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June 1, 2012, 9:00 PM
At El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
You are a 23-year-old from rural northern Scotland. Piano has been your instrument, your songwriting tool, since you were ten; your voice has been remarkable for even longer. A tattoo of artist Frida Kahlo — a typically single-minded, forthright heroine runs the length of your right forearm.
Some of the greatest names in modern pop have sung your thrustingly exciting compositions: Tinie Tempah (Let Go), Professor Green (Kids That Love To Dance), Tinchy Stryder (Let It Rain), Chipmunk (Diamond Rings), Wiley (Never Be Your Woman). You’ve also written for divas big (Susan Boyle), small (Cheryl Cole) and medium-sized (The Saturdays). Your dad (from Zambia) and your mum (from Cumbria), who schooled you in music and encouraged your ambitions, are already proud.
Then there are the richly melodic, classically powerful, retro-futurist soul-pop songs you’ve written for your own debut album. Your love for — and understanding of — Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Lauryn Hill are obvious, loud and proud.
Then there’s the stuff you did in your ‘spare time’: three-quarters of a six-year degree in medicine at Glasgow University. You specialised in Clinical Neuro-Science, “cause I really like all the brain stuff.”
You are Emeli Sande, and you also really like all the soul stuff, all the heart stuff, and all the emotional stuff. Not many people knew it, but you were behind some of the key tracks of 2010. Now you’re about to be the voice in front of the freshest debut of 2011. As someone who sweats the writing as much as the singing, you know it’s about being contemporary, and timeless.
‘I can still relate to a Joni song, even though it’s 25 years old’ says Sande. ‘That’s the main and important thing to me. I’m not too bothered about what category my music goes in. But I don’t want it to be too cool for school. There’s no point in limiting in who you can reach. But I want it to be respected.’
The broad and staggering talents of Emeli Sande first attracted attention (good and bad) when she was eight. At primary school in the small Aberdeenshire town of Alford, she and her classmates wrote a song for a talent show. Her friends nicked all her ideas.
“That was the first time I thought, well, if it’s worth stealing then it might be alright!” she remembers with a laugh. “That was the first time I thought I might be a songwriter. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and I always knew I wanted to write. Cause the people I was listening to all wrote. I never thought it was an option to sing anyone else’s songs.”
Age 11 and full of pre-adolescent fire, Sande wrote her first real song with a proper structure, “It even had a middle eight! It was called something like Tomorrow Starts Again. All my songs were about world peace and all these political issues. I had a lot of fun with all that.”
By the age of 15, word had begun to spread about the precociously gifted teenager with the big-but-intimate voice from the middle of nowhere. Choice FM invited her to London to take part in their Rapology competition; Richard Blackwood had her down to MTV’s Camden studio to sing gospel.
Then came Sande’s big(ish) break: her little sister filmed her at the piano, singing one of her songs, Nasty Little Lady. They sent the clip to Trevor Nelson’s BBC Urban Music competition. Sande was one of the winners, and was duly offered a record deal. But the newfound management that she had met via the competition advised her against the deal. Plus, other offers from other labels were soon coming in.
But, she recalls, “Doing the rounds of labels, I just didn’t like it. I just thought, I’d rather be a bit more in control than this. It was hard at the time because it was so tempting. But I was doing my exams at school, then I got accepted into medicine at Glasgow Uni. It would have been too much of a risk to say no to medicine then go down to London and just be another singer.”
The intuitive intelligence, self-awareness and empowered honesty that are apparent in her lyric-writing cautioned Sande against jumping at the first taste of success. She went back home, finished school, then began her studies in Glasgow.
Relocated to Scotland’s biggest city and its buzzing music scene, Sande began supplementing her student income by playing piano and jazz standards in the city’s hotels.
She tried to keep up with her songwriting while studying, “But I really had a lot of writer’s block and my head was full of facts and exams. I found it really hard to experience anything to write about other than sitting in the library. But I was doing shows and everyone on the course knew I was a musician. My writing speeded up, though, as soon as I started going down to London and meeting producers there. Before, it was just me and a piano so the sounds I could make were quite limited.”
Meanwhile, her mum had sent a CD of her songs to 1Xtra. Ras Kwame played it as part of his ‘Homegrown Sessions’. At the end of the year, the four best contenders were invited to play a showcase in Soho. Via that exposure Sande (who had been on medical placement in Madrid at the time) met producer/writer Shahid Khan, aka Naughty Boy. He had written for Ms Dynamite and Bashy. As a writing partnership he and the Scotswoman clicked immediately. “When we started together it took the music to something completely original. It took me out of my jazz piano niche, and it took him out of his urban scene. Then we started writing for pop people.”
One of their first compositions was Diamond Rings, which Chipmunk’s “people” loved. Sande sung on the track, and it became Chipmunk’s first Top Ten single in summer 2009. The music industry took notice, and this time she was ready. In March 2010, Virgin Records, impressed by her writing and her voice signed her as an artist. and Sande decided to take time out from her medical studies. Since then, as other artists have had hits with her compositions and, often, featured her guest vocals, Sande has been working on writing and recording her debut album.
Even in demo form, songs like punchily candid broken-jazz lament Kill The Boy (“I walk around with a bullet on my tongue, ‘killer’ written on my face, I know that when he finds out what I’ve done it’s gonna take his life away”), strings-drenched epic Daddy (“about addiction, to anything,” says Sande) and Heaven (early Nineties drum’n'bass topped off by that glorious, nape-tickling voice) are evidence of a towering talent.
Honest, raw emotion, she thinks, “is the best way to do it. Any time I write something that’s trying to be too smart, it doesn’t work. ‘Kill The Boy’ was the first idea that came into my head. Any song I have to work on longer than a day, I just leave it. It’s not gonna work. Everything that’s good is really instant.”
Live, too, Sande is building her sound from the bottom up and the inside out. If her songs don’t work solely on piano, they won’t work at all. If they don’t sound great simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and cello (the line-up she’s been using in select showcase gigs) they won’t sound great with beats, keys and studio bells’n'whistles. If she and her new band — they recently undertook a short run of low-key club dates in Scotland — can’t rock a live audience as readily as the dancefloor, a reboot will be needed. Sande, a songwriter’s songwriter and already experienced at working with some of America’s best production teams, knows how to fix things.
Smart, sussed, talented, entrepreneurial, shiningly engaging in the flesh, utterly transfixing on stage and unforgettable in her words and melodies, Emeli Sande is the epitome of the brilliant modern artist. She knows what she wants, she knows how to do it. Being honest — to yourself, and to your music — is the only way to craft songs that will matter to yourself, and to everyone else.
“Approaching the label with five songs — ‘this is my sound’ — puts you in good stead,” she reflects. “You get so many opinions of which direction you should be going in. And you hear horror stories of people writing 400 songs and the album being shelved. No,” she says firmly, smiling, “come knowing what you wanna do. And I know what I want to do.”