There’s no such thing as an overnight success. By the time an artist pops up in the public’s consciousness, there have already been dozens of wheels in motion that helped them get to that point, often over the course of many years. Still, the best artists can make their emergence as a superstar feel almost effortless. Sam Smith is one of those artists.
As part of our educational Song Start series, we sat down with Smith to discuss their meteoric rise, finding their voice as an artist, dealing with the pressures of fame, and knowing when to ask for help.
When Smith made it big in the U.S. with the one-two punch of Disclosure’s slow-burning hit “Latch” and Smith’s own “Stay With Me” in 2014, it felt like they had come out of nowhere. But the English singer-songwriter’s success was years in the making.
Smith recalled first signing with a manager when they were 12 years old, stepping into a recording studio at 14, releasing early dance singles written and conceived by others, and walking away from it all before they even felt they had found their own artistic identity. It was only a chance encounter with future collaborator Jimmy Napes at Smith’s bar job in London that first helped them discover their voice.
“We just sat around the piano and started writing music together,” Smith explained, “and that kind of spin-balled everything. I really felt like I found my voice through working with him and working with Disclosure. Because they weren't interested in what I was wearing or how I looked – which I thought was the thing that I needed to focus on. They were just interested in my voice.”
It would be Smith’s distinctive tenor that would help them stand out in the crowded pop radio market, with the high notes of “Latch” and “Stay With Me” becoming ubiquitous. Smith quickly learned to play to their strengths in the studio.
“With writing music in the room with people, you just need to lean into the thing you're good at,” they said. “Some people are led by lyrics, but I'm definitely always led by a melody. When I'm in the room… I just sing and sing and sing until someone says, ‘That makes me feel good.’”
The success of “Stay With Me” taught them an important lesson about not overcomplicating things. “I wanted to say something that was very, very basic,” Smith recalled. “And the people I was writing with were like, ‘No, it's not poetic enough.’ But for me, the most inspiring things are the things that you would say in real life… Keep your ears open at all times.”
There were other important lessons gleaned from songs along the way too. Smith recalled liking “I’m Not the Only One” more than “Stay With Me,” and feeling an intense sense of artistic satisfaction after it too blew up. They also cited the Normani collaboration “Dancing With a Stranger” as a pivotal moment for them to embrace a different side of their sound and lyricism after finding early success with love ballads.
On the flip side, they also learned to embrace their failures. “I think having a few absolute stinkers in there is wonderful,” Smith laughed. “Because you've got to dare greatly right? I'm really happy that I shot for the sky with some songs.”
They pointed to the 2014 single “Money On My Mind” as one of those “stinkers,” but said those types of songs make them proud nonetheless. “There's so much music snobbery out there,” Smith said. “Every single person has made a bad song. That is a fact.”
It’s that awareness of their own limitations and desire to grow that fuels Smith’s creative process. They recalled studio sessions with fellow Song Start guests Andrew Watt and Ali Tamposi where they learned to step back and be humble in order to let the song come together in the best way possible.
“I still, every single time I have a writing session, I wonder if I've lost the ability to do what I do,” they said. “I find it's such a vulnerable experience to write music.”
At the same time, the peaks and valleys of their own career have taught Smith to be a self-advocate.
“I used to think that I could just rely all the time on other people around me,” they admitted. “But sometimes too many opinions actually can really affect it. You've just got to go by what feels good to you… I didn't get a lot of time to find out who I was as an artist, and I got told who I was as an artist a lot of the time.”
Smith said that over the past few years, working with others has helped them learn who they are. “Just writing with people and being in the studio and meeting beautiful people who let me breathe and say to me, ‘What are you feeling? What do you want to say?’”
Their own personal experience coming out as non-binary has also taught them a lot. “It's a shame that queer people, and women especially, have to fight their way into these rooms. And hopefully that's getting better now,” they said, encouraging artists who feel like they’re different to embrace it as an advantage.
“Absolutely no one knows what they're doing,” Smith emphasized. “Even the biggest writers in the world, who have written so many hits, they can pretend like they do, but they don't know. They don't know the magic.”
Looking back on what made them successful, Smith advised all artists to stick to their guns and not settle for less than they deserve. “Never lower your standards,” they said. “You know what you need. And if you don't know what you need, you need to ask yourself what you need. And then do not stop until you get that.”
To learn more about Sam Smith’s career and the nuances of songwriting, listen to their Song Start episode below: