This interview originally ran in the The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on Saturday November 10, 2010, under the heading THE GLASGOW STUDENT WHO SWAPPED MEDICINE TO WRITE FOR CHERYL COLE. It ran in the Arts magazine and I think it was Emeli Sande’s first newspaper cover feature.
While studying medicine at Glasgow University, Aberdeen soul-pop star Emeli Sande dabbled in some notable extra-curricular activity.
She wrote a song for Cheryl Cole, for example. She had a top ten hit with urban luminary Chipmunk –Diamond Rings – for which she also bagged a MOBO (Music of Black Origin) award nomination. She signed a recording contract with Virgin, a publishing deal with EMI, and prompted BBC 1Xtra guru Ras Kwame to affiliate Sande with Ella Fitzgerald while hailing her “a future star”.
Perhaps it will thus come as little surprise to learn that the 23-year-old recently deferred her degree, and relocated to London “to jump at every opportunity”.
These days, her increasingly showbiz schedule is a kaleidoscope of stylists, designers, photo-shoots and new tattoos (Frida Kahlo, the length of her forearm) – not to mention song-writing sessions with the likes of Rick Nowels (Madonna, Belinda Carlisle, Anita Baker, Stevie Nicks). But Sande is particularly excited about returning to Scotland to play some intimate gigs.
“Oh I can’t wait,” the singer-songwriter enthuses of her first-ever solo tour. “I mean, that’s how I got used to being onstage – playing in little clubs back home. I love just getting in a place where you can dim the lights, get people’s attention, and just have this musical experience, with no acrobatics or stuff like that.”
Will it feel strange, playing these low-key shows, following a full-blown performance at the SECC (as part of last year’s MOBOs ceremony) and to sell-out crowds of thousands with commercial big-hitters like Tinie Tempah? “Even though I’ve played these bigger places, it’s because I’ve been supporting these rappers who have this crazy status at the moment,” she says pragmatically. “But for me, for where I’m coming from as a songwriter, it’s intimate, you know?”
Sande is friendly, ambitious and confident. And while she’s had several hit collaborations with urban pop deities like Wiley (Never Be Your Woman), Tinie Tempah (Let Go) and Professor Green (Kids That Love to Dance), she’s eager to establish herself as an artist – and a star – in her own right.
Her ascent to pop success has been gradual, but assured. She’s only been a full-time artist for a few months, but Sande’s exhilarating, vintage soul voice first gained national recognition when she was 16. She was at high school in the rural town of Alford (about 30 miles west of Aberdeen), and working in the local co-op, when she was crowned a finalist on Trevor Nelson’s UK-wide BBC Urban Music competition.
How did that initial attention come about? “Well, my sister filmed me at the piano, doing a little rendition of a song [Nasty Little Lady] I’d written when I was, like, fifteen, and we sent it in…” she breaks off to laugh. “God, it was really funny now I look back on it.” Trevor Nelson wasn’t laughing: he identified her as a serious talent. She’s been a mainstay on the BBC airwaves since. It got her a London-based manager too.
“Yeah, one of the producers on the show kind of introduced me to Adrian [Sykes] and he flew all the way up to Scotland to hear me – travelled all the way up to Aberdeen. But he didn’t realise how far away Alford was.” Sande’s tale begins to resemble a pop variation of Local Hero. “So he took a taxi, from Aberdeen, which was like eighty pounds or something, and I felt like this little country girl, you know, just sitting there at my piano.” She smiles.
“But he liked what I was doing, and I’ve been working with Adrian ever since. And it’s great because he’s in it for the long-term. I mean that’s been – what – seven years already!” She sounds like a veteran.
“I think it’s really important to do the groundwork, to build your foundations, and get respect that way,” she continues.
There’s a fascinating cyber trail that testifies to her years of graft – from early soul and gospel dalliances with independent Glasgow labels Souljawn and Starla, to YouTube footage of nascent performances at Aberdeen’s Karma Lounge and Glasgow’s Oran Mor. There’s even a chronicle of her identity crises (she used to go by her first name Adele, and toyed fleetingly with Rio, before settling on her middle name, Emeli).
Sande attributes this persistence, and patience, and long-term commitment, to her upbringing. “My parents always instilled a strong work ethic in me – always encouraged me to aim high. Education was always important and nurtured within our family and I think that that’s had such a strong influence on the way I approach writing music and my career.”
Born in Sunderland in 1987 to a Zambian father and Cumbrian mother, Sande moved to Alford aged “about four” and attended the local primary and secondary schools. A gifted pianist and clarinettist, she thinks her musicianship comes from her dad – “he’s quite musical and his taste in music was an early influence,” she notes.
Her father played guitar and led the local school choir, but Sande’s mother played an equally critical role in her embryonic career. “My mum would send in CDs of me singing to [BBC urban radio station] 1Xtra,” she smiles. “And then Ras Kwame – who does those Homegrown shows – he’d play me, just doing my songs on the piano, in the middle of this long list of rappers…”
An older song of Sande’s, Best Friend, was reputedly written for her mum (“You keep my head above the water / you keep my shoulders standing up when I’m feeling down”). It featured on her eponymous (and since deleted) debut EP which was issued through Glasgow’s Souljawn imprint in late 2007, and drew comparisons with Alicia Keys. “God, that just feels so long ago,” she shudders. (There is no need, incidentally: it’s lovely, and warm, and engaging, and soulful – if perhaps a little over-earnest).
“I feel like I’ve really progressed, and my writing’s got better, and my understanding of pop music, and melody, has just improved so much since then,” she offers. “When I look back at the different types of music I’ve made since I was young, it’s just who I’m listening to, and different inspirations. I think when a lot of songs were written for that first EP, I was listening to a lot of neo-soul – Lauryn Hill and everyone.”
Sande has long name-checked former Fugees vocalist Hill alongside the likes of Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman and Regina Spektor as influences – and their striking, individual voices are discernable within her work. But it’s the current chart-hijacking UK urban pop crew with whom she’s become most closely allied over the past year, and it is they who provide her creative stimulation these days.
“I really feel part of a big wave that’s happening in British music at the moment and that’s really exciting,” she stirs. “I’ve been so lucky to work with Naughty Boy, Magnetic Man, Chipmunk and Tinie – being on the UK’s Number One album [on Let Go, from Tinie Tempah’s debut] was incredible! There’s like a mutual respect, and it feels like a community. And with me coming from Scotland, it’s so nice that I can be involved in it, and be part of it.”
Sande’s talent has undoubtedly benefited from dub-step and grime’s prevailing appeal, but her own material is much more soul-orientated – surely a classy Jools Holland appearance beckons – and she has a natural facility for writing accessible, upbeat pop. Cheryl Cole used Boys, a song Sande co-wrote with long-term co-conspirator Shahid Khan (aka Naughty Boy) as the B-Side to her top five hit, 3 Words. “Oh, and I wrote Alesha Dixon’s new single, Radio, with Shah too,” she suddenly recalls.
Somewhere amidst these hit myriad hit alliances, Sande has found the time to write and record her debut album. It’s not due for release until next year, but it’ll be heavily previewed at the singer’s upcoming Scottish shows. The performances may also feature re-workings of Sande’s chart collaborations. “I’m really looking forward to playing again,” she says.
Needless to say, she has no pressing plans to return to university. “I miss many things about studying medicine,” Sande reminisces. “I’m really interested in neurology and psychiatry – I find the brain fascinating. And I miss having a routine, the constant challenge, learning new things every day.”
With that, however, she races off to sing with hip-hop renegade Devlin. The brain surgery will have to wait. Still, medicine’s loss is pop music’s gain.