Emeli Sandé talks first album in five years, empathetic gay fans and her musical savior Mariah Carey
Hello, it’s… Emeli Sandé, this generation’s only performer able to rival Adele as a powerhouse, tear-jerking force of nature.
The Scottish vocalist (born, funny enough, Adele Emily Sandé) is back for your pillow-sopping nights with her much-anticipated Long Live the Angels, a rumination on new versions of events, particularly the dissolving of a decade-long relationship that ended in divorce in 2014. Among the best albums of 2016, Sandé’s triumphant catharsis pushes through the pain with spirited, choir-lifted credos of faith and love-led empowerment.
In this revealing interview with Sandé, the 29-year-old opened up about the gay fans who helped her realize she needed a break, discovering President Obama’s daughters listen to her music and how Mariah Carey helped her feel less alone.
It’s been nearly five years since you released your debut, Our Version of Events. Why the wait?
I was just going through such a personal and spiritual growth. I mean, we spent so long promoting Our Version of Events, and it was amazing, touring, but I found it almost impossible to get back to ground zero and write music. I needed a timeout. I also was going through stuff myself that I needed to understand before I could put it in music and feel steady enough to go out there and give it to other people. So, it was a combination of both. I feel like for two years I just needed that time to dedicate to making this music.
How would you describe the process of writing these songs while going through something as difficult as your divorce?
I was always writing; this kind of feels like real diary entries. With every song, it was almost like I was sponging up my life. I find it a lot easier to express emotions through music, so I was acting like I was fine, but the music was all telling the truth in what I was feeling internally. It was all kind of me writing my emotions as I felt them, or if I’d do sessions, whatever I was going through at that time in my life, it just kind of came out.
Do you get emotional singing these deeply personal songs?
Not really. I feel quite empowered when I sing them just because it gives me an honesty on stage. Obviously, I hope they’re entertaining and they make people feel great, but it was really my truth. So, when I’m on stage it feels like I’m connecting with the audience and just kind of sharing myself fully. So, seriously enough, I kind of feel quite strong when I sing them. I feel liberated to tell the truth on stage.
Tell me how your connection with your gay fans has evolved since releasing your debut album.
During every show, I can feel my gay fans out there, and there’s a real kind of depth and understanding. I remember I was doing a show at KOKO in London, and it was around the time everything was going so fast, and I got a couple of notes from fans. A gay couple wrote, “Are you OK? If you want to come hang out with us, you can come on holiday with us.” I just thought it was so nice that they recognized – I must’ve been exhausted at that point, and I think they could see that. I really appreciated that letter from them. And I just appreciated all the different stories. I just love that I can also empower them through the music.
Did you end up going on vacation with this gay couple?
(Laughs) I didn’t end up going on holiday. But I just thought it was such a sweet offer, and it showed there was a real level of understanding and empathy. I never even got a chance to thank them, but it meant the world to me. I just kept going at the time. But it was really empowering to be like, “Actually, maybe I do need to take time off if it’s that obvious to the audience.”
What kinds of stories do gay fans share with you?
When I was in Washington, there was a guy – a big fan – and he was just saying how much he loved “Read All About It,” and Our Version of Events helped him through coming out. He was there with his mom, and it just felt so amazing. And, recently, I’ve had a few gay fans talking about how (that album) empowered them to express their love to one another, how everything I had written gave them those words as they were getting married. I love stories of love. It really keeps me going and encourages me to write songs about that.
How do your outsider feelings, which you’ve acknowledged you felt as someone growing up biracial, play into the music you write?
I feel like that’s why I give music 100 percent of myself, because it’s always been this confidante in my life where I’ve found my own identity. Growing up feeling pretty different in Scotland, I started to identify with soul music and black music, and that’s the reason why I’ve always put everything into my music. It’s never been something that I wanted to be too shiny. Like, I’ve never faked it. Having that kind of release and anchor in my life, it’s always just made me want to be 100 percent honest in what I’m doing, so hopefully that speaks through the music.
I remember how alone I felt and what comfort music was to me, and that was only through artists who were telling the truth and being so real. So, that’s how I wanted my career to be. Even if things are difficult to speak about or process, it’s important to me to keep doing it as is, so if people are like me when I was younger, they have someone who is telling the truth and making them feel not so alone.
For me, Mariah Carey’s Butterfly album made me feel that way. I identified with a song on that album, “Outside.” For you, what was –
(Laughs) Me too! Oh my god, I love that album, equally. It’s so funny you mention that song, too, because it was one of my favorites. When she speaks in interviews about how she felt being mixed race and how certain songs were based on that – and even though this was someone I’d never met, and we were on different ends of the world – I felt comforted by that.
Have you been able to share that with Mariah?
I have never been able to speak to her about the music, but I met her a couple of times. I met her on American Idol once and she said, “You’re the girl who’s writing all those songs!” and I’m like, “Oh my god, Mariah Carey knows that I write songs!” (Laughs) I was completely starstruck. And I remember “Hero.” I remember that song she did on the Rainbow album, “Can’t Take That Away.” I would love one day to meet her properly and tell her how much her music influenced me.
Do you call yourself a “lamb” like the rest of her hardcore fans?
I didn’t even know that’s what we were called, but yeah!
I’m envisioning a collaboration.
That would be a dream.
How would you compare Our Version of Events to this new album?
This album is a lot more personal and specifically about things that I’ve experienced. I wanted to make a conscious effort to be that honest, because it was such deep emotions for me that I didn’t want them to be generic. I wanted to get straight to the point. So, it’s a lot deeper, a lot more grown up. This is me stepping into womanhood, like a crash course in life bottled in an album.
Which song did you write at your rawest moment?
“Shakes.” The weird thing is, I didn’t feel like it was me channeling this emotion into this song, but when I listen to it now, I was almost predicting the future. “Shakes” was pretty deep. But “Sweet Architect” is probably the rawest moment on the album, where I just – beyond relationships, beyond the music industry – this was my direct prayer to God. That’s probably the rawest and deepest moment on the album.
Which song in particular do you think might resonate with your LGBT fans?
I love “Babe.” “Babe” is the last song on the album, and I feel liberated when I sing that song. It’s all about letting love be love and letting go of any kind of fear. So, for the gay community and the rest of the community, I just feel like allowing yourself to love and feel and take care of someone and be good to someone else – I hope that one resonates.
On the heels of World AIDS Day, tell me why it’s important to you to be a part of Elton John‘s AIDS Foundation.
It’s just so important to me, especially when you’re looking at Africa. My father is from Zambia, and you just see it’s affected the country and a lot of communities. If there’s more research and awareness about it, so much suffering wouldn’t have to happen. So, I’m really proud to be a part of Elton John’s foundation and spread awareness about it. It’s so important because a lot of things are preventable, especially what’s happening in Africa.
In 2013, you performed in front of President Obama and the First Lady. How many Xanax did you need to take beforehand?
Just a couple of glasses of wine! (Laughs) I remember stepping into the White House with all the security you have to go through to get there and walking through the corridors, and we got a little tour before. And meeting them – they’re so tall. That was the big thing. I’m like, “Wow, you guys are superhuman.”
They were talking about the music, and he was such a rock star. He was just so chilled out, and he made us feel relaxed and charged up. He had a chat with all the performers: “OK, let’s put on a show!” He made us feel like we were a part of some football team. He’s a true leader.
Does Obama have a favorite Emeli Sandé song?
He just said, “I think my daughters know your music!” And I was like, “Wow. My music might be getting played in the White House!” (Laughs)
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. He can proudly say Mariah Carey once called him a “daaahhhling.” Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).