Sam Smith (Chrissy Iley Exclusive – October 18, 2020)
Sam Smith’s voice is like honey seared in raw pain. It vibrates on a level of vulnerability previously not known to human beings. They reach in and grab you by the throat, the heart, the soul, and stain you. If there is pain to feel, they’ve felt it deeper and harder. Propelled by these uncanny abilities, Smith – gender queer who uses they/them pronouns – has won four Grammy’s, three Brits, three Billboard music awards, a Golden Globe and an Oscar. It is also the reason that my burly builders working in my basement turn up to early every day because they know that I am playing the new Sam Smith’s album Love Goes.
They wave me off like I am the Queen going to launch a ship when they know I am going to meet them for the interview which is in management offices in Hampstead.
“I am good with builders, they are my fan base.” We agree their fan base is as wide as his inspirations. “Ever since I was a kid I have listened to women singers, I think I see myself within the lyrics, within the stories.” (Amy, Britney, Bey Madonna, Christina.)
“Singing completes me. And during Covid I was singing all the time, I just came to this place where I was falling in love with singing again.”
The album Love Goes is nostalgic, referencing ends of relationships, but not the end of love. They are comfortable embracing extremes – young and a very old soul. They like to mix the euphoria of disco and the pain of loss. They like crying and dancing at the same time. Their birthday is May 19th, Taurus, stubborn. And do they like to use lots of fabric conditioner?
“Yes! Yes! I have got very sensitive skin.”
They love to feel softness around them. They are delighted when I tell them as soon as they came out as non-binary I was listening to their music on Alexa who immediately referred to Smith as they/them.
“Wow, I did not know that and it is clever and lovely.”
I tell them that I have messed up a few times with the they/them.
“I mess up, my mum messes up, my family messes up. What I have learned over the past year is that it is not an ideal world. It would be wonderful if we could change lanes like that. When people correct themselves it is a wonderful feeling because people try.”
Do they feel more comfortable in their own skin?
“Yes. I have always been non-binary, I have always felt the way I’ve felt and just hearing other non-binary stories made me suddenly feel seen and I felt this is a way that I can live, where if I tell people this is how I feel and this is how I like to be treated life is easier.”
Did they have to change their name and title on their passport?
“I don’t think you are allowed to do that yet which I find sad. I am pretty sure mine says I am male and you have a choice to be male or female. It would be wonderful if it could change, hopefully in my lifetime.”
They are wearing a soft grey sweatshirt and jeans. Their thighs are very shapely, girlie and they like that. Was there a moment that inspired the pronoun change or was it a process?
“For me, what triggered everything was the work I was doing with my body issues. I always had body dysmorphia. As I started to address that, I started to address my gender and realized that I was holding myself to these ideals of how a man should look. As I looked into it, I did therapy, I realized there was more to it. I have got girl thighs and I have got girl breasts too. It started to awaken this conversation that had always been in the back of my mind.”
Years ago, he went to Amelia Freer the nutritionist that James Corden and Boy George used and he lost many pounds.
“In the words of Rhianna, I have been gifted with a fluctuating body. I can lose weight I can put weight on quickly, I am a shape shifter. When I read Rhianna I felt very seen.”
“Seen” is a word they use a lot. I think for them it means being accepted, but it’s paradoxical too, as a famous pop star losing and gaining weight is a shackle. Do they have a love/hate relationship with fame?
“I wouldn’t say that I love fame.”
“Fame means I can get certain messages across which is a wonderful thing… but it’s very invasive.”
The songs are so confessional anyway, how much more can they be invaded?
“It’s a weird life change, it’s quite traumatic. I was 21 when fame happened (28 now) and my whole world changed. I didn’t realise how much of a home body I was and how much I loved my privacy. You can’t go back. I have gotten used to it and aware of how lucky I am… also I have to be cautious.
“It was very difficult, I remember I got papped when I was 22. I have always looked at myself with affection no matter how big or small I am, but I saw this and I felt ashamed. So now, I don’t look at pictures or read anything about me, good or bad.”
A few years ago they had a file on their phone called Crack where Instagram and Twitter lived.
“I have changed it now. I am still on those things, but I have stepped away for sure. I keep it mainly music focused, all the information people need is in the albums. When I sing and tell stories – I write everything I do. I don’t think people really realise because of the pop umbrella, that the way I make music is organic and from the deepest part of me.”
On the album their favourite song is Another One. It is very trance-y. It is about loss and hope. My favourite is Dance Until You Love Someone Else.
“I think I was going through a breakup when I was writing the album, it was after my main relationship of my life.”
They were together with Brandon Flynn from 13 Reasons Why for 9 months in 2018.
“That was my longest relationship basically, so there was a catharsis going on. When you write songs you may start with an initial inspiration but then it becomes something else – a story that everyone can relate to. I also found it hard that the relationship was public.”
This was a big conflict. They wanted the relationship known because they were proud, they’re are not so many gender queer couples, but they didn’t want it because it put pressure on the relationship.
“I think there are ways to get around it, where you can maintain a level of privacy, but it was hard. I was 25 during that time and in many ways I seem a lot older but when it comes to relationships I am still a bit of a teenager.”
The relationship was played out, at least for a lot of the time, in California.
“I actually do love California. I didn’t love California.”
They were lonely there.
“Even though you could always find me in West Hollywood dancing down the streets.”
Is it more important for them to love or be loved?
