It’s just that there are some fields (politics, heavyweight boxing, pop music – especially pop music) where the process seems more explicit than most. When she first moved to London in pursuit of a career in music, Emeli Sande changed her appearance in a couple of ways.
The former University of Glasgow medical student got herself tattooed (there’s an inky representation of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo running the length of her right forearm) and, more obviously, she got herself a new haircut. She now sports a peroxide quiff that stands up and, given it’s being worn by a striking, 24-year-old, mixed-race woman with geometric cheekbones, stands out too. You imagine it’s her equivalent of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane zig-zag or Kylie’s hotpants – a marker of a new self. Is that how she sees it? Did it feel like putting on a suit of armour or a disguise? “Perhaps,” she says. “I mean, I never felt about it like that. I felt it was more of a kind of rebellion.”
A rebellion against the girl she’d been, it seems. A girl who went by another name. She grew up in Alford, Aberdeenshire, where she was and still is known as Adele, Joel and Diane’s daughter. In London – because, as you may have noticed, the name Adele was already taken – she became Emeli. Are Adele and Emeli different people? “I think so. Adele is the med student who was very sensible and quite studious. Emeli moved to London. Getting the hair and the tattoo, it definitely felt like an evolution into Emeli.”
Sande is sitting in the Scottish Opera cafe in Glasgow. She’ll be performing at next month’s Scottish Variety Awards but she’s back in Scotland this time on a flying visit to talk to the press because that’s what you have to do when you’ve an album coming out and you’re the music industry’s next big thing and you’ve already won a Brit (the Critics’ Choice, previously won by the other Adele, Florence + The Machine and Jessie J), written songs for Cheryl Cole and Christina Aguilera, written songs with Alicia Keys and been asked to support Coldplay on tour. We’ve arranged to photograph her in a studio around the corner but said studio is doing a good impersonation of the North Pole this afternoon, so while the photographer tries to heat a hulking former factory we’ve come here to warm up over a cup of tea and to talk about the evolution of Emeli Sande. That and the fact her timetable has now moved from mental to full-on mental.
“I’m slowly getting used to it,” she says after talking me through her diary. Her life at the moment is a roundelay of flights and interviews, radio appearances and Dutch DJs hoping she’ll insert their name into the lyric of her top 10 single Heaven so they can use it as a jingle (“I did it but I felt so wrong at the end of it”). Oh and people asking her if she’s nervous. “I’m starting to feel nervous now the album’s coming out. I’ve just got to remember I love the songs and I’m proud of it. That’s all I can do.”
Given she’s already had a top 10 hit and everyone has been predicting her imminent stardom for the past six months it seems unlikely she’s going to fail. But would it bother her if she did? “Yeah. I would definitely be disappointed if it didn’t happen. But I wasn’t prepared to be successful. I thought, ‘Well, if I could do my own thing and be this cool indie artist that’s fine, then at least I’m getting to have my own fans and represent my own music.’ So it never had to be this big. I didn’t have to be winning awards and stuff. I only wanted to make sure I could have a niche somewhere.”
The niche she’s created is an unusual one. She’s emerged from Britain’s booming urban scene and yet she’s ended up writing for Susan Boyle and having Simon Cowell tell us she’s his favourite songwriter. They must be two very different worlds, you’d think. Sande’s not so sure. “You have to make a song that can work anywhere. I’d love to think Tinie Tempah could do the Susan Boyle song.”
One other thing. She’s not afraid of the word “ambitious”. But then she’s always been ambitious. Ambitious and competitive. At university she wanted the best grades she could get.
Still, she says, “I think I maybe need to change the focus of my ambition to be happy with the music I’m making. I think I need to like the music and stop having to quantify everything.” She needs to let go of the last bit of her Adeleness perhaps, the quiet, studious, exam-driven girl she once was.
What superstitions do you believe in, Emeli?
“Is karma a superstition? I definitely feel if you’ve done something bad it’s going to get you. And I’m very into numbers. There are certain numbers that if I see them it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Twenty-two is really good and 27 is kind of bad. They’ve all got personalities.”
When was the last time you broke the law?
“I’ve been a bit boring recently. I’m trying to think of something juicy. I think maybe – No – I better not say that.”
Which pop stars do you fancy?
“I really fancy Frank Ocean. He’s a new guy. I went to see him live in east London. It was his confidence. He just stood up. He didn’t even have a band. And he was so chilled. That’s really quite attractive.”
When was the first time you kissed a boy?
“That was really sad. I think I was about 16 and there was this boy who I knew all the way through high school, from when I was about 11.
