Taylor Swift regularly invited a wide range of surprise all-star guests onstage during her Red world tour, including Carly Simon, Jennifer Lopez and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump. As the tour wound down in London last February, she surprised fans by bringing out a relative unknown: British singer Sam Smith. Swift had discovered Smith's song "Money on My Mind" via U.K. Radio 1 DJ Greg James on Twitter. "[The] hook sounded nothing like anything else I'd heard," says Swift. "I learned that he was a brand-new artist who hadn't even been launched in the U.S. yet, but I felt this strange inclination to introduce my fans to him out at the O2 [Arena]. When I love something immediately, they usually react the same way."
Swift was right. Smith won over the crowd that night, and, driven by his hit "Stay With Me," his album In the Lonely Hour has become a Top 10 hit around the world, selling more than 3.5 million copies. He's up for six Grammys on February 8th – and appears on the latest cover of Rolling Stone (on stands Friday). "I'll never forget the moment I was standing onstage at soundcheck waiting for Sam to walk out onstage, and my band and I heard him sing into his mic from the side of the stage in our in-ear monitors," says Swift. "Everyone just stopped what they were doing and looked at me like 'Wait a second...' We were all completely stunned that this person sounded even better live than he did on his soulful, extraordinary recordings."
Swift continues, "The effortlessness of Sam's singing is what absolutely took our breath away. And that night, he had the same effect on the crowd. They weren't necessarily screaming for him because he was famous or recognizable to them. It was something more exciting than that. They were screaming for Sam because all 20,000 of them were realizing at the same time that they would remember seeing Sam Smith sing early on in his career for the rest of their lives. I know I will."
Smith wrote "Stay With Me" about his lonely period after moving to London. "I had a lot of one-night stands," he says. "I met a few dodgy friends, people I'm definitely not friends with now." Like many fans, Swift sees Smith's honesty and openness as part of his appeal: "There's something very pure and direct about the way Sam lives his life, and he's very transparent in his portrayal of his image," she says. "People just want someone real to listen to, and the vulnerability Sam is willing to project comes off as bravery because it's authentic. He is not just one thing. He is sad and he is excitable. He's stoic but he's joyful. He's naive and he's wise beyond his years. Showing yourself as a real, multi-faceted person is hard in this business because it seems at times like many artists are being encouraged to play a character. To play yourself is to truly be exposed, but I think it's what will set Sam apart from everyone else."
Swift and Smith have been seeing a lot of each other lately. "We got to really catch up at my 25th birthday party," Swift says. ("She let me hold her Grammy!" Smith notes). But one anecdote, from the American Music Awards in November, stands out in Swift's mind: "We were front row watching watching Ariana Grande, loving her performance. We're both pretty animated when we're watching other artists. At the end of her performance, she did some dance move that was so sexy and so cool, and at the same time, Sam and I both screamed out "YAS BITCH YAS!!" and then looked at each other and died laughing. I had this feeling that we'll be friends for life."