He first came on the U.K. music scene in 2012, singing on Disclosure’s breakout single “Latch,” but English singer Sam Smith’s ascension to the top of the U.S. charts was one of the most exciting musical stories of last year. The VH1 You Oughta Know artist’s No. 1 single “Stay With Me” was a defining song of 2014, and he has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and both Song and Record of The Year. He’s built up a huge following thanks to his understated yet powerful songwriting, and his tender, emotional vocals, which can soar from baritone to tenor for dramatic effect. Behind every great musician is usually a great teacher, and while Smith showed promise as a singer at an early age, it was under the tutelage of English jazz vocalist Joanna Eden that he matured into the artist we know today. Eden had been a professional musician for years, but never taught vocals until Smith’s parents asked her to mentor him 12 years ago. She continues to teach today, and is an active musician with an upcoming single co-authored by her most famous student. We spoke to Eden about her relationship with Smith and what it’s like teaching a superstar.
Tell us about your musical career and how you got started teaching.
Joanna Eden: I was a performer and had moved out of London, having been in the jazz scene for many years. I started doing a few gigs after I had my daughter, and Sam’s family saw one and said, “Do you teach?” Sam seemed to have so much confidence at nine years old, all the confidence I lacked. [Laughs.] I saw that as a beautiful, pure thing and went with it and encouraged it. I hadn’t had much proper training, but Sam recently said what he really liked about our lessons was that it was a sharing of ideas. It didn’t feel like a teacher-pupil relationship at all. It was really what I needed at that time in my life, to be playing with music again. It was as much a gift to me as it was to him, I think.
What were your lessons like?
I’m slightly ashamed to say that no two lessons were the same, because I’d have a baby on my knee and it was always a little bit chaotic. But he got used to that and his family was always very patient and sweet with me. I remember we’d look at people singing quite a lot and watch clips and listen. At the time I was in a big Ella Fitzgerald period — still am, really — and he’s mentioned me playing Irish folk singer Cara Dillon and loving that Celtic sound. It’s funny, I do hear a lot of that pentatonic Celtic sound coming through his songs in hindsight. So lessons would start in that fairly structured way, and then I’d go, “Try this” and the time would just fly by. We’d say, “Look at Marvin Gaye, look at what he’s doing to his face,” just to get excited about what makes a certain sound. It was like two children playing a lot of the time.
So straight off the bat, you felt he definitely had talent and potential?
He definitely had a good voice and courage, which is a massive part of it. The courage to explore and to play with things, the courage to make mistakes. When he was about 17, he started writing and he came out with this amazing song straight away. We were doing a demo on GarageBand and he said, “I want thunder here and then I want the sound of rain and then pizzicato strings.” He knew exactly what he wanted.
What did you tell him to encourage his songwriting?
Don’t write one song and yourself, write 10. I’ve got a friend that used to send me emails encouraging me to be more prolific as a writer, things like, “Paul McCartney wrote 200 songs before he wrote ’Love Me Do.'” In other words, you have to get through all the crap ones before you get the gems. I remember telling him that, and I also remember telling him not to worry about his life being boring. As long as you’re coming at your life from your own perspective and you have faith in your own view on life, then it will be unique. It will be absolutely special because you’re the only one that’s lived that life.
Watch Sam Smith perform “Stay With Me” at You Oughta Know Live In Concert.How much are you still in contact with Sam?
I email him every month or so, and his mom is a very good friend of mine. I’m close with the family and was with them over Christmas, so I hear a lot about what’s going on. I went to see him when he played in Cambridge in November, and he very kindly said, “My teacher’s here,” and made a big fuss over me and we met backstage. I’ve gotten into the habit of nagging him a little bit when I see him, “Are you eating okay? Are you looking after yourself?” I can’t imagine what he must be going through emotionally at such a young age, so I’m hoping that he’s got lots of help. Once I’ve nagged him for 20 minutes I move on to his guitarist and bass player and nag them — “Are you taking care of him? Can he talk to you?” — and they reassure me. He’s going through an amazing thing and I’m so proud of him.
Sam is nominated for six Grammys this year. Do you have any predictions?
Oh my goodness. “Stay With Me” is a hard one for anyone to top. There are really nice songs out there but that song has a classic quality to it. It sounds like something we’ll be listening to in 20 to 30 years. And it blends that classic sound with a modernity. I don’t quite know how he’s done that; I think his voice is the same, it’s very classic sounding but it’s also very of the moment. If he doesn’t win Song Of The Year, I would want to know why. I’ll be writing a very stiff letter. [Laughs.]
You’ve covered “Stay With Me” yourself and are are also releasing another song he wrote.
Yeah! Around the time of the Grammys I’ll be releasing my version of one of the firsts song he ever brought to me called “Hold On Tight.” I loved it right away. Every time I’ve seen him in the past few years, I’ve said, “You gotta do ’Hold On Tight,'” and he hasn’t done it. Last time I saw him he said, “Why don’t you do it?,” so I’m releasing that song. [Laughs.] And of course, now everyone wants to hear about a song co-written by Sam Smith! It’s amazing how life can turn around. I have a song that maybe radio stations will play thanks to my student. It’s got a story to it and people are listening and curious. I’m doing an EP and an album to follow in the summer and then going on the road and seeing what I can do.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring singers who want to be as good as Sam Smith?
Just play with your voice. Play with it, don’t think of it as an extension of your coolness. Think of it as a game you’re playing with yourself and just see how many mad, crazy noises you can make. That’s what I did with Sam. When you think of it in those free, playful ways — like a child playing with a toy — then you realize your capabilities. If you’re able to have courage and believe in that first little idea, believe in it. Because immediately, the next voice you will hear will be a devil on your shoulder saying that was rubbish. Ignore that voice. The first idea is usually a very precious one, and what Sam had was a belief in his ideas — it’s what I wish I believed when I was his age. But we all get there. Every dog has his day.
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[Photo Credit: Joanna Eden]