Emeli Sandé is not a woman who you'd imagine struggling with self-esteem. Her CV boarders on the intimidating, almost unreal, in fact, for someone who’s been in the industry less than a decade. When the singer released her debut album, Our Version of Events, in 2012, it spent ten weeks at the top of the UK charts and became the UK’s best-selling record of the year, shifting over two million copies. The album went on to break the 50-year record previously held by The Beatles for the most consecutive weeks inside the Top 10. Sandé has won four Brit awards and performed on some of the world’s biggest stages, including for Barack Obama at the White House and at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics. But her prowess as a singer is closely matched by her prowess as a songwriter. To date, Sandé has penned songs for the likes of Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Katy Perry, and even picked up an MBE from Prince Charles for her services to music. Not bad for the girl from Aberdeenshire who originally planned to be a doctor.
But these successes don’t mean that it’s all been plain sailing for Sandé. In 2014 she suffered a painful divorce from her long-time partner, Adam Gouraguine, and her second album, Long Live the Angels, didn’t reach the same dizzying heights as her first. The combination of the two took a toll on her confidence and self-esteem, leading Sandé to embark on a self-imposed career break and retreat from the public eye. Her 2019 comeback album, Real Life, charted much of that journey. Here, she tells us about the challenges throughout her career and how she tapped into the resilience to overcome them.
When you started in 2008, how did you know that switching from medicine to music was the right decision?
Growing up, my dad was always adamant that we appreciate the opportunities we had for education, because he grew up in Zambia and education changed his life. So I went to study medicine, because that’s a secure job. But I just couldn’t stop making music. I loved medicine and it was fascinating learning about the human body. But I could see the people that were deeply passionate about medicine, who would go the extra mile and would study all night – all the stuff I wasn’t doing. I would, however, work crazy hours and go the extra mile for music, so I realised, ‘This is my passion that will keep me running for the rest of my life.’ Luckily I was able to defer medicine for a year when I was 21 and my dad said, ‘You know what? We’ve seen you non-stop singing since you were six. I think you should go for it.’ So I just had to go for it.
You recorded your third album following an intense personal journey of self-discovery – talk us through the process of making it.
In 2014 I separated from my husband and I went through this period of really wanting freedom and wanting to do whatever it took to truly understand myself. Taking a break from promoting, that’s when I could spend time with my family and catch up with real life. And that’s when I started falling in love with music again. So for this album, I built a studio in my house. One of my first tattoos when I moved down to London when I was 21 was A Room of One’s Own. I was inspired by Virginia Woolf's title and the message of having your own space and your own time to create. Having a space where I could just meander and try new things, that was a real breakthrough for me. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to develop the songs.
Tell us about the message in 'Sparrow', your first single from the album...
I had one line in my head for months: ‘I’ve got wind beneath my wings, I think I’ll make it to morning.’ The whole theme of the song is about that courage to get through the night, and I think because my personal life really reflected a sense of joy and breakthrough that was just naturally coming through in everything I was writing. I did lack self-esteem and confidence in who I was and what I wanted to represent; I think the greatest theft anyone can experience is that of their confidence, and it’s such a hard thing to describe to someone. I think going through that has made me a much stronger person. I thought, ‘Wow, if I’ve been able to go through this process and feel as I do now, I want to be able to share that.’ I wanted to paint this picture of survival but in a graceful way, in a way that could be represented by a sparrow.
How did you deal with the rollercoaster journey of huge success to an emotional low point?
Music is a big therapy – just sitting at the piano and venting out my emotions. Also understanding how much nutrition and health plays in your mental outlook. I moved in with my sister 18 months ago and she’s vegan and does all the cooking. I also got into meditation. Sometimes, just slowing your mind down is the most important thing you can do.
How do you make sure your music is authentic?
I can usually tell from people’s reactions; if I play a song to my sister, she’ll say stuff to subtly let me know, like ‘yeah, cool beat!’ But when I played 'Sparrow' to her for the first time, she was in tears. That’s when I thought, ‘Ok, this is for the 'real' pile.’
Tell us about your beauty evolution – now that the blonde quiff is gone, does this mark a new beginning?
I wanted everything in my life to be natural and authentic, from the music to how I looked to my hair. The quiff was cool but it’s not very good for your hair. And if you keep straightening your hair and putting so much effort into changing who you are, what kind of message is that giving younger girls? I feel so empowered by keeping it natural. When I was growing up in Scotland, beauty was a big issue for me; I remember being so embarrassed on a couple of occasions because I had the wrong shade of makeup on. None of the shops there stocked my colour. If I was a kid now and able to buy foundation from the Fenty line, I think that would have really helped my self-esteem – to know that you’re worthy of having a colour made for you.
What does sisterhood mean to you?
Sisterhood and empowering women has always been a massive part of my life. My manager, Ruth, was one of the first people to approach me in London. We’ve been on this journey together and always had each other’s backs. Having women around you protects you from being so easily manipulated, which I think happens a lot. Even though it’s going to be hard, having your sisters around helps knock a few doors down.