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‘Stay With Me’: The Story Behind Sam Smith’s Breakthrough Song

A tender result of searing emotional heartbreak, ‘Stay With Me’ sounded like a classic from the off, ensuring Sam Smith’s legacy.

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Sam Smith Stay With Me song
Photo: Universal Music Group Archives

They say what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. Though Sam Smith’s heart may have been shattered, not many people emerge from a failed romance with four Grammy Awards and a career that looks certain to stretch ahead for decades. Lifted from their debut album, In The Lonely Hour, ‘Stay With Me’ is the tender peak of all that emotional heartbreak.

“I was in a very dark place”

Much of the entire ten-track album was written about Smith’s troubled love life. “I was in a very dark place,” they admitted, and the gospel-flavoured ballad speaks of the measured desperation of that slow, burning moment when you know a one-night stand is leading nowhere, despite its arresting possibilities.

Written with James “Jimmy Napes” Napier, who has worked with Disclosure, Clean Bandit and Ellie Goulding, and William Phillips (from electronica act Tourist), ‘Stay With Me’ came together quickly after a simple set of piano chords suggested the foundations of a hit tune. With drums that build over the sequence, Smith then added layers and layers of vocal takes to the track. Recorded in a studio on London’s Old Street, there was an aching simplicity to the song – one of that small club of cuts that sounds like a classic-in-the-making the first time you hear it.

The breakout star of the year

So much of the success of Smith’s debut album lay in its emotional honesty. “I’ve only been in unrequited relationships where people haven’t loved me back,” the singer said at the time. Listeners responded strongly to the emotional bravery as much as the staggeringly assured songwriting, and In the Lonely Hour was an out-of-the-park blockbuster from the start.

With promotion for ‘Stay With Me’ taking Smith to Saturday Night Live in the States and The Graham Norton Show in the UK, the cut – released as a single on 14 April in the US and 18 May in the UK – went all the way to the top of the UK charts and peaked at No.2 on the Billboard listings. Along with its poignant – likely autobiographical – video, filmed in London, everything was building fast and ‘Stay With Me’ became the track that established Sam Smith as the biggest breakout star of the year.

“Thank you so much for breaking my heart”

Named Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year at the 57th Grammy Awards, ‘Stay With Me’ was a huge achievement for a barely-established artist – as Smith was at the time. If they were surprised, however, the success didn’t entirely leave them speechless. Displaying the articulate honesty they have since become famous for, Smith let rip during their acceptance speech at the end of the night (they were to win further trophies for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Album): “I want to thank the man who this record is about who I fell in love with last year. Just a quick one: thank you so much for breaking my heart because you just got me four Grammys.”

It was the sharpest two-finger salute in awards acceptance history!

Looking for more? Discover the best Sam Smith songs.

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