I remember, as everyone does, Emeli Sandé performing at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. She sang Abide With Me so seriously, and yet so joyfully, she looked as though there were some kind of elemental life force trying to burst out of her. At the closing ceremony, she was back, with Read All About It, one of her many hit singles.
“All of that was a dream,” she says, looking back. We’re in her house, which is in the heart of east London, yet somehow feels calm and almost cottagey, as though she has brought the spirit of rural Scotland, where she grew up, with her. “I don’t think it was even planned that I was in the opening and the closing ceremonies, it was just two different teams that asked me.”
She was already doing well – she had signed a deal with Virgin and released her first solo single, Heaven, in August 2011 – but she also seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the time: a pure and warranted faith that a person could come from nowhere and become the biggest thing in the world, just by being brilliant.
In real life, quite a lot of hard work had gone into her achievements: she had spent three years at medical school in Glasgow, writing songs in lectures while other people were counting the number of cells in organisms. That was what persuaded her to move to London and pursue her career in music: the fact that everyone else was “so 100% focused on medicine. They were so dedicated and passionate, it made me envious. Because I was passionate as well, just not about medicine.”
Her first break came on the worst night of her life (thus far): her managers had just told her they didn’t know what to do with her any more, and they thought it probably wouldn’t work out. She and her mum had been sending CDs to 1Xtra, and she’d gone to a Rapology under-21s competition in Croydon.
“I sat there at my piano singing some Nina Simone song, in a rap show. Nobody was interested. But Naughty Boy was there, and he said: ‘I really felt like you were singing directly to me.’” That collaboration, with the producer and DJ who would later find his stride on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! led to her doing the vocals on Chipmunk’s Diamond Rings and, after that, going global was only a matter of time.
Yet, whatever she was looking for, it definitely wasn’t fame. She grew up in Aberdeenshire, “weirdly shy”, she says. “My voice was the first thing I felt I could communicate with. I just found it very difficult to talk, so singing was like freedom for me; freedom from this oversensitive, over-shy kid to suddenly let go for a few minutes. It was also such a physical release. Music gave me an identity.”
She wasn’t just the only black kid in her school (until her sister started, two years later) – her Zambian father, who was a teacher, “made it very clear: ‘We’re the only black family in the village. You have to represent not only people of colour but also your younger sister.’”
She chooses her words carefully, describing this quite remote 90s childhood. “Growing up, racism was always around, but just as a threat; not being able to really get into conflict or fight because you know where it’s going to go. What else can you say once someone has said something racist to you? Even if you have a better argument, there’s not really much you can reply to that.”
That sense of having to keep her head down, combined with a powerful family work ethic – “My mum comes from a working-class family in Cumbria, and even though they were from such completely different countries, what they had in common was that you had to use your brain to get further in life” – she ended up with the kind of immaculate academic record with which you can’t not be a doctor. It was just inconvenient that her voice had other ideas. “My dad had an auntie who would go into these singing trances. She was channelling a spirit, taken over by the music. And he said I was like that: once I sang, I wouldn’t stop.”
She has talked in the past about her faith, the various times when it’s been weaker or stronger, and how that has affected her ability to compose and perform – but not in terms of any formal religion. “My mum’s parents were Catholic and my dad’s parents were obviously very Christian. My friends were Bahá’ís when I was growing up, and they would talk about investigating as many religions as possible to really get a sense of what you actually believe in.
“Then Naughty Boy was Muslim, and we’d discuss things a lot. I don’t even know what I’d call myself now, but I definitely believe in God. Especially when I make music; it’s always felt like something more than just me is going on there. You can feel it when you hear a gospel choir singing, or when you’re listening to Bach, there’s this purity in music that was made for God.”
So if she was partly channelling a spirit, partly escaping shyness, very little, possibly none of her drive came from wanting to succeed. “Success is wonderful,” she says, “but it comes with a lot of strings. You have to promote. You have to be giving out. I came into this industry at 24, I’m 35 now. I want to feel like I’m getting better, but to do that, you have to practise.” She insulated herself from the wildness of fame, partly because “I had such a distinctive onstage look, people would really only recognise me when I looked like that. I felt like I could choose whether or not to be famous. I never really felt like a celebrity. I don’t really know that many famous people. I felt like my music was more known than I was.”
