Emeli Sandé on the British music industry and ‘being a voice’

Published

Matthew Mellor

photo: Nicolas Giertan

Having recently undergone a dramatic rise to stardom, ex University of Glasgow student, Emeli Sande took some time out before her show at the Oran Mor to reflect on the last year, all the exciting developments that it’s brought with it, and the goals she’s aiming to achieve.

Glasgow Guardian
Miss Sandé, it’s lovely to see you back in Glasgow again.

Emeli Sande
It’s lovely to be here!

G:
So do you think you can describe in a few words just how crazy the last year has been?

ES:
It really has been the craziest ride… Things that would normally be life-time achievements have happened in such a short space of time and the past three months in particular have just been so mind-blowing! I’m really looking forward to getting a week or two off over Christmas to relax, be around my family and take it all in.

G:
Do you think you’d be able to put your finger on a key turning point from the last year?

ES:
Well I guess that would be when I finally made the decision around June time that I wasn’t coming back to medicine. That was when I really said to myself ‘I’ve got to go for this full on… there are no excuses now.’ That was before we’d released ‘Heaven’ which was the first thing I’d done by myself as a solo artist, so I guess when that charted and did well, it felt like the ball had really begun rolling.

G:
And it did do so well, charting at number 2! How did that feel?

ES:
It was incredible and felt like a really big step. The week after it happened I found myself a bit busier and then all of a sudden I realised that I hadn’t been home for a month! I suppose you really notice the change when things that are totally insane become normal… like I’ll find myself just emailing Alicia Keys! (Laughs)

G:
Oh wow, really?! You played with her a little while back did you not?

ES:
Yeh, I opened up for her and then went out to New York recently to do some writing with her. It was awesome. We’d both be there, sat at her amazing Steinway, and I’d literally be asking myself; ‘am I dreaming right now?!’ We wrote some really great songs and I’m going back in a couple of weeks to write with her again.

G:
Fantastic, so what’s this collaboration likely to lead to?

ES:
Well I think one of the songs she might use on her album and one I’ll use on mine… We’re just going to see what happens. We had a really good energy writing together and it all worked out so well. She’s great to work with and is, obviously, extremely cool.

G:
How exciting, well that’s certainly something for us all to look forward to. So, it’s Glasgow tonight and the Oran Mor – Presumably the city holds a quite a special place for you?

ES:
Of course! It’s the perfect place for me to begin the tour having spent four or five years studying medicine here. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the graduated doctors and friendly faces in the crowd. It’s just such a cool city, even just driving around, seeing Hyndland road and going back up to the uni… I was there today actually. They decided to give me the award for young alumnus of the year, which was lovely. My parents came down and I got a little trophy. It was really nice to see that the university appreciates what I’m doing.

G:
The university must be very proud to see you doing so well. There’s such a buzz about you around here at the moment. Would you say you missed Glasgow?

ES:
I miss the people. I miss the fact that everyone’s on a level here. You know, it’s not about industry; it’s a lot about the music and the vibe. I miss that compared to London but I do love the London pace. I’ve become used to it and have found myself wanting to go somewhere even faster now – New York perhaps…

G:
I think a lot of people would regard London, at least in musical terms, as the centre of the universe. Would you agree with that?

ES:
Kind of… just because if I need to record something at 3am, I can be at the studio I need to be at and then the next day I can go and hand it in to the record label. Everything is so connected, whereas if you’re doing it in Glasgow, everything slows down – mainly because the labels aren’t based here. There are a few and some great independents but mostly the headquarters for the major labels are all down South.

G:
Plus everything closes on a Sunday… This city does tend to ‘have it’ on a Saturday evening. But in terms of being signed to a major record label like Virgin, how easy is it to keep the people that you’ve got trust in around you? Do you have a lot of control in, for example, working time and again with your producer, Naughty Boy, who you’ve been with right from the early days?

ES:
Well because I was a songwriter before hand and because I developed the sound with Naughty Boy prior to getting signed, I had so much more control than I might otherwise have had. I was in a good position in the sense that other labels wanted me to write for them and so was able to say ‘look, please trust me. Let me get on with my thing. This is the producer I work best with.’ I feel I’ve been very lucky in having people I’ve got around me. In terms of controlling the artistic output, if you’re constantly creating and doing well with what you’re doing then it would be silly for anyone to stand in the way.

G:
And plus with websites like Zimbalam emerging which are making it increasingly easy for D.I.Y independent artists to get a foothold in the industry, these labels are having to realise that allowances like the ones you’ve been talking about need to be made.

ES:
I think so. The good news now is that labels are paying more attention to signing genuine ‘artists.’ What’s more, they’re realising that they’ve got to take a risk. I mean, I was a big risk to sign, but Virgin just said ‘we get it. Let’s go’ and they had a really focussed plan.

G:
And it’s paying off! I’ve got to ask you about X-Factor. How was it playing in front of Miss Rowland and Mr Barlow and around 20 million other people?

ES:
It was really funny… First of all, I didn’t want to think about how many people were watching and because the stage we were on was super narrow, I was really scared of falling off it or slipping on the glitter or even having a firework go off in my face!

G:
Well it’s such a pyrotechnic show that they put on now isn’t it. I’m curious though to know how you, as an artist who writes all their own material, found being a booked act on that show which has been responsible putting out into the public sphere a lot of acts which can sing, but can’t write? How easy has it been subverting recent norms in the sense that you’re there from the conception, right through to the delivery of the music and yet are still managing to entertain the masses?

