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Nothing Left To Hide

02 December 2016, 09:00

The new Emeli Sandé is wiser, more grounded and more focussed than ever. She talks Vincent Morris through how she found a greater sense of personal and artistic self.

Back in 2012 a young woman from Aberdeen made waves with the release of her debut album Our Version of Events – featuring hits such as the D’n’B infused "Heaven" and the uplifting "River".

Only in her early twenties, she broke onto the scene following successful collaborations with Professor Green ("Read All About It") and Chipmunk ("Diamond Rings"). She went on to dominate in 2012 with the album going twice platinum (now seven times platinum), overtaking Adele’s 21 as the best-selling album that year.

It’s been four years since and Emeli Sandé’s back with a highly anticipated second album, titled Long Live the Angels. A lot’s happened since Our Version of Events came out, with Sandé undergoing both a personal and professional evolution that sees her coming back even stronger. We sat down with her for a fireside chat to catch up on where she’s been these last few years and to get her ‘version of events’ since breaking out.

“At the beginning it was like staring at a blank page”, Sandé admits. What do you do when your last album spent 63 consecutive weeks in the Top Ten, exceeding a record set by The Beatles? “It’s like I was searching in the dark, because there wasn’t a formula to the first one… I just made songs I loved”. After such commercial success, it’s easy to feel the pressure. But an important part of her journey since then has been to step back and take the time to reflect, allowing the process to take its natural path.

The four years away has paid its dividends, resulting in an autobiographical fifteen-track album (and in fact an abundance of material that also didn’t make it to the album as well). It’s an album that speaks from the heart, unrestrained and unadulterated. “I’d had life experience before, but not as I have now. I feel like a grown up now, these are more like diary entries, whereas in the first [album] we just wanted to make songs that made us feel good. But this is more like: let me tell you who I am. And with this album I really think we got that kind of connection.”

Gaining this self-confidence has allowed her to create an album that’s even more direct and sincere than the first, creating more of artist self-portrait of a person that was only partially visible before. Diving into the album’s first single, "Hurts", sets an example, and was released first deliberately to make a statement. Like many other songs on the album, it’s raw and has an immediacy that is often lost when music becomes overproduced and artificial.

Powerful and dramatic, the song "came out first in the campaign to be like, ‘this is me now’. I feel a lot more assertive, a lot more honest with my emotions”. An overarching theme for Sandé has been honesty. Not just being honest with her expression to others, but also being honest to herself. She goes on to say, “I think that’s probably one of the worst feelings, if you don’t feel like you know how to express yourself”.

"I feel like a grown up now, these are more like diary entries, whereas in the first [album] we just wanted to make songs that made us feel good."

Following the release of Our Version of Events she went on to tour for the next couple of years, eventually reaching saturation point. “It’s always like, ‘one more tour, we’ll try this, and then after that we’ll do this…’ You get all these opportunities that are very difficult to say no to, it’s never ending”. One of the biggest lessons was in learning to say ‘no’ and to keep level-headed in an environment in which it’s all too easy to get lost in. A pragmatic mind though, she went on to explain that “in terms of commercial pressure there’s not much I can do other than try my best, make music I love, and work hard to promote it, and I think everything else is outside of my control after that”.

Although sometimes separated, creativity and life share an intertwined existence, with both feeding off one another. Alongside the germination of fresh musical ideas, Sandé took the opportunity to get her life back: “Once I kind of got back to real life, I had to really assess myself and asses how I wanted to move forward… I felt like I had to really start from scratch almost, with myself personally”. It was a period of big transition for her, releasing long-term manager Andrian Sykes for a new partnership with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, and going through separation with her previous partner of ten years Adam Gouraguine.

Moreover, while she may have kicked off an impressive career as a singer she’d missed out on a lot of the growing up stuff that her peers got when leaving university and going into the ‘real world’; this was a crucial time for Sandé. “I’d never taken the time to tick the milestones of growing up… I feel like I had a lot of learning to do in how to be independent and responsible for myself. When you have so many people around you to help, all you need to do is sing… You get really good at singing [laughs], but being an adult I felt like I was behind”. Putting aside the performing to refocus on her personal life seemed like a necessity, “it was good to get out of the limelight for that reason… I had to be very honest with myself and make difficult changes.

Emeli Sandé

Despite its perks, such a life is often one of extremes: “You go from being on stage all the time and then it becomes memories that are like ‘woah, did I really do that?’ It’s a whole different life style, now I’m just walking round the street writing songs”. The time off intensive touring though has been a period of real clarity. As we’re chatting Sandé’s sitting back casually with a leg up on the sofa, and there’s an inner sense of calm about her. This calmness is matched with a conviction that sits quietly behind her gaze. “I feel a lot more confident in myself, and I feel like I’m a lot more definite on what I want. I feel like a lot of times I’d rely on others for what my path was. And I recognise that that’s quite an irresponsible way to live… I really started listening to myself. Even though I was living a life that was ticking all the boxes, there was a feeling inside that I wasn’t fully happy. During this time I realised that my happiness within myself was way more important. I feel great now.”