Nevertheless, that music was pretty well known – her first album, Our Version of Events, was the bestselling in the UK of 2012, and it was huge in the US. The following year, she performed at the White House for an Obama-hosted tribute to Carole King, and this period was so formative, she sounds part-Scottish, part-mid-Atlantic even now.
“I’d always seen myself as a black woman,” she says of this time, “but I learned so much about how to be that through music: through people like Lauryn Hill. But obviously that’s an American culture, I didn’t really have anybody in Scotland to look up to, to refer to.” So she went to Zambia, to meet her grandmother for the first time, “because I thought, like: ‘Gosh, what am I doing here? Why am I blowdrying out my natural curl? Why do I look so different to what I’d look like naturally?’”
She loved it there, “the strength, the positivity, the spirituality – no matter how difficult things got, they were waking up and thanking God for another day”, but it didn’t give her any pat answers to her identity. “It’s one thing to think: ‘I’m gonna go back and finally realise who I am.’ But then you get there and realise: OK, I’ve grown up in the UK. I’m culturally British. I did grow up in Scotland and yes, it was difficult being different, but it was a beautiful time as well. That countryside, that tranquility, did put its impression on my personality. It got to a point where instead of trying to find one box for myself, I was OK with just being who I was.”
It made her a perplexing prospect for the industry she was in: not just her lack of interest in the trappings of success, but her resistance to being defined, by culture, genre, indeed, by anything. It’s a theme that comes up a lot, from managers, labels, A&R people, that they don’t know where to place her. “I definitely feel, as a woman at a certain age, if you don’t fit into a certain box, it becomes hard for everybody else.” Four years passed before the release of her second album, Long Live the Angels, which was her favourite until the forthcoming Let’s Say for Instance. “I definitely felt like I’d said everything I want to say.”
In 2019, after her third album, Real Life, she parted ways with Virgin, and by the start of the pandemic, she had “cut cords with the industry”. She’s terribly tactful about record company execs, but not just as a reflex. “I remember reading an article by Tori Amos, she said: ‘The easiest thing is to start blaming the company – they didn’t let me do what I wanted – but often enough, we stop ourselves because it is scary to take a risk.’” And it was a risk: she had become disaffected because performing becomes “half of your life, most of what you’re doing is preparing to be on stage. So when that’s pulled away, you do have to redefine yourself. Who am I just as an auntie to my nephew? Have I prioritised the right things?”
Then came the pandemic, which she saw out living with her sister (also a teacher) in Hertfordshire, writing the album nobody thought she was going to write, which nobody was necessarily going to produce (she is now signed to the independent label Chrysalis). It’s not the album you’d expect – less introspective than her last, and as celebratory as anything you’ve ever heard. “It’s just unashamedly soulful, and loud, and ‘Here we go. Let’s go for it.’
“It was a panic,” she remembers now, “because, globally, everybody was struggling and alone. Nobody knew where they stood. It felt like a time where I could actually fall back in love with music again.” And she has fallen head over heels back in love with music, crying at everything, all over the place. “Even watching some of the Coachella performances, Arcade Fire made me cry. What they were saying lyrically was so beautiful. And seeing how emotional they were to be back on stage. We’ve gone through the weirdest thing any of us will probably go through in our lives. To actually acknowledge being reunited is an emotional thing.”
She choked up in a soundcheck for one of her own songs: “The first time I’ve ever cried singing. It was just a song I’d always thought of as a love song, then I realised it was actually about losing somebody. I’m so lucky I still have my family. I’m so lucky they can still come to shows. But now I just suddenly thought: ‘Gosh, to feel that pain of loss.’”
It perhaps won’t come as the most tremendous surprise that she has also fallen in love, with Yoana Karemova, a classical pianist she met while she was partway through writing Let’s Say for Instance. “I guess people made more of a story about it because I fell in love with a woman. But for me, being in love at this level, that’s the story. I’ve definitely never felt this depth of love.” She feels “divided”, she says, “because I do recognise that I’m in quite a privileged position to be free to say I’m in love with a woman. I definitely hope that I can help someone else feel the strength to do the same. But I probably need to get a bit more clued up. All I can do is answer on how I feel. I can exhale. I love music. And you know, I love that there’s an album coming out – but I finally know that, beyond that, I can find happiness.”
Emeli Sandé’s new album, Let’s Say for Instance, is out on 6 May on Chrysalis Records. Composed With Emeli Sandé is available on BBC Sounds.