One year ago this week, Emeli Sandé’s first album entered the charts at number one. Twelve months on, Our Version Of Events is enjoying its 53rd consecutive week in the Top Ten – a record for a debut bettered only by The Beatles’ Please Please Me in 1963 – and the woman behind it is a household name.
The Scottish singer-songwriter crowned an exceptional year on Wednesday night by winning two Brits – best female and best album – while her debut was the only album to sell a million copies in Britain last year. She performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, while next month’s UK tour is a complete sell-out. Strangest of all, the 25-year-old managed to achieve all this without exploiting her sexuality or getting embroiled in a celebrity scandal.
An old-fashioned pop star, she has kept her private life to herself.
With Sandé, it is all about the songs, a virtue emphasized by this week’s release of her first live album. Recorded last November, Live At The Royal Albert Hall is a CD and DVD double-pack that reiterates the qualities that have made the singer pop royalty. It features hits such as Heaven and Next To Me, and wraps her soulful, heart-stopping voice in atmospheric strings and seductive rhythms.With intimate, piano-led songs her forte, the centerpieces are the ballads Clown and River, back-to-back tracks that are simultaneously sad and uplifting. On Clown, she admits to being a novice pianist, but her performance is still mesmerizing.
Other highlights include a haunting take on the Cup Final hymn Abide With Me (as sung at the Olympics opening ceremony) and a note-faithful cover of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.
‘From the age of eight, she’s been my inspiration,’ says Emeli.
As live albums go, it isn’t perfect. Emeli has the soulful voice and songwriting abilities of Simone, but she has yet to acquire the stagecraft that is a hallmark of her other great influence, Alicia Keys. While the New Yorker will fall back on her inner showgirl when she plays a big venue, the naturally reserved Sandé can seem overwhelmed by the occasion.
‘Wow, I’m playing the Royal Albert Hall,’ she says. ‘This is my wildest dream come true — and it’s all happened so quickly.’
Her fans, however, react warmly to her girl-next-door charm, especially when she touchingly dedicates songs to her watching mum, dad and sister Lucy. If the tender, reflective nature of Sandé’s material threatens to make this album slightly one-paced, the singer is inspired in her choices of collaborators, and guest appearances by rapper Professor Green (on Read All About It) and singer Labrinth (on Beneath Your Beautiful) ensure that the energy levels soar at the end of the evening.
Beyond her undoubted artistry, though, what has made Sandé such a star?
The thing that sticks out the most about the singer is how down to earth she still is. In an era of TV-created idols, she offers something different:
The daughter of a Zambian father, Joel, who moved to Britain on a scholarship and now teaches engineering, and an English mother, Diane, from Cumbria, she was raised in a small, conservative village in the Aberdeenshire countryside.
From there, she went not to stage school but the University of Glasgow, where she completed a medical degree, specialising in Clinical Neuroscience.
In the final year of her studies, she spent time in hospital wards meeting patients with spinal injuries and schizophrenia. Had she not taken up music, she would now be a qualified junior doctor.
‘My intention was always to become a doctor,’ she said ‘I specialized in neurology, and I found medicine a real challenge. ‘It was something that was going to stretch me, because I wasn’t just stuck in a research laboratory.’
‘I was in a hospital, and I got to see people at their most vulnerable. Ultimately, though, I wanted to try music.’
There is a touch of steel to Sandé, too, along with the strong work ethic that is a prerequisite for any modern pop star. The singer concedes she was ‘headstrong’ as a child, and, in her teens, she declined a record deal after winning a Radio 1 talent contest, preferring to cut her musical teeth by writing hits for Cheryl Cole and Susan Boyle.
Her approach has won her the admiration of her peers. Jay-Z praised her ‘unique sound’, Rihanna asked her to write a song for her, and Dido, when I interviewed her recently, was quick to acknowledge a singer she sees as a kindred spirit, not least for the fact that Sandé, like Dido.
Even amidst the prying eyes of the paparazzi, she managed to get married to marine biologist Adam Gouraguine in a very private ceremony.
‘I think she’s brilliant,’ Dido told me. ‘It’s voices that resonate with me, and I love hers. She’s the most exciting female artist of the moment. She never gets boring, either, because I don’t know anything about her private life, which is great.’
Sandé herself is already looking ahead, with this live set previewing two songs from her forthcoming second album. The first, Enough, is a big, flowing piano ballad. The second, Pluto, looks more to the Massive Attack-style strings of her debut single Heaven. On the evidence of these, the stunning success of Our Version Of Events is no fluke.
‘You have a duty to be a positive role model, especially when some of your fans are young girls,’ she says. ‘You get 13- and 14-year-olds thinking they have to dress a certain way to get on.
But my inspirations were Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. With them, the music always came first.’
- Music Spotlight: Emelie Sandé (kolorblindmag.com)
- The Q Awards 2012 London, UK (kolorblindmag.com)
- Brit Awards 2013: Emeli Sandé, Mumford & Sons, One Direction – the triumph of the bland (telegraph.co.uk)