Three shows into his big summer comeback, Sam Smith has exciting news to share:
"I feel like I'm singing more powerfully than I ever have in my life."
These are words his fans have been waiting weeks to hear, even if, technically speaking, he didn't actually say them out loud. Smith's message came to the Times via email, in part because, as you may have heard, his voice these days is a precious but limited resource.
In April, Smith was on tour in Sydney, Australia, when he suffered a hemorrhage on his vocal cords, derailing the biggest year of his burgeoning career.
Smith, then 22, had nearly swept this year's Grammys, winning trophies for Record and Song of the Year (Stay With Me), Best Pop Vocal Album (In the Lonely Hour) and Best New Artist, and he was lined up to play arenas all over the world. He was a musical anomaly, an openly gay British soul singer whose prim, pasty appearance belied the confessional heartache of his gospel-tinged pop.
The hemorrhage put a full stop to Smith's victory lap, and thrust his career and future gigs — including his July 21 concert at Tampa's Amalie Arena — into question.
"My body basically told me to stop," Smith wrote.
For a singer of Smith's caliber, every vocal issue is a potential life-changer. In recent years, vocal maladies have forced singers like Adele (polyps), John Mayer (granuloma) and Meghan Trainor (vocal hemorrhaging) to put not only their careers but their speaking voices on hold.
During his recovery from surgery — performed, he said, by "the best vocal doctor in the world, who also operated on Adele and Julie Andrews" — Smith said he couldn't speak for three weeks and couldn't sing for nearly eight.
"The surgery wasn't painful at all," Smith wrote. "The painful part for me was the test period and having no choice but to stop." Even during recovery, he wrote, "I was never really in any pain, just discomfort at not doing what I love."
Smith has been singing since childhood, and producers were drawn to his uniquely soulful warble in his late teens. He first gained fame singing lead vocals on two EDM hits, Disclosure's Latch and Naughty Boy's La La La, but it was In the Lonely Hour — and particularly his own smash single Stay With Me, a swelling plea for intimacy from a man who's "not good at a one-night stand" — that won him legions of gob-smacked admirers.
"This was a white guy with this soulful voice, this Luther Vandross kind of feel, this honesty, this availability," said Rayvon Owen, who sang two Smith songs (Lay Me Down and I'm Not The Only One) on the past season of American Idol. "A lot of guys, we're like, 'We've got to be tough!' That's why he broke so huge, because it was different from what a lot of guys do."
The vocal surgery didn't diminish Smith's emotional openness; quite the contrary. He admits he's nervous about how his voice will hold up during the rest of this year's "very intense" touring schedule. He has more than 30 concerts lined up through the end of 2015, including top-shelf slots at festivals like Lollapalooza and Rock in Rio.
"It's going to be hard to get through it," he wrote. "My voice feels better than ever today; however, it's going to take a while for me to get my full confidence back."
But, he added, the experience has already informed him as an artist. It may even inspire new songs for his followup to In the Lonely Hour.
"I never sat back and realized how much I love music," Smith wrote. "And also how much my voice is an instrument. I always find myself thinking I'm less of a musician because I can't play anything. Now, I realize the voice is one of the most sacred instruments there is."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.