Following Our Version of Events, Emeli Sandé MBE’s first album that sold over 5.4 million copies to date, as well as scoring the biggest selling album in the UK of 2012 and 2013, Emeli Sandé had arrived. But her new album marks a brand-new chapter, and with it, a new sound. This sound is one that is bold, confident and fearless, it’s extraordinary. But she’s had to go on a life-changing journey of self-discovery to get there.
Having initially made her mark as a songwriter in the UK urban scene via acts such as Wiley, Wretch 32 and Chipmunk, Sandé’s solo success saw her became a highly sought-after writer for an array of international acts. Sandé wrote and co-wrote tracks for everyone from Alicia Keys to Rihanna (alongside friend Naughty Boy), Katy Perry and Tinie Tempah. She performed on Jools Holland and the X Factor, supported Coldplay and played at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics and at the White House for Barack Obama. With over 340 million video views, 19 million singles sold including 3 x UK No.1 singles, 6 million albums including Our Version of Events being certified platinum 7 times in the UK and Ireland you’d think that she had it all together. But, while she dominated the music industry and captured the hearts of the nation, there was a disconnect with the way she was feeling. Sandé already has some of the most impressive stats in music to her name under her belt, though despite the success of the second album, Long Live the Angels, four BRIT awards (including Best female twice) and receiving an MBE for Services to Music in 2018, Sandé’s foundations were shaky, “I feel like with the second album there was kind of a mix of all that was happening. Dealing with a divorce that was going on and discovering who I was as a black female.” She says, “I wasn’t grounded, you know.”
Sandé had to step away and regroup, to allow herself to come back stronger. The last five years have been a time to build the self-esteem and the confidence she didn’t realise hadn’t been there, despite her previous two albums and her EP garnering the sort of critical acclaim that money couldn’t buy.
“I thought I was going to get married, settle down and my life was going to be perfect, no further questions. When really there was such a poverty of confidence. If you get famous so young, that becomes who you are and what you believe is your worth, and then you kind of forget that these songs are coming from you. And it’s such an incredible feeling to share them but that can’t be how you validate yourself.” She sighs.
This regrouping was necessary for Sandé as a black woman, as well as an artist. “I needed to learn I am beautiful’ she says, “Only now I’m beginning to accept the feminine energy.
It was taking the time to reach back into her heritage to find the foundations for the future that gave her the headspace to draw on her sound. Having grown up one of two mixed-race children in Alford, a tiny town outside of Aberdeen, her identity was split, “Growing up mixed race meant I identified with the side of the family I spent most time with, my mum’s side. But I knew I was different, and this became more apparent when we travelled with people staring.” Because of the identity split, she can truly understand those people who don’t have confidence because of who they’ve been told they are. She saw this through her father especially, “My dad’s frustrations, him as a black man, what he really had to go through and the kind of injustices he experienced… I always saw that it was difficult to be black.”
Going to Zambia and connecting with her father’s family was when she didn’t feel that question of identity. It was a revelatory experience. ‘The strength of the women!” she laughs, ‘They were running the village, plus my grandma, she was a matriarch; the kids all came to her, it was really beautiful. It just made sense of who I was myself.”
And with this renewed sense of self, Sandé was able to create a long overdue message that people need to hear. Tapping into the tone of the disenfranchised state of the world, the main purpose of this album is to give people confidence, “Especially people who have been marginalised, or forgotten or kicked down by this invisible oppression that’s always there.” She says, “I just want to give people just this incredible superpower every time they play the album. Like a battery pack.” She smiles brightly. ‘They just plug it in and they know that however they’re feeling, by the end of the album, they’re going to feel better.”
Launching this new album is Sparrow, the perfect introduction to this record and the empowerment that this new, vibrant sound brings. ‘That one felt like a channeling song” she nods. “I want people to feel like there will be a struggle but there will be a release at the end, and that’s when you can breathe finally, when you’ve got through it.” Sandé believes that allowing love in is one of the most difficult things for a human being to do, “Well love is kind of mocked now. If you love, or if you’re kind to someone, it’s weakness.” At a time where the world seems to pivot on being ‘the best’ or where everything is so sexualised, especially for women, Sandé knows that our worth and our voices need to be heard now more than ever. ‘Human’, a seventies sounding R&B tune, is a song Sandé wasn’t planning on writing, but one that spilled out when she heard the opening string chords of the track. It’s a song that, in the midst of knife crime across the capital, is a sobering and welcoming reminder of the humanity of us all. “It’s such a dark time” she says, “I think it’s dangerously dark for young adults at the moment. We talk about crime rates, but they’re having these conversations about it that aren’t getting to the depth of what’s going on. So much comes from self-esteem and what young people are shown they deserve and where they belong in society that dictates how little value their lives have now.”
Sandé found her community in music in the same London that has seen knife crime reach record numbers; it was through choirs that she found her sisterhood and met the black women that have allowed her to tap further into her identity. She sang with the London Community gospel choir before Christmas and understood the reality and strength and a sternness to it all, but also felt a ‘very palpable love, “It’s very real and it’s not going to be said all the time, but not growing up here, I feel privileged to be accepted into the community via music.” ‘You Are Not Alone’, an anchoring gospel anthem that speaks to the loneliness of life, with Sandé’s stunning voice backed by a powerful gospel choir with rousing church beat running through it, acts as a reminder that whatever you’ve been told, ‘my friend, you are not alone.’ Words we all need to hear.
It was collaborating with producer Troy Miller that allowed for a unique recording experience. Already feeling like she had complete freedom over what she was writing, it was working with Miller at the back of his house that gave her the right vibe to create the best album she could, “Every day I’m walking through his family home and feeling the energy of love, you could really feel it. We were making this album and we wanted a pure message to be delivered to people.”
When asked how she felt writing and recording this album, the album that will remind people of the value of life and of love Sandé says, “I feel grounded. I know exactly what I wanted to say and do. I’ve came out the other side more confident, happier with more self-love.” Emeli’s new album is the sound of power; power of freedom, power of growth, and of authenticity. It was borne from the power of understanding who you are, and of finally being able to give to others what you’ve learned for yourself. Emeli Sandé is an artist who can finally say that she’s the best version of herself she’s ever been.