Congratulations on today. How was your first Bonnaroo?
Sam Smith: An absolutely magical moment. It’s my first festival and I didn’t think anybody was going to be here. There was a real connection between me and the fans. I feel the love.
EH: You posted a picture this week on Instagram of the cover of The Alchemist. What made you crack that cover?
SS: As things are happening, I’m looking for some sort of explanation. I’m getting all deep at the moment about stuff, so I want to read something that’s a bit deep.
EH: How far into it are you?
SS: Three pages, [I] literally got it last night. There’s a story about a guy who kneels beside a lake to admire his reflection only to become so infatuated with his own beauty that he falls in and drowns. I thought it was beautiful.
EH: In this search for some kind of explanation, how do you rationalize the surge of acclaim for your work spreading throughout the world?
SS: It’s really hard. My senses are heightened. I’m a bit more paranoid than normal, and it’s just a lot to get used to. I like the idea that I don’t want to put on a brave face all of the time. I want to be real and honest and say that this is really weird. There’s a lot to get used to, but I’m enjoying it. I’m having some of the happiest moments of my life—and some really horrible moments, too, where I’m lonely and by myself—but I think that’s all part of it. When something mad happens to you, in any way in your life, it’s going to be a bit weird.
SS: My whole experience with America has been very weird. I’m so used to watching UK artists come over and have to work very hard after their album is released. Whereas it’s gone better in America than anywhere else in the world for me since SNL. I love being here and I love the audiences more than anything.
EH: What’s one song from the album that you don’t anticipate ever leaving your set list?
SS: “Stay With Me.” If it didn’t do well it would have been a disaster [for] me, because it’s made for people to sing. I made and wrote it so it would be an anthemic song. People seem to be singing along and I’ll never be sick of that.
EH: How did you get out of the dark place that inspired so much of the conception and creation of the album?
SS: I forced myself to be happy. I’m not the type of person that dwells on being sad. My album was about that moment where I was dwelling on being sad, for quite a while, so I’ve had to get out of that. [Now] I have as much fun as I can and also try to meet people. During that period I would deliberately stay at home and not go on dates and stuff, so now I’m forcing myself to do that.
EH: Is dating hard now that you’ve become such an instantly recognizable face?
SS: I’ve never been in a relationship before, so I don’t know any different.
EH: Do you think you’d be able to have a normal relationship?
SS: I think I would be able to. I don’t think of myself as famous; I just think my music is well known. I’m a normal person and I hope to lead a normal love life.
EH: We heard that you’re quite immune to some of the horrible things that people say about you. How do you deal with it?
SS: I deal with it by saying in interviews that I’m okay. And I am okay. When it comes to name calling—I had that a bit as a kid—I really am immune to it. I can’t explain why. If someone says something about sexuality or appearance it doesn’t get to me. If someone says to me, “You’re not a very nice person,” that’s what really upsets me, because I try every day to be nice and I feel like I have a good heart. Two years ago I was working at a bar cleaning toilets and right now I’m in America and I’m doing this amazing interview so I should pull it together because life could be worse. Nobody prepares you for what to do when you get what you want in life. You want for it so bad and when you start to get it, it’s actually quite scary.
EH: If you were a tree, what kind would you be?
SS: A willow tree.
SS: Because I believe I have a little bit of wisdom in me.
EH: We believe so as well.
Images courtesy of Filmmagic, Capital Records, and Dobel Tequila.