One minute she was studying to be a doctor, the next – puff! – she was transformed into the peroxide-quiffed star of the Olympic opening ceremony
Singers Jay-Z, Elton John and Bono are just three of the megastars who’ve fallen under her spell, but it’s not so long ago that all Emeli Sandé wanted was to feel safe and anonymous.
The shy, mixed-race girl from the tiny Aberdeenshire village of Alford, was 16 when she decided it was better to bury her head in her studies than attempt to become a pop star, because that way madness lay.
Sandé, 26, shrugs as she surveys the chaos of a photo studio in London (a jumble of photographs, clothes, assistants, champagne bottles, mobiles and laptops).
‘I wasn’t a rebel,’ she says. ‘I was pretty quiet and nerdy.
‘I had these dreams, but what was more important to me was to feel that I had safety and security in my life.
‘That meant not thinking about being a singer and focusing on studying to be a doctor.
‘I felt you could work and work at music and nothing was guaranteed, but if you worked at school, at science, then you’d get something solid.
‘I always sang, I always wrote music, and even though I was shy I had no fear of performing.
‘When I was 16 I won a music competition and got to go to London, to see people in record companies, but I found it overwhelming.
‘I guess there aren’t many teenagers who would think going back to school was the better option, but I didn’t want to be this girl desperate to be a singer with nothing else to fall back on.
‘I guess I never believed it could really happen to me.’
Ten years later (with a degree in clinical neuroscience and an offer from Glasgow University to finish the final two years of her six-year medical degree), Sandé’s success has surpassed even the greatest expectations of her management and record company.
As for her own hopes, she starts to open her mouth then shakes her head.
‘There are,’ she says, ‘no words. No words.’
In the past, Sandé has been embraced by fans, critics and some of the world’s most influential artists (Jay-Z has said he wants her to duet with Beyoncé, and Elton John has described her songwriting as ‘old school, world-class’).
She performed at the London Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, played at Elton’s Oscars party, wrote a song for Danny Boyle’s new thriller, Trance, and at this year’s Brits walked away with two trophies, including best album for her debut, Our Version Of Events.
Sandé has navigated a career path that most only dream of.
Last year she married her long-term boyfriend, marine biologist Adam Gouraguine, and next year plans to take time out from performing to write music.
She smiles a lot, laughs frequently, joking about how whenever she is on tour dozens of people will come up to her.
‘I’ll get. “Emeli, can you take a look at my foot?”, or whatever complaint they have. I keep saying, “I’m not a doctor any more.”’
As a medical student she was unrecognisable from how she looks today.
Her dark hair was scraped back into a pony-tail, there was no quiff, no vintage clothes under her white coat, ‘just sensible shoes and glasses’, she says.
‘I looked much like any medical student, conventional. You wouldn’t have noticed me in the street.
‘I had shoulder-length, brown curly hair, I didn’t do make-up. As a med student you don’t have time.’
She continued to write and sent music to the manager who signed her when she was 16.
‘In my family we grew up with a huge respect for education instilled in us. Me and my little sister Lucy (a lawyer) were the only mixed-race kids in the area.
‘I always felt different, but that was a good thing because it made me forge my own path. I took school incredibly seriously. Music was just what I loved.’
At university she wrote a song, Diamond Rings, for the pop singer Chipmunk. It was a hit and made Sandé rethink her life choices.
‘I’d reached a point where I had to follow my heart, my passion. Diamond Rings proved I had something, I needed to see it through.
‘I called my dad and asked him what he would do and he told me to go for it.
‘A lot of my tutors weren’t happy but I moved to London and became who I really wanted to be.’
Sandé began experimenting with her look.
She had the title of a Virginia Woolf novel tattooed on one arm – A Room Of One’s Own – and, later, a picture of her heroine, artist Frida Kahlo, on the other.
Her trademark mohawk came by degrees.
‘I didn’t have a David Bowie moment when I transformed myself. I just slowly became freer.
‘I love it because it’s powerful. I was really pleased when Madonna told me she liked my music, but she thought my hair was great. That was a pretty good compliment.’
Initially, Sandé was a musician for hire, writing for several of Simon Cowell’s finds, from Cher Lloyd to Leona Lewis. She also wrote for Cheryl Cole.
‘I enjoyed writing for others, but always wanted to put my voice out there as well as my songs. It happened gradually, and then seemed to go really fast.
‘For the past few years things haven’t stopped. You don’t get time to think about what’s happening because the next thing is around the corner.’
So does she feel safe? She laughs.
‘I think my life is mad. It’s crazy, but there’s a centre within it that feels exactly right.’
Emeli Sandé plays the Isle of Wight Festival on Friday June 14th.
Source: Mail Online