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“I wanted to do something that spoke for people who might not have a voice on the radio,” she insists. “I wanted to give them a platform."

LIKE A VERSION

U.K. Sensation Emeli Sandé Brings Her Eclectic, Soulful Vision to the U.S. at Last
By Simon Glickman

Here are a few fun facts about Capitol singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé: Her debut album, Our Version of Events, entered the U.K. charts at #1 last February and hasn’t left the Top 10 since then. Her admirers include Adele (who tweeted, “How incredible is she?”), Simon Cowell (who famously called her “my favorite songwriter”) and Alicia Keys, with whom she co-wrote “Hope,” the closing track on Events. She’s also worked up material for Rihanna and Beyoncé, among many others. She was the only performer at the London Olympics—at both the opening and closing ceremonies. Oh, and she has a degree in neuroscience.

Yep, really—Sandé turned down a spate of deal offers as a teenager, opting instead to pursue a medical degree at the University of Glasgow before resuming her music pursuits. So … she’s kind of impressive.

Then there’s the 2012 Brit Critics’ Choice Award, the Q Award, the MOBO, BET Awards and Soul Train Awards nominations, and the rapturous praise from virtually every major English-language publication. Though she’s elicited comparisons to everyone from Amy Winehouse to Nina Simone, ID magazine insisted, “Emeli Sandé is not the next so-and-so; she’s the person other acts will be compared to in the coming years.”

Sandé will launch her first-ever U.S. tour in January, which is mostly upside except for the fact that it obliged her to talk to us.

Her story begins in the tiny Scottish burg of Alford, where her Zambia-born dad and Cumbrian mum settled during Emeli’s early childhood. She drew inspiration from her dad’s record collection (which included soul divas, gospel and singer/songwriters like Nina Simone) and BBC1’s weekly groovefest Rhythm Nation.

“I learned piano around 11 and started experimenting,” Sandé recalls. “When you’re a kid, music gives you something to be in control of. I enjoyed that buzz, showing people and expressing myself that way through singing and writing.”

Later, earning her hourly wage shelving CDs at a Virgin Megastore, she immersed herself in the albums of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. “That was the first time,” she says, “that I’d really heard music and lyrics come together at the same level of quality.”

She played at talent shows and anywhere else she could, performing Mariah Carey ballads and other pop hits. By age 16 she was invited to perform on MTV. After she won a Rhythm Nation songwriting contest, multiple deal offers materialized. Having already been accepted to study medicine in Glasgow, though, the young artist demurred.

“I wasn’t desperate enough to settle for something I didn’t want,” she remembers. “They didn’t know what to do with me, because at that point I was a kid at a piano singing these jazz-inspired tunes. I kind of sensed that uncertainty—and my manager, Adrian Sykes, advised me to hold on for something more solid, something that showed more belief in a long-term career.”

Her studies in Glasgow didn’t prevent her from playing, although she admits to being preoccupied with the rote memorization that a medical course requires. “My creativity had to be put on hold,” she confirms. But completing her education brought other benefits: “I just grew up. And it taught me a lot about patience and attention to detail. I think I became quite precise with my music and having the discipline to get things finished—and to get out there. Even in medicine, no matter how smart you are, you have to get out there and meet the right people. That was relevant to music as well.”

Also helping her meet the right people was Sandé’s mum, who sent a CD of the young tunesmith’s material to the BBC’s Radio1Xtra; this led to a Soho gig that connected her with producer-writer Shahid Khan (aka Naughty Boy), with whom she’d for a productive working partnership. Writing with Naughty Boy, she says, opened her up to the possibilities of pop beyond the austere piano-based niche she’d previously plumbed. London, meanwhile, opened her up to a stylistic world she couldn’t have imagined in the wee, rustic confines of her youth.

The pair’s early co-write “Diamond Rings” became a Top 10 hit for rapper Chipmunk, with Sandé crooning the hook. Her compositions were subsequently recorded by artists as diverse as Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis, Tinie Tempah and Professor Green. After two years of maturing into an in-demand songwriter, she was ready to make a record of her own.

That record, produced by Naughty Boy, has tasked the descriptive powers of critics, who’ve struggled to encompass its confident soul-pop. With crisp, retro beats underlying symphonic strings, austere new-wave keyboards and Sandé’s urgent, expressive vocals, Our Version of Events shapes a clear, unifying vision from her eclectic influences.

Opener “Heaven” is a romantic anthem with a New Jack pedigree; the aching “River” is a gorgeously spare hymn of compassion; “Next to Me” feels like an instant soul classic, with a horn-spiced singalong of a refrain; “Daddy” manages to broach addiction and obsession in a way that sounds both intoxicating and dangerous; and the majestic “Hope,” co-written with Keys, is a yearning prayer for unity in the spirit of “Imagine” and “Redemption Song.” Space doesn’t permit a complete rundown of Events, but it’s solid from top to bottom.

Lyrically, Sandé emphasizes redemption and inclusion, drawing upon the isolation she felt as a youth—as well as the salvation she found in music.

“I wanted to do something that spoke for people who might not have a voice on the radio,” she insists. “I wanted to give them a platform. I’m really happy, for example, that I’ve had so much support from the gay community—that audience really relates to feeling different, as I did when I grow up. People who come from a home with immigrant parents, those issues with cultural identity. Things I felt as a kid, different, that weren’t addressed on the songs I heard on the radio.”

If the charts, awards, reviews and general buzz are any indication, her fearlessly personal work is striking a universal chord.

NEAR TRUTHS:
THE HOUSE WINS
I.B. Bad handicaps the Vegas Grammys. (1/18a)
ON THE COVER:
THE LUMINEERS
The downside of BRIGHTSIDE for Wes and Jer (1/18a)
HITS LIST MAKES
THE PLAYOFFS
A bunch of All-Pros takes the field. (1/18a)
COACHELLA LINEUP: HARRY, YE, BILLIE AND THE WHOLE THING
The poster has been printed. (1/13a)
UTA: A YEAR OF MOMENTUM
Agency reshuffles the deck. (1/18a)
I DON'T WANNA WORK
I just wanna bang on my drum all day.
I HAVE A HANGOVER
I like to call it "2021."
I DON'T WANNA HAVE A MEETING
My Zoom backgrounds are all outdated.
I MISS CHRISTMAS
When's the next holiday that involves eggnog?
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