It’s mid-afternoon in an east London photo studio and Sam Smith is crouched on the floor with leather straps fastened around their calves. Snap. They switch positions, standing at 6ft 4ins tall in chunky, cyberpunk platform boots and squinting down the camera lens. Snap. They remove their sleeveless denim jacket and swing it behind one shoulder for “movement”. Snap. They’re wearing a badge reading “THEY/THEM” in capital letters, and another reading “QUEER”. Snap. ‘Disturbia’ by Rihanna is blasting out of the speakers. Snap. Snap. Snap. “And that’s a wrap!” someone yells as Smith exhales slowly, before striding over to introduce themself. “Sorry, I just realised I’m not wearing any trousers,” they say, sheepish all of a sudden, one dangly earring glinting in the superficial light of the photography studio.
The Smith in front of me is a far cry from the Smith that we first encountered in the early 2010s. Which makes sense — that was a whole decade ago. Back then — around the release of their 2014 debut album In the Lonely Hour — they’d show up on the red carpet in muted two-piece suits and smart, sensible shoes. They were the kind of artist that you would expect to perform heartbreak ballads on peak-era The X Factor and make your nan tear up on the sofa. This broad mainstream appeal and ‘palatability’ — paired with a capital ‘G’ good voice that Beyoncé once described as being “like butter” — meant that they were always destined to sell an obscene amount of records. Which they did: In the Lonely Hour sold over 20 million copies. They won four Grammys, four MOBOS and three Brit Awards. Insane behaviour for a debut album. But also somewhat expected from an artist who had been so diligently positioned next to the Adeles and Ed Sheerans of the British music landscape.
Fast-forward to now, however, and Smith has undergone a kind of renaissance — personally, publicly, musically. In the video for recent viral bop, ‘Unholy’, featuring US popstar Kim Petras, they dance seductively on stage in a BDSM-style harness and sparkling gloves. “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot / At the body shop, doing something unholy,” they sing in a snappy, gospel-flecked chorus that you must know by now if you’ve spent any time on TikTok. Within days of the track dropping, young girls, queer kids and rap boys alike were remixing and emulating its infectious, rhythmic, feel-yourself choreography. Christian TikTok had a field day, dubbing the song “demonic”. Meanwhile, the comments beneath live clips were what you’d expect when a queer artist dares to step into their sex appeal. “Bruh what happened?” read comments from disgruntled straight boys with 10 followers and square haircuts. “Slaaaayyyyy” and “QUEEN” were among the messages from elated young fans hooked on this shiny new banger.
‘Unholy’ also made music history: Sam Smith and Kim Petras became the first openly non-binary and trans musicians, respectively, to reach number one in the UK and US. No small feat at a time when transphobic narratives on both sides of the pond appear to have reached fever pitch. It didn’t just top the charts in English-speaking territories, but also in countries like Slovenia and Singapore, where the common narrative is less than embracing of queer identities. In that sense, ‘Unholy’ was a line in the sand. For Smith, yes — but also, more crucially, for what people actually want from their pop stars in the 2020s, and from mainstream music more generally.
Sam Smith and I are now sprawled across a well-worn studio sofa. The cameras have been packed away, the speakers turned off and various teams have left the room for late lunches or a quick vape. “Do you want me to move this so that you can hear better?” they ask, picking up my Dictaphone and angling it closer to their mouth. It’s one of many subtle clues that Smith has been doing this for a very long time now. Earlier, while filming talk-to-camera videos, I watched Smith answer questions with the softly spoken, well-practised air of a major-label, media-trained pop star. “Do you want me to state the question first?” they politely ask the interviewer, before launching into rounded soundbites, smoothly delivered, very little wavering.
