Not good at goodbyes

Not good at goodbyes

This is a mostly complete inventory of the times that sweet, sad Sam Smith cried over the course of two hours on a couch at the Chateau Marmont hotel, California, on a Friday morning: he cried when he talked about the house he grew up in; when he reminisced about a crush who turned on him; when he talked about his first voice teacher. He cried when he talked about writing 'Pray', a song from his new album, 'The Thrill of It All'. He cried when he talked about the children he met in Mosul, Iraq, on a recent humanitarian mission, and then he looked down at the sparrow tattoo he got on his arm when he returned home, with 'Be good, be kind' written in Arabic beneath it, and he cried again. He cried talking about how much he cried when he watched the movie Inside Out. And he cried when he talked about love.  

It's been more than three years since his first studio album, 'In the Lonely Hour', flung the planet's brokenhearted face down upon their beds anew with its wet-pillowed, dark-soul despondence. It's been that long since his lovely, million-faceted voice called out to the bereft, the forsaken and the rejected and announced itself as this generation's avatar of romantic despair. It's been almost that long since he became a real, live pop star: a four-time Grammy winner with five Top 10 singles, an Oscar winner all with one measly LP, less than an hour's worth of music, to his name.

In troubled waters

In 2014, Smith did something revolutionary. He came out publicly as gay just as soon as his album was released. He was not going to leave the question of his sexuality to guesswork or rumour. He thought this was very enlightened, a gay pop singer just integrated into stardom without the waves and the hand-wringing and the controversy. The handful of out gay pop stars before him - including his idol, George Michael - mostly endured lengthy "are they or aren't they?" periods before they publicly acknowledged that they were gay.  

'In the Lonely Hour' was a little more than a half-hour crying jag about longing for a man - a straight, married one he was in love with whom he never so much as kissed. Nearly every song was about this: 'Stay With Me', the sad song about wanting a man to stay even when it's clear he's not in love; 'Good Thing', the sad song about deciding that he's stayed too long waiting around. And, on the deluxe edition of the album, a cover of Whitney Houston's 'How Will I Know?' which was not a sad song until he sang it.

He told Rolling Stone that he "had to be careful" so that straight people could sing along with his music, too. "I am not Sam Smith, the gay singer," he said at the time. "I am Sam Smith, the singer who happens to be gay." He gave an interview where he talked about Grindr and Tinder, the hookup apps, and how sad it was that all the possibility of love and serendipity came down to a swiping culture, and saying this offended some in the gay community too.

He accepted the Oscar for best original song for 'Writing's on the Wall' from  Spectre,  referring to an article he'd read in which Ian McKellen had "said that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar. If this is the case - even if it isn't the case - I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community all around the world."

Well, he woke up the morning after the Oscars to an assassination's worth of ridicule, including from an openly gay man who had won an Oscar.  Sure, he quickly realised, the Oscar thing was wrong but the other stuff: why was it taken so badly? So what if he didn't like hookup apps? Hadn't people seen him, dressed like a 1950s lounge act, complete with a pompadour? What exactly about him seemed modern? He never said he was the spokesman for gay people. "I'm not the most eloquent person," Smith says now. "I didn't get the best grades in school. I mean, I'm just good at singing."

His parents signed him up for voice lessons when he wouldn't stop crooning throughout the house. He had a manager from the age of 11, then another, then another, each promising him that he would become very famous very soon. It didn't happen. He moved to London, where he tended bar. One day, he met Jimmy Napes, who introduced him to his eventual managers, who in turn introduced him to the electronic duo Disclosure, with whom he recorded the vocals for 'Latch', Disclosure's single - and his breakout - in 2012.

The rest - the album, the tour - it all happened fast. He woke up the day after the Oscars, saw the chaos online, apologised, and slunk off. Why wasn't this working? People loved his music, but they were turning on him. He couldn't bear being thought of as a traitor to his people - he was so open about everything!  Then, one day, he went to Australia for a show, and afterwards had a talk with his publicist there, a gay man who lives with his partner of 18 years. The publicist took Smith to the Stonewall, a gay bar in Sydney, for a drink one afternoon. He decided to help educate him, taking him to a gay bookshop.

"My mind just went," Smith said. He read the memoir Holding the Man, which blew his mind. He watched Paris Is Burning. He still has Tales of the City  on his night table. Next, the Australians introduced him to drag.  "I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere as an openly gay man from the age of 10 years old," Smith said. "I didn't meet another gay man until I was 19 when I moved to London. I just went gay clubbing a few times with some straight friends and with some girlfriends of mine, and then I became famous. I never got an opportunity to find my people in the gay community and find my friends."

Then he found George Michael. He had always been a fan of his music. He was 15 when he saw him in concert. But now, reading and watching interviews with him in his last years, after Michael came out, Smith found him to be a great mentor. "I just feel like I'm going to offend someone every time I open my mouth," he said. "I feel like George Michael had a way of being authentic to himself and honest in a way that was warm."

Back at the interview in West Hollywood, he leaned back on the couch, looked up at the ceiling and blew a stream of breath out through pursed lips. "People forget but no one learns about gay history in school. Nothing. So I didn't know anything about my history as a gay man and then words like 'spokesperson' are being thrown at me when I've just brought out my first album," he said. "It scared me because I was like, I don't know anything about being gay, really."

Baring his soul

Some of the tracks are about Smith himself, including 'Burning', a sad song about pining for a man who has left; and 'One Last Song', a sad final ode to the man who was the subject of 'In the Lonely Hour'.  But he can now recount actual relationships in his songs. He's still never been in the kind of magical Notebook  love he longs for, he said, but about a year ago, he had a five-month relationship that took three breakups before the breakup took and which is the subject of 'Too Good at Goodbyes', the first single off the new album, which is in the Billboard Top 10 as of this writing. He's been dating the actor Brandon Flynn, from Netflix's 13 Reasons Why,  seeing where that goes.

Backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, Smith drank a cup of Throat Coat, and then took a Gaviscon for acid reflux. He sang through a cocktail straw while holding up a tissue to make it move with his breath to strengthen his throat muscles, something he learned from an opera singer. He motor-boated his lips. He was ready for the show. The next day, the news media would pick up a statement he made about feeling as much like a woman as a man, and social media would get on him for being too casual about gender fluidity when he identifies as a gay man. One day he will get it right, he said, his eyes shiny with big, sad Sam Smith tears.

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