The Scottish pop-soul superstar Emeli Sandé is relaunching her career with Let’s Say For Instance, a sweeping album presaged by the vocoder-funk of lead single ‘Family’.
Sandé, whose first name is actually Adele, grew up in rural Alford. She relinquished a medical vocation for music, initially working as a songwriter. A pianist, Sandé formed a pivotal partnership with rising producer Shahid “Naughty Boy” Khan in London – co-writing and singing on Chipmunk’s 2009 grime hit ‘Diamond Rings’.
Sandé’s debut solo single, ‘Heaven’, came out via Virgin EMI in 2011, evoking the symphonic trip-hop balladry of Massive Attack. Her debut album, Our Version Of Events, was 2012’s top-selling album in the UK. Sandé performed at the London Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. Meanwhile, the UK performer established a creative rapport with Alicia Keys and wrote for Rihanna.
Sandé re-surfaced with 2016’s quiet storm, Long Live The Angels, which chronicled the dissolution of her marriage to marine biologist Adam Gouraguine (Jay Electronica made a rare cameo on the record). Sandé’s most recent release was 2019’s slept-on gospel/R&B collection, REAL LIFE.
Now feeling free, both creatively and emotionally, Sandé is touting Let’s Say For Instance as “an ode to resilience, rebirth and renewal.” The singer celebrates her coming out and love for classical pianist Yoana Karemova on ‘My Pleasure,’ a sensual queer bop. Sandé offers communal songs prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and addresses a looming mental health crisis and Black Lives Matter on ‘Another One’.
Sandé performed the swinging, inspirational anthem, ‘Brighter Days,’ with The Kingdom Choir at March’s Concert For Ukraine. The album’s sole guest is Birmingham rapper Jaykae, who appears on ‘Look What You’ve Done’. Most of all, Let’s Say For Instance shows Sandé’s prowess as a vocalist, rivalling Mariah Carey.
Sandé has largely concentrated on the UK market, where she’s had sustained good fortune, winning multiple BRITs and even an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for services to music. But now Sandé is keen to connect with Australian audiences. She enjoyed an early hit here with ‘Next To Me’ and covered Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’ alongside the Bryan Ferry Orchestra for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack. Sandé visited Australia for promo in 2017, performing an industry gig in Sydney. (“There’s no tour plans at the moment, but I’m trying my best to get further out, for sure,” she says.)
A glam Sandé, in colourful quilted top, chats to Music Feeds over Zoom on a Monday morning from the marble bench in her London kitchen, with a portrait of Frida Kahlo on the white rendered brick wall behind her.
Music Feeds: I last spoke to you about your first album, Our Version Of Events. In the interim, I used to wonder why the label in Australia didn’t keep that momentum going. But you’ve alluded to being with a major, and now starting your career anew. What did you take away from the experience?
Emeli Sandé: Well, I mean, the positive experience was I always have been very free to kind of write the lyrics I want to write and they’ve always got behind what I’d wanted to do creatively in that sense. But I think, in a major label, there always has to be an element of compromise because, at the end of the day, you’re spending their money… So there is always that pressure where you can’t be completely free, because it needs to make business sense, you know.
For me, I just feel that [leaving Virgin EMI] came right at the right time. I had a great time making those first three, four albums there. But it definitely felt that I’d grown up as a woman. I signed there in my early 20s. Now I’m 35. So it felt, just personally, a time in my life where I definitely wanted to own my music, basically.
And that was a big decision , and why making this album without a label was important and finding a record company that kind of respected that and also respected what I wanted to do creatively.
So I don’t know – I didn’t have that many negative experiences. I just felt like, “Okay, I want to get to the point where I’m responsible for if it goes wrong, I’ll take responsibility.” If it goes right then at least I can follow my instincts more in that sense.
MF: Let’s Say For Instance is so sonically expansive. There are some surprises, like the vocoder, the textural elements. But, overall, this album feels really optimistic. Even though you’re singing about some very serious topics, there’s a hopefulness. I guess the most sombre song is ‘Another One’. But what kind of headspace were you in as you wrote these songs?
ES: I was in quite a determined headspace, for sure. Like, I had to feel the enthusiasm for making the record. When you do leave a big structure like that [major label], you have to kind of fill in those gaps yourself. Usually, you’ve got somebody saying, ‘When’s it gonna be ready?’ or ‘Have you finished this yet?’ and I definitely had to be more disciplined in that sense. So I was determined just to finish the project and to get there to a point where I felt super-happy musically.
