One of UK music’s most exciting talents – Emeli Sandé – talks about her rise to fame
She took a risk by quitting university to pursue her dream. Emeli Sandé still can’t quite believe that the gamble paid off
By Louise Gannon, photography by Mark Hayman
Emeli Sandé can’t stop giggling. Looking achingly edgy in retro black and white, the Scottish powerhouse with the unmistakable voice and platinum quiffed Mohawk is laughing as she admits to being totally and utterly star-struck by Sir Tom Jones when she performed on The Voice.
Apparently, not even singing live in front of Madonna on The Graham Norton Show earlier this year can come close to being in the same studio space as the Welsh legend.
“Well, yes Madonna was something!” says the 24 year old. “She said she liked my hair. But Tom Jones – I didn’t speak to him! It was just amazing, being there with Tom Jones.”
And off she goes, giggling again, apparently bemused and amused in equal measure at how much life has changed for her in the last 12 months.
“I sort of can’t believe this is all happening,” she says in her soft Aberdeenshire accent. “My life has gone super crazy, but in a really good way.”
It’s certainly been quite a year. Since last summer, Emeli has seen her singles Heaven and Next To Me both reach number two in the charts, had her album, Our Version Of Events, become the biggest-selling female debut of 2011 worldwide, and won the Critics’ Choice at the 2012 Brit Awards. Previous winners? Oh, only Adele, Jessie J and Florence And The Machine.
Her latest single, My Kind Of Love, looks set to propel Emeli to even greater heights, having received huge acclaim following her performance on The Voice. And according to Simon Cowell, who employed Emeli pre-fame to write for Leona Lewis and Cher Lloyd, she will be “one of the most massive British artists we’ve ever seen”.
High praise indeed, but all of this nearly didn’t happen at all. Just three years ago, Emeli was on track to become a doctor. She was an academic high-flyer, quiet, bookish and shy, wearing her dark, frizzy hair scraped back. Not your typical pop star.
When she told her professors at the University of Glasgow she was quitting medicine to follow her passion for music, four years into a six-year course, they warned her she could be making an almighty mistake.
“It was the biggest risk of my life,” she says. “But I had to do it. My family totally supported me, which was amazing, and I had this time when I sort of became who I really wanted to be, not who I thought I should be. My life wasn’t safe any more, but it was amazing.”
Finally feeling free to express herself, she embarked on a makeover. Her hair was transformed into the glorious shock of bleached coolness she sports today. Tattoos and piercings came next – Emeli had words from her favourite writer Virginia Woolf inked on to her left arm, and a portrait of her favourite artist, Frida Kahlo, on her right.
“They are strong women and they inspire me,” she says.
She laughs out loud when asked if she would ever “do sexy” like Rihanna.
“It’s not me, I just couldn’t do that,” she says, shaking her head. “I think she’s great, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m about the music and the words. I am happy with who I am.
“I have never been asked to change my looks or dress in a certain way, but I never would. I would never compromise who I am.”
She credits her strong principles and assured sense of self to her parents Joel and Diane, and the secure, loving upbringing they gave both their daughters.
Emeli, who uses her middle name, because her first name is Adele (“Obviously I couldn’t go by that name after Adele!”), explains: “I grew up in a tiny village outside of Aberdeen. My dad came from a poor family in Zambia and he won an academic scholarship to come to Britain.
“He grew up with nothing. Education changed his life. He met my mum and they moved to Scotland where he got a job as a teacher.
“Me and my little sister, Lucy, now 22, were the only mixed-race kids in the whole area. I always felt very different, and as a child you never want to be different. I felt I didn’t fit in. I was never bullied, there was never any racism towards us, but I just knew I wasn’t the same as everyone else.”
She smiles: “It was pretty tough as a kid, but as I grew older I just realised it was something I had to embrace.
“I have the most incredible family. My dad is such a huge character and loved by everyone at that school, but I was so aware of the importance of education, of working hard, because this was the thing that had changed my dad’s life.”
As well as a determination to work as hard as they possibly could, both Emeli and Lucy (who was recently awarded a first-class law degree) shared a love of music.
From the age of eight, Emeli was writing and playing her own songs.
“Lucy was always the first person I’d play my songs to – she still is, she gets to hear everything before anyone else. I totally trust her.”