Being palatable and ‘fitting in’ is something which has defined Smith’s trajectory up until fairly recently. Mainly because “being queer in this world is still tough”, so they did what they needed to in order to assimilate. As a teenager, Smith says, they “wore all-female clothing and full makeup in school”. When they moved to London, at 19, as a music and nightlife-loving teenager, “I was walking round the streets and I was even more dressed up than I would be now. People would stare at me. I became exhausted with that.” After a while they started “exploring a more masculine wardrobe and setting”. They’re careful not to say that they were ever pushed into watering themselves down by any label or music industry higher-ups, instead saying: “It just so happened that as I started to explore that, my music started to get picked up.”
Despite how they may come across, they tell me they’re not a static or creatively safe person, naturally. They never wanted to be the same sort of artist forever. “I’ve always been someone who wants to push,” they say, in between sips of bottled water, their voice warm and considered in the quiet of the room. “But I got tired of pushing. I think that’s all it was… I think in the time that people have known me — from In the Lonely Hour, at the age of 22 — was a time when I didn’t want to dress up as much; it was a time when I wanted to take a break and fit in. And then I got fed up with fitting in and wanted to go back to how I was when I was younger.”
“I ran into this world and it was not the world I thought it was. “I was afraid to express certain things… My sex in the music. My happiness within the music”
Even so, they never felt hemmed in musically — not at first, anyway. The huge, emotional hits that they became known for — ‘Stay with Me’, ‘Too Good for Goodbyes’ — were an authentic expression of where they were at in their 20s. But being a pop star wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. “I ran into this world and it was not the world I thought it was,” they say. “I was afraid to express certain things… My sex in the music. My happiness within the music. Those themes were sometimes incredibly private and I felt more comfortable showing other sides of me. I wasn’t feeling repressed, but I was definitely feeling like I needed to break out, for sure, towards the end. Also, I was just sick of being heartbroken and I was like, ‘When I write this record I’m not going to be heartbroken.’ I made that the focus.”
On fourth album Gloria, out 27 January, learning and relearning the art of self-love is a running theme. If previous albums were about heartbreak, this one is about turning inward and taking a good look at what’s there. “Every day I’m trying not to hate myself / But lately it’s not hurting like it did before,” they sing over a glimmering church organ on album opener ‘Love Me More’, their voice like a smooth glass of Baileys. “Maybe I’m learning how to love me more.” Is it true? Have they learned to love themself more? If so, what’s the secret potion? “Self-love is not a destination — it’s a daily commitment to accept yourself. On some days you might have days where you feel like you don’t feel like you can love yourself and you’ve just got to be kind and calm.”
They tell me that over the years they’ve developed a “toolkit” for combatting the kind of “intense emotions” that plagued them throughout their 20s. Breathing exercises. Grounding techniques. Being in nature. That sort of thing. “Yesterday I was feeling a bit shaky. It was the end of a long week and I got back from a trip and I was feeling tired and depleted. I could feel myself feeling a bit down, but I just put some candles on, incense, watched Sex and the City, chilled with the dog, ate some nice food and committed that time to being better to myself and I woke up feeling happier.”
I wonder whether this assured new sense of self stems from age. Smith is 30 now — the milestone when most people, myself included — properly begin taking stock of helpful and unhelpful behaviours. It’s a time when you become much less preoccupied with others’ opinions (not easy, I’d imagine, for someone who’s spent the better half of a decade under the nit-picking, watchful eye of the British public). But Smith seems to bat away any mention of age, instead saying that it has much more to do with “growth” and “life experiences”. Taking a break from back-to-back touring over the pandemic also allowed them to lean into these new life lessons. “The ugly truth is that sometimes you’ve got to go through the shit to know what the shit is.”
“I think we’re always growing and shifting and moving and being reborn in some way and I’ve enjoyed riding the wave”
Coming out as non-binary and genderqueer in 2019 was a major part of the self-growth that Smith speaks of. They liken the experience of changing their pronouns to when they came out as queer a few years prior. “It changed everything,” they remember. “There was a part of me that felt like I was explaining something that’s always been there, which is a wonderful feeling. I think we’re always growing and shifting and moving and being reborn in some way and I’ve enjoyed riding the wave. At times it’s been hard, and it’s been a struggle, but the closer you feel to yourself, there’s nothing but joy there. Having people see me and understand me in the way that I’ve always wanted them to is a real gift and it’s never too late to do that.”