ES:
Well I’ve actually been quite surprised that it has gone into the mainstream because I never wrote music with that intention. If you do write with that goal, you inevitably end up watering down what you’re writing. We took quite a risk when releasing ‘Heaven’ as the first single but we just thought, you know what; we’ve got to put this out there. For it to get to number two in the charts really demonstrated that you can be mainstream without compromising. It seems that people do definitely want to hear something different and not necessarily all that the radio feeds us. I definitely feel a change with people like Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey emerging… people that write from the heart and perform all their own work.

G:
So what’s you’re take on the British music scene at the moment? Do you think it’s in a healthy state?

ES:
I do. I guess the genre I’m a part of – what many people would call ‘urban’ I suppose, certainly seems to be healthier than ever. The States are really looking to us for what’s coming through. I mean, there have been acts like Plan B and the amazing Labyrinth recently too, so yes, I’d definitely say that right now seems to be a really creative time for UK music.

G:
Do you think that the fairly significant social upheavals going on at the moment are affecting that? People seem to be increasingly questioning authority figures and finding a voice – something that’s been poignantly demonstrated in recent weeks by yet more anti-capitalist protests. Would you say that feeds into the music?

ES:
Well yeh, it must do right? It’s got to be reflected somewhere. I think people are starting to realise their power. Kids are finding these independent acts and labels are becoming less and less significant. People realise that being a fan really means something, you know? They’re becoming aware that we can build this thing without ‘the man.’

G:
Definitely. With your songs being very personal in their own right, particularly in the lyrics, have you found that you’ve had people saying ‘you speak for me?’

ES:
I have and that’s really been the best thing. More and more people are starting to recognise my stuff, which is cool, but it’s almost like it’s not about me at all, it’s more about the fact that they’ve connected to the songs. That really means a lot to me. I love that people are listening to the lyrics and that those words are penetrating. I mean, I’m not promoting myself as Jason Derulo or anything like that, so it’s really nice that the songs are getting to people before I do…

G:
In terms of the song writing process, do you prefer to put lyrics down first or do you like to work music around lyrics? How do you like to go about it?

ES:
Usually I like to write from a concept. I think you’ve already got 80% of a song if you’ve got a really strong idea or maybe a word, so usually I’ll start with a lyric and it’ll flow from there. Sometimes I might have a piano riff and I’ll try and work something around that but more often than not I just love a good concept.

G:
I’ve got to ask you about Jools Holland and being on his show. In recent years he’s provided such a platform for so many artists to launch themselves and their careers. How was it for you being on that stage?

ES:
It was amazing. I’d always dreamt of doing Jools Holland and my mum was so excited when I told her! It’s such a legendary building and they told me that apparently I’m the first person to have been on twice in the same series, which was kind of cool. So the first time we were next to Little Dragon, who I love, and then the second time we were right beside Coldplay! It was just such a privilege meeting all these incredible artists and being involved in the show.

G:
And we’re you at all tempted to do a cover of ‘Up the Junction’ by Squeeze?

ES:
Haha, nooo…

G:
Having appeared on all these widely watched T.V shows, having your face all over the London Underground, and being touted as ‘the next big thing,’ how easy is it to keep your feet on the ground?

ES:
Well, it’s very strange! Obviously I still take the tube but some people will tend to stare! I suppose though that my whole focus is always on the music and if you’re not creating good songs then you’re not happening. Anyone can be famous and have posters of themselves plastered everywhere but I’ve always got to keep in mind that I want to make another album after this and I want to be consistent. Having met Alicia Keys and seen how humble she is after selling millions upon millions of records, it really becomes so apparent that you’ve got to keep humble or else you’re going to stop doing what you do well. It’s all about keeping the focus.

G:
And so what is there to come? What have we all got to look forward to?

ES:
Well the album is out February, 2012 and so that’s the main priority right now along with the tour.

G:
And what with your recent success at the MOBO awards, there must be a huge amount of hype in amongst those involved with the forthcoming release?

ES:
Yeh, people seem excited. It seems as though it’s quite anticipated which is really nice. Right now I just can’t wait to get it out because people will hear ‘Heaven’ and think you’re one thing and then hear ‘Daddy’ which is something different again. I think the third single is going to be something a bit more stripped back. Most of all though I just can’t wait to get the album out and to be able to say ‘this is everything. This is all of me.’ I’m nervous but at the same time really happy with how it all sounds. At this stage we’re down to getting the string sections on it and making it sound all magical!

G:
Do you regard it as important to establish a dynamic on the album? Are you looking to include some fairly stripped back songs which show off the power of your voice on its own, alongside more highly produced tracks like ‘Heaven?’

ES:
I think it’s really important to make both ‘Clown’ and ‘Heaven’ fit together on the same record, which I’m hoping will come via the lyric and via my style of delivering the song. But yes, it is very important to get the album sounding like a whole piece.

G:
Are you able to tell us what it’s going to be called?

ES:
It’s going to be called ‘Our Version of Events’

G:
And what’s the story behind that?

ES:
Well I was having breakfast with my producer, Naughty Boy, and we were getting annoyed about all the rules and regulations involved in this particular publishing company thing. Naughty Boy came out with the line; ‘you know what, this is our version of events!’ which I thought was really interesting and the more we thought about it, the more it seemed an appropriate title… I do think that a lot of young people feel misrepresented by what they hear and what they’re fed by T.V and it seems to me that there’s a substantial portion of the population that are saying, ‘you know what, we’re here too.’ What with the riots in London over the summer, the rise in tuition fees and all the anger and frustration that huge numbers of people are feeling, people clearly don’t feel represented. I think that we do want to be remembered by something and someone needs to say ‘this is our version of events. This is how we feel.’ I only hope that I can be a voice for some of those people.