At Sam Smith’s country home in Buckinghamshire, England, there’s a little barnhouse tucked to the side of the sprawling property. A small faux menagerie — turtles, flamingos, even a sloth named Keith — overlooks a patio where Smith’s year-old Bernadoodle, Velma (named for the merry murderess in Chicago), suns herself. Inside, there’s a billiards table, a sparkling crystal chandelier and a full bar; feathered, palm tree-shaped lamps and a 2-foot-tall, stuffed Ewok round out the cozily jumbled decor. It might be the perfect facsimile of the pub in town — well, except for the neon sign hanging in the rafters that reads “Fist Me.”
“I was like, ‘What do we call the pub?’ — I know it’s not really a pub, it’s a little barn,” Smith says, taking in the scene. “My sister actually wanted to call it The Tadpole, which I think is a fabulous name for a bar. But I just think The Fat Fairy beat that.”
A custom-designed spill mat on the bar bears that name, and Smith excitedly rattles off a to-do list for further furnishing: getting a working beer tap, installing wood flooring matching the rustic walls, as a “proper pub” would. After working in London through the week, this is where Smith spends weekends — so it’s nice to have, as they put it, “my own, private queer club in the middle of the countryside.”
Steps away from The Fat Fairy, there’s a building dedicated to a different sort of celebration: a shed-turned-studio space, where Smith has spent the last two years making new music that, as they put it, finally reflects their truest self. Sitting on a turquoise couch inside of it, sporting a Balenciaga T-shirt with two gender-neutral stick figures holding hands, Smith — who came out publicly as nonbinary in late 2019 — radiates a newfound sense of comfort: no more hiding, no more questioning, just living life on their terms. “I can’t express how incredible I feel every day,” they say with a wide grin.
This Sam Smith, who laughs easily and jokes about balancing exercise with their love of fast food (“It helps a little bit to move, but so does McDonald’s”), seems a world away from the Smith of a decade ago, who shot to international superstardom with one of the most singular voices in modern pop music — one most often compared to Adele’s.
But along the way, Sam Smith, Actual Person got a little overshadowed by Sam Smith, The Voice. Smith remembers a “crazy journey of trial and error, bad advice and good advice” that forced them to constantly reconfigure their life around their skyrocketing career. Of their last world tour (120 dates that ended in April 2019), they say, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt burnout like that before.” Amid that fatigue, falling in and out of love — and constantly channeling that into their music — took an emotional toll.
“My 20s were my heartbreak years, they were my drama years, I really went through it,” Smith says, chuckling. “I didn’t have a lot of boundaries in place, not just in relationships necessarily, but in life in general.” They pause for a moment, then look up: “Though, you’re not meant to, right? You’re meant to learn what your boundaries are.”
During the pandemic, Smith finally had the time to consider that, as well as find a brighter outlook on their career — one that had remained elusive even amid their years of huge commercial success (7.86 billion catalog streams, according to Luminate), monster radio hits and prestigious awards. “It was really a coming-of-age moment for me,” Smith says. “I was turning 30, we went through COVID-19, and I got the opportunity to sit down and really ask myself what it is I want to do, the type of music I want to make, and also ask myself how involved I want to be [in it].”
In April, Smith released a song hinting at the answers they found. “Love Me More,” with its lyrics tracing a journey from “trying not to hate myself” to finding the “self-worth I had to earn,” feels like the start of a new era for Smith. Melding the soul of their early ballads with the dance beats they’ve occasionally dipped into over the years, the track still foregrounds their impressive voice, but places it atop slick drums and a grooving bassline. In the video, Smith fully inhabits their nonbinary identity, wearing looser, more affirming clothes and joyfully communing with their found family in a club. “People sometimes come out the gate in such a big way,” Smith says. “I really wanted to start things off in a kind way.”
Jack Street, co-founder of Method Music, has managed Smith since the outset of their career in 2012, so he knows when he’s seeing something new from the artist. “They’ve been so creatively free this time around, in a way they weren’t before,” he says. “They have really explored every area they could have.”
Since the release of their third studio album, Love Goes, in October 2020, Smith has been working with a close-knit team of producers (including longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes and pop auteur Ilya Salmanzadeh) to craft their next full album. “For the first time I think in my career, I really just stepped into the room and said, ‘I want to learn how to produce more. I want to vocal arrange more than I have. I want to be more involved in everything,’ ” Smith recalls. “Obviously, I’ve been involved in everything since the beginning, but now I’ve just grown up a bit.”
That album is a work-in-progress, with no title or release date yet announced, and when asked about other songs on it, Smith smiles and simply says, “I’m not going to say any names of them yet.” But the few songs they play for Billboard all share the same spirit that suffuses their country home: joy. Gone are the heartbroken torch songs that defined so much of their early career; in their place are jubilant sounds ranging from dance-pop kiss-offs to choral expressions of elation. And for Smith, leaning into happiness may be the greatest risk of all.