During this time out of the spotlight Sandé also continued a personal search of identity. A visit to Zambia allowed her to connect with her father’s side of the family, which Sandé describes as a pilgrimage. Somehow connecting with your roots gives you those parts of you that were missing before, “I felt so grounded and so humbled, like I really understood this whole side of me I’d never really known; so then to finally, at 25/26, get this influx of everything - the music, the spirituality, being in Africa – was incredible. It was really life changing for me”. She describes this as the biggest turning point for her in terms of understanding herself, coming to the realisation that “if you don’t know who you are and your identity, you’re kind of screwed, you’re floating around, and people will tell you who you are”. As an artist this is even more imperative, when you’re constantly surrounded by the tempting emulations of others.

"Even though I was living a life that was ticking all the boxes, there was a feeling inside that I wasn’t fully happy."

Aside from this spiritual self-searching. Sandé also took the opportunity to do some work with Oxfam on a campaign called I Care About Her. The campaign seeks to address gender inequalities in Zambia and change people’s mentalities on how women are treated and the freedoms they’re denied. The experience was fulfilling for Sandé, where she met a lot of artists who were more politically and socially conscious, and were channelling this into their music. Such interactions may lead to future collaborations, she hopes, and made her more aware of the privileged position she has as a high profile female artist: “Going to Zambia really brought home to me how lucky I was to have these opportunities here… I’d love to put it into my music, or at least speak about it in certain ways. Someone like Annie Lennox is a great inspiration to me, she really addresses women’s rights through her music and her conferences and talks, so it’s something I’d like to do eventually.”

While Our Version of Events was still the soulful Emeli Sandé we’ve come to know, it’s undeniable that a deep and transformative journey’s happened in the space between the albums. The new Emeli Sandé is wiser, more grounded, more focussed. Long Live the Angels commands a greater authority, both in the song writing and the execution of it. The arrangements are often symphonic and expansive, and communicate the album’s overall feeling of celebration, “I wanted it to be wide, you know? To really inspire the people who are listening”. It’s no secret that Sandé’s modelled her style to some of the greats, she went on to recall, “a lot of the things I grew up listening to were so inspiring because they were so ambitious. For example, Whitney Houston, or Mariah [Carey], these massive singers that took their vocals so high, and they had these big orchestras.”

Emeli Sandé

Seeing her perform recently at St John’s Church Hackney, you could really feel the power and the passion behind her voice, which was matched by a tight ensemble that moved instinctively to her every enunciation. It also feels like she’s reached a place of contentedness with the live performance aspect, where all the musicians are more relaxed now and are able to experiment on stage, “we can really just feed off the audience and respond to them. That’s always what I was longing to do. I feel like… live performance – that’s my thing.”

Behind the faces of an ex-neuroscientist and fast-rising pop icon, there’s a searching, inquisitive side to Sandé that can often slide under the radar. She also states that spirituality is a big part of her music making, and the topics of faith and belief are often inferred in her music, be it through the gospel influences and instrumentation of tracks like album opener "Selah" and "Shakes", or the hymnal ballad ‘Sweet Architects’. The spiritual underpinnings of the album were all the more poignant in the church setting of St John’s, “to do it in that church – even in the rehearsal with the light coming in – felt like a really perfect place to do it.”

The second track on the album, "Breathing Underwater", is an uplifting, almost euphoric piece that features a chorus of voices that builds and builds throughout until the acapella at the end. She’s admitted to wanting to work with gospel singers for a while and this album was the perfect opportunity to do it – “I just love gospel choirs and I love string sections, it’s very hard to say no when you have the option to add them [laughs].”

“Any constraints around I feel have kind of disappeared, I feel like I know myself, I know what I want to do, I don’t feel like I need to validate myself with money, success or fame. It’s really, more than anything, wanting to make a connection with people”.

Long Live the Angels is a perfectly formed long-play, it’s got some tense moments in the explosive "Hurts", more introspective electronica musings with the low slung "I’d Rather Not" and "Garden" (featuring Jay Electronica), and more anthemic parts with tracks like "Highs and Lows". The album represents a holism that seems to be a reflection of where Emeli Sandé’s at both personally and creatively; it’s hard to not feel this catharsis and sincerity in the music.

The album for her is in many ways about freedom – freedom to express oneself (and not feel apologetic about it), freedom to write songs organically and not worry about conforming to conventional song structures, like putting in a ‘middle 8’ or a chorus ("Selah" is a good example), freedom to simply be an artist and share that with people in an honest way. “Any constraints around I feel have kind of disappeared, I feel like I know myself, I know what I want to do, I don’t feel like I need to validate myself with money, success or fame. It’s really, more than anything, wanting to make a connection with people”.

The empathy she invites from listeners is also an invitation for people to “feel freer to express themselves”. In a post-digital world of shiny social media profiles and artificial realities, it’s hard to be honest with your own emotions – “they don’t have to be perfect and polite all the time, they can be quite raw”. She’s learnt to find vulnerability empowering, and hopes that Long Live the Angels can be an invitation for others to move in the same way. After pausing a moment, she concludes our chat by saying, “I hope the message of this album is not just one of survival… but more of hope”.

Emeli Sandé has stepped into womanhood proper with a world of expectation on her shoulders, but for the 29-year-old there’s nothing left to hide or hold back. There’s no doubt about it, Emeli Sandé’s only just getting started.

Long Live the Angels is out now via Virgin. Buy it on Amazon or iTunes, or stream via Spotify.
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