Her Version Of Events: Emeli Sandé Interviewed

Emeli Sandé discusses human brains, Virginia Woolf and Cher Lloyd with John Doran

Photographs courtesy of Mr Al Overdrive

Pop renaissance woman Emeli Sandé seemed to appear fully formed out of nowhere in 2010, adding her luxuriously soulful vocals to big hits by Chipmunk and Wiley. And then in 2011 she delivered one of the year’s best singles in ‘Heaven’, which channelled the spirit of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines and Baby D’s ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ into 4’13” of perfection.

But the 24-year-old Scottish singer was no novice, having written her first song some 13 years earlier. Her long term manager Adrian Sykes spotted her talent early and signed her up at the age of 16, despite realising that she would insist on completing university some six years later before even thinking about a full-time career in music. It was during this period, while studying medicine and neuroscience, that she also met long term producer Shahid Khan, who had already worked with Ms Dynamite and Bashy. And she also revealed a protestant work ethic, but catholic tastes, when she started writing for likes of Alesha Dixon, Professor Green, Cheryl Cole, Susan Boyle, Wiley, Cher Lloyd and Leona Lewis – even earning the debatable distinction of being Simon Cowell’s favourite song writer.

It’s less than two months since she was named the BRIT Awards Critics Choice, and is clearly in contention to win their Breakthrough Artist’s award as well. So even though next week sees the release of her fine debut album Our Version Of Events, the length and breadth of her experience ensures she is in that most unusual position: a pop performer completely in control of her own career, despite only being in her early 20s.

Backstage at London’s KOKO venue she is a centre of calm while people buzz round industriously, preparing it for her filmed headline performance for MTV.

So you’ve got a new single coming out on Sunday [February 12th] called ‘Next To Me’, which could be construed as being cynical about love – one reading says that music is a partner who won’t let you down – and the album is a lot more introspective and slightly melancholy at times than I’d expected. Yet the album’s due out the day before Valentine’s Day, and in real life you’re engaged to be married to your long term boyfriend. So which is the real Emeli, the cynic or the romantic?

Emeli Sande: I don’t know, I guess when I listen to the album I see it as quite hopeful. I wanted to talk about a real type of love [on ‘Next To Me’]. I’ve never been the type of girl that is interested in hanging out with boys or what their opinions of me are or anything like that because what I really love is having something that is stable and that I know is [there for me] unconditionally. So it could be about my partner or it could be about my dad or my uncle. There are some great men in my life that are always there for me, my manager [Adrian Sykes] for example, I’ve been with him for eight years. So what I really value in life is loyalty and stability, and that’s what I wanted to write about.

It’s kind of stating the obvious to point out how important music is in your life – when did you realise that you loved music, that it was an obsession?

ES: I remember when I was seven – which is probably the same age as everyone else really – I really affirmed it then, but even earlier than that I remember being three or four and just hearing these noises and not quite understanding what they were, I couldn’t explain to my mum that I wanted to hear the same songs again. But at seven or eight, that’s when I decided I wanted to be a musician.

Who did you have posters of on your walls when you were growing up?

ES: I loved Eternal. I was obsessed with them. And nothing else. I loved a lot of old stuff that my dad played but that wasn’t a poster thing.

I wanted to ask you about your parents if that’s ok. It’s not that often that you’ll meet someone as young as you with as much drive and as big a work ethic to do so many different things. But when I do, I always tend to think of someone like yourself as having interesting parents. Is the song ‘Mountains’ on the album dedicated to them?

ES: Yeah.

Could you tell me a little bit about them?

ES: Yeah. My dad is from Zambia and mum is from Cumbria, and they met in Sunderland where they were studying. And my dad is a very focused man. He has a very great mind actually. He was one of the cleverest people in his country, he went to a special school, he came to England. He is very focused and he always made it clear to me that education is very important, and that you have a responsibility to achieve something and make something of your life. And that was very important to them. And my mum as well. They were both the first people in their families to go to university and they never hid any kind of struggles from my sister and I. We were never wrapped up or protected from any of the realities of life. We both knew what we had to do.

Was it their work that took the family up to Scotland?

ES: Yeah, my dad got a teaching position in Alford and we moved up there.

And does the title ‘Mountains’ refer to the beautiful and picturesque rolling peaks of Hibernia?

ES: [laughing] No. But it’s a nice idea. It’s about their struggle, their journey and how we’ve all grown as a family.

So presumably they must have been relieved at your decision to go to university first and get all of that out of the way before embarking on this career?

ES: Uh huh.

I was blown away to read that you have a degree in medicine inculcated with neuroscience. Is that a purely vocational degree or does it leave a number of careers open to you?

ES: There are a number of options open to you but it’s very focussed. You graduate, you put in for your placement and then you get your speciality, so it’s quite direct. I mean, you can do research but I was very keen on becoming a doctor, research didn’t appeal to me.

