Mourning glory 

Sam Smith preaches the gospel of melancholy

How do you know you're more than a passing blip on the pop-cultural radar? Getting spoofed in the opening skit of NBC's Saturday Night Live is a pretty good sign. English soul stylist Sam Smith had that pleasure last month during the show's holiday episode, wherein a dress-suited Taran Killam played the singer under the banner of "A Very Somber Christmas With Sam Smith."

"Christmas is about spending time with the ones you love," Killam gravely intoned, "which is why I'm all alone."

The SNL broadcast was then interrupted by a message from Mike Myers, channeling his Austin Powers character Dr. Evil. But the parody was basically spot-on. With his 2014 debut disc In the Lonely Hour, and mournful singles like the Gospel-tinged "Stay With Me," the 22-year-old Smith has essentially made a cottage industry out of feeling blue. There's a melancholy mood to nearly every song on the record, which has now been nominated for six prestigious Grammys and was the second-biggest-selling album of 2014 behind Taylor Swift's massive hit 1989. Much of the album is also rooted in painfully unrequited love.

A third cousin of U.K. pop phenom Lily Allen, the shy, soft-spoken Brit also came out as gay last year. Smith says he's content to keep romance on the back burner as he pursues career ambitions he's had since childhood. Raised on a diet of female soul singers, with some Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross thrown in, he was 12 years old when one of his teachers asked the class to create posters that encapsulated all of their lifelong dreams. Smith listed seemingly impossible achievements like "Have a #1 single" and "Perform in O2 Arena." The other kids laughed.

"But I stuck that poster in my room and looked at it every morning," he recalls. "And a lot of the things on that poster have now come true — loads of that stuff has happened, which I just kind of dreamt up. I was always very hungry to do something."

Smith fell in with the right artists. By 20, he was crooning on Disclosure's smash single "Latch," then Naughty Boy's "La La La." Currently, his songwriting talents are in such high demand that he contributed to a good portion of The London Sessions, the new comeback from Mary J. Blige, who had already dueted with him on a version of "Stay With Me." He also chimed in with Band Aid 30 for its latest take on "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

With all those Boy George-acrobatic notes Smith regularly hits, he makes it all seem effortless. But that's never the case.

"Singing is something that I work hard on," he stresses. "I train every morning, I'm as healthy as I can be, I try not to drink, and I keep as quiet as possible."

Meanwhile, Smith is also keeping his eye on the big picture. "I think about my career every second of every day, like 'What's next?'" he says. He already has conceived the cover art for his sophomore album. "I have to have at least a couple of years ahead planned at all times. It's a bit weird, actually. Maybe an OCD thing."


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