Before he was nominated for six Grammys, Sam Smith was a Little Monster. As he recalls in his new Rolling Stone cover story, when Smith was 17, growing up in the English countryside, he faked a note to his teachers, saying he was sick so he could line up for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball at London’s O2 Arena: “I was front row, fully Gaga’d up!”
The only problem: he left the fake document open on a school computer and ended up in detention for three days. “I got in a lot of trouble,” he says. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. . .I would go to those shows to feed my hunger and I’d walk out of that show saying, ‘I’m gonna do that.’ Without Gaga, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Smith ended up seeing four Monster Ball shows, even going alone at least once and hanging out with fans he’d never met before. At 18, inspired by Gaga’s story – in which she played Lower East Side clubs while living in tiny apartment – Smith moved to London and started working as a barback. “That story of her hustle – I copied it. I moved to London. I knew I couldn’t do it in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, so I moved to London and I grinded. I tried to meet the right people and I focused on my trade and my art and my work, and I went for it,” he says. “I wore some really weird things for a while – bright colors and stuff like that, just trying to kind of see if that would work for me.”
Smith still watches his idol’s career closely, noting he loves her last LP, Artpop (which received mixed reviews). “She’s a chameleon. And even just her doing this Tony Bennett record – I was like, ‘Why not? Why can’t someone go and do a jazz album?’ She could go and do an album full of Indian music if she wanted to.
“She’s limitless,” he continues. “And that’s something I say to everyone – my team, everyone. I want to be around limitless people. Anything’s possible. If I turn round tomorrow and say I want to be a spaceman, I could do that. You can do whatever you want to do. And she taught me that.”
Gaga is equally effusive about the budding superstar she unknowingly influenced so powerfully. “Watching Sam become a star, and then later finding out the influence and inspiration my work has had on him has been one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had as a growing artist,” she writes in an e-mail. “Just as Sam hopes, I can only hope the deepest parts of my vision will touch anyone. But to touch someone as profoundly talented as he is, and be part of the building of his confidence, his dreaming, his will to survive the industry — I couldn’t be more proud and honored. I was Sam. I still am Sam in a lot of ways.”
Like most U.S. fans, Gaga discovered Smith during his appearance on SNL in March. “I had heard Sam’s music through friends, but when I watched his performance on Saturday Night Live, I knew how powerful his gift was,” Gaga writes. “I was with my boyfriend, about to leave for tour again the next day, and Sam was singing ‘Stay With Me.’ We both had such an honest emotional reaction to his performance. I can really relate to his experiences of loneliness, as well as his interpretation: soulful, painful, helpless. I remember thinking how unique it was to have such a visceral reaction to a modern artist. So much new music is lacking in honesty, but where many artists are poor Sam is rich — rich in substance, life, and authenticity.”
Gaga leaves Smith with some words of wisdom as he begins his career as a pop star: “My advice is that while everything he knows begins to change around him, to stay as relaxed and grounded as possible. Fame doesn’t change the artists as much as it changes those around them. Continue to suffer for your art, Sam, but don’t allow anyone around you who is not putting your talent and happiness first. That is where your creativity lives. Keep those things and your creative process very precious, and someday when one of your fans becomes a star, support them. Pass along your gift to the world. You will be remembered forever.”