One to watch: Sam Smith

Guest vocalist on huge hits by Disclosure and Naughty Boy, this soulful 21-year-old is on the brink of solo success

A short while ago, it occurred to Sam Smith, as he walked through a busy part of London, that "nobody knows who I am. But most of the people in this country have heard me sing". It's the peculiar feat of the featured artist, Smith's name huddled up in brackets on two recent, enormous tracks. He's familiar to everyone and no one.

Smith, a tall and red-cheeked 21-year-old from Cambridgeshire, has a rich, rare singing voice. It expressed heartache on Latch, the record that broke the electronic duo Disclosure last autumn, and it nagged and beguiled on La La La, Naughty Boy's infectious summer hit, in which Smith sang of "covering my ears like a kid... Going la, la, la". The song went to No 1 and has since clocked up population-of-Brazil viewing figures on YouTube. As a guest vocalist on hit songs, Smith says he "was able to perform and practise while not being the front man. Now it comes to being a front man myself, I have some experience".

It's that point in a featured artist's career when he must look to the stars, wish on an Emeli Sandé or a Katy B, and try to execute the tricky transition into a solo career. For Smith, this means a headline booking at the Shepherd's Bush Empire (his February gig has already sold out) and a debut album, due next spring on Capitol, that he's been working up in the London studio of producer and writer James Napier.

"On Latch I was singing about love," Smith tells me, on a sofa in the corner of this studio, "but I've never physically experienced it. And I'm kind of sick of listening to albums about the turmoils of relationships, never having had one. So I wanted to write an album for people who have never been in love. I want to be a voice for lonely people."

Napier plays me some of their collaborations – less hurried, much sadder, than the stuff that made Smith's name. There's a track called I'm Not the Only One in which Smith's anxious vocal is laid over a woozy, Tom Waits-like piano track, and it has the definite whiff of a hit. I tell Smith he's probably going to have a good year. He's heard this before.

Smith was 12, and a great belter-outer of Chaka Khan, when it became clear he had a voice worth managing. "I had six managers before the age of 18. After school, I would be in a studio. It was good and bad. The good was that my recording ability, now, has benefited. The bad was that there were a lot of false promises. From a very young age, I was told, 'It's all going to kick off for you next year.' "

It didn't. Certainly not when Smith was with the manager who wanted to position him as a Michael Bublé from Great Chishill. Smith remembers being told: the key to success is old people.

By 18, Smith was at a bit of a loss. His parents had just split up and, trying to get a foothold in London, he was commuting from Cambridgeshire to work at a bar near St Paul's. One of his tasks was to clean the loos. He wrote a song called Little Sailor, about a boy who'd had a rough time in the music industry (and had had six managers), and though the song has since been disowned as juvenilia, it won him the attention of a new, cannier management team. Introductions were made to Disclosure, to Naughty Boy... Before long, his voice had been heard more than 200m times on YouTube.

"My concept," he says, considering the immediate future, "is to live my life as hard as I can and then write songs about it. Suck every moment for what it's worth." Soon he'll play the Troubadour in Los Angeles, another sell-out. It really does look like Smith's going to have a good 2014. Though let's not jinx it.


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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