Ahead of the release of third album Real Life, Emeli Sandé talks Pip Williams through nine songs that have inspired and defined her life and career.
Everybody knows Emeli Sandé – or at least they think they do. Debut album Our Version Of Events played omnipresent soundtrack to 2012, with breakthrough single "Heaven" and follow-up hits "Next To Me" and "Read All About It, Pt. III" making Sandé a household name. Top that off with a performance at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and it seemed a recipe for global mega-stardom.
Sandé, however, did things a little differently. Overwhelmed by the success of her first record, it wasn't until 2016 that she delivered its successor, Long Live The Angels, following a period of reflection and self-growth. She remained true to her gospel-infused roots on this second record, as she's keen to do on this year's forthcoming third, Real Life. Ahead of this next cycle of promotion, touring, and the hurricane of activity that accompanies a new release, Sandé took a moment to walk us through nine songs that made their mark on her life thus far.
From finding representation in girl group Eternal, to unpicking Stevie Wonder's timeless critiques of racialised surveillance, many of Sandé's choices speak to an experience of alienation informed by an accidentally politicised existence as a black girl growing up in Aberdeen. Her choices span genres and decades without a second thought, and she speaks with little hesitation on ever facet of their appeal, finding common threads in the emotional heft of every track selected from her record collection.
"As an artist, Nina Simone has inspired me so much. I think she was my introduction to artistry. Especially coming from a woman, it really changed the way I viewed music and gave me an incentive to learn piano. I was probably about nine or 10 when I first heard her music – it was my Dad that played me a live rendition of a song that she’d done two days after Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. It was called “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)”. I remember waiting for my Mum outside work, he used to play that song. As soon as I heard her voice I was just hooked on it.
"'I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl' is one of my favourite songs of hers to sing. I have been thinking about [covering it]! It has so much room in it melodically to freestyle, maybe improvising some of the lyrics to make it more relevant to my life. I’d probably do it just on piano instead of with the full band. There’s times when I’ve seen Nina combine classical music with jazz, so I’d probably attempt some of that. It’s such an open song – I think that’s what I love about it. I just love the space in in it. Even the title’s quite metaphoric: sexy, but quite poetic at the same time.
"Nina Simone showed me that there are really no rules with music. The more you learn in any direction, it can only empower what you’re doing. Reading about her history, at first her dream was to be a classical pianist! It’s so effortless – she’s not even looking at the keys, she’s not even thinking! And then she’s singing a pop song on top of a classical jazz fusion! She definitely inspired me to become accomplished where I can, just to add more freedom to express myself more deeply."
"I think I was about 12 or 13 when I first heard Miseducation. A sense of identity was such a big thing I was looking for growing up, because of being the only black girl in my year, my family being this mixed-race family in the middle of Scotland. I did really love growing up there – it gave me a lot of peace growing up in the countryside – but at the same time, part of my identity as a black woman was realised when I heard that album.
"I learnt so much about being a black woman from Lauryn Hill and through her music: who I was, why my hair was like this, how to deal with it. I’ve grown with the album, and even now, when I listen to it – I think I’m older than she was when she wrote it – I feel like there’s all those lessons to be learnt.
"The biggest lesson I learnt from Lauryn Hill as a musician is that you don’t always have to be going extra with your voice! Prior to her I’d listened to all the divas: Aretha, and Whitney, and Mariah. I thought the whole goal of being a singer was to go as high and as loud as possible! Listening to Lauryn, I really learnt about how the tone of your voice can be just as powerful as any tricks you can do with it.
"When I heard 'Tell Him', the track was so stripped. It’s just a live drum loop and her voice on topic, with maybe two backing vocals. They’re doing such beautiful harmonies – I think it was a really big lesson in simplicity and bringing out the soul of who you are through your voice without having to do anything fancy.
"The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was just so raw. I love how she mixed in spirituality with her cultural perceptions and with romance. She showed that you don’t have to take one topic – it was a really full-bodied expression from a woman. I just love that album, and that song is my favourite.
"As a singer and a musician growing up, there’ve been a lot of powerful women that have really led my journey. I also really love hip-hop, I love lyric, so anywhere I can find intelligent lyricism I love. There’s something about a woman’s voice telling an honest story that can really catch my ears. I think I’ve inherited that from my Dad, because he was so in love with the divas and these voices and passed his love down on to me. Strong, independent, and quite outspoken through their music – those are the type of women that would inspire me."
