“Cheers, darlings!” chirps Sam Smith, holding a “fake gold, trashy” champagne flute in one hand and an iPhone in the other. The 27-year-old Oscar and Grammy winner hosted an impromptu online party on Thursday (April 16) to celebrate the release of their new single “I’m Ready” featuring Demi Lovato, which dropped at midnight on the east coast.
As it turns out, lockdown has just been extended another three weeks in the U.K., so it’s a party of one. But Smith also invited 15 million Instagram followers to join via video: “I’m in my living room — I put on some foundation and I put on a nice outfit,” said Smith, who is dog-sitting for their sister. The highlight of the live chat is a tour of their cozy crib, which includes a white piano, a massive framed portrait of Judy Garland and what appears to be stacks of artsy coffee table tomes. “That’s like a porn book,” said Smith, taking a sip of bubbly. “I’m getting tipsy!”
Despite the outpouring of love — or at least heart emojis — from thousands of fans around the world, Smith admits to feeling supalonely in isolation: “I miss my friends. I miss my dad — Oh, I miss my dad.” And that’s not all: “I miss poppers,” Smith revealed, was referring to amyl nitrate. (“No, I shouldn’t say that on live — that’s really bad.”) Smith also misses performing but remains optimistic about an international tour in 2021: “It’s going to be next year it’s looking like — because we don’t know what’s going to happen, do we?” They sigh and take a big swig of champagne.
Smith may be solo and isolated at the moment but they fondly recall bonding with a supportive squad of like-minded LGBTQ creatives in Los Angeles last year. The singer lived in L.A. for a few months while recording their forthcoming third album and coming to embrace a non-binary identity. “This song came at a time when I was just playing and having fun,” said Smith.
“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith tweeted at the time. “When I changed my pronouns earlier in the year, it felt like this time to really explore and I had permission to dress up how I wanted,” said Smith, who accidentally refers to themself as “Mister” at one point. (“Even I mix up my pronouns all the time,” they admit.) “I could be as femme as I want to be,” Smith added. “It felt like I had this new body. I went out and danced so much and felt so free.” Naturally, their adventurous new outlook inspired a departure from the traditional soul vibe of earlier albums. “Musically I’m going to go in so many different avenues and try different things because it’s fun.”
Case in point: “I’m Ready,” which features edgy production as well as a gospel choir. Smith is bracing for potential backlash. “Look, I’m warning you: It’s a lot when you hear the song at first,” they say. “You’re going to be like: ‘Woah!’ It’s really in your face and it’s not chill at all.” Lyrically, it’s a cross between a Pride anthem and a big-budget sequel to Demi Lovato’s recent song about self-love, the aptly titled “I Love Me.” The point — to paraphrase RuPaul — is that you can’t love anyone else until first you learn to love yourself.
It’s an unconventional duet but Smith found the perfect partner — and perhaps a kindred spirit — in Lovato, who has been on a similar journey of self-discovery. As a recovering alcoholic who suffered a near-fatal overdose, Lovato is likely familiar with feeling insecure and uncomfortable in her own skin. “Me and Demi just sat and spoke for hours and hours about life,” Smith recalls of the collaboration, which was conceived as an aspirational “reach for the stars song.” (Smith advises: “Talk to yourself as if you were someone you love — that’s what I’m learning — emphasis on the word learning.”)
Smith rocks a wrestling singlet and eyeliner in the video directed by Jora Frantzis, who envisioned a “Queer Olympics” where glam competitors do everything the actual athletes did — like the 100-meter dash — in heels. “We’re reclaiming sports for ourselves,” explains Smith, who remembers being bullied in the locker room during gym class. “I hated rugby and just wanted to do sports with the girls,” they say. A decade later, the fantasy was fulfilled with a little help from their friends, including trans singer-songwriter Shea Diamond, genderfluid Gigi Goode from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and designer Alok Vaid-Menon, who is gender non-conforming like Smith. “It reminds me of Britney’s ‘Crazy’ video,” said the singer.
“A lot of love went into making the song and the video and that’s why I think this is OK to release right now,” added Smith. “Hopefully it will make you smile — that’s the aim — and bring a tiny bit of relief during the day. Because the days are long and hard and very, very, very strange.”