Interview: Emeli Sandé on coming of age with new album

The quietly spoken girl from Alford with the big voice is back. Emeli Sandé's new record reflects what she's learned over the past four years, she tells Janet Christie.

Emeli Sandé has returned after a four-year absence. Picture: Calum Buchan

Emeli Sandé is back. Four years since the 29-year-old from Aberdeenshire exploded onto the music scene with a platinum quiff and platinum first album, she’s back this week with a follow up, Long Live The Angels. She’s also back home in London after a whirlwind of promotion that has seen her take in Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Later...With Jools Holland, gigs in LA, radio and TV in Paris and performing to a home crowd at Oran Mór in Glasgow.

“Yeah, I got back yesterday from Paris. I’m back in my house,” she says, satisfied, her soft Alford accent, a contrast to her big singing voice.

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“I was in France for two days and before that LA. We’ve been doing a lot of album promotion, radio and TV, packed a lot in. So it’s been a bit busy, but all quite fun. Hopefully it was worth it.”

Emeli Sande wins British Female Solo Artist and Mastercard British Album of the Year at the Brit Awards 2013. Picture: Getty Images

If the reception is anything like the one her first album received, it will be. With three number one UK singles, including Next to Me, Our Version of Events was the UK best-selling album of 2012 and the second biggest selling the following year. It beat The Beatles’ record by spending 63 consecutive weeks in the top ten and sold more than 4.6 million copies worldwide. Sandé performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in London, won three BRIT Awards and sang for President Obama in the White House.

But if her music career was going stratospheric her personal life wasn’t quite so well-starred. As fame and touring took its toll, her ten year-relationship with Adam Gouraguine, the marine biologist she started dating at 17 and married in 2012, foundered and ended in divorce after a year. Exhausted, Sandé disappeared, took herself off and wrote her way through the turmoil, producing hundreds of songs that have now found their way onto the album.

“I knew I had put so much on pause. Travelling around you do that. You put your personal life on hold, so I knew I had to take time off to know myself and what I wanted to do. Towards the end of last year I felt ready to get out there and show the music.”

So with that level of success for a first album and the full glare of publicity that that brings, and a personal life that went into meltdown, has it been a difficult second album?

Emeli Sande wins British Female Solo Artist and Mastercard British Album of the Year at the Brit Awards 2013. Picture: Getty Images

Sandé laughs.

“I didn’t feel pressure from the outside,” she says. “When I write I take myself away and surround myself with friends and musicians, people I love, so any pressure comes from me, nitpicking and making it right.

“I wanted to make something that was worth four years out and reflected what those years of growth were for me. I wanted to tell a story of survival, that was very honest about the lows and the highs. I wanted to say you can get through it and find self-love, which I found towards the end, that’s the message.”

So rather than being a break up album, Long Live The Angels is more of a series of diary entries tracking her journey from trauma (Hurts) to solitude (Lonely), then optimism (Babe) and celebration (Highs and Lows). The end result is stripped down acoustic guitar ballads, R&B and rap (in Garden she had “so much fun” collaborating with Jay Electronica and Áine Zion) soul, euphoric choral vocals and African roots, all celebrating Sandé’s eclectic sound.

“Out of respect for everyone involved I put how I felt out through the music, through songs. I’m never personal or out to attack. All of this album, for me, was talking about my own experience. I’m not talking about a particular person, or one particular relationship. Hurts is about so many different relationships in my life where I wanted to tell someone how it felt.

“I feel like the last four years changed me. I’m much more realistic in my view of the world and my place in it. I have grown up a lot. Before I shied away from being independent and having responsibilities and being a grown up. As long as you do your job writing songs, everything is done for you, which is amazing, but I needed to learn grown up skills and develop knowledge and independence, self-awareness and identity. Now I’m more confident in what I want to say. It’s a cliché, but it’s about understanding yourself and your identity. Over this time I stepped into womanhood and adulthood and understood the reality of life. I went on a crash course of life. It was a coming of age.”

Sandé, real name Adele Emely Sandé, which she changed to avoid confusion with Adele, always sang as a child, writing her first song at the age of 11. Inspired by soul, gospel, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, Bob Dylan and Tracy Chapman, she sang in school shows and talent competitions, landing the role of Mary in the nativity play, winning praise for a voice she describes as “soulful, emotional”.

“That’s when I started enjoying the response, and really wanted to keep doing it more,” she says.

“My mum says I was singing before I was talking. I used to go around the garden humming tunes before I could speak. Then around the age of seven my family thought this isn’t just a kid thing, she really likes singing. My dad said he had an aunty in Zambia that used to go into singing trances for up to three hours. She’d be cooking and start singing and they knew they were going to go hungry. I think that’s what I do.”

But with a father who was a teacher at her school, education was prized in her family and something she wanted to pursue. It was while she was at university in Glasgow studying medicine that a chance encounter in 2009 with Beyoncé producer Naughty Boy saw her singing guest vocals on Chipmunk’s UK top 10 hit Diamond Rings, leading to a deal with Virgin in 2010. Her medical studies were put on hold and she wrote songs for urban acts like Wiley, Wretch 32 and Chip and international acts like Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Katy Perry.

