BBC Sound of 2014: Sam Smith

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

media captionSam Smith takes us to his favourite cafe (video by Rachel Curtis and Tom Beal)

Bequiffed pop singer Sam Smith, a 21-year-old with a passionate falsetto, has come top of the BBC's Sound Of 2014 list.

The list, which aims to highlight the best emerging artists for the year ahead, was compiled by 170 DJs, critics and bloggers, who were asked to name their three favourite new acts.

Smith has already had success as a featured artist, collaborating with Disclosure on the dance-pop hit Latch and singing Naughty Boy's number one single La La La.

Since then, the Cambridgeshire musician has released a handful of expertly-crafted solo songs - each showcasing different aspects of his extraordinary voice, which he honed singing along to Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston in his family's car.

image copyrightRecord Label
image captionSam Smith: "My job is to live my life and to write about it."

Congratulations on being the Sound of 2014! How does it feel?

It feels incredible. I'm so involved in the charts, I love pop music and I love female pop artists. With this award, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding and Adele have all been on it, which is incredible. Even to be a part of it is amazing.

Where did you grow up?

A very small village called Great Chishill. It was the highest point of Cambridgeshire, on a hill with a windmill.

What was the first song you learned the words to?

It was Aretha Franklin's Say A Little Prayer. Cameron Diaz sings it, really badly, in My Best Friend's Wedding. Great film. I love Julia Roberts.

There's a diva quality to your voice - is that sort of music the inspiration?

It's all I listened to. I actually didn't listen to male vocalists until about two years ago. I just listened to Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan. Massive voices.

You have a surprisingly wide vocal range - did it come naturally?

I could always sing high but, basically, I trained my voice really hard when my voice broke, with the help of a vocal coach. For me, it's always been normal - but I do think it's from replicating those female voices from such a young age. I wanted to hit the notes they were hitting.

Where did you practice?

It was all in the car. Because it was such a long drive from my house to school, that's where we all shared music, me and my family.

And where did you first perform?

I did musical theatre for about four years. One time I did six shows in one year, whilst juggling school.

image copyrightSam Smith / Instagram
image captionThe singer posted a photo of one of his musical theatre exploits on Instagram last year

Really? What roles did you have?

I was always in the chorus!

If only they knew what you'd become...

I think it was more like a pecking order. I was so young when I was doing it, that the people who were just about to leave the operatic society, or whatever, got the bigger roles. It was their turn.

But I still had a great time. I met a lot of friends. I still live with two people I met through that. But I soon fell out of the musical thing.

So pop was always the goal?

Well, even whilst doing musicals, my teacher was a jazz singer. I'd do backing vocals for her. We supported the Buena Vista Social Club. So I was always flirting between the two disciplines but, yes, I chose pop.

Did that minimise the stage fright when you played festivals with Disclosure last summer?

Do you know what? It's a whole different ball game. In musical theatre, I'd stand on stage and be someone else. You'd be told to move to this place at that time. And I was really good at that, I mastered that. But when you stand on stage and no-one gives you any direction…

The first 60 seconds of Latch are instrumental so you've got to think of something to do. Not only that, but by the time I come on, the crowds have been dancing for an hour so I've got to rile them up further.

I think I've got better at it, but the first show was Bestival and I was in a state.

How do you tackle your nerves?

I used to drink. I'd just have some whisky. But now I make sure I'm all warmed up. I don't like talking to people before I go on. People think I'm nervous, but I just need to be left alone.

Was it always your plan to appear as a featured artist before releasing your own material?

The plan was to have a story. It could have been, "here's me coming from a little village in Cambridgeshire" but no-one would listen. That's why we decided to do the Disclosure sessions, but I had no idea Latch would turn into what it turned into.

image copyrightPress release
image captionThe singer also won the Brits Critics' Choice Award, which he will officially receive on 19 February

Is there added pressure on your solo career now you've had a number one?

Yes, it's huge. Huge. But also, that box has been ticked, so it gives me the chance to settle down and concentrate on the substance of my music, already knowing what it feels like to be number one. But I'd like it again, obviously.

You put a song called Not In That Way online last year, then removed it after two days. Why?

Not In That Way was a demo. I was very scared to release it, because it was so, so personal.

My mum texted me afterwards saying, "I really love this song, Sam, but it just makes me so sad". I decided to take it back so I could showcase it properly on my album.

It's basically about unrequited love, isn't it?

One hundred per cent. I've spent my whole life listening to songs about breaking up and falling in love - but I've never had a partner. I've never been in love with someone who has loved me back. So I wanted to write an album about unrequited love. An album for people who are lonely.

One of my other songs is about being in love with someone who is married. I want people in those positions to have something to listen to - because I've been in that position too.

That's quite a departure from your first song, which was a Christmas carol...

Oh, it's huge! The carol was hilarious. The words were something like, "It's Christmas and I am here". It was weird. I was nine or 10 or something.

I only really started writing when I was 16. The first song I wrote was called Yellow Hat, and it was someone in my school who wore a yellow hat.

image copyrightPress release
image captionSmith's first single, Money On My Mind, "is about someone in the industry who offended me recently and I had to get it off my chest"

You're only 21, but you've already had nine managers. What was going on there?

I was very young, I was still in school and everyone had a lot of ideas about what they wanted me to do, but I didn't myself. There was a lot of drama, basically.

The low point was leaving A-levels, not having a clear direction. All my friends went to Uni, but my plan was just to move to London and become a well-known singer. Thank God my mum and dad had faith in me.

What did you do when you arrived in London?

I used to work in a toilet in a bar. I didn't have to talk to anyone, I just had to clean up everything that happened at night - which was horrendous.

Then the bar I worked in last, which I kind of helped to manage, was in the City so there was a lot of chucking drunk people out.

How do you get rid of a drunk at closing time?

You ask twice politely, then you just get a bit lairy. A bit Peggy Mitchell.

Sam Smith's debut single, Money On My Mind, is out on 16 February. His album, In The Lonely Hour, is due on 26 May.

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