Jim Carroll meets medic and singer Emeli Sandé to talk going it alone,
She put her medical career on hold to pen hits for Tinie Tempah, The Saturdays and many others – but now the 23-year-old Scot is launching her debut album. Jim Carroll meets Emeli Sandé
THERE’S DEFINITELY an old head on those shoulders. Emeli Sandé’s debut album may be most people’s introduction to her, but the 23-yearold Scot already had had a very successful run as a songwriter. You’ll find her name on the credits for hits by The Saturdays, Tinie Tempah, Tinchy Stryder, Cheryl Cole, Cher Lloyd, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle. If you’re a pop star looking for a super-duper soulful tune, you called Sandé’s people and they hooked you up.
The time was always going to come, though, when Sandé would swap the songwriting (and a would-be career in medicine) for the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.
And that time is now, as Sandé’s debut album Our Vision of Events puts her soulful, emotional, raw heartbreakers and anthems on parade. When you hear the rich, classic, beautifully pitched pop, you’ll be reminded of Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell.
“I remember the first time I heard Nina Simone,” says Sandé. “I was eight and we were at the beach outside Aberdeen. My dad played this song called The King of Love, which is a song she’d been given after Martin Luther King died.
“Her voice was just astonishing and stopped everything. It’s her voice which draws you to her.” She began writing songs when she was growing up in rural Scotland.
“I was a very serious young girl so I was never going to write a love song if I could write about world peace instead. I suppose I was like that with my songs because I was listening to serious people. I was also reading a lot of poetry by strong women like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, who also had very serious subjects. I was always much older than my age.”
But the songs were good and the talent was there. By the time Sandé was 16, she was appearing on radio and TV shows, winning talent competitions (Trevor Nelson’s BBC Urban Music) and attracting attention from the music industry.
“It was exciting, but I was not as fazed by the approach from the industry as maybe other 16-year-olds would have been,” she says nonchalantly.
“I never thought ‘oh my God, I’m already famous’. What I wanted to do wasmake amazing music, I wanted to learn what I was doing.
“I grew up in rural Scotland and my first experience with the industry involved people with very London personas and I didn’t have full trust in what they were saying. It was very instinctive. They didn’t know what to do with me and I felt it wasn’t the right time. There wasn’t an offer from me at the time that was better than being a doctor. At that point, I had been accepted for med school and I said I wanted to wait until the music was right.”
Many other teenagers wouldn’t have been so logical when approached by record labels seeking to butter them up. “Well, I always had a plan in my head about what I wanted to do, even though I’m quite headstrong. It’s because of my dad. He was always on about the importance of getting an education.
“Music’s great, he would say, we’re all very proud of you, we’re going to support you, but make sure you have an education. So I knew I was going to go to university at some stage.” Sandé headed off to Glasgow to study medicine and specialise in clinical neuroscience.
“The body is fascinating, but the brain is incredible and I wanted to learn more about that. It was an academic challenge. I loved science in school but I didn’t want to go into research, I wanted interaction with people.”
By night, she could be found playing piano and singing in hotel bars and restaurants. “It was limiting, though, because I was so busy studying. I just didn’t have the time to write more or develop as an artist. I could never find a connection between science and songwriting.
“When I talked to patients, I would hear their stories and you’d get to meet people at their most vulnerable as a med student so that was inspiring.”
It was her mother who inadvertently moved things on. She sent a CD of her daughter’s songs to BBC 1Xtra and Sandé was featured on DJ Ras Kwame’s Homegrown Sessions. This lead to a showcase in London and a meeting with producer and songwriter Shahid “Naughty Boy” Khan.
The pair clicked. “With everyone else, it was ‘great voice’, but with Naughty Boy, it was ‘wow, you can write’. He wanted to work with me on songs and that was the difference. No one else had noticed or remarked on that before. He really got it. He wasn’t industry, he wasn’t London, he was a great musician I wanted to work with. He trusted me when it came to writing.
“I grew up in rural Scotland and my first experience with the industry involved people with very London personas and I didn’t have full trust in what they were saying”
“We both learned from each other and met in the middle. It was not my jazz piano or his urban sound, but pop. I taught him about music and how to structure songs and he taught him how to simplify everything and just chill out. I was really uptight, a proper nerd, and he was this cool producer, but we definitely had chemistry.”
Sandé enjoyed being a songwriter for hire. “There are not that many female songwriters so it was great to meet female singers and ask them what they wanted to sing about. I could understand where they were coming from. I’d always feel sorry for these young female singers who are signed to labels and were never given a chance to express themselves as writers.”
The more Sandé wrote and co-wrote with Naughty Boy, the more confident she became in her own abilities. When they weren’t writing hits for hire, the pair worked on songs for Sandé’s own project. A sound began to emerge which you’ll hear on Heaven, her first big single.
“That sound just developed from working together. I was coming from a musical point of view and loved all that orchestration and strings and Shahid loved experimenting with drum ’n‘ bass and
Funky Drummer loops so it was a combination of that musicality and that urban sound. It wasn’t premeditated, it just happened.”
With the medical career on hold (“I have a honours degree in neuroscience and I’ve about 18 months left to finish in my medical degree”), Sandé’s focus is now on that album which is about to be released bearing her name.
“This is a stage of my life where learning stagecraft and learning how to play and playing these little songs which I wrote in Ealing to people is the most important thing for me. “But I’m a songwriter and I need to keep making time where I can write or I’ll go insane. When I hear a great song, I’m inspired to write, but not to write a song like that because it’s been written, it’s done.
“Ed Sheeran’s The A Team is amazing, Little Dragon’s Twice is beautiful. Songs like that are what inspire me to write.”