She sang for an audience of billions at both Olympic ceremonies, has written hits for Rihanna, Beyoncé and Professor Green, and has outsold Adele. Not a bad year for a medical student from Glasgow.
Poor Kylie. There she is, elaborately gowned and extravagantly supported by an orchestra, topping the bill at an invitation-only event at Abbey Road Studios.
It’s November 2011 and the Aussie songbird is giving a taster of an album marking her 25 years of making music. She has pulled out all the bells, whistles and string sections. But alas, on this night, Ms Minogue has been upstaged by another singer. Further down the bill there’s a mixed-race Scotswoman, living in a flat on Brick Lane, with a cockatoo shock of peroxide hair, and an elaborate tattoo of Frida Kahlo on her forearm. She also has an incredible voice: rich, soulful, expressive. It is a proper star-is-born moment, and the studio — packed with music industry movers and shakers — erupts.
Exactly one year later, I am watching Emeli Sandé wow another room. Over the past 12 months I’ve seen her triumph at the Brit Awards, dazzle Chris Martin as Coldplay’s support (‘He said he really liked my song-writing, which coming from him is the biggest compliment ever’), silence The O2 and inspire a rowdy crowd in Glasgow, the city where she was once a student at the School of Medicine. She also appeared in both the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics, had a number one with Professor Green, ‘Read All About It’, and her album has outsold Adele’s in the UK.
Today the 25-year-old is in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall, teaching a song-writing masterclass to 30 secondary school kids from Hackney and Lewisham. She tells them that she began playing the piano as a child growing up in the small town of Alford, Aberdeenshire; how her English mother (a council licensing standards officer) and Zambian father (a teacher) always encouraged her; and how she tried to secure a record deal from the age of 16. Recalling her efforts to make headway in the music industry, Sandé tells the rapt teenagers that ‘London to me was just this exciting place, but I’d no idea how I’d get there from this tiny place really way north in Scotland’. Then, in response to the question ‘What does music mean to you?’, her answer comes quickly. ‘Everything. It’s how I express myself. There’s a spiritual connection — you’re feeling something higher.’
Sensible, focused and ambitious, Sandé possesses an almost old-fashioned faith in the power of song. It’s an attitude that has helped rocket-power the career of the woman who, in 2009, in the fourth year of her studies, abandoned plans to be a doctor (her area of interest: clinical neuroscience) in favour of the dream of being a songwriter. Sandé won the Critics’ Choice at the Brit Awards in February 2012 and her debut album, Our Version of Events, released at the start of 2012, has sold more than 800,000 copies and is the nigh-impregnable bestselling album of the year. She’s also had tea with Prince Charles at Clarence House (he appointed her a Prince’s Trust ambassador). Oh, and she got married, in Montenegro.
After the Olympics’ global-audience-of-one-billion high (more of which later), Sandé got away from it all, by marrying her Montenegrin fiancé Adam (the pair met as teenagers in Aberdeen), a marine biologist, in his homeland. She managed to fit in the wedding organisation by having nothing to do with it. ‘I gave it to Adam — he did everything.
Literally. When I got there he was like, “Oh yeah, let me show you the venue…” It wasn’t a church, it was just a place by the coast. And it was perfect. We got married at night and had a little honeymoon in Serbia. It was wonderful. A few Scots came from Glasgow. My friend Sam wore his kilt. He has such a strong Glaswegian accent, all the Montenegrins were like, “We thought we could understand English until he turned up…” ’ Were there any unusual Montenegrin wedding traditions? ‘People did bring money instead of gifts. But other than that it was really chilled out.’ And that includes the other ‘surprise’ Adam had in store for her — he’d booked her a concert, in a club called Maximus in the city of Kotor. She’s not sure if she’s sold (m)any records in the Balkan state, ‘but they do call me The Montenegrin Daughter-In-Law,’ she says with a laugh. She’ll now be known formally as Adele Emeli Gouraguine-Radojevic (no prizes for guessing why she chose to perform under her middle name). And she’ll have the Montenegrin passport to prove it.
