Sam Smith on The Thrill Of It All: 'It was dangerous for my heart'

Smith's latest album, The Thrill Of It All, draws on the breakdown of a relationship.
Smith's latest album, The Thrill Of It All, draws on the breakdown of a relationship.

When singer Sam Smith rocketed to international fame at 22, he found himself catapulted into "a very thrilling life".

"But," he admits, "when something is thrilling it can be really bad for you ... It was dangerous for my heart." There's a hidden depth and reflectiveness to the title of his just released second album, The Thrill of it All, which delves into the impact of fame on his romantic and family relationships and on "just me as a person. It's about that period in my life when I wasn't looking after myself."

On the phone from Milan, Smith is strikingly honest even while he admits: "I am quite a private person, I am quite a lonely person. I'm private when it comes to fame, it makes me uncomfortable seeing stories about my personal life instead of my music. [But] when I talk to anyone, even talking to you now, I genuinely have complete word vomit."

This story first appeared in The Canberra Times

The tendency to say exactly what is on his mind, without a high degree of self-editing, has caused Smith, now 25, dramas in the past. In 2016, while accepting the Oscar for best original song for Writing's on the Wall, the anthem from the James Bond movie Spectre, Smith wrongly claimed he was the first openly gay person to win an Academy Award. The backlash that ensued forced him to into a social media hiatus, and he only fully re-engaged ahead of the release of this album.

Social media has proved a perilous path over the years. As Smith hurtled towards sales of 100 million copies of his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, there was obsessive interest in his personal life.

When he posted a photo on Instagram of himself and model-actor Jonathan Zeizel, and later confirmed the pair were dating, the international scrutiny generated such an enormous amount of pressure that the couple eventually split.

Smith later admitted it was probably too early to go public with the relationship still in its infancy.

The interest in the couple also sent paparazzi photographers scrambling to get photos while they were holidaying in Australia. The resulting images, taken at a Sydney beach, would eventually prompt Smith to go on a weight loss transformation that began with changing his relationship with food and undertaking the rigours of gym routine. At one point, he shed 14 kilograms in seven days.

While early reaction to the The Thrill of it All has acclaimed it a masterpiece, Smith's anxiety about it is palpable. "I feel weird about it right now," he says.

"I have listened to it so much. It is going to be a moment for me when it comes out because people will have the full experience and the full story."

One of the most lauded voices of his generation, Smith's formidable talent was first unleashed on electronic duo Disclosure's single Latch but it was his debut single Lay Me Down, that would catapult him to fame. His music offered listeners a profoundly personal insight into a complicated young Londoner and gave birth to a string of hits like Stay With Me, Like I Can and I'm Not the Only One.

Smith's first album explored his loneliness as he dealt with the brutality of unrequited love. Each track on In the Lonely Hour drips with pain, his entire one-sided love affair laid bare for everyone to see and hear and feel.

Despite being repeatedly bitten by his openness, Smith still continues to bare his soul, both in his music and in interviews.

In an recent interview with The Sunday Times, Smith revealed he wore female clothing when he was younger. "I would wear full make-up every day at school – eyelashes, leggings with Dr Martens and huge fur coats, for two-and-a-half years," he was quoted as saying.

"I mean, I've got these tattoos on my fingers. I don't know what the title would be, but I feel just as much woman as I am man."

And still Smith digs deep into his feelings to find inspiration for his songs.

"I feel that it's important to me, as a man, to talk about my feelings. My dad is a very emotional man, he always wore his heart on his sleeve, and when I have feelings and emotions, I talk about them to people, I don't really bottle much up. That's what happens in the studio."

In The Lonely Hour was written in the wake of immense heartbreak of unrequited love. The Thrill Of It All draws on the breakdown of a relationship. But Smith, who is now rumoured to be dating 13 Reasons Why star Brandon Flynn, says he had achieved some distance from the emotions that inspired the album, making the recording experience quite different. Smith's management banned questions about his personal life in this interview, so we were unable to ask about his relationship status.

