Emeli Sande is the 2012 winner of the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award. Sande’s debut album – Our Version of Events – became the year’s biggest-selling new release in the United Kingdom, as well as the fastest-selling since Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed a Dream (2009). The critical and commercial success of the Scottish-born singer led her to play a crucial role in the 2012 Summer Olympics – performing Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn “Abide With Me” during the Opening ceremony, “Read All About It” (Part III) during the Closing ceremony, and a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” exclusively for BBC’s coverage of the Games.
“Wonder” – Our Version of Events’ fifth single – will be released on September 30, 2012. In support of the Naughty Boy-produced track, Emeli Sande managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule to settle down for an interview with AllHipHop.com – reflecting on life as a medical student, the “science” behind music-making, and her emotional attachment to “Heaven.”
AllHipHop.com: You have multiple talents. You’re a singer, a songwriter and a musician. Which talent developed first – and how does each talent inform the other?
Emeli Sandé: Well, singing was definitely the first thing. That was something I did since I was a baby, really. I just love singing. I love melody. That was really my first way of expressing myself. I was a really shy kid, so I think having a voice and having a loud voice when I was singing—the first thing I just loved about music was having that expression. After that, I guess it was writing. I loved poetry, and I loved creating something from nothing. I think that gives you a real power that kids don’t usually have. So, creating was another thing after singing. Then after that came the instruments. When I was about nine or ten, I began playing piano, clarinet, and cello. It came from there. I think as soon as I started learning an instrument, it gave me that backing so that you could sit and write the song, and you didn’t need to fill every gap. It allowed me to relax a bit more with the songwriting and really find a strong voice there.
AllHipHop.com: When touring, you tend to open or close your sets with “Heaven.” What emotional attachment do you have to this particular song, and how does the song’s placement affect the mood of your performance?
Emeli Sandé: Well, lyrically for me that song is something that grows with me all the time. The song is about how you try to be good every day, and try to make sure that by the end of the day you feel you’ve been a good person; but there’s so many distractions and the world is so fast at the moment. That’s what the song is about. My connection to that is everyday it’s a new challenge. Every time I sing it, I’m singing about something that has happened in that week or on that day, so it’s always quite emotionally raw for me to sing it. And when I do perform that song – especially when I perform it stripped back – I think it really makes me vulnerable to the audience, because everybody’s trying to do it. Nobody’s better at it than anybody else. It hopefully connects myself and the audience on the next level.
AllHipHop.com: And when you reflect upon the album as a whole, what events from your childhood, family or academic life as a medical student – consciously or unconsciously – shaped and guided the creative process?
Emeli Sandé: It’s all just a journey. I can’t think of one thing. Before I moved to London or started working with producers, being on the piano was such a big influence. I learned so much about jazz and soul music with that. Then working with producers opened up my world to genres, and to sampling, and to simplifying, and to pop music. And then after that, studying definitely taught me a lot about discipline and how to complete something that you’ve begun. So, everything’s had its own way of shaping how I am now.
AllHipHop.com: You mentioned how your academic life gave you that discipline. In what ways have you found music to be a “scientific process”? Do you believe there a science to music?
Emeli Sandé: I don’t think so. I think if I could find that out, then that would be really useful [laughing]. But I don’t think so. I’ve worked with a lot of different songwriters that have a formula, and they have a way of constructing a pop record which is fair enough. I don’t think you can ever have a formula for a classic song. When I listen to songs that really just kill me every time I hear them – Donny Hathaway or some of the Beatles work or Tracy Chapman – those songs definitely come from a spontaneous emotion, and they come from years of them developing their craft. So, no. I don’t think you can be scientific with music. I think you can be scientific in learning an instrument or perfecting your voice or keeping it healthy; but when it comes to that spark of creativity, I don’t think you can harness it, really.
AllHipHop.com: Although you don’t believe music-making to be an exact science per se, you have worked with some extraordinary songwriters including Alicia Keys and Chris Martin of Coldplay. You also worked extensively with Craze & Hoax [Harry “Craze” & Hugo “Hoax” Chegwin] on your album. Were there any tips shared in your songwriting sessions that have helped you develop your own songwriting style?
Emeli Sandé: When I worked with Alicia, it was really cool. I mean, she’s had such a long and successful career—so tips from her about how you have to be honest and true about what you’re writing, and then that way it resonates with people. You also need to understand the market you’re in. You can’t become too self-indulgent. That wasn’t anything she specifically told me, but I could definitely tell by the way she works and the way she approaches her art—everything is considered. That was a great lesson to learn.