“I think joy for me, and for a lot of queer people, is quite a dangerous place,” Smith says, their gaze becoming downcast. “We’re all masters of pain, and I think it’s actually a very courageous act to step into the queer joy of it all.”’
Street distinctly recalls the day, 10 years ago, when Napes (also his client) sent him an email with no subject or text, just an attached MP3 file. When Street and Method Music co-founder Sam Evitt heard Smith’s voice singing the aching “Lay Me Down,” “You can kind of imagine [our reaction],” he says. “We were just blown away by the voice. We were calling Jimmy pretty immediately going, ‘Who is this, what’s going on, how can we meet them?’ ”
The pair quickly signed Smith and introduced them to another act they managed, British dance duo Disclosure. Within a matter of months, Smith’s debut feature on Disclosure’s “Latch” came out, kicking off a meteoric rise: signing with Capitol Records in 2013, then releasing “Stay With Me” and their debut album, In the Lonely Hour, which would win four Grammy Awards, an RIAA diamond certification and an over six-year stay on the Billboard 200 after a No. 2 debut.
Almost immediately, Smith’s voice was inescapable stateside, because they were omnipresent on American radio. “The love for me in America still baffles me,” Smith says. “It was always a dream of mine — American music was a huge percentage of the music I listened to as a kid.” To date, Smith has charted 16 songs on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart, with seven in the top 10 (“Stay With Me” remains their sole No. 1 hit). A strong radio presence was simply a necessity: “Streaming hadn’t quite kicked in when I released my first album — it was halfway through my first album that it started to take over,” Smith says.
Even after streaming became dominant, radio remained a cornerstone of Smith’s strategy. “You have to be everywhere to truly be at the top, especially if you’re someone like Sam,” says Greg Marella, Capitol’s executive vp and president of promotion, who joined the label in 2016. “It’s not something, both in 2016 and now, that you look at and go, ‘OK, we’re going to run an influencer campaign, which will lead us to the next cycle with Sam.’ That’s just not realistic for the type of artist Sam is and for the type of music they make.”
The relationship between Smith and radio, Marella explains, was mutually beneficial: “Once you get to that level where [the general population] knows who that artist is by the very first note of the song, that artist and their music becomes important to the platform,” he says. “It is better for radio’s business to have superstars with music that is connecting and resonating. Radio wants to have superstars and recognizable voices and names on their stations all of the time.”
The airplay Smith received led to a near-instant international breakthrough, cementing them as a global household name within a year. And nearly as quickly, Smith was thrown into a global touring schedule.
“From the get-go, we wanted to do shows as quickly as possible, because Sam’s voice is such a weapon,” Street recalls. “As soon as we had booked headline shows in England, we immediately made sure we were booking them in New York and Los Angeles, and stuck with that mentality all the way through — we knew that we were handling their career in both countries in tandem.” To this day, Smith says, that mindset informs their team’s strategy. “When it comes to releasing songs and singles, I try to hold in my mind everyone and try to be everywhere at once,” they say. “It comes down to putting in the work, honestly, and making sure I am everywhere at once.”
Those early years of commercial success weren’t entirely smooth. In 2015, Smith underwent surgery for a hemorrhage on their vocal cords. (They fully recovered, but it brought their world tour to a standstill for months.) That same year, Smith amicably reached a copyright settlement with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne on “Stay With Me,” acknowledging its melodic similarity to “I Won’t Back Down.” Months later, Smith and Napes shared an Academy Award win for “Writing’s on the Wall” from the James Bond film Spectre, and Smith (who had not yet come out as nonbinary) mistakenly claimed in their acceptance speech that “no openly gay men” had won an Oscar, drawing the ire of openly gay, Oscar-winning filmmaker Dustin Lance Black — as well as much of the internet.
“I think people need to get used to being wrong and making mistakes,” Smith now reflects. “That’s the biggest thing, getting comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling. That’s a hard thing to do, because I think we just strive for perfection.”
That Smith has weathered those missteps with their brand intact is, they say, a credit to the largely unchanged team they’ve maintained since the outset of their career. Throughout the day at their country home, Smith regularly kicks back and chats with Street and co-manager Kara Tinson, as well as creative director Ben Reardon and a few makeup artists.
“It’s such an intense relationship, being a manager — you have to go through everything together, and that naturally creates bonds that are very close,” Street says. “It’s a tricky industry, and I think having that tight-knit team around you keeps that continuity.”
Smith has always kept a cocoon around them in the studio as well, working almost exclusively with Napes and a handful of other producers like Steve Fitzmaurice and StarGate, only occasionally reaching outside that inner circle for assists. “I can’t do that with everyone,” they say. “It’s only a few special people that know how to trigger me and create that safe space.”