"A lot of the romantic songs I have written for this album, I don't really relate to any more," he says. "It was something I was going through last year so it is weird to sing these songs now when I am in such a different place."

Smith says he still feels lucky that people want to hear him sing and make music. Photo: Perth Arena

Smith says he still feels lucky that people want to hear him sing and make music. Photo: Perth Arena

The album diverts from a running commentary on heartbreak to explore other experiences. Two tracks, Pray and HIM, tackle religion and spirituality. Smith went to a Catholic school and is familiar with the vocabulary of religion, although he describes himself as spiritual rather than religious.

HIM confronts Smith's complicated relationship with his Catholic upbringing. More of a gift to his fans than a cathartic experience, HIMis an accusatory anthem that targets the Catholic church for its treatment of homosexuals. It questions how the church could contend that God doesn't care for people in same-sex relationships.

Written in his best mate's shower after a visit to Sydney's famous gay club, Stonewall, the song came naturally. Its title HIM is a play on hymn.

"That song isn't about me, it's a coming out story, it's for any boy or girl in the world who struggles to come out to their parents, " says Smith.

"There's an anger in that song. I am angry, I'm a gay guy, I have had a very lucky upbringing and had beautiful people around me who are very accepting of who I am, but no matter how amazing your upbringing is as a gay man, there's still people on this planet who don't want you here.

"I get homophobic abuse every day on my social media, even though I don't pay attention to that shit, but it's important to talk about it. It's important to say 'it's him I love' because that's the key. I love men and I fall in love with men and its the same as anyone else, that's what I wanted to get across."

Possibly the most affecting track on the album is Scars. It is a response to the breakdown of his parents' marriage and Smith says it is the most raw and honest song he has written; a song of praise for how his mother and father handled the situation and helped him heal his own scars.

"My parents split up and it wasn't an awful break up where we were all sad. My parents split up in a beautiful way and they are still best friends," he says. "[Scars] was basically me saying to my mum and dad 'look at what you have done, you have split up but you have managed to stay together at the same time'. Whatever hurt or pain me and my sisters felt at the time, they really have healed us, we are so much stronger for it."

Smith wrote the song some years ago and he sent it to his family before including it as one of the bonus tracks on the special edition of The Thrill of it All. But even now he is anxious about its addition. "In a way it makes me uncomfortable that it is on the album," he says.

Sam Smith: 'I love men and I fall in love with men and its the same as anyone else, that's what I wanted to get across.'

Sam Smith: 'I love men and I fall in love with men and its the same as anyone else, that's what I wanted to get across.'

"But I made a pact to myself and my fans and to music that I would document everything. It would feel wrong to have it locked on my phone forever."

That informal pact has earned Smith a legion of fans around the globe, but it is perhaps Australia that has offered him the most steadfast support.

His 2015 tour in support of In The Lonely Hour was a blistering success. When the singer damaged his voice and shows had to be rescheduled, fans re-booked with enthusiasm. When he announced a one-off concert at the Sydney Opera House for January 2018, it sold out in minutes.

"I feel so lucky that people want to hear me sing and make music. I would be happy performing to a room of 10 people for the rest of my life so when I do sell out arenas it shocks me. It also makes me feel weird because, sometimes, I feel like I can't be true and I always get sad because I think it is going to go."

This dedication to his fans – Smith has been known to privately message some of them to thank them for his support – and the enormous success of his music should offer him comfort.

"I really do feel like my fans care. I care so much that when I was writing this album I couldn't help but have them come into my mind.

"When I listen back to the lyrics I do think maybe that could help this person, maybe that could help someone going through something with their parents..."

Despite all the evidence of his success, Smith's insecurities remain.

"I am so f---ing relieved everyone is still there and it makes me feel like it's a responsibility but the most amazing responsibility.

"It makes me think about how lucky I am to not be in an office; my job is to go to therapy. But the reaction from the fans and the reaction from the people that is the best part. It is really difficult to be as open as I am, just like like the way I do is f---ing exhausting sometimes, but I can't give anything other than everything I have."

The Thrill Of It All is available now.

The Canberra Times