“Before it was more important to me to love – that is part of the reason the album is called Love Goes. I was addicted to the melancholy of love – you are putting yourself through pain to be inspired because it is a creative space. Now I understand what love is – for me it is something that you nurture and someone is nurturing you and there has to be an equal amount of nurturing going on.”
In their songs they break up with people, but they still love them. Isn’t it much easier to hate the people you break up with? Their deep eyes twinkle.
“I have tried to look at every relationship as a different experience and something that has helped me understand myself. I have had a lovely time with the people I have been with and there is a lot of love there. Love doesn’t go away, I will always love these people and by putting them into songs it will live on, although when I listen back to The Thrill of it All or The Lonely Hour I don’t think or feel for those guys at all now. It is just like looking through an emotional photo book. Sometimes I listen back to my music and think, ‘I was so childish’ and so thought I knew everything about love.”
They are single now.
“On the front line.”
Just now they are more in love with their album.
“I want it to be an empowering break up album. Just step in and own that heartbreak.
“When my parents broke up, I was very lucky. There was not a lot of nastiness and I know divorces can get very nasty. My parents still love each other very much even to this day.”
They use this theme of love outlives the relationship as a blueprint.
“You let the relationship last as long as they are going to last. They got 26 years and 3 kids… they are happy now, it is a lovely, happy, dysfunctional family.”
And what does the family think about the theyness?
“They fully support the theyness. My mother has always known I have been that way and so has my dad. A lot of people just know me from my first record, but I was wearing makeup and female clothes from the ages of 15 to 18. I was fully glammed up every day for school. My dad, before school a few times, would say, ‘You need to powder your face because you look orange.’ My family want me to feel happy and settled so they are incredibly supportive about my pronouns. They say live it and enjoy it.
“It is not my job to be an activist. My job is to make music and I needed to enjoy being out as a non-binary person for a bit.”
Do they feel responsibility for their young fans who may be struggling to come to terms with their identity?
“I think there is a lack of education and a lack of understanding. No one ever talked about queer sex or queer love growing up and I have been put in dangerous positions because of the lack of education and understanding from society. I feel that if my music or gender expression helps anyone of any age who feel like they see themselves in me, or it helps them understand… because if I were a young kid and I was a non-binary artist talking about this it might have saved me a bit of heartache and pain. So, if I could be that to someone that’s wonderful.
“I am a singer and I am very human. The concept of being a role model is wonderful, but it is not something I am looking for. I make mistakes. I am flawed.”
Are they looking for a relationship?
“Of course. I am not looking, I am hoping – it is like wading through water and trying to catch a fish with your bare hands. I am just sitting by the side of the pond now. Being single during lockdown was not fun. I spent it with my sister and felt very lucky because we get along so well.”
Do they think about the future? Do they want to have kids?
“I am trying to seize control of things and let life happen, but I would love to have kids, I want to have a kid before I am 34.”
How are they going to acquire one?
“There are lots of options, adopt, surrogacy, I have got friends who have done both.”
They have friends who are non-binary and friends who are not.
They won an Oscar in 2016 for the Bond track Writing ‘s on the Wall.
Billie Eilish sings new Bond No Time To Die.
“Billy is absolutely beautiful and it is a beautiful song.”
Were they overwhelmed during their Bond period?
“I was. My whole life changed and I was trying to navigate through it. I hadn’t been home because I was touring and I found it a strain on my mind and physical body.”
“I would wake up and think what is going on? Chemically? You go on stage every night, your adrenaline is off the roof, and then you walk off stage into a dressing room of complete silence. It’s addictive because the feeling is amazing, but it doesn’t warrant for a steady mental ride. You are made to feel you are very important then you realise you are like everyone else with the same issues and boyfriend problems.”
“I have got some wonderful queer friends in London, but my closest queer friend is in New York. During lockdown we had FaceTime dinners and cocktails.
“I love food as much as music, I am a foodie. I am staying healthy now, I have got a plan to move to rural Scotland someday and enjoy eating.
“My skin is very Celtic, the sun and I don’t get along. My grandmother’s mum was French and there is definitely Scottish and Irish in me, perhaps I was a non-binary Celtic Viking.”
We talk about The Three chimneys on the Isle of Skye.
Excitedly they say, “I went last year with my cousin and her husband on a road trip all around Scotland. Very special. Skye is wonderful, very haunting, then I went to the outer Hebrides which is wild. Scotland is my favourite place in the whole world, my family were from Whitley Bay (Northeast of England).”
I remind them they once said, “Life is like a Richard Curtis movie because I am so romantic”. At what point in the year do they start watching Love Actually?
“All throughout the year. I am obsessed with Sense and Sensibility at the moment. I am a romantic – I think I could over romanticise things – I would adore to write a soundtrack to a Richard Curtis movie, and one day I would love to make a queer romantic film. I see romance in different ways, always have. Life to me is romantic, the ups and downs, the sadness and happiness, I look at the whole and sometimes i can get carried away. I have OCD so I try not to linger on too many thoughts for too long.”
They still get a thrill from heels.
“OMG! I love heels, love heels! I was starting to wear them every day last year, but it was exhausting. I am 6’2” so there is a lot of weight on a heel and a lot of height. I find I don’t want to stand out that much. One walks differently in heels. I strut. I look fabulous in a heel. But OMG, I am a size 13. I have to go to specialist drag shops or places to get boy heels. Or they heels. They is a beautiful word.”
They love clothes from Random Identity – all gender fluid clothing.
“Also I like Ella Boucht, she is incredible, she’s a they/she. I say I am a they/them but many people like to be known as they/he or they/she – all beautiful words.”