Even with that streamlined group of creatives around them, a kind of dichotomy has always existed in Smith’s output, between the moody ballads that dependably became hits and the more dancefloor-friendly tracks — like “La La La,” “Promises” and “Diamonds” — that show Smith’s emotional range. And for Smith, sadness has often been what sells. Love Goes leaned further in a dance direction, yet didn’t approach the sales heights of predecessors In the Lonely Hour or The Thrill of It All, peaking on the Billboard 200 with its No. 5 debut.
But in 2019, those two sides of Smith did find a vehicle for coexistence. The rhythmic, R&B-infused “Dancing With a Stranger,” featuring Normani, felt like a stylistic bridge between Smith’s preferred soundscapes; it also proved the slow road to radio success could be fruitful, rising to the top of the Radio Songs and Adult Top 40 charts after 15 and 17 weeks, respectively, ultimately becoming Smith’s sixth top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and their longest-running song on Pop Airplay.
Now, “Love Me More” seems to also be benefiting from a slow-burn: It made a brief appearance on the Hot 100 at No. 94 in May before falling off the chart, but has lately gained traction thanks to steadily increasing radio play, climbing to No. 73 in the tracking week of July 30 and hitting No. 14 on Adult Pop Airplay one month prior. “Radio is driving it,” Marella says. “Even if the song isn’t a smash hit, there is still tremendous value in having a good Sam Smith record on the radio station because of the brand of Sam Smith.”
Smith acknowledges “Dancing With a Stranger” as something of a turning point, though they say it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “My first song was ‘Latch,’ which was in and of itself a very joyful song. But I think that In the Lonely Hour ultimately did so well that it sort of dwarfed any of those happier songs,” they say. “When something sells, people want you to do the same thing again. ‘Dancing With a Stranger’ ended up being a release for me — it was my way of saying, ‘Look, I’m not good with boxes.’ ” (Smith is currently named in a lawsuit alleging that “Stranger” was not an original song; their lawyers have called these claims “rambling” and “nonsensical.”)
After “Dancing With a Stranger,” Capitol A&R coordinator Charlie Knox pitched Ilya Salmanzadeh on working with Smith. The producer was immediately enamored by the idea. “I’ve been a huge fan of Sam since way back before I started working,” says Salmanzadeh, a Max Martin protegé who had worked extensively with Ariana Grande as well as Demi Lovato, Ellie Goulding, Justin Bieber and Jennifer Lopez. “It just felt like, at that time, it was a right fit for what I wanted to do, what I felt was exciting.”
Their first co-write was “How Do You Sleep?,” Smith’s follow-up to “Stranger” that leaned further into dance-pop. Approaching the song as a piece of “soulful pop with hip-hop-leaning beats,” Salmanzadeh was able to break into Smith’s creative inner circle, and they later reunited for tracks that pushed Smith further stylistically, like “I’m Ready,” an uplifting duet with Lovato, and “My Oasis,” with Afrobeats superstar Burna Boy.
“You have that pressure when you come into a tight group like that, where you’re the outsider for a second,” Salmanzadeh says. “I never felt that pressure with Sam — I was really lucky that we got to hit it off with ‘How Do You Sleep?,’ because it just felt great from there.”
For Smith, bringing in Salmanzadeh on Love Goes unlocked something new in their songwriting. “At that time I was probably the most heartbroken I’d ever been, but I wasn’t finding comfort anymore in sitting there and writing about it,” they say. “I wanted to cheer myself up and talk about things that were maybe a little bit lighter.”
A look of genuine relief comes across Smith’s face, as if they’re realizing anew that it’s possible to just leave pain behind and not write it into music. “It’s just organically moved over into that realm,” they say, breaking into a small smile.
At the end of 2019, Merriam-Webster announced its word of the year: “they.” Several months earlier, the dictionary had expanded its definition of the word to include it as a singular gender-neutral pronoun for individuals who identify as nonbinary, which in turn led to increased searches for the word online. In Merriam-Webster’s announcement, one name came up as a key reason for that spike in searches: Sam Smith.
Shortly before the dictionary’s change, Smith had come out publicly as nonbinary and changed their pronouns to “they/them,” writing on Instagram that “after a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out.” Merriam-Webster wasn’t alone in noticing the power of Smith’s declaration: in November 2021, the BRIT Awards removed gendered categories from its lineup and replaced them with gender-neutral awards after Smith called on them to do so.
“I can speak on behalf of all of my queer friends and say that recognition like that, and just people talking and understanding us like that, is just the best feeling in the world,” Smith says. “Because there’s nothing bad happening here, it’s all love. No one’s taking anything from anyone; people are just trying to live in their own skin on this earth.”
Freely inhabiting their identity has, Smith says, made them appreciate the smaller changes life brings, too. In the few weeks after their 30th birthday in May, they haven’t experienced the dread of aging as so many do. “I think I always knew I was going to be like a fine wine or a blue cheese,” they say with a giggle. “I am not afraid of age. I love it.”