What’ll be their next stage in the growth process, I wonder? They laugh. “Oh my God, I’m going to be like a cyber dog. Like I, Robot. It’s interesting isn’t it, [nothing] ever happens how you’d expect.”
I get the sense that — like most of us —there are many sides to Sam Smith. In person they are gentle-natured and easy-going. Their sentences are punctured with belly laughs and being around them makes you feel relaxed, in the way you might with a friend who’s really good at gossiping. But they’re also exceptionally careful with their words, even when being “frank”. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the years, they’ve attained a level of fame that means their words are likely to be misconstrued or held under a microscope. Slip-ups are easily picked up on and rarely forgiven. The court of public fury has come for Smith for misfires that range from wrongly claiming they were the “first openly gay man to win an Oscar” to posting sad pics from a £12-million mansion during the pandemic, and not knowing who Thom Yorke is.
“I always say that I’m a recovering perfectionist. And I have seen that being a constant theme within queer culture for sure — wanting to be the best”
It makes sense, then, that Smith swerves thorny subjects with the expertise of someone who’s been burnt one too many times for getting it wrong. They speak a lot about being “thankful” and “grateful” and how “music is for everyone” (you can’t be shot down if you’re nice about everything — or maybe, of course, they’re just nice!). I wonder whether, as a famous queer person, they think they’re held to an impossible gold standard. They’re expected to know everything, to never trip up, to be meticulously well-read and sufficiently educated. “100 per cent. I always say that I’m a recovering perfectionist,” they say. “And I have seen that being a constant theme within queer culture for sure — wanting to be the best, be the strongest. Sometimes showing your humanity is too painful, so we all create characters. But I think that’s survival. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. People do what they have to do in this life.”
Fame has impacted most other areas of their life, too. Dating is a minefield. They relay a time when they went on a date in LA with someone who was very obviously never romantically interested to begin with — they were just there for the intrigue. “Some people will just date me to be mates or to meet me,” they say. “It was very odd and I was angry — I was like, ‘I’ve got enough friends, I’ve got beautiful friends!’” The next day, they took all that pissed-off energy into the writing room and channelled it into a new Gloria track, ‘I’m Not Here to Make Friends’, a groove-laden, upbeat R&B song about sex and real desire. “I could fill you up with life / I could ease your appetite / No, you’ve never been this high / Don’t be scared if you like it.”
“I used to love that thrill of going out and hoping that I’d meet The Guy when out dancing. For me, going out has changed. Now, I go out purely to dance. It’s not about hooking up anymore”
These days, Smith has slowed down when it comes to proper, app-swiping dating — or even just going out with the sole intention of hooking up. They used to love clubbing, especially, but “when I hit 28 or 29 I started to simmer it down a little bit”, they say. “I used to love that thrill of going out and hoping that I’d meet The Guy when out dancing. For me, going out has changed. Now, I go out purely to dance. It’s not about hooking up anymore. But when I was writing the album, oh my God, I was desperate. Desperate for the D… Please don’t make that the headline.”
Sam Smith is most relaxed and enthusiastic when talking about fun, non-serious subjects. What are they most into? What do they do when they’re not touring internationally, or singing to a 20,000-strong arena audience? They like fishing, they tell me. Fishing? “Yes, I love fishing. I’d love to spend a big chunk of my life fishing. I do fish now, sometimes. I need help with it — like if you gave me a rod, I couldn’t do it by myself. But I go on boats with other fishermen. And they teach me. I have fisherman friends.” I try to picture it: Smith, with their dangly earring, surrounded by bearded guys in yellow raincoats, a silvery mackerel trying to wriggle free. “It’s the best feeling in the world, sitting by the sea or by a lake.”
