EMELI SANDE – Evening Standard, 21 Oct 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new Adele. Or the original Adele, to be more exact. Adele Emeli Sande, at 24, is a little older than the trillion-selling voice of 21, but adopted her middle name for musical purposes when Miss Adkins reached stardom first. Now the newcomer from rural Aberdeenshire is catching up fast, making a three-pronged attack on the charts over the coming weeks that shows the huge breadth of her talent.
Soon we’ll hear Trouble, the next single from the new Leona Lewis album, which Sande wrote. Next month there’s her own second single, the high drama, swirling strings and breakbeat drums of Daddy – it follows on from the similarly grandiose soul of her number two debut, Heaven. And on Sunday there’s the release of the new Professor Green single, Read All About It, with a painfully personal Green rap and an emotional chorus sung by Sande that makes it the homegrown equivalent of Eminem and Rihanna’s giant hit Love the Way You Lie.
The pair will perform it live on The X Factor this weekend, a show with a strong connection to Sande even though she insists she doesn’t watch it. “I’m just going to go and sing on it. I don’t really follow who’s on it unless someone shows me a clip in the studio,” she tells me from beneath the peroxide cockatoo’s hairdo that has made her one of the more visually memorable new singers of the moment.
In a sunny accent that sounds almost completely American but she maintains is the sound of northern Scotland, she goes on: “I think it’s quite a dangerous way to become a pop star. It’s brilliant that it’s brought us people like Leona and Alexandra [Burke, whose new album Sande has also written for] and it is so hard to get heard in this industry. But I always felt sad when I watched it when I was younger – all these dreams being crushed by these four judges. I think the long way is the best. If anything’s fast and instant you’ve got to question it.”
Sande definitely took the high road, as we shall see, but if she had ever felt the desire to compete on the show, she would have got two enormous thumbs up from Simon Cowell. Although she has never met him, he’s had her writing for acts in his orbit including Lewis, Burke, Cher Lloyd and Cheryl Cole – Sande’s tune Boys was the B-side to Cole’s top five 2009 hit 3 Words. Now, perhaps improbably for a woman who has also sung on top 10 grime singles by London rappers Chipmunk and Wiley, she’s written a ballad, This Will be the Year, for next month’s Susan Boyle album.
“It doesn’t bother me who I write for as long as my work is consistent. I would only worry if I gave someone a song that wasn’t good,” she says. “I don’t care if anyone wants to be snobby about it. I love Susan Boyle as an artist and I think the song is great.”
Although Cowell’s genius for promotion is undisputed, his ear for a classic tune is less solid – a theory Sande would dispute. “I think Simon knows a good melody and a good lyric and he has a real ear for a song song.”
I get the impression you’d have to wait a long time to get her to say anything critical about one of her main employers. Sande is professional to the core, always smiling in our time together while being diplomatic and somewhat guarded. She meets me in the cafe directly above the Hackney rehearsal studios where she is preparing for her first UK headline tour – such a popular sellout that she had to add a second, bigger London date. Signed photos of the studio’s past clients including Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys and Tom Jones cover the walls. It surely won’t be long before she hangs among them as an equal.
Sitting up straight over a herbal tea she runs through the back story that marks her out as one of the more sensible, intelligent singers in popworld. With five Highers (Scotland’s A levels) in Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Biology and English and a BSc degree in Clinical Neuroscience from the University of Glasgow, she knows better than most that pop music isn’t brain surgery but still has an innate sense for a higher class of chart hit. Her song Heaven has a similar heartbroken-yet-upbeat sound to Massive Attack’s classic single, Unfinished Sympathy.
She could have gone the teenage X Factor route, having entered a much less high-profile contest at 16, on Trevor Nelson’s Rhythm Nation show on Radio 1. “It was an ‘urban talent search’ or something like that. And I won! I had to go down there to record my song. It was my first taste of London and the industry and management. Previously I’d performed at school and a few times in Aberdeen but this was my first feeling of, ‘Wow, I’ve made it!’. I don’t think anyone knew what to do with me though. It was just me on the piano, I was quite shy and I really didn’t know what was going on.”
The prize was a record deal, though not from a major label. She turned it down, not least because she had already been accepted on her medical degree. “I was split half and half because I did love school and I definitely wanted to go to university. But then there was this whole other side of me. Part of me was desperate to be a pop star, and I knew I was going to be a musician eventually.”
She spent a few years trying to do both from Glasgow, playing piano in hotels and restaurants (“No one was listening so I could secretly write my own songs.”) mixing in the city’s small urban scene and starting to co-write songs with Shahid Khan, a London-based producer who calls himself Naughty Boy. When they wrote the song Diamond Rings for Chipmunk, a top 10 hit in 2009, Sande couldn’t be filmed singing for the video because she had a Statistics exam.
“Naughty Boy learned more about music and song structure from me as I was coming from a musician’s perspective. I learned how to be a bit cooler from him. He definitely gave me a sound and a musical identity. I was never cool.” The first song they ever wrote together was her next single, Daddy, a dark soul number about a destructive relationship. “I want to write songs that are going to make people think or feel something. If I write a love song I want to do it in a way that’s going to hit you in one line.”
After the Chipmunk hit she was offered a publishing deal and music took over. “I’m very competitive and was finding it hard not being able to be great at either of the things. I was getting really down.” She deferred her Doctorate for a year, then another year, and this summer she finally quit for real. “I did get the Bachelors degree, but I suppose I’ll have to start again if I want to be a doctor now.”
That’s not something she needs to worry about for a long time. Now she’s in dreamland, having just been to New York to write with Alicia Keys – she drove for three hours each way to see the US R&B star in concert in Glasgow as a teenager. There’s also a still-secret arena tour coming up, as the main support to an absolutely gigantic band.
She shows me a tattoo covering her right forearm of Frida Kahlo, eyebrows and all, another woman who abandoned medicine for art. “I had this internal battle but in the end decided that you know what, art really is important.”