Emeli Sandé: soundtrack of my life

The English-Zambian singer-songwriter from Aberdeenshire on growing up with Eternal and Tracy Chapman and her latest love, Swedish electronica band Little Dragon

After quitting a medical degree at Glasgow University and moving to London, Emeli Sandé's rich voice and bleached quiff first caught the critics' attention when she featured on songs by Chipmunk and Wiley. But behind the scenes the songwriting skills of the 24-year-old from Aberdeenshire, of English and Zambian descent, were also acquiring fans such as Simon Cowell. Her debut single, Heaven, reached No 2 last year; she won the critics' choice award at the 2012 Brits; and her first album, Our Version of Events, shot to No 1. Her latest single, My Kind of Love, is out now.


Power of a Woman by Eternal (1995)

When I was young I was obsessed with the girl band Eternal. They stood out because everybody else I'd been listening to was from America, and they had this high energy and really strong voices – you could tell they came from a gospel background. Power of a Woman was a big song when I was six or seven – I remember singing it and doing little dance routines at school with my friends. I nagged my mum for tickets to see them at Aberdeen Exhibition Centre for ages, and that concert was one of the best nights of my life, though I got upset at the beginning because I was too short to see over the people in front of us.


Why? (The King of Love is Dead) by Nina Simone (1968)

The first time I heard Nina Simone was when I was a wee bit older, about eight or nine. My dad played this song to me while we were in the car waiting for my mum. He probably didn't think anything of it, but for me the whole world stopped. I didn't even know if it was a male or female voice but I was blown away by Simone's delivery and tone. The lyrics of the song are very poetic – it was written after Martin Luther King died, and it was a recording of a live perfo rmance so you could feel that the atmosphere must have been emotional and poignant. I think that was the moment I started branching away from the young pop stuff and understanding what being an artist meant.


Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (1988)

Once I'd heard Nina, I was really looking out for other singers of that calibre. I visit Montenegro quite a lot – my fiance's from there – and on my second trip, Fast Car came on the radio. It was the first time I'd really listened to the lyrics and understood the poetry of the song. When you're in a different country, music is taken out of context and it can be like you're hearing it for the first time. I realised this was a pop song that everybody knows and respects, that's played in countries all over the world. It opened my eyes to the idea that you can be artistic and still make pop music.


The Flowers by Regina Spektor (2004)

Before I went to uni I worked in Virgin Megastore in Aberdeen. While there, I found Regina Spektor via Tori Amos, who I was a big fan of. On her third album there's a song called The Flowers, which I fell in love with because of its soul and the mix of her classical style with abstract lyrics. It's such a beautiful piece of music. It reminds me of my first date and my first kiss, on New Year's Eve. I kept playing this song over and over again as I was preparing to go out that night, and it still sticks with me.


Bach Cello Suites 1 & 2 (1717-23)

Leaving medical school and moving to London to pursue music was a big decision, and after six months there, though I loved creating music, I really started missing higher education and using my brain in an academic way. So I began to learn to play the cello. I got obsessed with practising, and I played the Bach cello suites all the time, to the point where I annoyed everybody around me. I'd never played a string instrument before but I loved the feeling of knowing that your practice is really getting you somewhere.


Ritual Union by Little Dragon (2011)

The first time I went on Later... with Jools Holland, Little Dragon were on the stage next to me. I love how free the lead singer Yukimi Nagano is with the music. I've been playing their album Ritual Union; [as a musician] you can get really caught up in your own way of writing, and it's so cool to listen to something completely different. Her voice is soulful, but she uses it in such a minimal way. It's the type of music that makes you feel like you're the coolest person, even if you're just listening to it walking down the street.

The introduction to this article was corrected on Monday 28 May

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Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

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