Although music was always what Sandé wanted to do, part of her still misses medicine and studying.

“I enjoyed the challenge and using a completely different side of my brain, the logical side. Now I’m using the other, creative side. But to go back into it would take too long to study. Maybe I could explore music therapy some time,” she says and tells me about her work with music charity Nordoff Robbins.

“You see children transformed. Just the sound of a cymbal, or the change from a major to a minor chord. There are so many things it can help with.”

If anyone knows about the therapeutic effects of music, it’s Sandé, and it’s no surprise that when she stepped out of the limelight and took a trip to Zambia with her father, visiting his birthplace and family there, things inevitably took a musical route.

“The whole trip was incredible to me. I felt changed when I came back to the UK. So fulfilled. I was more confident in myself and my music. I met my grandmother, who I had met once when I was a baby, but not as an adult. That was phenomenal. And everyone there in my family was a musician. It’s in their blood. They can all sing in beautiful, high harmonies, not from a score, just singing. So it all made sense for me and brought a lot of things home. Like why I’m addicted to singing. In Zambia every night we were lighting fires and singing spiritual songs. My dad was singing with his family, which he hadn’t done in 20 years.”

Recorded by her dad on his dictaphone on the final night of their visit, this family singing can be heard on the album track Tenderly.

Another thing that stands out on the album is Sandé’s spiritual side, both in the euphoric choir sound and in the lyrics. Is she religious at all?

“I’ve always believed in God,” she says. “As a child I read the Bible, though my family didn’t push it. My mum’s from a Catholic family and my dad was Christian, but I have always had a strong faith in a higher power. I feel very spiritual. Sometimes in a song I don’t even know I have a spiritual question, but it comes out like that in the lyrics.

“I think you have to find something in your life. I want something to love, if that doesn’t sound too vague. I’m still working on it.”

Emeli is coy about her current status, but you can read all about it in the media, with the stories being that she’s dating British rapper and producer Hypo, who she met while working on her new album. “I’m dating,” is all she’ll say, cautious and private about specifics, in contrast to her willingness to share universalities of emotional experience. “Let’s see how it goes.

“I’m a little bit more sensible now,” she says. “I take my time and I’m me. Before I would put all of my feelings into music, I wouldn’t express them in person and that’s a dangerous way to live. That’s why Hurts came about. Now I just relax and don’t worry about how something is going to make someone else feel.

“But I love being in love and loving someone. Having a close relationship with someone else and having adventures together is exciting.”

She’s happy to let her music do the talking. So what she will say is she likes Babe a lot. One of the final tracks on the album, it speaks of optimism and confidence in relationships, with lyrics like: ‘Not afraid to get in too deep/ Not afraid to take the leap/ Singing long live the angels’

“That’s the stage I’m at in my life now,” she says.

Sandé is looking confidently to the future, with a third album and a spring tour in her sights. Visiting her family in Alford is also something she’s planning to do, and her Oran Mór gig in Glasgow last month was close to her heart.

“I miss Scotland and home, although I love London. My dad is still teaching and my mum works in Aberdeen. I love it there. I click with the scenery. Growing up in Alford I always dreamt of being in a city and wanted to get to Glasgow, then to London. But I can see growing up there kept me calm. There’s something about the countryside and how it’s so vast. And there is nowhere that quiet. I would love to come back to write songs there in the peace and quiet, away from the buzz.”

Even though Sandé’s life has taken her on the road and into studios at the other end of the country, she still has one ear on what’s happening at home.

“Even though I’m not there I’m involved with Scotland. With everything that’s going on with the UK I can see another referendum coming,” she says. “I’m interested to see what happens.

“I was influenced by a lot of folk music when I was a student in Glasgow, going to open mic nights. Those lyrics are poetry. And of course, things like studying Burns at school. There’s something about poetry in your own dialect that speaks to you in a specific way, with its cadences. It must have an influence.

“And I’ve always been really thankful for all of the support from Scotland. Right from the beginning with the first EP. It’s been great. It’s a special place.”

For now she has an album to promote, so there’s no time to be homesick. It’s on with the Issey Miyake and up with the quiff, elevated to the max by Scots hairdresser Charley McEwen.

“I can get it up a bit, but he gets it so much higher. There’s the colour, then he does loads of hairspray and backcombing. When I do it, it’s a bit droopy,” she admits, and laughs.

It’s not just her hair that’s having a slight crisis of confidence as with her emotions laid bare on the new album, Sandé experiences a moment of apprehension as she waits for the reaction.

“I’m quite shy, so when I think about it going out to the world, it’s a mixture of emotion. Most of me wants to share myself with everyone because that’s what inspired me, musicians who lay their feelings bare. That’s made me feel less alone and I want to be 100 per cent honest with my emotions. Sometimes it’s really raw, but if you edit or censor it, that doesn’t work,” she says.

“Love is not always this sweet, polished Instagram thing. It’s complicated and painful too. But that’s what it is. The pain is the risk you take.”