It sounds a bit prurient but I love reading books by <a href=” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Mistook_His_Wife_for_a_Hat” target=”out”>Oliver Sacks on brain injuries and neurological disorders. What were the kind of things that you learned that really blew you away?

ES: It was just how fragile the brain was really. Because you would learn how one part of your brain here [taps right hand side of head] has to work so well with another part here [taps left side of head] just for us to have a conversation, for me to know what I’m saying, what to say and how to say it. And if this [taps right hand side of head] is broken then I would be speaking jibber jabber to you, but be convinced that I was making perfect sense because this [was working just fine]. It’s so intricate, it’s so balanced and we know so little about it. That’s what really fascinates me. In neuroscience you will always get to a point with a lot of disorders where we say, ‘Well how do we fix this?’ And the answer is… [shrugs]

I feel a bit stupid asking this because quite clearly everything isn’t just about to end for you musically, but just say it did, what would you be doing in 2013?

ES: Well, it would take me a while to get over it and then I would reapply to go back to university, and I would train to be either a psychiatrist or a neurologist. That would be the plan.

Did you have to do human dissection?

ES: In Glasgow University you come into contact with dead human bodies in first year and that’s just to get you used to it. It’s kind of like, this is what you’re going to be doing for the next five year so you’d better get used to it.

So you take a field trip to a mortuary?

ES: No in the actual uni there is an anatomy section and you down a big tunnel and it’s there. Thankfully people are still donating their bodies to medical research, for med students to explore. And it’s interesting because you feel so removed from the fact that these were once actual people… it was bizarre. A bizarre experience.

It’s not something that I guess that most people in their late teens or early twenties even waste time too much time worrying about, but it did you give you any pause to think about your own mortality?

ES: It did actually. Because then you go home afterwards… I was learning from a dead body and I think the thing that brought it home to me was when we were looking at the brain, because we would be using a real brain which would be passed round, but there was nothing there. Inside that brain there used to be dreams, ideas and thoughts, but now it was just organic. Just a piece of flesh. So that really made me think. Where did they go? Where is that person?


ES: [laughing] I think it definitely made me think about it…

Well, moving on to slightly less morbid matters, speaking as a fan of heavy metal, I was very disappointed to find out that the track ‘Breaking The Law’ wasn’t a cover of the NWOBHM classic by Judas Priest from the British Steel album.

ES: [laughing] I don’t know that one I’m afraid!

You should listen to it, it’s a great song… but very different from yours. What’s the song ‘Breaking The Law’ on your album about?

ES: ‘Breaking The Law’ is a song I wrote for my sister. When I was a child I was very serious and I had very specific rules for specific situations about how I would act and behave. But for her there’s nothing like that. I would break any of those laws that I had made for myself and even if it was something illegal, if something needed to be done for her, it would get done.

I see you’ve got a large tattoo of Frida Kahlo, the artist and feminist icon, who led an amazingly interesting life. What kind of qualities of hers, if any, do you aspire to, or are you simply interested in?

ES: I think her bravery was the main thing, but also her art and her life. She was going to study medicine you know, but chose her art over her science. But yeah, it’s how honest she is in her art. So you might see a painting of her and you’ll get the really shit side of her and the really good side. Also I’m attracted to the darkness of her character.

You were very young when you started writing songs – 11 years old I think. How far back do the songs from Our Version Of Events go, or are they all written recently?

ES: They were all written within the last three years.

Are you as prolific at songwriting as I imagine you are?

ES: Yeah, I feel like I’m always writing songs. And soon as I stop or don’t have time to do it or have writer’s block then I feel almost useless you know, because it’s just what I’ve done for so long. It’s my purest form of expression I think, because I was shy growing up and I used to put everything into songs. So as soon as I can’t do that I feel a bit awkward and weird.

I guess part of what you do is art and part of what you do is trade, because you write songs for yourself and you write songs for other people.

ES: Yeah.

Do you know straight away when you’re writing a song who it’s for, or do you work that out more gradually?

ES: Usually I just sit and write and then it comes to me, ‘Oh, this would be a cool song for so and so.’ Unless Simon Cowell comes to me and asks me to write something for Susan Boyle and then I’ll taylor it to that ‘genre’. But usually I’ll just write something and give it to someone unless I want to keep it for myself.

I quite like Susan Boyle as a singer. Other than the soap opera aspect to the way she looks and has been presented by X-Factor, what is it about her that has really chimed with the public? What does she have that people have been hankering after?

ES: I think she’s got soul. I’d seen a few documentaries and heard stories and she’s very honest when she speaks. She’s real. She has a lot more soul than a lot of people who call themselves soul singers. I just hear something in her voice and I knew that there was something in her that would relate to the way I write, and they told me that when she was recording my songs she was crying and I knew that she would find that connection. She needs music, and people who need music are the kind of people I want to write for.

