Singer Smith is Lonely no more

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All through his most recent American tour, British singer Sam Smith has been stunned by the size of the crowds.

When he first played in Philadelphia in March, it was at a bar too small to fit his band. Last month, he filled Temple University's basketball arena.

His New York debut, in August 2013, was at the tiny Mercury Lounge. A few weeks ago, he sold out Madison Square Garden, where thousands of fans sang along to his slow-burning anthems such as Stay With Me.

"This is a really big, big place, isn't it?" the 22-year-old said as he surveyed the crowd at the Garden. "I never thought that I'd be standing on this stage in only a year and a half."

He became a break-out pop star last year with an emotive brand of blue-eyed soul that drew comparisons with British singer Adele. His first album, In The Lonely Hour, a song cycle about a troubled affair, tugged at heartstrings and was one of only three new releases last year to go platinum.

At today's Grammy Awards, he has six nominations, with nods for Album of the Year and Best New Artist as well as Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Stay With Me. If he sweeps those top categories, he would be the first to do so since Christopher Cross in 1981.

Key to his success has been his sweet tenor voice, which climbs to intense, androgynous peaks. Yet his rise is also a sign of what can still happen in the struggling music industry when everything clicks - when the right balance is struck between online seeding, mass- media blitzing and live appearances.

To a degree rarely seen in brand-new acts, he and his label seemed to get nearly everything right, from an early appearance on Saturday Night Live to business details such as the management of digital sales.

"He is the perfect new artist in this world we live in," said Mr Steve Barnett, chairman of Capitol Music Group, Smith's label. "People talk about how there are so many things wrong in the modern music business, but five years ago, you could not have done what we did in the last six months."

Born in London, Smith grew up idolising pop divas such as Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan.

His direction was sealed by age 11, when he heard Amy Winehouse's first album, Frank, with its blend of jazz, contemporary beats and unabashed sexuality.

"The grittiness and honesty in her music, it started to affect my singing," he recalled. "I started becoming Sam Smith the singer, instead of trying to be Jean Valjean in Les Miz. I was creating an identity in my voice, whereas before I would just clone other singers."

Three years ago, he met dance-music duo Disclosure in London. Guy Lawrence, one of the two brothers behind the group, remembers being stunned by Smith's voice on a demo recording and inviting him to a writing session sight unseen.

"I actually thought he was going to be a black woman, like Samantha Smith or something," he recalled.

Latch, the song they wrote with Jimmy Napes, one of Smith's regular collaborators, is a buoyant house track punctuated by Smith's signature high notes.

Released in late 2012, it went to No. 11 on the British chart, leading to more guest spots on dance songs and making Smith a budding star in Britain.

Signed by Capitol, he began to develop the theme of his solo debut. It came together once Smith, who collaborated with other writers for every song, let himself be guided by the most intimate feelings about his own unrequited love for another man.

"For this album," he said, "I showed the writers my text messages."

The album touches on various styles: I'm Not The Only One and Stay With Me have a spare, retro-soul sound; the upbeat Money On My Mind features one of his most acrobatic vocal manoeuvres.

Connecting them are lyrics that are strikingly revealing, even if they leave the sex of his lover ambiguous.

But shortly before the album was released, he revealed the songs' real-life inspiration in an interview with The Fader magazine, and the video for the country-ish Leave Your Lover also plays with gender roles: After following Smith in an apparent love triangle with a woman and another man, the video shows at the end that it was the guy Smith was after all along.

He said he never hesitated about exposing his feelings, but was cautious about how and when to reveal his sexual orientation.

"I wanted my voice to be Story No. 1 when you Googled my name," he said. "I didn't want it to be 'Sam Smith, the gay singer'. I wanted it to be 'Sam Smith, the singer who happens to be gay'."

He added: "You can't box things. It's the same with music, sexuality and race. You can't give them labels just because these are easy for us to digest."

Capitol withheld In The Lonely Hour from streaming services for a month to drive sales. It opened at No. 2 and has sold 1.3 million copies in the United States - last year, only singer Taylor Swift and the soundtrack to the 2013 hit movie Frozen sold more. It was also Spotify's second-most popular album of the year around the world.

Stay With Me reached No. 2 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. It faced a setback: After the publishers of Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down complained of melodic similarities between the songs, Smith agreed to add songwriting credits for Petty and his co-writer, Jeff Lynne.

When it came to marketing Stay With Me, history was also on Smith's side.

The breakthroughs of Adele and Winehouse had primed programmers for the next big British thing, a process that his own team had played a role in.

Before joining the revamped Capitol, Mr Barnett had been a co-chairman at Columbia Records, Adele's American label.

"Without Amy and Adele, the path to Sam's success would probably have been harder," said Mr Nick Raphael, president of Capitol Records UK. "They set the tone; they changed the format of radio."

When asked about the Adele comparisons, Smith at first politely demurred. "It's a huge compliment," he said, "but I don't think it's correct."

Then he took the opportunity to take a jab at the pop music world at large, suggesting that he and Adele are among the few singers "just standing onstage singing songs", without making prop use of their rear ends.

"If we went back 30 or 40 years, there'd be many more people like that: Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald," he said. "It wasn't about the celebrity; it was about the music and the lyrics."

He is working on his next album.

"This will be the most honest thing I've ever written in my entire life," he said. "It's about my mum and dad splitting up, and it's going to be even more honest and even more brutal."

 
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