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On a sunny June Wednesday, EW is with the London native Sam Smith in New York City as he prepares for a day of promoting his debut album, In the Lonely Hour. His single ''Stay With Me'' has already gone platinum Stateside, thanks in part to Smith's arresting performance on Saturday Night Live in March. ''I'm very aware of the kind of order and the kind of rules in place with people who come from the U.K.,'' he says. ''What we were doing on SNL defied all of that. No one knew who I was. It was the scariest moment of my life so far.'' But the gambit paid off: Smith could be the first British male solo artist ever to debut at No. 1, meaning his mix of excruciatingly tender ballads and electro-tinged torch songs may just drown out the bubblegum pop of this summer's pool-party playlists.
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While prepping for interviews in his hotel room, Smith gets word that ''Stay With Me'' has just broken into Billboard's top 10. ''Unbelievable! This is the big one, right?'' he asks.
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Just before camera crews for a local radio station show up, he turns to his stylist: ''Are glasses okay? I'm worried people won't recognize me.''
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Lana Del Rey, whose new album drops the same day as Smith's, has been playing on his laptop all morning. ''Should we maybe stop with the Lana now?'' a manager half-jokes. ''But I love her!'' Smith protests, before switching his playlist over to Grimes.
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Strolling out to find a smoothie before heading uptown for more press, Smith spies street art promoting the British band Disclosure, with whom he collaborated on ''Latch,'' the club hit that first caught the attention of his label. ''That's the song that changed all of our lives,'' he says.
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''This is how every interview should be, just talking about the music,'' Smith says of his chat with NPR's Melissa Block on All Things Considered.
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''When I was recording the album, I was in a situation where I fell in love with someone who didn't love me back basically. And I was feeling really sorry for myself for that whole period, and I'd been through that a lot throughout my life—loving people who just don't love me back. When you're in that moment, you're always so wrapped up in how horrible it feels that you forget that you do come out of it. And I've come out of it, and I feel great.''
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Manhattan traffic has Smith running an hour late, and most of his team is in a minor panic. ''It's going to be fine,'' he says soothingly. ''No one is dying.'' After waiting fruitlessly for a cab, he's game to try the subway—only to discover that it isn't running.
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''When you're writing an album and nobody knows who you are, it's very easy to pour yourself into it,'' he says, back above ground. ''You don't think about what that really means until moments like now when there's posters of me around cities on subway platforms with the word lonely underneath my face. That's when I've realized, 'Maybe have I taken this too far?'''
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The singer has adopted a policy of not reading reviews. ''I read one album review where the reviewer basically said he thought the album could be lonelier. I literally was going to write back to him like, 'Do you want me to kill myself?''' Memo to that critic: ''I don't think I'll ever allow myself to fall for someone who doesn't love me back again because I can't write another album that's about unrequited love. It's kind of the end of that for me. That was my life before. I was a victim of unrequited love for too long and now I refuse to be.''
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Smith reunites with his bandmates back at the hotel and fills them in on an incident from earlier in the day. ''I saw I had a missed call that was three days old. I finally listened to the voicemail, and it was some man going on and on about how much he loved the album. And then he said something like 'This is Elton.' At first I was like, 'Who is Elton?' Then I realized and called him right back. I had the loveliest 10-minute conversation with Elton John!''
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Smith grabs sushi before a routine checkup with his throat doctor. ''I don't want to stop recording and touring. Unless I fall in love—that would be a reason to stop. But then I'll have to break up with them to do another album. Oh, wait, no,'' he jokes. ''First I need to do a two-timing album. From In the Lonely Hour to The Greedy Hour.''
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During his sound check, Smith delivered every seemingly out-of-reach note with complete nonchalance. When asked about his prospects for success Stateside, he says ''I'm not putting any pressure on myself. I feel like that anything that happens in America right now is a bonus for me. Good news on top of good news.''
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Fans, industry insiders, and contest winners begin lining up for Smith's performance at Tribeca's intimate 200-person-capacity iHeartRadio Theater.
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Just before taking the stage, Smith takes a moment to evaluate the events that brought him to this place: ''I guess I've been at it since I was 12. I mean I thought I was at it, but I wasn't quite in the game until I was probably like 18 or 19 when I met my manager. The past two years, there's been a lot of learning on the job—with a few bits and bumps.''
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Halfway through the set he launches into ''Latch,'' his first real success. ''I was working as a bar-back when I recorded that,'' he tells EW. ''Clearing glasses and cleaning toilets every 15 minutes. You can hear it in my voice that I wanted to be doing something else. There's a real hunger behind that song.''
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Smith's first backstage guest is MTV cofounder and Clear Channel president John Sykes. ''This is only the beginning,'' Sykes gushes, enveloping him in a hug. ''Make sure to let it all sink in.''