Emeli Sandé’s teenage obsessions: ‘I spent hours in the Yahoo karaoke chatroom’

The Scottish singer recalls obsessing over Titanic, channelling Mariah Carey and learning to beatbox


The first time I went to see it I think I had just turned 11 [Titanic had a 12 certificate]. I remember sneaking into the cinema for my birthday and my dad telling me and my friends how to act in front of the staff. He said: “If they ask you your birth date, you have to pretend it’s this day.” We watched the whole film and everybody was crying. My dad always tells the story of having these five 11-year-olds sobbing next to him. Really, it was my first emotional reaction to a romantic story.

From then on, me and my friends got completely obsessed. We started collecting magazine cutouts of Leonardo, Kate Winslet, anything to do with Titanic. And then we studied the history of the Titanic. It just went on and on and on. Some friends were trading Spice Girls cards, but me and my other friends were just trading articles. It really went quite deep.

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey: Without You (live version) on video.

Mariah Carey was my first musical obsession. My dad gave me the album Music Box when I was seven. I thought she was really beautiful and the artwork was brilliant. The first song I ever learned was her rendition of Without You. That’s the first time my dad said: “Oh, I think you’re quite good at singing.” I thought: “Wow, I’m going to be a singer!” After that, he was coaching me on how to convey emotion with my hands. He had me touching doorframes. It’s just so funny thinking of the seven-year-old me trying to convey the emotion of this desperate love song to my parents.

My dad only showed me the biggest divas as I was growing up. He made it such a normal thing for me that a woman can sing, but also that it’s a requirement to write your own music. Having that in my head has kept me on the songwriting path. Now I look back and think, God, I’m so lucky that my parents had good taste in music, or knew what would excite a kid.


Eternal pictured in 1994
Eternal in 1994 ... ‘I thought they were amazing.’ Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

I didn’t really get to see many people of colour on TV growing up. I think I saw Eternal on Live & Kicking or some other Saturday morning TV programme. I thought they were amazing. They were the first live act I ever went to see. It must have been 1995. It was in Aberdeen, in a small venue on top of Union Street. My sister was only a baby and fell asleep during the concert. It was such a brilliant night and my mum knew how excited I was to see it. I was in love with them and continued to be as their careers went on. When I did a show in the O2, Vernie [Bennett, one of the members] and her family came to watch. That was really exciting.

Save the Last Dance

Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance
Sean Patrick Thomas and Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance ... ‘I felt I belonged to a new kind of world they portrayed.’ Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

This film changed my perspective. Being black and growing up in Scotland, it was always through different music or films that I could jigsaw bits of my identity together, even if they showed a completely different reality. I mean, New York is very far from Aberdeen. But Save the Last Dance gave me so many cultural references and I felt as if I belonged to a new kind of world that they portrayed. It influenced a lot of my fashion – my friends and I got bucket hats and Timberlands, New York streetwear, which you can imagine stood out quite a lot. It made me see that music can be this incredible communication between people from so many different walks of life. It made me dream a bit bigger and bolder with what I was doing.

Yahoo karaoke chat

At 12 or 13, I was very shy and spent so much time alone, practising my music. I found this music community online. The cool thing was that you could use audio. Today we have WhatsApp and all of this amazing technology, but at the time, the fact that you could hear somebody from the other side of the world blew my mind. I was speaking to people in Cleveland, Ohio, and New York. I spent hours on this thing, it was so unhealthy!

Going into these chat rooms was a way that I could test my chops a little bit: am I a good singer compared with somebody who is studying or singing in New York? What do they think of my voice? It was nerve-racking. There were so many voices that blew me away. I learned a lot about gospel music. I’m still friends with a lot of those people now; we’ve just switched over to Instagram.


Lauryn Hill in 1998.
Lauryn Hill in 1998 ... ‘If she counts as neo-soul, she is definitely my favourite.’ Photograph: Jeff Scheid/Getty Images

I’m not sure if Lauryn Hill counts as neo-soul because she’s such a mix of everything. But if she does count then she’s definitely my favourite neo-soul singer. I loved Jill Scott too. I first heard her on Trevor Nelson’s Rhythm Nation on Radio 1. I got such an education listening to that show. About twice a month, I’d spend lots of money ordering American import CDs of people I heard on it, such as Jaheim, Lauryn, Jill.

I learned so much about myself through listening to neo-soul. Jill Scott really influenced how I approach music – the storytelling aspect of it. She had so much character and charisma in her lyrics. There was so much jazz influence in what she was doing, and she was such a beautiful, confident woman. And Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun blew my mind when I first heard it – the way she pieced that album together is genius. D’Angelo’s Voodoo is one of my favourite albums of all time. I remember one summer trying to learn how to beatbox like in Musiq Soulchild’s I Just Want to Sing.

I remember listening to Floetry, too. The fact they were from the UK was so inspiring. I got to sing with the Floacist a couple of years ago. It was so nice to connect with a teenage hero. I really hope there’s a neo-soul resurgence, because I think it was such a classy, dignified genre of music that so many stories can be told through.

• Download Sandé’s new track More of You now on all streaming platforms


Interview by Rhi Storer

The GuardianTramp

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