Another small but powerful realization came this year, at a performance of theirs during Pride Month. “I was singing the same songs that I’ve always done, but this time I was just wearing this beautiful lace top,” Smith recalls. “I said to my manager, ‘It’s mad how just those little things completely change my mental health.’ It has been nothing but a positive for me and my body and my mind.”
Being nonbinary wasn’t a new concept — for Smith or the rest of the world — in 2019. But publicly acknowledging it made Smith the most famous nonbinary artist using gender-neutral pronouns, starting much needed conversations in the industry about inclusion for artists who identified similarly.
As Michelle Jubelirer, chair/CEO at Capitol, tells it, Smith’s second coming out didn’t require any label conversation. “We never needed or even had any sort of internal debate or discussion about Sam’s gender identity at the company,” she says. “The only question we asked Sam at the time was, ‘How can we support you?’ ” (Capitol has a growing number of LGBTQ+ artists on its roster, including Halsey, Troye Sivan and Christine and the Queens; Jubelirer ascribes that fact simply to the label being “a safe space for our artists to be exactly who they are.”)
Still, in the world outside their label, Smith’s announcement met its share of hate. “It takes a village,” Smith sighs as they remember the social media fallout. “It was so crucial to have people around me who told me to put my phone down and to concentrate on myself and my life.” Focusing on the larger impact of their actions — particularly on nonbinary kids who “do not have the luxuries and privileges that I have, who can’t necessarily do this, and who get chucked out of their family homes if they do” — helped. “Hopefully, I can push some doors down so that people can get through them easier than I did.”
For decades, coming out in the music industry was considered taboo, not only due to bigotry, but also to a fear that it would diminish an artist’s career prospects. But Marella says Smith’s haven’t suffered; in fact, radio programmers have gone out of their way to properly address Smith’s identity. “Radio has been so good and so supportive of referencing and acknowledging Sam as ‘they/them’ in promos and intros leading into the song, and talking about Sam,” Marella says. “I was, frankly, really pleased that there was so much thought going into it from so many people.”
Thus unencumbered by weighty expectations, Smith was able to approach new music with a revitalized attitude, too. “This album, for me, marks the beginning of doing exactly what I want to do,” they say. That has included taking an increased role in production and vocal arrangement, even attempting to learn piano. “It feels like maths to me,” they admit, laughing at their struggle. “I think I truly just need to be by myself, go on YouTube and just start learning.”
Their piano skills may have a long way to go, but Smith’s production contributions are “very meticulous,” Salmanzadeh says. “As a producer, sometimes when an artist or someone that hasn’t done that before comes with a lot of requests and opinions and advice on the sonics — it could be a little jarring. But with Sam, it’s not that experience at all. It has been very easy for me as a producer. I know exactly what they mean with their notes.”
Before, for instance, Smith says they had never focused much on their own backing vocals, instead doing “two or three takes” per song and letting their voice stay uninhibited. On “Love Me More,” however, Smith decided to “focus in on my voice and just kind of layer everything in different ways,” creating harmonies they had only dabbled in before. “I got a little bit obsessive,” they say with a laugh.
Smith and their team have high hopes for the upcoming release, which Smith triumphantly calls their “first nonheartbreak album.” If that sounds like a clean break from the sounds that have become Smith’s trademark, Street isn’t worried. “I think that is what’s sort of amazing about Sam’s ability as a songwriter and an artist — they can and always have been able to naturally flow between genres.”
Besides, if fans like what they hear, he adds, “everything else works itself out.” And Marella is quick to note that slower-burning hits, like “Dancing With a Stranger,” just make Smith more fascinating to follow. “When Harry Styles does something, it is Beatlesesque. Sam is not that kind of artist, nor do I think they’ve ever been that kind of artist,” he says. “Sam is not of the moment; Sam is very much timeless. And when you’re timeless, you will always be a threat and will always have a shot.”
That doesn’t mean they’re not willing to try out some new tricks — like the rest of the world, Smith started using TikTok amid the pandemic. Though they blush and call their early days on the app “a minefield,” they say they’ve found a way to use it that feels right — to “stop taking yourself so seriously” and use it as “a performance space to share music,” especially the music they’re the most excited about. “I’m trying my best — I think I’m always going to try and embrace whatever apps and stuff that come and are going to help get the music to people.”
There’s a lightness to Smith as they sit in their home studio, imagining what the future might hold. “Maybe the music I make in the future won’t sit as well on the radio,” they say with a shrug. “It takes a bit of courage to maybe try something that maybe people aren’t going to like.”
A cheeky smile returns to their face, and their eyes light up. “But I like it,” they say, grinning. “And that’s all that matters.”
This story will appear in the Aug. 6, 2022, issue of Billboard.