"Stevie Wonder has been one of my biggest influences as a songwriter. His ability to tell a story and still move you, and still entertain you, and still make you want to dance, I just think is complete genius – and then watching his concerts and watching him switch between different instruments!
"At the same time, what I have the most admiration for is that he managed to put a socio-political message into his music. 'Big Brother' is a beautiful song to listen to, but he’s also saying very important things and speaking to his people. I just think, what an amazing man, and what an amazing song. He’s speaking about government and politicians, and these bureaucratic arguments that are happening – the reality of life and what impact these decisions people are making in an office are having on real people; how many people are dying, and the conditions people are living in. I think he’s really shining a light on the reality of the ordinary person, and particularly on the black community – how flippantly some decisions may be made, and the gravity of what that means for the ordinary person.
"With Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, the commitment to being the spokesperson for the community is so admirable. The point of music, in many senses for me, is that you speak for people who may not necessarily have a voice. If you have this platform, you have this amazing ability to express yourself through music – which has so many colours to express in.
"I love how eloquently he made his points, with this simple, memorable melody. I love hip-hop so much, and there’s different ways to have a message and to express different emotions, but to do it in such a melodic way that you could sing along to? I just thought that was so clever: to express frustration and anger, but to find beauty in it at the same time.
"His reference to Big Brother also speaks of now so much more than then, in the sense of technology. He prophesied it. And he says “I live in the ghetto / You just come to visit me 'round election time” – that manipulation speaks of the times we’re in now. It inspires me – there could always be more reflection on the very unique times we’re in."
"Whitney Houston, what a phenomenon! Now that she’s gone even more so, I think maybe the world just didn’t recognise what we had. Maybe in the 80s and 90s people understood, ‘cause she was just this shining star. When I watch her performances – there’s one in particular, where she’s singing to the sailors that’ve come back – and she sings “All The Man That I Need”, I just think it’s the most perfect performance I’ve ever seen! I can’t believe it’s live!
“'My Love Is Your Love' is probably one of my favourite songs ever. I heard it once on the radio – I must have been 12 when it came out – and I fell in love with it instantly: the voice, the track, the production. My parents and I went camping in the Lake District, and I went to Woolies and found the CD. I was so excited, but we didn’t have a CD player!
"For a whole week of camping, I remember staring at this CD with the memory of how incredible it was on the radio from one listen, and the excitement of ‘I can’t wait to get back! We have to drive nine hours to get back! We have to finish the camping trip!’ Getting home, I just ran to the CD player to listen to it!
"I love the accessibility of music through streaming, and now everyone everywhere can listen, which I think is a wonderful thing. The one thing I do miss is the anticipation of music, and the listener having to make more of an effort to hear it. For me, the appreciation was more. When you’re a kid, you don’t really have money to spend on anything, so you were investing everything you had on this feeling. I always think back to that every time someone asks me about streaming. I want that feeling back, of really having to make a physical effort to listen. I just remember cherishing music in such a different way.
"It’s a hard one to balance. It is great that we can all hear everything we want all the time, but for me as an avid music lover, I feel a difference. If there’s something I really love, or an artist I really appreciate, I will always make sure I go and buy the vinyl. I’m really excited about my next album – I’ve been told they’re going to make cassettes of it! Just for nostalgia’s sake, I think that’s so exciting! Beyond the physical aspect to listen to it is the maintenance of it. You have to keep your CDs safe; you can’t scratch them! You have to be careful when you rewind the tape! That care is all part of the experience.
"Every artist that I’ve fallen in love with has been because I’ve been able to see all sides of them, and some sides of artists aren’t going to be as popular or as streamable as others! I think it’s important to have a full sense of who someone is. For the artist, to have the anchor of an album is quite stabilising: if you’re thinking in singles that can get quite confusing and go in so many different directions."
"Aretha is another phenomenon. The thing I love, now that we have YouTube, is watching the divas talk about one another. There seems to be this real respect for one another, and a real hierarchy! Every diva knew that Aretha was the queen, and she would give her blessing to the others. I love that there was this order!