“He was a really strange boy. He didn’t speak to anyone so I thought he was serious and this inner artist. It turns out he was just quiet. But this was a leaving do and we finally spoke after five years. We spoke and then kissed, and it was great. Then we went on a date and it didn’t turn out great. But the kiss was fine.”
Emeli Sande grew up in the small country town of Alford, around 25 miles from Aberdeen, with her English mother, her Zambian father, her younger sister and an almost inevitable sense of being different. Her skin colour was never an issue, though. She was never abused for it. If anything, the whole family was hugely welcomed. “In the eighties my parents were in Sunderland and they went through some awful things,” says Sande. “They have some awful stories. They got people saying things to them in the streets, in bars. It was tough for them.”
Alford, then, was a vast improvement. But even so their daughter felt she stood out. “It definitely made me more introverted, I guess. In primary school you’re just a kid but when I first got to high school it was like: oh, I’m quite different. There weren’t many people who enjoyed the same type of music as me. I found it very difficult to express myself or communicate. And if I left that village where everyone knew me I felt really different. Anywhere else in Scotland – if you go further north – everyone stares and it was like: ‘Where am I fitting in here? I can’t just stay in this tiny village because people know me.’”
The one place she felt at home was home. She wasn’t shy and introverted there. It was a noisy house, she says. “People definitely knew we were there. [It was] quite boisterous – me singing and doing shows, and my sister was loud when she was a kid. It was a loud family. ‘We’re all in it together, we’re different and we’re going to make this work. Let’s get on with it.’”
Her father introduced her to Nina Simone’s back catalogue but it was Adele who was the music lover in the house. Her parents bought her piano lessons and eventually a piano. She also played clarinet. “I filled up the house,” she recalls. “It was almost like music was my secret: ‘This is who I am.’” She went on stage at school and from the age of eight or nine started writing songs too. It can’t have been too much of a secret as she would make her family listen to them. “I never had a problem showing people stuff. I’d find it difficult to speak to adults or other people and find it hard to make friends in school but with music I was just like: ‘This is my time to show you who I am.’”
There’s a risk in that, of course. What if nobody liked it? Would you consider that an attack? “Yeah, it would be you personally putting yourself out there and getting shot down.” It was easier to be a student. “You follow the rules. You can win. You can achieve something.”
And academia was the obvious route. Her father was a teacher, so “education was always a big thing at home”. But she says it was never something she felt pressured into. Maybe she chose to study medicine because it was a world she understood – she was academic and competitive. “At med school you’re told when to get to class, when to do stuff, what to study. Everything is set out for you, whereas with music how would I even get into the industry? Who would I meet? What type of music would I do? It was kind of unknown.”
And yet at 16 she made it to the finals of the BBC’s national Urban Music competition, her parents driving her from Alford to London to take part. It didn’t come to anything. She’s glad of that. “It would have been a different story if I’d done it then. I don’t think I was prepared or ready. I don’t think I knew who I was as a musician or as a person then.” Instead she went to Glasgow, loved the feeling of being in a city after the rural quietness of Alford, took her keyboards with her and hung out at clubs including The Arches and Nice And Sleazy. “Being away from home, I grew a lot as a person.” Still, she was three years into her medical degree when Adele morphed into Emeli.
Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?
“Oh, I think the mind rules the body.”
Does that imply you’re more of a puritan than a hedonist?
When was the first time you thought about death?
“When I went to Glasgow. In first year they show you the cadavers. That was the first time I really thought about it because there’s somebody who used to be somebody. There were little flags in the brain. I was like: ‘This used to have ideas and dreams, and they’re not there any more. This is organic, a piece of matter.’ That made me think I don’t want to think about it too much.”
By the time she’d left university Sande had already met Shahid Khan, aka Naughty Boy, her songwriting partner, and signed a publishing contract. London was already exerting its pull. “When I got there I was very focused on what I wanted to do. I kind of felt [I was] on a mission.” The pair of them wrote a song, sent it to new urban singer Chipmunk, who liked it and rapped over it, got Sande in to sing on it and – voila – it was a top 10 hit. Her mission was under way. After that Sande was established as a songwriter to the stars and soon-to-be stars. And a soon-to-be star herself.
So, in the end, where is Adele in all this? Actually I’m not sure she’s that far away, even now. The competitive, studious, slightly introverted girl is still there, behind the tattoo and haircut. Offer her a day off and she says she’ll write a song. She doesn’t go clubbing because she’s “really boring”. She’s not. She just knows who she is. Maybe that’s her greatest achievement. n
Our Version Of Events by Emeli Sande is released by EMI.