But I think the whole world being shut down, you know, your job’s kind of just taken from you and we were told that arts aren’t important – “Retrain; this isn’t something you should have dedicated your life to.” So I felt that I wanted to resist that. Also I felt that disconnection with people.
So that was the hardest part. I think that’s what was fuelling this album – just that want and need to connect, and also just thinking, I want something which can give something to people, which can uplift them, give them that feeling of confidence while they listened to it.
MF: Even in Australia, we’re aware of all the debates around the NHS (National Health Service) and the pressures on them, both under the Tory government with austerity and with the COVID impact. I wondered if during that time, you thought, What if I had stayed in medicine? It must have been a surreal time for you.
ES: Yeah, for sure. I definitely had those thoughts – and I said, “Gosh, if I would have stayed in medicine, I would have been more useful right now.” But I think that’s what really put that seed in me to find something beyond entertainment in the music.
I was like, “No – if I really want to make this album and put in quite a risk to make it, it needs to actually be beneficial to people in some way and give them just a space to breathe in.”
But I have lots of friends who are still in medicine, who are doctors, so they’d be letting me know what’s going on. It made me just want to work very hard. I felt like, God has been fantastic, I’ve had the opportunity to do what I love and to make music, but now it’s time for me to kind of pull my socks up as well and offer something beyond what’s beneficial for me.
So, yeah, it was big therapy to put the music together. But it was definitely with that thought in mind – if I can’t heal through medical knowledge, let me at least heal through the music.
MF: You’re acclaimed as a singer-songwriter. But, with this album, you make that transition into production. How did you find that process?
ES: I loved it – really liberating. I really fell in love with production, because it showed me that, yes, beyond the melody and the lyric and the chords you put around it, you can just take it to another world; you can create a whole atmosphere and worlds that people can live in. I think that’s the biggest lesson I learnt from production – and also that everyone can produce in different ways.
I always felt, Oh, well, I can’t really call myself a producer because I don’t know how to use this program. But, then, I’ve realised it’s so much beyond that and you can really choose the way you want to do it. It just allows me to put more of myself into the music.
MF: Another thing I don’t think you get credit for is your role in dance music, because ‘Heaven’ brought trip-hop back into pop culture, and now that feeling is pervasive. You’ve also had some incredible remixes over the years. I love the Matrix & Futurebound drum and bass remix of ‘Shine’. What’s your relationship with that genre? Because I’m hearing a dance influence on this album again.
ES: Yeah, I love dance music. I love the energy of it, particularly jungle and drum and bass. It really reminds me of London and the spirit of London. It’s quite relentless. And I think we need that – we need that energy now more than ever, because I feel it became very lethargic. You just sat at home and [were] told to watch Netflix and all of that stuff. But, to really reignite myself, I found myself listening to a lot of dance music. Like, I love The Blaze, I love Bicep so much.
Sometimes I really want to blast my vocal – that’s why ‘Heaven’ was so excited ’cause you’ve got this extreme drum and bass but, then, on top of it, I want to match the energy. I always feel that dance music production gives me that. It dares me to come with the same energy and I love going for it.
MF: You came out recently, and people were really happy for you. I imagine it’s very important for you to own that narrative. But what have you made of the response? And what has it been like to have your truth out there?
ES: Yeah, I’ve been really touched by the response. You know, it’s not something that I felt, Okay, today, I’m gonna make a big announcement. It was just something that felt naturally like I wanted to share my love with the world.
But, yeah, I’ve been really touched and really feel very welcomed by the community. It was a big relief. It could have gone two ways – you just never know. But it felt like a point in my life where I need to tell the truth of who I am. I want everybody to know the full version of who I am, not just when I’m on stage or when I’ve put these songs together.
MF: You’ve always shared a lot of yourself in your music. At times, it’s been very melancholy because of that. How does it feel writing such personal lyrics?
ES: I love it. I feel, the more honest I am, the more liberating it feels, yeah. I’d only ever really hate a song if I felt I hadn’t been honest or I felt I was trying to be pretentious in it, which I really always try to avoid.
So, through the music, I definitely find, when you just tell the truth, there’s nothing more freeing. That’s why I always make sure lyrically I don’t lie. I’ve always been quite a honest person and I want people to know me exactly. So to now be able to be honest about everything – personal life, music – all the rest of it’s like, Okay, cool, now it’s complete. I feel like I can just be myself in every aspect of my life now.