You said that this is your purest form of expression. I like your lyrics. They’re very straight forward and direct but they have a lot of depth. And let’s face it, this is not usually the case, not just with pop lyrics but lyrics in any genres. You kind of get the feeling that a lot of the time the words are… are…

ES: …a secondary consideration?

Yes. Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you read poetry? Do you eavesdrop on conversations on the tube? Do you listen to phrases your friends use? How far do you cast your net?

ES: Hmmm. Usually songs come from a discussion. I love it when people challenge me or make me look at something in a different way. If people phrase something in a way that I’d never considered before. Like with ‘Heaven’, my friend just said, ‘Oh you’ve just got to keep your heart clean.’ And I’d never heard someone refer to being good at keeping your heart clean, or the image of a heart being dirty. But I love poetry and I read a lot. I love how one word can change a sentence and it’s almost like a science putting it all together, making it mean something but still in a simple way.

I was really made up to hear that one of your favourite books is by Virginia Woolf. What a fearsome writer, and perhaps someone who really isn’t known for her approachability or her simple clarity of prose. So what do you take from Virginia Woolf?

ES: What I loved when I read A Room Of One’s Own is how she took a very serious topic and was very witty with it. I guess it’s the same with Frida, in those times to stand out as a feminist and say, ‘We can’t be the same as men at the moment because we don’t have this and the other.’ And it just all seemed to make sense to me. I just thought her whole writing style was difficult and she didn’t try and make it simple. I remember trying to read Mrs Dalloway and I got so far in and I was like, ‘This is difficult!’ But she didn’t ever try and make it easier or take the easy route of making what she had to say fit into someone else’s template. And really she was just an intelligent powerful woman.

I was looking at the list of people you’ve worked with, and I can say for a fact that Professor Green is a nice guy and in that respect he’s probably been misinterpreted by some sections of the press. Out of everyone you’ve worked with, who do you think has been misinterpreted or misrepresented by the press?

ES: Hmmm. I guess Cher Lloyd would be the first name to pop into my head, because I wanted to work with her because she had this soul and you could tell that she needs music to be part of her life, she needs it as a form of expression and she needs it more than most people I’ve met. She had a real hunger for it and she was a really lovely girl. And she’s had really horrible press and I don’t think it’s fair. She’s young, she’s ambitious and she just wants to make music.

Obviously from your point of view the BRIT award stuff is really good, you definitely deserve the Critic’s Choice Prize and you’re one of the most interesting people on the break through short list, certainly the most deserving. But do you think the BRIT awards are healthy? I mean, is it good for the corporate side of the music business to be slapping itself on the back like this in this day and age

ES: I’ve never really thought about it before. For me I see it as a positive thing purely for my music, because I don’t think I’ve ever made music to please any kind of organization or to get a BRIT award or anything like that. So I feel that without having compromised what I do in any way that getting these awards is really good, because it gives me exposure and hopefully inspires people who are doing their own thing that it’s not always going to be the same kind of person who win these kind of things.

Even though things in the music industry are in a state of flux at the moment, it’s still pretty rare, I think, to see a young woman in the mainstream music industry who is so firmly in control of her own career. What do you put that down to, and what advice would you give to other young women wanting to become performers or writers?

ES: God, I don’t know… I think a lot of it has to do with my Dad and how I was brought up. He never spoke to me as a ‘woman’ or a ‘child’ he always spoke to me as an adult and my opinion was very important. So because music was so important to me, it was always the most annoying and frustrating thing if anyone tried to mess with what I was doing. Having the right management is an important thing because that will dictate what sort of work you do. And they will protect you if they are good. I think you need protection around you. And you have to have it in your head that you want full control. And to get full control you have to sacrifice a lot of other things. So you always need that in your head, the idea that it’s not going to be an easy ride. Expect an uphill battle but it’ll be worth it when you get to the top.

Would I be right in presuming that it made things easier for you becoming established as a name behind the scenes first as a writer?

ES: Yeah, because then you get the industry on board a little bit more. They know who you are and know a little bit about you and you know a lot more about the industry. If I had come out three years ago I think it would have been a very different story, I don’t think I would have had the same amount of control, or an album where I felt I was expressing myself as I really wanted to. You know, my first video was with Wiley so it was a chance to see how things worked. Now I feel ready, whereas three years ago I don’t think I would have done.

So I just want to be sure I haven’t left anything out here. We’ve covered human brains, mountains as metaphors, Virginia Woolf, Cher Lloyd, Frida Kahlo, Su-Bo… we seem to be doing ok…

ES: [laughs]

I know what I was going to ask you – you’re obviously a multi-disciplinary person, you can do neuroscience, you can write and perform pop songs, you can write for Wiley on one day and Su Bo the next… What can’t you do? What are you terrible at?

ES: Swimming… I can’t swim very well. I think I could get good at it if I tried. I hate having to do maths as well. Swimming and maths… Swimming and maths I’m not so good at.

Our Version Of Events is out on Monday. More details at EmeliSande.com

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