AllHipHop.com: Before branching out on your own, you worked actively behind the scenes writing for others. How did working behind the scenes and seeing your work performed by others guide you in preparing for your own professional career? Also, as a songwriter, how do you feel when an artist’s performance of your work takes on or creates a different interpretation?
Emeli Sandé: Working for other people was a great learning curve for me, because it really made me understand the music industry. It made me understand radio. It also made me see that when working with different artists and just seeing how different teams work, unless you specifically know what you want to say, other people are going to decide for you. That, for me, was like: “Before I even attempt to be an artist, I need to know exactly what I want to say and what type of artist I want to be.”
I think more than anything, you need to understand the industry. But seeing other people sing my work is great, because the way I write is an emotional way of writing, and I’m always very honest—no matter if the song is for me or for somebody else. So, when I see people interpret what I’m singing, they’re usually interpreting it in a way that’s emotional for them. They’re never faking it. So, I love seeing different people’s interpretations. They found something in their life or their emotions that is connected with that song. It’s always interesting for me to see that.
AllHipHop.com: I must admit that when I see the video for “My Kind of Love,” there is a definite emotional connection for me. You may not have used the scientific method when you wrote that song, but when translating it to video format, what additional layers of storytelling go into the process?
Emeli Sandé: When it comes to videos, I love working with directors that inspire me visually. When I’ve seen someone’s work that’s just made me think outside the box—I always love working with people like that in a collaborative way. But specifically for “My Kind of Love,” the director and I had a conversation on the phone and I told her the story that had inspired me to write that song. As a [third and fourth year] med student, you go into hospitals and start learning the practice of being a doctor.
So even as a med student, you’re entrusted with so many personal stories and so many real raw emotions. It was seeing who is there for you when you’re in hospital, who actually comes for you when your health has gone—the one thing that we all take for granted. I told a very specific story about a patient I’d met, and then she helped me bring it to life. So, that song’s really important to me, and writing it was really special, because vocally I feel like I can really let everything out, and really let that emotion come through; but lyrically I feel it really says exactly what I wanted it to say.
AllHipHop.com: As evidenced by your introduction and appreciation to different genres, your artistry and style are very hard to categorize — compared to American mainstream artists who are placed in an identifiable box. When I listen to your work, I hear elements of Gospel, jazz, and contemporary R&B. Following in the footsteps of Amy Winehouse and Adele, both of whom have had a tremendous amount of success in the States and abroad, what lessons have you learned from their marketing and promotional campaigns?
Emeli Sandé: Well, I love Gospel. Gospel is one of the first types of music that really moved me as a kid, hearing all those harmonies. Gospel is a big part of what I do, definitely. But yeah, that’s something I definitely noticed here in the States. In the U.K., you put music out, and if it’s different, then it’s a lot less important to categorize what it is, because we don’t have a big R&B station or anything like that. There’s just Radio 1, and it plays just anything that people are feeling. Over here, I definitely notice there’s much more of a need to be categorized into one thing or the other. I don’t really know what I could be put under! [laughing]
AllHipHop.com: I think that’s a good thing! [laughing]
Emeli Sandé: How it’s going to affect the kind of music that comes over here, I’m not sure. I’m just going to approach it the same way I did in the U.K., and hopefully with patience and perseverance people will go beyond trying to box it and will just listen to the content. But yes, my God, I’m a massive fan. Amy Winehouse’s music for me is so special, and I think she is one of the best things to come out of the U.K. for years and years. I remember when she first came out, she was just a jazz artist. I remember her first album. I loved the freedom she had. I think following in those types of footsteps and just having that freedom and creating something that I love, first off; then hopefully I can just allow it to connect with people without tagging it to anything.
AllHipHop.com: Now that your professional life has kicked into overdrive following your Olympic performances, what do you do in your downtime to relax?
Emeli Sandé: I’m trying to stop doing this – because I always end up realizing that I’m working – but I love sitting and playing at the piano. It’s just so therapeutic for me. I usually end up playing an instrument. Then I’m like: “I’m working again!” [laughing] I need to find time that I’m just not doing that. I love watching films and hanging out with my family and my friends. But at some point, I always end up at the piano. It’s in me, and it’s the way I relax. I guess playing stuff that’s so different from my genre of music; playing classical or playing the cello. I think that’s the way forward.
For more information on Emeli Sande, visit her official website.
For more of Clayton Perry’s “views” and interviews, browse his “digital archive” – www.claytonperry.com – and follow him on Twitter (@crperry84).