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Friday, January 16, 2015

2014 in Review: Sam Smith as the Rookie of the Year

If George Osborne were to be believed, the British economy has witnessed a great recovery job of late. The pound is the strongest currency in the world. The property market is outrageously competitive and has been very receptive to the influx of Arab and Russian cash. The Premier League is one of the great exports. Adele has also been a huge success as the wait for her next music release reaches fever pitch. Sir Phil Green’s Topshop plans a collection with Beyonce whilst supermodels like Cara Delevigne, Jourdan Dunn, Georgia May Jagger and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley are in demand. All that said, one of the more exciting pieces of British trade this year has been the success of one Sam Smith.

Smith’s debut album, ‘In the Lonely Hour’ sold 166,000 copies in the first week making it the best first week sales of a UK male artist’s debut. It was also the best debut of a solo artist since November 2012. His single ‘Stay With Me’ has sold more than 1million copies in America. His story is remarkable.

Born in May 1992, Smith has tasted both sides of life: He has lived a middle class existence and also done the foot to mouth thing. His mother, Kate Cassidy was a high flying 500,000 a year City broker who lost her job in 2009 on the basis that she’d been dedicating too much time to his budding singing career. When this happened, there were some drastic changes to their lifestyle. He’s been quick to refute the notion that his Mother neglected her job arguing that his Father, a stay at home Dad was the one tasked with that role. The outcome of her wrongful dismissal claim is shrouded in legally underpinned secrecy so there’s no way of ascertaining the validity of the claims.

His life in music started around the age of 8 when his parents heard him singing Whitney Houston’s ‘My Love is Your Love’. That was followed by lessons with local jazz singer, Joanna Eden, theater rehearsals and obeying his mother’s drunken instructions to sing at the dinner parties she hosted. He was burnt by the constant promises of success as embodied by the number of managers he got through during his teenage years. Six. Wary of the constant disappointment he moved from Cambridgeshire to London at 18 to give music one last go. During that time, he got by as a bartender. It was there, he met the song writer Jimmy Napes with whom he wrote ‘Lay Me Down’ and ‘Latch’.
‘In the Lonely Hour’ has undoubtedly been one of the best albums this year. It’s a personal favorite of this scribe and part of this stems from the manner in which he managed to create a piece of art that is strong on both the Pop and Traditionalist fronts. That’s something very few have done: Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Adele come to mind. It’s great in the present but would be cherished in the future which is a strong theme he has been largely outspoken on. The album opener ‘Money on My Mind’ is a declaration that the focus doesn’t lie in the financial incentives and is more a product of love. Perhaps it should go without saying but in a climate of cynicism, it works. It segues into his call of wanting to “make the music that’s not there anymore” whilst looking for a “balance between people who can make thousands of girls scream, and people who can deliver and make music that can stand the test of time.” He goes on “Some of these artists today- as famous people they will stand the test of time, but their music will not. If we don’t have music that will last, what is the little kid sitting in the countryside in a pink house a hundred years down the line going to listen to for inspiration?” It explains why his whole act is built solely around his voice. Channeling Adele’s remark about making “music for the ears not the eyes”, he speaks of making music “for people to hear my voice and hear what I’m saying. I’m not bothered about what I’m wearing or my weight”. It might be boring and make him seem like a doctrinaire but it’s a throwback to the classical artist and the quality is so great that any shortcomings can be ignored.

One of the merits allied to ‘In the Lonely Hour’ is the fact that it’s essentially the stream of a spurned lover. Unrequited Love: that despairing feeling when emotions aren’t reciprocated is the key motif. One of the standout tracks, ‘Not In That Way’ is a well written account of the awkwardness that ensues when one party tries to make it out of the clich├ęd friend zone to “bae” territory and is rejected on the “I love you. But not in that way” ground. It’s sad. Yet beautiful. And highlights why his credentials for the post of “Voice for Lonely People” should be taken seriously. That is another indicator of the album and artist’s genius: It’s so easy to relate to. “I’ve made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody- whether it’s a guy, a female or a goat- and everybody can relate to that”. Matters of the heart tend to be very popular. Understandably so, for Love is the glue that holds it all together. The last great British magnum opus on this topic, Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ was so lauded partially for this reason. Upon listening to Smith’s debut on my recommendation, one friend said the album stood out for the manner in which he was able to capture the “subtlety and raw emotion from a man’s perspective”. At the risk of resorting to stereotypes, it’s very rare to get such emotive work from men and it’s good to see Smith bucking that trend.
The year and story of Sam Smith would not be complete without glossing over the comparisons to Adele. One of his more recent magazine covers, Vibe’s November digital issue is headlined “Sam Smith: How A Brit Ruled Soul Music (Again)”. An obvious allusion to the Adele and Ed Sheeran’s successes. In that interview, he bemoaned the “Male Adele” tag as “quite lazy”. Is it really that lazy, though? The similarities aren’t just shared on the sound and stagecraft fronts. Both are minimalist in their approach. There’s also the fact that both were discovered by their first labels after performing at the same pub, Chiswick’s Blue Flowers. As subtle a cue a Talent Manager could get. Smith’s manager, Elvin Smith first met him after he opened for Adele in 2008. There’s also the Ben Thomas link: Adele’s guitarist also plays in Smith’s band. They also share mutual collaborators: Fraser T Smith and Eg White.

As Grammy Season approaches, Sam Smith’s popularity is only going to soar. Were the Grammy committee not intent on trolling as they tend to do sometimes (Nominating Snoop Dogg in the Reggae category last year being one of their all time dedications to “banter”) Smith is a shoo in for all the major categories. Best New Artist? Only Iggy Azalea could compete. Song and Record of the Year? ‘Stay With Me’ got it. ‘Album of the Year? There’s a reason Beyonce requested private audience with him and said his voice “was like butter”.

Sam Smith is the rookie of the year and he’s just getting started.

Originally published by Culture Custodian

Sam Smith Interview- Fader
‘Featuring’ Sam Smith, John Newman, Ella Eyre: singing their way to success (The Guardian)
Sam Smith on Love: ‘I’ll Be Excited When I Get My Heart Broken Properly (Billboard)
In the Lonely Hour (The Guardian)
One to watch: Sam Smith (The Guardian)
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom? (The Independent)
Sam Smith, ‘In the Lonely Hour': Track-by-Track Album Review (Billboard)


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