Front and center
Scotland’s Emeli Sande emerges from behind the scenes to seize a dreamed-of-spotlight.
By Naila Francis
If 2012 was just the beginning forEmeli Sandé, there’s no telling what the Scottish-born singer will achieve this year.
In her native U.K., Sandé won the coveted 2012 BRIT Critics Choice Award — past winners include Adele and Florence + The Machine — two months before her debut album, “Our Version of Events,” entered the album charts at No. 1 last February. Just recently, she made chart history when she became the first solo artist to score 47 consecutive weeks in the top 10 with a debut. Her album, the biggest seller of 2012 in the U.K., is only the second to achieve such a feat behind The Beatles’ “Please Please Me,” which remained in the top 10 for 62 consecutive weeks in 1963.
Though still a relative newcomer to the U.S., she made quite an introduction here, too. Sandé was handpicked last summer to open for Coldplay on its arena tour and performed during both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.
In addition to widespread accolades for “Our Version of Events,” which made its U.S. debut on Capitol Records in June, she was featured as both a VH1 You Oughta Know and MTV PUSH artist, made the late-night rounds from “Conan” to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and generated buzz as a co-writer on Alicia Keys’ new album “Girl on Fire”
Yet Sandé, who last week picked up three BRIT Award nominations, including Best Female and Best Album, is no newcomer to the industry.
“I definitely feel quite old in the business. I started writing three, four years ago. I was doing so much in the background in the U.K. … For me, it feels like a very long journey, but I can see why it would feel differently, especially for people over here,” says the singer-songwriter, who brings her new U.S. tour to a sold-out Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia on Saturday, after canceling an appearance there in October.
Long before she was tapped to collaborate with Keys (who also gets co-writing credits on “Our Version of Events” for the track “Hope”), Sandé had been busy penning songs for British artists like Susan Boyle, Leona Lewis, Cher Lloyd and rapper Chipmunk, also serving as guest vocalist on his hit “Diamond Rings.”
Given her reputation as a song doctor — Rihanna and Beyoncé are among the more recent to come calling — Sandé admits: “This whole kind of side of being an artist is relatively new to me.”
Still, it’s all she’s ever wanted to be, despite her once-dogged pursuit of a degree in medicine. Sandé, whose father is a teacher in Aberdeenshire, was specializing in clinical neuroscience at Glasgow University when she met celebrated producer Naughty Boy following a gig at a London club. His suggestion that they collaborate on a few songs eventually led to her being signed to Virgin Records in 2010, and he would serve as producer and co-writer on her debut.
“Music was always on my mind — it was something I naturally loved to do — but I was very realistic about how the industry works and wanted to be in control of my career and have options,” saysSandé. “At certain times, I remember sitting in a lecture theater thinking, ‘This is really fascinating. Being a doctor. … If you work hard, you’re guaranteed something will happen.’ With music, you can work your ass off, and yet so much of it is about being in the right place at the right time; it comes down to luck sometimes.
“But I think I would have missed a lot by not being creative and I would have regretted not going for my dreams.”
Growing up in the village of Alford, she was always singing — her dad even set up the school choir where she was a founding member — and by 11, she’d composed her first song, translating her love of writing poetry and her piano-playing into a medium that suddenly gave her a voice.
“It allowed me the opportunity to express and vent and let everything out and tell people everything I was feeling,” she says. “As a kid, (songwriting) gives you a sense of yourself. It’s very therapeutic to sit down and create something. The feeling of a brand-new song for me is the best.”
Even before college, she’d caught the ear of local radio stations and won a BBC urban music competition. And at 16, when her dad took her and younger sister Lucy to see Alicia Keys in concert in Glasgow, it was like watching a version of her future onstage.
“That was properly mad. There aren’t many people left in the industry that were there when I was a kid. She’s had such a long career, which is rare,” says Sandé, 25, who opened Keys’ London show during her “Piano and I” tour before being asked to write with her. “To get to work with the one person who inspired me when I was younger was just a real trip. Half of me was professional and just trying to write a great song with her; the other half was the 16-year-old me going, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this.’
“It was just so great to meet somebody so in control of what they’re creating and what they want to say with their music.”
On “Our Version of Events,” Sandé displays an eclectic artistry, straddling pop, soul and folk while evoking the heyday of British trip-hop. It’s a sound vastly different from the jazz-piano leanings of her college days when she played hotel bars to make extra money but one that reveals a diversity of influences, from the rap songs she guested on to her classical studies as a girl and her reverence for the works of Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill.
“When you hear a Joni Mitchell song, it’s the tone of her voice, it’s the unique melody, the unique structure. Everything forms together and just makes perfect sense. You can tell she’s an artist and she knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it,” says Sandé. “In all the women that inspired me, it was that strength and certainty of who they were and definitely the poetry of their lyrics.
“For me, lyrically, it’s important to be poetic and that the lyric really reaches people in a different way than what they would expect from pop music.”
“Our Version of Events” is laced with ballads, both lush and spare, that either mourn love’s demise or celebrate its devotional rewards. But Sandé also pays homage to family on songs such as “Mountains,” an ode to her parents’ relationship and the struggles they’ve overcome, and “Breaking the Law,” which professes her loyalty to her sister. The pitfalls and perils of fame also get their due on “Clown” and “Daddy,” though Sandé herself keeps a vigilant eye on that road.
“I’m just going to focus on the music and surround myself with incredible musicians that inspire me because I think as soon as you start getting distracted by anything else, you will notice your music will suffer and the art you’re trying to make will take steps backward. For me, that would be the most painful thing,” she says. “I definitely want to make sure I’m always taking steps forward.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times, The Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer