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updated: 11/23/2017 9:22 AM

Sam Smith tries to balance writing personal songs, keeping his private life private

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  • Sam Smith returns to the spotlight with his latest album, "The Thrill of It All."

    Sam Smith returns to the spotlight with his latest album, "The Thrill of It All."
    Associated Press

  • Sam Smith returns to the spotlight with his latest album, "The Thrill of It All."

    Sam Smith returns to the spotlight with his latest album, "The Thrill of It All."
    Associated Press

 
By Mesfin Fekadu
Associated Press

Sam Smith thought he had cracked it -- it being "fame."

He released the first single from his new album, the groovy burner "Too Good at Goodbyes," and didn't put his face on the single artwork or do much TV promotion for the song. He felt like he had re-entered the celebrity world without dealing with the usual drama that comes with being famous.

Two months later, when the album came out, things changed, and the "freak out" happened.

"I get really upset because it was literally overnight. As soon as the album came out, everyone was recognizing me again, and it scares me," said Smith, days after his second album, "The Thrill of It All," was released. "Whenever the fame stuff gets mad again, I just remind myself what I am. I am a singer. I'm a songwriter. I'm here to make music. I don't want to fuel gossip, you know?"

That's been the biggest struggle for the performer since he found success -- the balance of Sam the celebrity, a normal twenty-something who has to live his life with constant cameras around him, and Sam the singer, who just wants to perform songs he's written about his life.

He achieved a breakthrough almost as soon as he hit the music scene: In Europe it was with "Latch," the electronic dance hit with Disclosure, and in the United States with "Stay With Me," the winner of both record and song of the year Grammys in 2015.

His debut album, "In the Lonely Hour," launched more hits, reached multi-platinum status and was lauded for its emotional songs and Smith's strong vocals. He won about every major award -- from Grammys to a Golden Globe. He was even named best new artist at the BET Awards.

But it wasn't all golden: The inevitable backlash that comes with mainstream success also hit Smith. Some criticized his music for being too sappy, but perhaps more hurtful to Smith were critics from the gay community. The star was lambasted after the 2015 Academy Awards, when he took home an Oscar and he inaccurately said he was the first openly gay person to win the prestigious award.

"My Oscar speech -- that was my fault," said Smith, who won best original song for "Writing's on the Wall" from the James Bond film "Spectre. "If I'm going to say something on a big scale like that in front of nine million people I should go over it again, and again, and again, till it's cemented in my mind. That is my responsibility. But I also just think that comes with age. You know, I mean, I ... just turned 23 when all that happened."

After the incident, Smith said he felt like he was "losing my mind. Like, I just needed to get back to normal life because I wasn't enjoying it. It wasn't real life to me."

So he took a break from the public, spent time with family and friends, and continued to work on his music.

Fast forward two years, and Smith, 25, is back with a batch of songs that represent the last few years of his life. "Thrill," like his first album, is a cohesive set of songs that are both heavy and beautiful, with Smith's piercing voice in the starring role. He had a hand in writing all of the songs.

"I knew that I wanted this album to be more personal than the first one," said Smith. "A lot of this album is about me and how I didn't like myself a lot while I was making this record and how I can be my worst enemy."

He worked again with "Stay With Me" co-writer Jimmy Napes on the project, but also invited other major players to the sessions, including Timbaland, StarGate (Rihanna), Malay (Frank Ocean), Poo Bear (Justin Bieber) and country singer-songwriter Cam.

"I think he's grown just as a person, even before music. He's still young, but it's a big difference. He was 19 when I first met him ...and he's 25 now. He's grown up into a man. And I think his voice has reflected that," Napes said. "He's gotten a little bit wiser to be able to dig a little bit deeper into the world and his life, and I hope we captured that on this album."

One of those songs ended up being "Baby, You Make Me Crazy," the album's liveliest moment inspired by Smith's breakup.

"I got dumped on the phone," Smith says with a light laugh.

"Scars" is another personal song on the album, focusing on his mom and dad, "Pray" was inspired after a trip to Iraq for charity work, and a boy coming out to his father makes up "HIM."

The latter was also created in response to an article Smith read about the singer not saying "he" or "him" in the songs on his debut album, even though he was a gay man.

Smith has at times been criticized for not discussing his sexuality enough, or for not being as vocal about gay issues, which rankles him.

"Words like 'spokesperson' and stuff really freaked me out at the beginning of my career because I didn't know who I was as a gay man. I was like, 'How can I speak for a community that I don't know,'" said Smith, who grew up in a small village in Cambridgeshire, England. "I don't know anything about being gay. All I know is that I like guys, and it's not OK in some places. That's kind of all I knew. I didn't have any gay friends. I haven't read any gay books. I hadn't seen any (gay) films. I hadn't even been to any drag shows before I released 'In the Lonely Hour,' and now I've been to hundreds."

"I've got more of an understanding now of where I come from," he continued. "And I feel like I know more now so now I feel more comfortable to write a song like 'HIM' because I can back it up with experience. A little bit of experience. Not a lot."

The response to "Thrill" has been thrilling so far: It debuted at No. 1 in both the U.S. and U.K. But despite success, Smith still grapples with being a best-selling performer.

"I still doubt myself as a singer every day. Every time I step off stage I have ask someone what it was like. ... I really think I need to work on it. But then I'm scared that if you sit there and start trying to accept everything that's happened you just become a (jerk)," he said, laughing.

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