Three days after her teaching stint at the Royal Albert Hall, Sandé is at the ITV Studios on the South Bank, preparing to record an appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show. She’s singing ‘Wonder’, a new track written with her frequent collaborator Naughty Boy (aka Watford’s Shahid Khan). Over a hurried dinner (a bowl of tomato soup) in a tiny dressing room, she reflects on her giddy year. The Olympics was an obvious highlight, although nerves almost got the better of her during her performance of ‘Abide With Me’ at the opening ceremony. ‘It was really good for my range,’ she insists of the challenging hymn. ‘Because we did so many sessions rehearsing, getting it in the right key — but that key worked perfectly for me.’
The performance, a tribute to lost loved ones, was largely unadorned, with only a heartbeat rhythm and a ‘drone’ to accompany the singer. ‘That was why I was so nervous before going out. The dress rehearsal was in front of maybe 16,000 people — and that went awfully. So people could catch the Tube home, they told them to start leaving the stadium when my part was playing! And I’d walked up there, in the dress and the heels, and the mic didn’t work. Everyone was shouting, and I was getting so distracted, I forgot the whole arrangement… So that was in my head: if this happens on the night… Then, at the ceremony, right before they opened the door, I felt like I’d forgotten the whole tune. But it came back at the right moment,’ she smiles.
At the closing ceremony, too, she was picked by the BBC to sing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ as a valedictory anthem. Why was she so ubiquitous — did Adele pull out? ‘Ha ha ha! I’m not sure. I was really surprised that the opening and closing ceremonies asked me. But they were things you just couldn’t say no to.’
Other golden opportunities came from further afield. She spent time in New York co-writing three songs for Alicia Keys’ forthcoming album, and Beyoncé has recorded a track Sandé composed with Al Shux (who produced/co-wrote ‘Empire State of Mind’). Then there’s ‘Half of It’, a Sandé/Naughty Boy composition that caught the ear of Rihanna. ‘She heard it, loved it — got really emotional hearing it apparently. And then the next thing we know, they said she’s taken it and it’s supposedly on her new album.’
Sandé knows what a big song with a big artist can do for a writer. After Calvin Harris wrote ‘We Found Love’ for Rihanna, it topped the US charts for ten weeks, and fast-tracked the Scottish DJ/artist’s profile in America. For Sandé, who plans on devoting much of next year attempting to ‘crack’ the US, it’s exactly the start she needs. ‘As a writer, America is such a good place. Once you get access to one big star, because they’re all so connected — somebody works with this person, who works with that person — it’s a great way to get in.
But you never know with such a big marquee artist,’ she shrugs. ‘They say they’re gonna do it then it gets two months down the line and you never hear anything about it.’ She’s speaking from experience. Leona Lewis’s current single ‘Trouble’ is also a Sandé/Naughty Boy composition. Lewis first said she wanted the song two years ago.
Three days later I meet Mrs Gouraguine-Radojevic for the final time. Over the weekend, after The Jonathan Ross Show on the Saturday, she also performed on The X Factor with Labrinth — another co-writer, another hit. In the wake of the performance, the song ‘Beneath Your [sic] Beautiful’ shot from 88 to number one on the iTunes chart. Today she’s at the Grosvenor House hotel for the Q Awards. She’s up for Best Solo Artist, against Noel Gallagher, Adele, Dizzee Rascal and Florence + The Machine. Of course, she wins, with her pal Professor Green presenting the gong. On Sandé’s current form, you wouldn’t bet against her sweeping next year’s Brits.
She hangs out for a bit — a photo op with Dionne Warwick, another with Bobby Womack, some expressions of gushy love from girl band Stooshe — before exiting into the late-afternoon gloom to start rehearsals for her UK tour. Anything else Sandé would like to declare before she goes? She thinks for a second.
‘Well, I found out recently that Prince has sampled my song ‘Maybe’ on a new song he’s written — he’s playing it on the Jimmy Kimmel [the US’s answer to Ross] show next week. And that’s just…’ Emeli Sandé shakes her head. She is, genuinely, for once, speechless. ES
MasterCard has partnered with Emeli on her UK tour in support of The Prince’s Trust and Nordoff Robbins. Her album Our Version of Events is out now.
Check out the full gorgeous photoshoot in our gallery here.