Emeli Sandé: ‘Every area of your life is important’
She went from songwriter-for-hire to pop star, but paid a personal price. As Sandé releases her second album, ‘Long Live the Angels’, here’s her version of events
Girl in da corner: Emeli Sandé has written songs for Cheryl Cole, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Rihanna. “I’d gone from someone who was relatively reserved in the studio environment – really focusing on the songs – to suddenly being in front of so many people.”
It has been a tough few years for Scottish pop star Emeli Sandé. Imagine the following scenario: one year, you’re no longer a successful behind-the-scenes songwriter; you’re in love with the person you met at college; the debut album you have worked on for three years is an acclaimed bestseller; you marry the person you met at college; and you spend a full 18 months after the album’s release touring the world to the sound of applause ringing in your ears.
And then something in your personal life fractures dramatically. The marriage that seemed so strong falters, then crumbles, you divorce the person you met at college, and spend many months alone reflecting on and processing the aftermath.
Sandé is in Paris, experiencing yet another short stopover on a promotional merry-go-round plugging her new album, Long Live the Angels, the belated follow-up to her hugely successful 2012 debut, Our Version of Events.
This time, however, she is in a different kind of loop. Lessons have been absorbed, the main one of which is when immense success arrives, then time for you – and the people closest to you – must be allocated. Is this something she has more of a grip on?
“I do, because I now realise how important it is,” says Sandé, a quiet-spoken, thoughtful person who has clearly learned from previous mistakes.
“If you have a day off, then make sure it’s a day off and not something else like going into a studio to write songs. As tempting as it is and as much as I love to do that, you definitely need to make sure that your personal life is keeping up with your professional life. If it isn’t, then the imbalance will come along.
“That was a big lesson for me – every area of your life is important; it’s an incredible feeling to make the music and promote it and perform it, but just make sure that you’re staying healthy and that the people around you – the family and friends that loved you since you were a child – are having your time and energy as well.”
Sandé is no fool – she realised something was wrong towards the end of the touring schedule of Our Version of Events, but the loop was virtually impossible to break out of. “It got to a point where I just wanted to slow down a bit and get back to real life for a while, as well as getting back to songwriting.”
Songwriting is where it started for Sandé. Although she studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, her parallel passion was music. Almost 10 years ago, she broke into songwriting when she aligned her creative skills with writer/producer Naughty Boy aka Shahid Khan.
Before a year had passed, the pair had credits on hit songs by the likes of Cheryl Cole, Professor Green and Tinie Tempah. The geographical spread widened from the UK to the US when Sandé began to throw songs towards Alicia Keyes, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Rihanna. Such exposure would have made for a terrific launching pad, but Sandé seemed happy enough working in the background. She looks back on those early years as an aspiring and ambitious songwriter with no small insight.
“That period of time gave me a real look at the pressures that come with being an artist. I felt very free then, in that I would arrive at the studio whenever I wanted, and I could write any style of song. You sense the influences around the artist – the management, the record label, the publisher. You could see that they wanted certain types of song, and I knew I wanted to avoid that.”
Such proximity also made her realise the effort that goes into being a pop star. “As a songwriter, I could go home, whereas the artist had to rehearse and perform. And I appreciated the effort that goes into bringing the songs to life, and taking them to the public. They were the biggest lessons I earned. I felt it gave me a lot more preparation of what to expect.”
The implication is that Sandé had always wanted to be front of house rather than behind the scenes. “Oh, it was always my ambition to get signed as an artist. I was writing songs for others, but in the back of my mind I wanted to have the songs, and to be able to sing them myself. So the ambition was there, but I suppose I also just really enjoyed the writing process.”
Tricky to navigate
Entry into the premier league arrived too quickly for her, perhaps. The levels of mainstream exposure, adulation and evaluation were, she admits, tricky to navigate between.
“It was a weird balance. In one sense, I was so happy and excited that I was finally getting to be the artist I had always wanted to be, and that so many people were responding so positively to the music. But I was quite shy, and I’d gone from someone who was relatively reserved in the studio environment – really focusing on the songs – to suddenly being in front of so many people. While it was something I enjoyed, at the same time I definitely felt that I needed to find the pace that was natural and comfortable for me.”
With the new album directly referencing her marriage split, as well as her newfound sense of self and identity following a visit to her extended family in Zambia, Sandé says she now knows which way she wants to live her life.
“I want to make sure that I can always be here in the moment. Going as fast as before isn’t an option.”
Long Live the Angels is out now through Virgin/EMI.
Emeli Sandé on writing to commission
“Once or twice I went to writing camps, where you’re in a room with a lot of other writers and producers, trying to come up with a song for one artist. I tried, but that’s when you feel you’re writing to a brief; it never worked for me, or produced great work for me at all, I reckon. After doing those a couple of times, I realised my best work comes from when I’ve written it by myself, or perhaps not trying to write for any specific person. That way, the artist would hear those songs through a publisher, and connect with it due to the honesty of the lyric – or they can hear themselves in it somewhere.
“For me, they’re the best kind of songs I write – the ones where I don’t overthink too much what goes into them. Since I became a recording artist in my own right, there are subtle suggestions, but I’ve been lucky in that I’m let alone to do my thing in my own way.”