EMELI SANDÉ interview – Evening Standard, 15 March 2019

Comfy though her large sofa is, I imagine it would be hard to put your feet up and relax with a bit of Bake Off in Emeli Sandé’s east London living room. There’s a glossy black Feurich upright piano on the other side of the fireplace. Groaning bookshelves include a job lot of the classics with matching spines. In framed black-and-white photographs, Martin Luther King Jr, the civil rights activist Angela Davis and the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti look down at you. “They’re like, ‘Get up! Play the piano!’ I love seeing them as soon as I come in,” she says.

Instead, her television is at rest on her YouTube recommendations page, which, aside from an incongruous clip of a press conference featuring the heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua, are all themed around meditation and self-improvement. One is titled “Cleanse Self Sabotage, Fear & Self Doubt, Let Go Of Anxiety, Reset The Mind,” and features two hours of music at 432 Hz – apparently the frequency of the universe. As the 32-year-old prepares to return to performing, with the first single from her third album out today, she’s getting herself as ready as possible.

“This time, health is so important to me, and being in the right place mentally,” she tells me. “You can’t just jump from the dark room in to this full blast of light. I’m taking time to meditate and do yoga, so I’m not vulnerable and I’m not underprepared. You can work on the music as much as you want but you have to work on yourself personally as well.”

Sandé has been jolted upwards and downwards in her music career to date. First there was the shock of her debut, Our Version of Events – a success beyond the wildest imaginings of this quiet medical student from the Aberdeenshire village of Alford, who was still seeking advice on whether to go back to complete the final two years of her degree in Glasgow a fortnight before the album was released. It ended up spending 66 consecutive weeks in the UK top 10, beating a record for a debut album unbroken since The Beatles released Please Please Me.

I ask if she gave much thought to what kind of fans were buying her album en masse over a year after its release – the people who thought, 65 weeks in, “I’ve heard good things about this Emeli Sandé woman. I reckon I’m ready to take the plunge.”  

“Actually, no, I never thought about that!” she laughs. “But I couldn’t believe that every week it was still there. It was just outrageous really. The level of it was such a surprise. I was still getting used to the music industry, still getting used to being in London. When you don’t really know what to expect, any pace is faster than is natural to you.”

Over the following year she became as omnipresent as a benevolent dictator, singing on tracks by her producer Naughty Boy, Rudimental, David Guetta, Tinie Tempah, Labrinth and James Arthur, to name a few. She performed at the White House for Barack Obama and appeared at the London Olympics almost as often as Mo Farah – the only artist to sing at both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

“I did enjoy it. It was exciting!” she says now. “It was just cool, for your lyrics to reach that many ears. But I never fully felt, ‘I’m famous’. When I was on stage I could be famous, but off stage it was fine.”

When she went away, however, a lot of those casual music consumers went too. Her second album, Long Live the Angels, finally arrived in late 2016, almost five years after its eight-times platinum predecessor, and sold roughly a tenth as many copies in the UK. It followed a divorce from her long-term boyfriend, marine biologist Adam Gouraguine, after a year of marriage. Its lead single, Hurts, was anything but a breezy singalong.

“I look at that album as a time when there was a lot of self-discovery going on, a lot of soul-searching and heartbreak. Everything was honest. Those songs are truthful to that time,” she says. “It was hard, not only for my own privacy but out of respect for everybody else. I wanted to explain where a lot of the songs were coming from, as I know a lot of people go through that stuff, but without being disrespectful or sharing too much of my personal world.”

Now she says that she thinks of that second album as an “intermission” between the first and the third, which is still being finished and will arrive sooner or later this year depending on the reception to the first couple of singles. “It does feel different this time. I feel like I’ve really made an album that I’ve always wanted to make. Having had the experience of the last two has made that a lot more clear,” she says.

She’ll perform the comeback single, Sparrow, on Comic Relief this evening. It may be named after a small plain garden bird but it’s a beast of a ballad, piled high with military drums, a gospel choir, strings and probably more than one kitchen sink. “We’re gonna take the world by storm,” she sings. There’s no understatement this time.

“This one really sums up the journey I’ve been on and how I feel now,” she tells me. She’s particularly proud of the fact that Sparrow has no co-writers. “It’s the first song I will have released that’s fully me – music and lyrics. It feels great to get a pure message out. The song is pretty defiant and so is the whole album.”

Whereas her last album saw her experimenting with a wide range of styles – play the snaking African guitar of Babe and the spooky hip hop of Garden, made with rapper Jay Electronica, for a stark contrast – this time she says she’s been more consistent, using live instrumentation and a single producer. The new songs were recorded in the garden studio of Troy Miller, best known as Amy Winehouse’s drummer and Laura Mvula’s musical director, with strings added at Abbey Road.

“I found a real chemistry with him,” she says. “I think the sound is very bold. It’s decisive. It’s concise, everything is saying something, we didn’t overthink it. I’ve got more focus this time.”

She considers the current music scene, expressing particular admiration for the singer Mahalia and the rapper Dave, and suggests that the most valued quality across the board is authenticity. “If you’re not real, it’s not gonna work. It’s all down to that instant interaction with the public and I like that. There’s no smoke and mirrors.”

But focus and authenticity in her own work doesn’t equate to tasteful minimalism, it seems. “On the other hand I miss all the grandeur. I watch Whitney Houston’s live performances every day. They’re so extra – sax solos, gospel choirs. I do like going for it, making a splash with a massive thing.”

As the new song shows, she’s still thinking on a grand scale. Whether an equally large audience is there for it this time, she’ll soon find out. “I can’t second guess all of these things any more. It can never be in the same spirit as back then,” she says. “I can only make it with that same intention of sharing music that I love, and we’ll see what happens.”

Sparrow is released today on Virgin EMI.