Bill Keith
June 20, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Those are the real numbers, right?” Twenty-two-year-old Sam Smith has just received a phone call from his record label telling him that his breakout single ”Stay With Me” has cracked the top 10 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, and he doesn’t quite believe it.

He should. It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny June Wednesday, and EW is with the London native in New York City as he prepares for a day of promoting his debut album, In the Lonely Hour (out now). ”Stay With Me” has already gone platinum Stateside, thanks in part to Smith’s arresting performance on SNL in March, but things like the size of his hotel suite still thrill him (”Show yourself around. There are five beds! I don’t want to leave”), and a mission to track down a green smoothie (”As foul as I can find — I just hope it makes me skinny”) is still carried out by the singer himself, rather than by a string of beleaguered assistants.

”I’m very aware of the kind of order and the kind of rules in place with people who come from the U.K.,” he says. ”What we were doing on SNL defied all of that. No one knew who I was. It was the scariest moment of my life so far.” But the gambit paid off: Smith could be the first British male solo artist ever to debut at No. 1, meaning his mix of excruciatingly tender ballads and electro-tinged torch songs may just drown out the bubblegum pop of this summer’s pool-party playlists.

We spent 12 hours with Smith (who eventually did find a suitably disgusting smoothie) and watched as his transformation from English upstart to bona fide pop star went into overdrive.

Sam Smith: A Day in the Life of a Star on the Verge
11:00 AM While prepping for interviews in his hotel room, Smith gets word that ”Stay With Me” has just broken into Billboard‘s top 10. ”Unbelievable! This is the big one, right?” he asks.

11:30 AM Just before camera crews for a local radio station show up, he turns to his stylist: ”Are glasses okay? I’m worried people won’t recognize me.”

12:10 PM Lana Del Rey, whose new album drops the same day as Smith’s, has been playing on his laptop all morning. ”Should we maybe stop with the Lana now?” a manager half-jokes. ”But I love her!” Smith protests, before switching his playlist over to Grimes.

12:30 PM Strolling out to find a smoothie before heading uptown for more press, Smith spies street art promoting the British band Disclosure, with whom he collaborated on ”Latch,” the club hit that first caught the attention of his label. ”That’s the song that changed all of our lives,” he says.

1:45 PM ”This is how every interview should be, just talking about the music,” Smith says of his chat with NPR’s Melissa Block on All Things Considered.

2:15 PM Manhattan traffic has Smith running an hour late, and most of his team is in a minor panic. ”It’s going to be fine,” he says soothingly. ”No one is dying.” After waiting fruitlessly for a cab, he’s game to try the subway — only to discover that it isn’t running.

2:30 PM ”When you’re writing an album and nobody knows who you are, it’s very easy to pour yourself into it,” he says, back above ground. ”You don’t think about what that really means until moments like now when there’s posters of me around cities on subway platforms with the word lonely underneath my face. That’s when I’ve realized, ‘Maybe have I taken this too far?”’

3:05 PM Smith reunites with his bandmates back at the hotel and fills them in on an incident from earlier in the day. ”I saw I had a missed call that was three days old. I finally listened to the voicemail, and it was some man going on and on about how much he loved the album. And then he said something like ‘This is Elton.’ At first I was like, ‘Who is Elton?’ Then I realized and called him right back. I had the loveliest 10-minute conversation with Elton John!”

3:30 PM Smith grabs sushi before a routine checkup with his throat doctor. ”I don’t want to stop recording and touring. Unless I fall in love — that would be a reason to stop. But then I’ll have to break up with them to do another album. Oh, wait, no,” he jokes. ”First I need to do a two-timing album. From In the Lonely Hour to The Greedy Hour.

6:30 PM Fans, industry insiders, and contest winners begin lining up for Smith’s performance at Tribeca’s intimate 200-person-capacity iHeartRadio Theater.

9:20 PM Halfway through the set he launches into ”Latch,” his first real success. ”I was working as a bar-back when I recorded that,” he tells EW. ”Clearing glasses and cleaning toilets every 15 minutes. You can hear it in my voice that I wanted to be doing something else. There’s a real hunger behind that song.”

10:10 PM Smith’s first backstage guest is MTV cofounder and Clear Channel president John Sykes. ”This is only the beginning,” Sykes gushes, enveloping him in a hug. ”Make sure to let it all sink in.”

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