"Aretha – she’s amazing – with her roots in gospel music. That was such a big influence to me. I loved listening to her gospel album, and you can really see where the freedom that you hear in her pop songs comes from. They’re riffing and she’s letting the Spirit take over her, and she’s so good at playing piano that it translates into the keys as well, similar to how it did with Nina. There are lots of different versions of “Amazing Grace” out there, but I really felt like the lyric had this new gravitas once I’d heard her sing it.
"Recently I went to see the movie Amazing Grace, about the recording of her gospel album. To actually see footage of her giving that performance was pretty mind-blowing. She’s just in the moment; sweating from the energy she’s giving the crowd, and the choir! It was a beautiful moment to watch, and Aretha will forever be a massive influence in everything that I do.
"My Dad is Zambian, and when I go and visit, my aunties and my Grandma and cousins often sing together. The harmonies and the ensemble gives me the same feeling as when I hear gospel music. If you’re ignoring or suppressing emotions, this music and these sounds will just pull everything up and give you this incredible cleansing.
"There’s something about gospel music. When I was younger and listening to the divas, I hadn’t really heard much gospel music. My Dad played me a Kirk Franklin album, and for me initially, it was just the crunch of the chords that the choir was singing and this mass of people singing so perfectly in such unusual harmonies, and then on top of that, these are people singing with belief they’re singing to God.
"When I step inside a church, I feel different. I think it’s just the energy and the intention that people are singing with and have come together in. Whatever faith you have, I think that makes a world of difference. Gospel music is just such a special, higher form of music for me, and it can really make me so emotional. It’s such a great thing that, regardless of your beliefs, we can still come together through music and vibrations of love."
"Trevor Nelson had a show on Radio 1 called Rhythm Nation, and every Thursday night he would play all this music that would literally become my musical education. Again, it helped me understand myself on a new level. I got introduced to the neo-soul era through him; a lot of the Philadelphia artists like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and D’Angelo.
"I just love D’Angelo. He’s a musical genius. His gentleness was something that really stood out to me, as did Lauryn Hill’s. It was a real subtlety to what he was doing – very considered in where the notes went, and what word was used. At the same time, it was then like a jam! He really nailed this sweet spot in between virtuoso and jamming.
"When I was in Glasgow, my first ever record deal was signed to this guy called Souljawn. He was a massive soul fan, and he said ‘Oh, I found this snippet online of D’Angelo’s new album!’ It was literally a two-minute, really scratchy clip of him singing this song, 'Real Love'. We’d all wondered where he’d gone, ‘cause it had been six years in between albums! We were up there in Glasgow obsessing over this two-minute clip, playing it over and over and over again! Like with 'My Love is Your Love' there was this want and need for music, and real appreciation of when it’s going to come. The willingness to wait for it – it had been six years and we were willing to wait another six ‘cause we just appreciated his genius so much!
"When his most recent album finally came out, the song was there, fully finished. It was so rewarding and satisfying to hear it all finished. To finally hear it now, and still love it… only D’Angelo! He’s incredible.
"I saw him at the Roundhouse recently and he really blew me away. He inspires me to learn more instruments, and to also just relax in music and allow more of an artistic spirit to come through – to not try and control things too much. It was really cool how he went offstage: each musician would slowly walk off and then he was left there, on his Rhodes piano. Playing piano is one thing, but playing a Wurlitzer or a Rhodes is a different, softer approach. He’s really inspired me to look into more of that jazz-soul realm on that instrument."
"Amy Winehouse – her music’s amazing, and she was amazing. Such a great loss to the British music industry, and to the world, really. She’s so missed – what a gift her music was to us.
"Often I’ll listen to music ‘cause musically it’s something I love, but although she ticks every box for me, I just loved what Amy was saying lyrically and how she found such a free way to be herself through music. She really took that spirit of jazz and brought it forward to now. I love Back To Black, that was a phenomenal album, but her first album, Frank, had such an edge to it, and such a rawness, that I just fell in love with it.
"I remember when I was first coming to London to do showcases – I was about 16 – the people that managed me at that point were like, ‘you need to hear this girl! She’s signed to Polydor, she’s amazing, she sits and plays guitar and she’s got these really cool songs!’ They were just raving about this girl called Amy. It was so cool that we were in this similar world.
"I remember when I went to Polydor to see if they wanted to sign me, they gave me a couple of her CDs for free. I was so excited to be in London in the first place, and then to be at a record label, then to get a free CD! I was completely gassed, and the fact it was Amy Winehouse was so cool.
