‘Oh my God, am I going to regret this?’
Two years after a very public breakdown, Sheridan Smith is baring her soul – and facing her critics – in song
but the wheels were coming off, and when I crashed it was a big bang,” she says. In March 2016, after missing performances of the West End musical Funny Girl in which she was playing the lead, and conducting foul-mouthed spats with trolls on Twitter, Smith quit the stage for two months.
The crisis was precipitated by her father’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. “That was the catalyst, and suddenly I was having a proper meltdown. I’m upset that my dad had to see that. But at least I got myself better to be with him for his last days.” Her father, Colin, died aged 80 in November 2016.
She admits to “self-medicating” and says “I was in a really bad way”. Grief sent her over the edge, but there were deep insecurities at work, too. “That wild girl stuff is drink-fuelled bravado and actually, when I’m on my own, I’m like a little broken sparrow wanting to be put back together.” Now, Smith has used her personal toubles as grist for a first venture into songwriting: a bravura, no-holds-barred album called A Northern Soul. “It’s pretty revealing, isn’t it?” she says, looking a bit worried. “Oh my God, am I going to regret this?”
To a swaggering retro-soul musical setting, bursting with punchy horns, lush strings and a clutch of big, weepy ballads,
Smith lays her life on the line. Are You Just Sleeping is a tremulous number addressing her father’s death (“I had 18 takes before I could get to the end without crying,” she admits). Handle With Care lays bare her vulnerability; Ain’t That Funny focuses on the private sadness of a comedienne; Why Can’t I Fall in Love and The One expose insecurities about a disastrous love life, while Rock Bottom turns her meltdown into a bruising anthem: “I’m going to come down like I’ve forgotten,” she sings, “I’m working my way to rock bottom.”
Smith knows how to deliver a lyric, as she demonstrated on her self-titled debut album of show tunes last year. The follow up, though, is more contemporary – with shades of Amy Winehouse and Adele – and more personal. “It has been really cathartic getting all this stuff out,” she says.
She describes the album as a team effort, with collaborators including Jimmy Hogarth – the Grammy-winning producer of
Amy Winehouse and James Bay – and in-demand songwriters Amy Wadge (who has written hits for Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue) and Eg White (who has worked with Adele). “They did all the hard work really,” she says. “It was so nice to go into the studio, rather than back on stage. You can look like s---, you don’t have to learn lines, you just hang out with lovely people, talk about stuff and try and make it into a song. It’s kind of like therapy.”
Smith grew up among a musical family in a small town near Doncaster. Her parents played the Northern club circuit as country music duo The Daltons. Her younger brother, Damian, leads the indie-rock band The
Torn. Smith joined the National Youth Music Theatre, where she was spotted by an agent in a production of Bugsy Malone and turned professional at the age of
16. She never went to drama school – “we couldn’t have afforded it!” – before achieving national fame in well loved sitcoms The Royle Family and Gavin & Stacey. She went on to star in such acclaimed television dramas as Mrs Biggs and Cilla, and on stage switched effortlessly between the serious dramas of Ibsen and Rattigan and big production musicals such as Legally Blonde and Funny Girl.
Twenty-four years on from what she still thinks of as her “lucky break”, Smith has two Olivier awards, a Bafta and an OBE. “It sounds ridiculous but the more successful I got, the more I felt like I had impostor syndrome,” she says. “Like I’m not as good as they think and I’m going to get found out. Then the panic attacks kicked in and I would party more just to try and drown out the noise and self-doubt.”
Smith won’t duck responsibility for her very public crisis. “I am the one who went mad and was drunk falling out of clubs with different people and on Twitter being an idiot. I’ve done a lot of stupid things.” Yet her treatment in some quarters of the British
‘When a man parties, it’s rock ’n’ roll. When a woman does, it’s “Look at the state of her!”’