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Before their commercial breakthrough at the age of 21, the London-born singer and songwriter balanced their studies and music, sang in choirs and in bands, and performed in musical theater productions. They developed a passionate approach to singing inspired by their Catholic upbringing and numerous soul legends, and in the late 2000s headlined a couple low-profile independent singles, "Bad Day All Week" and "When It's Alright." Smith was barely out of their teens when, in late 2012, they reached a much larger audience as the featured vocalist on Disclosure's "Latch." A powerful and loping mixture of U.K. garage and contemporary dance-pop, the song went to number 11 in the U.K., where it also went platinum. Over in the U.S., it took significantly longer to take hold, but eventually hit number seven there and was certified platinum three times over.
The singer's first major-label solo single, released in February 2013, went in a more adult contemporary direction. Produced by Jimmy Napes and Steve Fitzmaurice, "Lay Me Down" recalled the pared-down ballads that had proved successful for Adele, another artist Smith admired. Only three months later, producer/songwriter Shahid "Naughty Boy" Khan followed his Emeli Sandé-fronted U.K. Top Ten hit "Wonder" with "La La La," featuring a lead vocal from Smith (who had just finished a series of dates in support of Sandé). It was an instant number one U.K. hit and reached number 19 in the States. That October, Smith issued the Nirvana EP, which included "Lay Me Down" and an acoustic version of "Latch." By the end of February 2014, they were back on top of the U.K. chart with "Money on My Mind," a single marrying their relaxed vocal with a frenetic production from Two Inch Punch. Smith's debut album, In the Lonely Hour, followed that May in the U.K., and topped the album chart. It arrived in the U.S. the following month and peaked at number two there. The singles "Stay with Me," "I'm Not the Only One," and "Lay Me Down" hit the Top Ten in both the U.K. and U.S. The number two seller of 2014 in the U.K. and U.S., behind only respective LPs by Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift, In the Loney Hour led to awards from organizations as varied as the BRITs, Billboard, BET, and the Recording Academy. Smith almost swept the "big four" Grammy categories by winning Best New Artist, as well as Song of the Year and Record of the Year, the latter two for the Darkchild version" of Stay with Me," produced by Rodney Jerkins. In the Lonely Hour didn't win Album of the Year, but it did take the award for Best Pop Vocal Album.
In 2015, Smith recorded another Disclosure collaboration, "Omen," eventually placed on the production duo's Caracal. Smith also earned the honor of being chosen to record the theme for a James Bond film. "Writing's on the Wall," recorded for Spectre, was the first Bond theme to go to number one in the U.K. An expanded version of In the Lonely Hour, the "Drowning Shadows Edition," was released that November with new material and previously released stray tracks added to the original album. Following Golden Globe and Academy Award wins for "Writing's on the Wall," Smith spent most of 2016 and early 2017 in the studio recording their follow-up album with previous collaborators Jimmy Napes and Steve Fitzmaurice. "Too Good at Goodbyes," the lead single from Smith's second album, was issued in September 2017. The ballad went to number one in the U.K. and the Top Five in the U.S. just before its parent release, The Thrill of It All, entered the U.K. and U.S. charts at number one. The promotional campaign wound down the next year, and Smith continued with singles across the remainder of 2018 and through 2019. These included three more Top Ten U.K. hits: the chart-topping Calvin Harris collaboration "Promises," the Normani duet "Dancing with a Stranger" (also Top Ten U.S.), and "How Do You Sleep?" Strides toward Smith's third album continued in 2020 with "To Die For," which peaked in the U.K. at number 18. ~ Andy Kellman & James Wilkinson