"Frank is such a beautiful album and it reminds me of that time. It reminds me of a real freedom, and of feeling so inspired by what she was saying and how she was saying. There seemed to be no rules – every track was a different genre. The one thing sustaining it – the backbone of the whole album – was her and her voice and her lyrical style. That, to me, is the definition of a true artist. No matter what you put out, your style and artistry belongs to you and you’re the one that carries it through.
"With this song, 'Take The Box', it’s so visual. I don’t even think there was a video for the song, but I feel like I’ve seen it! I feel I can see the whole scenario playing: breaking up with someone, and speaking about relationships in such an open, honest way. I think that’s so important for women. You want to sugar-coat things, you want a perfect reality, and sometimes that stops people telling the truth and getting out of relationships they shouldn’t be in. Amy always gave this very frank account of what it was.
"I loved the melody and the topline of this song. I’ve really been trying to take a step back and look at the process of songwriting instead of just delving straight into it. When you get that perfect trilogy of the topline melody, the chords your using, and the lyric making sense at the same time… she did that perfectly with this song: “Your neighbours were screaming / I don't have a key for downstairs”. It’s such a memorable melody, I think that’s the first thing that pulled me in."
"In the past year or two I’ve really been getting into more electronic music, and finding there’s so many subgenres! I’ve found this niche of really melodic electronic music, like Jamie xx and Jon Hopkins, and I just found it so soulful – it gives you this energy at the same time. That’s really opened a world up for me, ‘cause I always assumed electronic music couldn’t be as musical! Hearing this new sound, and these new methods of being musical through newer instruments, I was like, ‘wow!’ You can really reach that point of emotion in such a different, more energetic way.
"I just love this song. It’s a masterpiece, and I love the video as well. Learning about production a lot on this last album, it’s such a skill to let each element shine through and complement one another. The main thing for me is that simple line that comes in – a synth or something – halfway through, and the way everything builds. It’s like a symphony, really. Ever piece has been so considering in the song, and has such an emotional impact. It changes one note, and you’re sucked into a deeper level of emotion of the song. It’s effortlessly epic!
"I’ve used 'Gosh' so many times to warm up before a show, to get in a very focussed sense before a performance or doing anything high-pressure. It’s definitely our tour song. It has so many emotional memories for everyone that was on tour – our cameraman had to go ‘cause his first son was about to be born, so we played that song for him when he left. It’s never got boring to me, and I think I’ve rinsed it for about two years now! It’s never lost its magic. It just gives me life every time I hear it."
"I loved the lyric in 'Angel of Mine', and I loved how simple and poignant it was. Eternal was actually my first concert I went to – I just remember learning all these ballads of theirs. I was completely Eternal-obsessed from eight to 12! Maybe it was that they had elements of gospel in their music, and it was still in the pop scene.
"There weren’t many black women on the TV when I was growing up – there were maybe one or two, not people I could look up to and say, ‘Oh, that’s me, that’s who represents me. I have a chance of being on TV one day, and I could be a singer.’
"When Eternal came along, my mind was blown on so many levels. I thought they were so beautiful, and they had so many hairstyles that I thought were amazing. Then, on top of that, they could truly sing – they’d come from the church. Instead of always looking at American singers, they gave me a British option – something more relatable and close to home.
"Now, there’s so much [black British media] coming out – the actress Zawe Ashton has just released a book, and it was so amazing to see her take account of her [experiences]. There’ve never been any people on TV that show any products for her hair, just this dream that’s sold that you’re going to have this amazing glossy hair! I felt so touched by that chapter, ‘cause it just reminded me of myself as a kid. You forget once you’re an adult, and you get to move somewhere like London and have access to all of these things. As a kid it can feel very lonely and you feel very different. I feel very grateful for the progress we’ve made as a country, to prevent that feeling as much as possible."
"I try my best to take on that responsibility, though thankfully I think there’s so many more people of colour on TV – including black women. The culture has so much more of a voice from when I was growing up, and I think that’s the beautiful thing about social media as well: you can see yourself in so many places, and you can choose where you look. When I’m on TV, though, I definitely think about that. I think about me as a kid, and what that would have meant to me. I’m proud of stepping out there and doing my best to represent in the best way possible. I feel very grateful to have had that opportunity. It’s so important for children’s self-esteem and sense of belonging."