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Emeli Sandé interview: 'I'm still weird around famous people – I froze when I met Jay Z'

Emeli Sandé 
Credit: Virgin

Emeli Sandé wanted to be a Spice Girl when she grew up. “They took over my childhood,” she laughs. “We had Spice Girl games in the playground. I was always Mel B, cos that was Scotland, I was the only black kid. I had leopard skin leggings ready to roll any time we were doing a talent show.”

It is, frankly, hard to imagine Sandé in tights singing “zigazig-a!” The singer, who applies powerhouse vocals to emotional songs that are a blend of gospel, hip hop and soul, cuts quite an imperious figure on stage, with her huge sculpted hairdo and flowing designer dresses.

In person, though, it’s a different story. She is smiley and soft spoken, dressed down in baggy grey sweats, her untended hair emerging in a tangle of unruly blonde curls barely constrained by a hairband. She is simultaneously reserved yet friendly, articulate without being effusive, keeping the mood light with a lot of laughter, as if she finds the whole interview situation slightly absurd. “I’m still very shy when it comes to talking to people,” she insists, with the lightest Scottish lilt. “I like to be on my own, I like to make music and perform it. That’s about as far as it goes.”

Sandé was born in Sunderland in 1987 to a Zambian father and English mother who met whilst studying. (Her given name is actually Adele Emily Sandé. She changed it in 2008, after the other Adele won the Brits Critics Choice award. “People kept ringing me saying you’ve won a Brit, it’s amazing, congratulations. I was like, 'oh, it’s not me.’ I’d never even met another Adele before.”) The family moved to Alford, Aberdeenshire when she was four, where her father taught at Sandé’s school. Throughout her childhood, Sandé was always singing. “I didn’t really have any reference to black culture, maybe that was why music was so important to me. It was my anchor.” She starred in school concerts and performed local Aberdeen gigs, writing her own songs from the age of eight.

I wanted to give a message of hope, to show it can get better

“I thought creating a girl band and making pop songs would be fun.” But deep down, she says, she suspected she didn’t have what it took for a life of Spice. “I was a very serious kid. I couldn’t be that frivolous.”  Instead, aged 17, she turned down a record deal with Telstar to go to Glasgow University and study medicine.

Sandé is the doctor who became a pop star, almost certainly the only major multi-million selling singer-songwriter in the world to have a degree in neuroscience. “I thought I could live in Glasgow doing psychiatry or neurology and have a happy life, have some kids, and do music as a hobby. And I still think that is true. I could be stimulated by a life of science. But I also knew that would mean giving up on my deep down passion.”

In 2009, after graduation, she moved to London to follow up on record industry contacts made over the years. “The first thing I did was get a tattoo and change my hairstyle. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d really tried to give music my best shot.”

After a period writing and singing for rappers, Sandé’s career exploded in 2012. Her debut album, Our Version of Events, stayed at number one for ten weeks on its way to becoming the biggest selling album of the year in the UK. She performed in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics. She won two Brit awards in her own right in 2012, adding another in 2013. She has been nominated in the British Female Solo category again this year. But fame and fortune came at a cost, as they so often do; just as her career went stratospheric, Sande broke up with her husband, marine biologist Adam Gouragine, who she’d married in 2012 and been with since the age of 17.

She doesn’t want to talk about it. I’ve actually been asked by her management not to bring it up. When I point out that it is a difficult subject to avoid, given that her latest album, Long Live the Angels, was inspired by the breakup and is crammed with songs about heartbreak, she laughs uneasily.

“We’ll find a way,” she says. “I feel like I analyse and break things down and put it in songs before I actually go through it personally, if that makes sense. Sometimes it’s just like your subconscious letting it all out and waiting for you to catch up. I feel more comfortable putting it in a song than speaking to somebody about it.” One of the reasons the album took so long, she thinks, is that she was using music to avoid the real issues. “I was like, 'I’m totally fine, I’m good, we’re making an album.’ And then it starts to slowly catch up with you. These songs, it’s like looking back at old pages of a diary and going s***, I was hurt and sad and angry. And really pissed off.”

I wanted to be as honest and as brutal as I could be

The recording sessions dragged on for almost four years, producing an enormous volume of songs, most of which were discarded. “There was still something I was waiting for, just a more positive outlook, something that felt like closure.” A sequence of philosophically optimistic songs, Every Single Little Piece, Highs & Lows and Babe conclude what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly sad album. Prior to release, reports emerged romantically linking Sandé with British rapper-producer Hypo. But when I ask about her love life now, she says “it’s OK,” rather coyly. “The love life at the moment is love for music. Everything else, it just is what it is.”

I wonder if she had any qualms about putting out an album dissecting a ten year relationship with such candour. “This is my job. This is what I do. Nothing was vindictive. It’s real life, and if you try and sugar coat it, or make it nice or neat, it almost insults the emotion you are experiencing.  So I wanted to be as honest and as brutal as I could be. This is what happened. It’s for people who have experienced that kind of pain and loss. I wanted to give a message of hope, to show that I’ve been there, and it can get better, and you can survive it.”

Sandé performing at the closing ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Sandé proves very amiable company, as we share red wine in a hipster hotel near her home in Bethnal Green, London. She tells me about meeting Jay Z in New York. “I couldn’t speak to him. I get weird awkward around famous people. I just froze. But I think he understood. He gave me a spud (a fist bump), so that was pretty cool.” She met the Spice Girls backstage before the Olympics Ceremony. “That was more nerve wracking than singing in the stadium. I think it was Geri’s birthday, so they had some kind of gluten free vegan cake that they gave me a piece of. But I couldn’t tell Mel B that I used to be her, the Scottish version.”

I put on hold some important real life stuff, just growing into womanhood

You might think being extrovert was a job requisite for a pop star but it often seems to be quite the reverse. “I feel like a different person when I’m performing. I feel my best when I’m really going for it. You can’t do it half-heartedly and I love that. It’s an adrenaline rush. Just forgetting yourself, getting out of the way of the whole thing, it’s so exhilarating. It’s your excuse to be as loud as possible and say everything you want to say. It feels like freedom.” The feeling lasts, however, only about as long as it takes her to finish the show.

“Having this career definitely makes me happy,” Sandé insists, despite everything. “It just took a while to adjust. It was like everything was happening at the same time, like a crash course, and maybe I put on hold some important real life stuff, just growing into womanhood. You can’t rush it. You can’t skip things. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. You have to take your time and actually deal with life. You can’t just write songs about it.”