You’ve probably heard of Sam Smith by now. This 21-year-old British singer’s name has been on everyone’s lips of late: the no-brainer of new music; President-elect for pop superstardom in 2014.
You might’ve heard his star-making turns on Naughty Boy‘s “La La La” and Disclosure‘s “Latch” – the former remains one of the biggest selling singles of the last year whilst the latter is perhaps the best ‘dance’ song of the last ten. He can count Maxwell as one of his biggest fans, after the soul music titan spent the entire summer gushing about the Brit to his millions of fans online, and he’s sold out shows in New York and LA; all without an album or even a proper single release to his name.
So he’s got credibility, co-signs, a rapidly expanding international fanbase and some genuinely exciting songs but here’s the real reason you should care about Sam Smith: his voice is everything. It’s rich, warm and soulful at times, strong and forceful at others, able to flit between soft vulnerability and emotional careening in an instant and always under its master’s effortless control. Indulge me whilst I go out on a limb here: there’s nobody better. Sam Smith’s is the best contemporary male voice in the world.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Sam Smith perform intimate live shows in tiny venues twice this year; the first was in April where, sat on the floor of an old church in North London, an audience of around a hundred witnessed the kind of breathtaking live performance that signals the arrival of a once-in-a-generation talent. He really was extraordinary, delivering world-class vocals with an air of casual ease more akin to a Vegas old-timer than a young upstart performing one of his first headline shows. His onstage patter was endearingly natural, ever-so-slightly awkward – much like Adele, another of his famous fans, to whom Smith has often been lazily, although not entirely inaccurately, compared.
Smith’s control over his voice is extraordinary, a level of skilful vocal mastery that can only come from putting in the mythical ‘ten thousand hours’, perhaps aided by his younger years spent in musical theatre. “I’ve Told You Now,” a live recording from the aforementioned St Pancras Old Church gig featured on his recent Nirvana EP, is perhaps the strongest demonstration of this to date. His best qualities are on display; a vocal rollercoaster of vulnerable, restrained lows and indignant, unleashed highs. It’s no surprise he sharpened his craft on musicals – Smith’s voice tells the story here, taking the listener on a journey through anguish, confusion, anger, resentment, pride and resigned defeat. It’s an astonishing vocal performance.
Unfortunately, a great voice alone doesn’t make a great artist (#HiLeona), and Smith wouldn’t be deserving of all his ‘next big thing’ plaudits if he didn’t have some decent music to back it up. He’s thus far avoided the temptation to play it safe, choosing to make strong songs over forward-thinking production from the likes of Two Inch Punch and old mates Disclosure when the easy option might have been to apply that million-dollar voice to soulless X-Factor-esque auntie-pop and a constant stream of dreary ballads. It’s not that he’s opposed to balladeering – his live shows and the Nirvana EP are proof enough that he’s very much willing and able to belt out a tune or two – but his eagerness to take risks musically bodes well.
With the industry at his feet and world at his fingertips, Sam Smith right now is as close to a ‘sure thing’ as exists these days. A lot rests on his forthcoming debut album, due sometime next year, but as long as he doesn’t abandon everything he’s done to get this far, expect to see this young man join the army of British artists making huge waves at home and abroad. If you get the chance, I implore you to go and see him live as soon as possible, whilst you can still get close enough to see the whites of his eyes. That all-conquering voice of his will be filling arenas and stadiums pretty soon.