‘Doing something Unholy’: Sam Smith breaks records and barriers with new music

Sam Smith is having a moment.

Their song Unholy could be the song of the summer, reaching number one in the US, UK and Australian charts, as well as the soundtrack to more than 2.4 million TikToks.

Their fourth album “Gloria” was released last Friday and is expected to blow up the charts.

Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, and the White House gigs are up and they’re set to play the Grammys.

And to top it off, the singer visited Australia for a few weeks and managed to pet a koala.

“They were so soft and sweet,” Sam told News Breakfast, giggling.

If you’ve been in a bar, or on a dance floor, or spent a lot of time on social media in the past few months, you’ve surely heard or seen Sam Smith.

The Brit first scored a global hit ten years ago with the ballad Stay With Me and became known as the reigning sovereign of heartache.

But Unholy heralded a new era for the singer, not just comfortable in her own skin, but proud of her sexuality and gender (she came out as non-binary in 2019) and ready to party.

“‘Unholy’ sounds like nothing else in popular music right now,” Lars Brandl, Billboard’s Australia correspondent, said of Gloria’s second single.

“Its melody is gorgeous, it’s catchy, with light beats and hints of production ear candy.”

And of course there’s their gorgeous, ethereal voice – hitting high notes like honey – which Sam says they’ve developed by “just trying to be like Aretha”.

Doing something Wicked

Unholy – a tale of a man who leaves his wife and children at home to do “something unholy” – is notable not only for being great, but also for making Sam Smith the first non-binary artist to reach number one in markets around the world.

Kim Petras, who features on the song and is due to headline World Pride in Sydney next month, is the first trans artist to wear the title.

“I have to give myself a little pat on the back because it’s an amazing thing, you know, to get so many people dancing,” Sam said of the song’s success.

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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 flourish,” says Chris McAllister, founder of trans performance night Queers Of Joy and board member of Trans Pride Australia.

“Growing up, I didn’t know a person of the opposite sex. It was seen as a strange thing, a mental health problem.’

Chris McAllister, founder of trans performance night Queers Of Joy. (Delivered)

Chris says Sam Smith is helping to normalize gender diversity on a global scale.

The millions of TikTokkers lip-syncing to Unholy might not know their favorite artist is weird, but that might be part of the point, too.

“It is good for the future that it is normalizing [through performers like Sam Smith].

“We will not need to educate the children. It will be something that is quite normal.”

Uncharted territory

Gloria is rich in themes and musical styles, far beyond the heartfelt ballads that Sam Smith made his name on.

“I just think my first three records were really about heartbreak and sadness and heartache became a really safe place for me. I would go into the studio and writing about it was easy,” Sam said.

“So for me, my challenge on this record … I wanted to write songs that were joyful and felt strong, stronger in terms of the message and more confident.”

Sam says the album feels liberating and is peppered with party songs filled with sexy desire, such as Gimme and the disco-inspired relationship anthem I’m Not Here to Make Friends.

There is also a strong theme of self-love and acceptance, exemplified by the first single Love Me More and repeated again on the album in songs including Perfect.

“I definitely classify myself as a recovering perfectionist,” says Sam.

A man stands and looks at the camera.  They are wearing a navy blue blazer with a black t-shirt underneath, short blonde hair and earrings.
Sam Smith returns with his first studio album since 2020. (Provided by: Michael Bailey Gates)

“I think a lot of society has led us to believe that we can have these perfect lives, and through television and, you know, reality TV and social media, all that stuff. But life is much messier than that.”

Sam doesn’t want to be seen as a role model — “I’m too inadequate” — but has inevitably become one, not just for queer and trans people, but for the body acceptance movement as well.

Having previously had well-documented body image issues, the singer now proudly flaunts her body on social media and in film clips.

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Back to your roots

Sam’s favorite 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, to me, is a spirit within me,” Sam explains.

“This is my mother’s voice. The voice of my sister, my grandmother, all the women in my life. I think it’s the voice of all the divas I’ve studied and loved in pop music. And it’s this female energy and voice that has always been in my music.

“And it’s really a voice that says, keep going, you know, dust yourself off when the going gets tough.”

Gloria on tour

Things could get a little tough for Sam Smith as they embark on a world tour in support of Gloria this year, including a slew of dates in Australia in November, especially when they have to leave their menagerie of animals at home.

The latest addition to the brood led by Velma Bernadoodle are two turtles named Nutmeg and Paprika, which Sam got for Christmas.

A little of the melancholy that Sam is so famous for comes through when talking about why they want the famously long-lived animals.

“I want something to be with me on my deathbed, it’s always been there. It’ll give me comfort,” said Sam.

– I’ve always been a drama queen.

Sam’s visit to Australia, where they performed a concert for a select group of several hundred media and influencers paid by the South Australian government, generating controversy for the South Australian Tourism Commission – which won’t say how much Sam was paid – but that doesn’t seem to has affected the performer himself.

In fact, their January trip Down Under generated such positive buzz, Unholy went back to number one while they were here.

Billboard’s Lars Brandl expects the album to do just as well.

“Expect Gloria to be a global mainstream hit. There’s something for everyone and enough gems and surprises for multiple listens.”

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