They’re also obsessed with films, books, TV (Rings of Power, White Lotus, any bingeable series). The film that most changed their life is the original Avatar from 2009. “It just opened my life up and made me realise how much I love nature. I know it sounds crazy. I started talking to trees more after watching Avatar and it made me more in tune with stuff. It blew my mind and made me cry. I just thought it was amazing.”
At home, they like to cook. Everything is planned around good food, they tell me, from eating dim sum in Chinatown bars to trying stuff out at home. I’m interested to know how this homebody side of them coexists with the side that’s sold millions of records and literally won an Oscar. Do they just casually have their Academy Award out on display? Until last year, they say, they kept it hidden, almost pretending that it didn’t exist. “Then, last year, I put them [the awards] out, so that’s good to see,” they say. “But also, it’s not a focus of mine, if I’m honest. It’s too competitive for me, it’s not why I make music. I had to peace out — mentally.”
I tell them that if I’d won an Oscar, I’d be constantly getting it out at house parties. It would be hard to keep my ego in check. Smith says they’ve always had the opposite problem. “I’ve been lucky because I was never one to big myself up, I would tear myself down,” they say. “That’s my issue — I go the other way. I’m never looking in the mirror like, ‘You did this. You smashed this.’ I was a self-sabotager when I was younger. I’m a lot better at it now, though. I’m better at taking compliments and being happy for myself. When I was younger, it was never a fear of mine that I was going to get big-headed because I didn’t like myself enough. So that’s all I had to work on.”
Why do they think they swung that way round? “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask my therapist!” There’s that belly laugh again. “I’m always trying to figure it out. I came out when I was 10 years old — I was queer for a long time and I felt isolated for a long time. I went through things when I was younger that just taught me some harder lessons. But… I’ve been lucky in the grand scheme of things, I truly have.”
One thing they can admit they did feel super proud of, however, is the success and impact of ‘Unholy’. At a time when misinformed transphobic narratives are being peddled in the British media, the sheer success of that track alone shows that the majority of people in the UK probably just want transphobes to shut up for more than half a second. Most importantly, it’s a shameless, sexy-as-hell banger. Smith says they were “absolutely proud” to push some queer and trans joy into the music charts. “It just shows you that queer music is for everyone,” they say. “The majority of the artists I listened to growing up were heterosexual and talking about heterosexual relationships and they still made me cry at night and long for love and make me feel happy. Music is this safe space, and it really can be a place of bringing people together.”
If Smith’s early music used to be for the M&S mums and mainstream pop fans, their more recent sound and image has ushered in a queerer, younger fan base. It’s an unusual cross-section that’s for sure — can you think of any other artist with that audience mix? Apart from maybe the likes of Harry Styles, who is loved by Gen Z gays and middle-aged woman alike. Or maybe someone like Phoebe Bridgers, at a push.
“My audience has always been very broad, but it’s wonderful seeing a new generation of people enjoying my music,” they say. “I mean, it’s absolutely wild.”
As the afternoon draws to a close, our conversation turns to the future. What would Smith like to be doing in 10, 20 years from now? Where will they be? They say they’ve “always wanted kids… Loads of them. I want a madhouse, like Nanny McPhee. And random animals. I want a massive pig that lives in the house with everyone. Parrots. Tortoise. I want a tortoise. I want it to be by my side when I pass into a new life.”
Other than that, they intend to live their life fully, exactly how they’ve always wanted to. They have the freedom and privilege to do that. They’re lucky — they know this.
“I want to be absolutely fat with experience,” they say, turning towards me, eyes glittering. “I want to travel around the world. I’d love to sail around the world — that would be my dream. And I want kids, I want family. I want to try every food there is to try. I want to try random sports. I love hiking and nature. I think I’m going to be hungry for life until the day I drop.”
Taken from the February/March 2023 issue of Rolling Stone UK. Buy it online here. On UK newsstands from Thursday 19 January 2023.
Photography: Petros Studios
Fashion: Joseph Kocharian
Styling: Sadie Davies