By 16, Emeli had won a BBC Urban music competition and been invited to sing gospel tracks on MTV. She was signed by a manager, and at 17 spent weeks trailing round record companies in the hope of getting signed. But the idea of becoming a singer was, she admits, terrifying.
“I was pretty shy and nerdy. I felt you could work and work and work with music and nothing was guaranteed, but if you worked at school, at science, then it was guaranteed you’d get something.
“I thought it would be better to get good exam results, then study medicine so I’d have something definite.”
And so she duly gained top marks in her school exams, and won a place to study medicine at Glasgow University.
But her passion for music never went away. Every spare moment Emeli had was spent writing songs and gigging. She met writer and producer Naughty Boy and they teamed up to write for Cheryl Cole, Tinie Tempah, Alesha Dixon and Professor Green, who she went on to have a No.1 single with in 2011 with Read All About It.
In 2009, Chipmunk released Diamond Rings, which Emeli wrote, in a collaboration which featured her vocals alongside his. It got to number six in the charts, and Emeli knew she had to give up the studies and follow her real dream.
To do this, as well as the support of her family, Emeli relied on the love of her marine biologist fiancé, Adam Gouraguine, 24, who she has been with for seven years. She’s reluctant to open up about him, preferring to keep their relationship private – Adam is even less keen on the limelight than Emeli.
“He’s a lot more interested in sharks than celebrities,” she jokes. “We met when I was at uni. I went out with a group of friends and he was there. I remember telling some awful joke and he laughed and I thought: ‘He’s got to be someone special if he can laugh at my terrible jokes.’”
It must be hard to keep the relationship together when she is jetting round the world, mixing with superstars (Alicia Keys has become a close friend) and performing in glamorous places a million miles away from home.
She shrugs: “We just make sure we are together as much as we can be and speak to each other all the time.
“We’re both ambitious, and we both understand how important it is for each of us to try and do the best we can do.
“He’s not over impressed with my world. He wants to get his work published and do research. I know a lot about sharks because of him, and I love that he’s so brilliant at what he does.”
She clearly adores Adam. So it would be easy to assume that new single My Kind Of Love (“Don’t ever question if my heart beats only for you, it beats only for you”) is all about him.
Not according to Emeli. She was inspired to write it after witnessing poignant scenes between patients and their loved ones while she was working in a hospital.
“You see a lot of emotion on a hospital ward, and the song is about a woman who ended up paralysed from the neck down.
“She had a teenage son who was at school, in the middle of exams, but every night he would come and sit with her and try moving her fingers. He would just be so lovely to her and try to make her feel better, and he was dealing with this awful thing, but was only concerned about her. It touched me because it’s an unshowy, uncelebrated kind of love.”
For all her intelligence, for all her talent, Emeli is quick-witted, funny and very easy company.
The downside of her glam life is “missing EastEnders… I never get to see it any more and I love it”. Another secret passion is football – playing, not watching.
“My sister was a member of the Donside Girls Football team. She was really brilliant, but I just loved playing too. I’m not as good as she is, but I’m not bad on the pitch.”
The moments she treasures are not the big ones (although she does admit meeting Eric Clapton, Boy George and Prince Charles was pretty special – “I talked to Charles about cellos because I knew he was a fan of cellist Jacqueline Du Pré”). It’s the times she goes back to her old school in Alford, where her dad still teaches and they have an Emeli Sandé display on the wall, the dinners talking sharks with Adam, or the increasingly rare “sisters days” with Lucy that are the most important to Emeli.
Recently, she helped organise a hen night for her best friend from primary school, Mai, which involved a trip to the recording of Emeli’s performance on The Voice, then making cupcakes, having tea and playing games.
“Everyone was most impressed by the Winnebago I got to use at the BBC and, of course,” she laughs, “Tom Jones.”
- Emeli’s new single, My Kind Of Love, taken from her debut album Our Version Of Events, is out now.
Do you have any superstitions?
The number 11 is always good for me.
What’s the closest you’ve come to death?
I’ve stood next to corpses!
What’s your greatest fear?
Reaching 50 and feeling I haven’t tried my best.
Do you have a most treasured possession?
A gold necklace that Adam’s mum gave me.
What’s been your biggest splurge?
A baby grand piano.
Who are your dream dinner party guests?
Cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, Nina Simone, John Lennon and the artist Frida Kahlo.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Cadbury’s Boost bars.
What would your last meal be?
My dad’s Nshima (cornmeal patties) followed by trifle.