“I feel like I went on a crash course of one: growing up, and two: getting real… I had a real Disney view on everything. I was like: ‘I’m gonna get married to my childhood sweetheart, and this is gonna happen and this.’ And when that all came crashing down I was like: ‘OK, I need to get real’.”
Emeli Sandé is sorting her life out. It’s been four years since her breakout debut album Our Version of Events was released — a record which won her a place at the top of the charts and was the bestselling album of 2012 in the UK. In the same year, she performed at the London Olympics and in 2013 was invited to sing at the White House. After the inevitable relentless follow-up tour, it’s all been seemingly quiet on the Sandé front.
Behind closed doors, the soul-meets-pop hit-maker has been dealing with a divorce, a subject I try to tread respectfully around. When we meet, on what might be the one day of English summer this year atop a sunny Shoreditch House, it quickly becomes clear she’s at peace with the topic.
“I feel ready to go,” Sandé smiles after telling me this is the first interview she’s given ahead of the release of her yet-to-be-named second LP. “I think that’s probably why — because of the music — I feel like I’ve made three albums. What I was waiting for was to feel secure in myself, you have to have that shield and that self-love and self-respect… I just fell in love with music again… Some of the album deals with some of that time… It happened, and I hope that people can relate to that type of passion.”
The passion is evident from the outset on Sandé’s new track, “Hurts”. The rumbling buzz of bass fills out, and claps punctuate every beat in double time. Drums drive the song forward into a climatic orchestral crescendo and her instantly recognisable vocals rise high above the melody. What I’m trying to say is that it’s all gloriously and wildly dramatic. You’re immediately reminded why her voice dominated every radio station’s airwaves four years ago.
“Yeah, it just came out that way to be honest!” Sandé laughs while I gush over her anthemic change of direction. “I do love drama!” I shout over to a waiter and ask for a wind machine. He is not impressed. “I just felt like that was the biggest lesson for me,” Sandé continues once we’ve both stopped miming hair flicks. “Learning how to say no, learning how to stand up for myself and to not believe what everyone says about you. Every time I sing it, I feel empowered.”
“Hurts” hints at her vulnerability — it’s an admittance and acceptance that life doesn’t always turn out how you wanted it to. Is Sandé nervous about sharing all this with the world? “A little bit,” she admits. “But nothing was contrived… [the album is] dramatic, it’s sad at times, it’s passionate, it’s very raw. I didn’t really hold back on the lyrics for this album — so whether you like it or not, you’re gonna hear what I’m talking about.”
It was a trip to Zambia, where her father was born, that sparked this newfound defiance in Sandé. Accompanied by Oxfam as part of their I Care About Her project to raise awareness of domestic abuse, her whole family visited his childhood village and Sandé got to meet her grandmother for the very first time. “I felt like I filled a gap that’d been missing,” she explains, having grown up in Aberdeen without ever knowing her dad’s side of the family. “Everyone was a musician, everyone could sing. There was no electricity, no running water, it was real life… After that, I was good to go. I felt like I could build a proper foundation. I just felt like: ‘Let me forget about the world at home for a minute and reconnect with my family, my sister, my everything. I need to enrich myself as a person, ‘cause I don’t wanna stand on stage and try to sing to people when I don’t know who I am’.”
As children, Sandé’s father would tell her and her sister tall tales of being chased round the village by lions, but on arrival, she could sense the value the community placed on matriarchy. “Just seeing their responsibility within a community,” Sandé says. “My grandmother’s chief of the village and then her two eldest daughters take care of the teenagers.You could just see this community cycle, and the young girls take care of children. We couldn’t speak each other’s language, so we would communicate in song… The whole thing just felt so magical.”
Since her return, Sandé’s built a studio in her basement and worked 14 hour days to prepare for the album’s imminent release. Having “ran away to the country for a year”, she shut herself away and emerged with a drafted tracklist and fully-formed songs.The only person to have heard them outside of her writing and production crew is living legend, Stevie Wonder.
After presenting a plaque commemorating 40 years of Songs In The Key Of Life to him whilst in the US, Sandé was told Stevie Wonder wanted to talk to her. With mum and dad in tow, she headed to his hotel room. “He’s just so kind,” she recalls. “My dad started teaching him his language, Bemba. It was just magical. And my dad was filming, he’s filmed everything since I was a kid… I played one of the songs to Stevie. It was just amazing. He was so funny and he said: ‘Hey, I would love to do a song with you!’We got out his instruments, we just started jamming! I was jamming with Stevie Wonder, in his hotel room! He played us new music from his album. It was a dream.”
Sandé erupts with laughter, as if still in disbelief. “Let me tell you… That week was mad!” With a tour already in the works and “intimate” shows for fans being planned, things are only going to get wonderfully stranger for Emeli Sandé in 2016.