'Doing something Unholy': Sam Smith breaks records and barriers with new music
Sam Smith is having a moment.
Their song Unholy may well be the song of the summer, reaching number one in the US, UK and Australian charts, as well as being the soundtrack to more than 2.4 million TikToks.
Their fourth album, Gloria, was released last Friday and is expected to storm up the charts.
Gigs on Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show and at the White House are all in the bag, and they're due to perform at the Grammys.
And, to top it off, the singer visited Australia for a couple of weeks and got to pat a koala.
"They were so soft and cute," Sam told News Breakfast, giggling.
If you've been in a bar, or on a dance floor, or spent much time on social media over the last couple of months you will have heard or seen Sam Smith.
The Brit first had a global hit ten years ago with the ballad Stay With Me, and became known as the reigning sovereign of heartache.
But Unholy has heralded a new era for the singer, not just comfortable in their own skin, but proud of their sexuality and gender (they came out as non-binary in 2019) and ready to party.
"'Unholy sounds like nothing else in popular music right now," Lars Brandle, Billboard's Australia correspondent, said of Gloria's second single.
"Its melody is magnificent, it's catchy, with slappy beats and touches of production ear candy."
And of course it has their magnificent, otherworldly voice — hitting high notes like honey – which Sam says they crafted by "just trying to be like Aretha."
Unholy — a tale about a man who leaves his wife and kids at home to get up to "something unholy" — is notable not only because it's a banger, but for making Sam Smith the first out non-binary artist to reach number one in markets across the world.
Kim Petras, who features on the song and is due to headline World Pride in Sydney next month, is the first trans performer to hold the title.
"I've got to allow myself a little bit of a pat on the back, because it's an incredible thing, you know, to have made that many people dance," Sam said about the success of the song.
For the non-binary and gender diverse community it means so much more than just another party anthem.
"It's absolutely fantastic … for people to see trans people and non-binary people thriving," says Chris McAllister, founder of trans performance night Queers Of Joy, and board member of Trans Pride Australia.
"When I was growing up you didn't know a gender diverse person. It was seen as weird thing, like a mental health issue."
Chris says Sam Smith is helping to normalise gender diversity on a global scale.
The millions of TikTokkers lip-syncing to Unholy may not all know their favourite artist is queer, but that can also be part of the point.
"It bodes well for the future, that it is normalised [through performers like Sam Smith].
"We won't need to educate kids. It will be something that is just normal."
Gloria is rich with themes and musical styles far beyond the heartache ballads Sam Smith made their name from.
"I just think that my first three records were really about heartbreak and sadness, and heartache became a really safe place for me. I'd go in the studio, and writing about that felt easy," Sam said.
"And so for me my challenge of this record … I wanted to write songs that had the felt joyful and felt strong, stronger in terms of the messaging and more confident."
Sam speaks of the album feeling like a liberation, and it's peppered with party songs filled with sexy desire, like Gimme and the disco-inspired hook-up anthem I'm Not Here to Make Friends.
There's also a strong theme of self-love and acceptance, exemplified by the first single Love Me More and repeated again on the album on songs including Perfect.
"I definitely class myself as a recovering perfectionist," Sam says.
"I think that a lot of society has made us believe that we can have these perfect lives, and through TV and, and, you know, reality TV and social media, all these things. But life is just so much more messy than that."
Sam doesn't want to be seen as a role model – "I'm too flawed" — but inevitably has become one not only for queer and gender diverse people, but also for the body acceptance movement
Having previously had well-documented body image issues, the singer is now proudly flaunting their body on social media and in film clips.
Sam's favourite song on the album is the title track, Gloria, a stunning hymn sung with a choir and recorded in a church in the town where they went to primary school.
"Gloria, for me is a spirit within me," Sam explains.
"It's my mum's voice. My sister's voice, my grandma, all the women within my life. I think it's the voice of all the divas I've studied and loved in pop music. And it's this feminine energy and voice that has always been in my music.
"And it really is a voice that says keep going you know, dust yourself off when when things get tough."
Things may get a little tough for Sam Smith, as they embark on a world tour in support of Gloria this year, including multiple dates in Australia in November, particularly as they have to leave their menagerie of animals at home.
The latest addition to the brood led by Velma the Bernadoodle is two tortoises, called Nutmeg and Paprika, that Sam got for Christmas.
A little of the melancholy Sam is so well known for emerges talking about their reason for wanting the famously long-lived animals.
"I want something to be on my deathbed with me, that's always been there. It would give me comfort," Sam said.
"I've always been a drama queen."
Sam's visit to Australia, where they performed a concert for a select group of a few hundred media and influencers paid for by the South Australian government, generating controversy for the SA Tourist Commission – which won't say how much Sam was paid – but that doesn't seem to have rubbed off on the performer themselves.
In fact, their January trip Down Under caused such a positive buzz, Unholy went back up to number one while they were here.
Lars Brandle from Billboard expects the album to do just as well.
"Expect Gloria to be a global, mainstream hit. There's a little something for everyone, and enough gems and surprises for repeat listens."
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