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Interview: Emeli Sandé

BY Simon Button

9th May 2023 Celebrities

Interview: Emeli Sandé

Happy and confident, singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé looks back on her amazing experiences and talks about the creative period she is in now

Since coming out last year, Emeli Sandé has never felt happier. “It’s all about understanding, accepting and embracing yourself,” the singer-songwriter tells me. We’re speaking on the phone so I can’t see her face but I imagine she’s smiling as she adds: “It has unlocked so many doors both creatively and emotionally within me and I feel so much more grounded within myself.” 

Sandé is engaged to classical pianist Yoana Karemova and says of the wedding: “We don’t have a date yet but it’s definitely in talks. We’re very deep in love and it just makes life glorious.”  

A little older, a lot wiser

Now 36, Emeli (who was previously married to marine biologist Adam Gouraguine before they split up in 2014) is much more settled in her 30s than she was in her 20s. “One thousand per cent,” she says. “You really settle into yourself as you grow older and you learn so much from different experiences. I look back on my 20s and I couldn’t have had a better time. I lived my dream, got to do all of these amazing performances and make albums. But now in my 30s I can let myself marinate. I feel so much more confident in myself for sure.”    

Music to uplift


In her fourth album, Sandé was inspired by the desire to connect during lockdown

Released last spring, her fourth album Let’s Say for Instance reflects her happier, more grounded state of mind. Most of it was recorded during lockdown. “So a big inspiration was the idea of connecting with people, because so much of that connection had been taken away. I wanted to make the music as positive and uplifting as I could. I had a studio at home and could go down and record things in the middle of the night. I felt like I had complete freedom.” 

"The great thing about festivals is that you can really push the boat out and try different things"

Sandé will be playing tracks from the album along with signature songs like “Heaven”, “Next to Me” and “Clown” when she performs at Nocturne Live and the Love Supreme Jazz Festival this summer, noting: “The great thing about festivals is that you can really push the boat out and try different things. Love Supreme is a jazz event so the band and I have been speaking about how we’re going to bring new elements of jazz and soul to the songs and reinterpret them.” 

Having last year collaborated with jazz instrumentalists Ezra Collective, she continues: “I’ve really enjoyed stepping into the jazz genre more because that’s the music I gravitated towards as a kid. Coming back to it now is exciting and it’s really making me push myself out of my comfort zone. There’s so much freedom in jazz to riff and scat, which you can’t do in the more traditional pop field.” 

Starting out in Sunderland


While Sandé was originally offered a record deal at age 16, she opted to wait until after university graduatoin. Photo credit: Pauline Keightley

Emeli was born in Sunderland and raised in Alford, Aberdeenshire, by her Zambian father and English mother. She was drawn to music at an early age, saying: “It was all about expression, having a voice and being able to be loud. I sometimes found speaking to people quite difficult as a kid. I was very shy so music allowed me to kind of have an alter ego and it allowed me to express things I couldn’t otherwise. 

“I feel lucky that both of my parents had really good taste in music. Dad introduced me to Anita Baker and I was drawn to the power and passion of her singing; it was so much more than just presenting a product, it was really from the soul. I loved Elkie Brooks, Celine Dion, Mariah, Whitney - all of these massive singers. I was also drawn to empowered women who wrote their own music and, when it came to jazz, I was so impressed by Nina Simone. I thought "You have to be a writer and a singer" and since age seven that’s what I wanted to do.” 

"Moving to London and trying to chase a dream was something I ultimately ended up doing but I wanted more security. I loved medicine"

Sandé began writing songs about a year later and took up the piano when she was around 11 or 12. “When you’re a kid you often feel powerless and that adults are controlling your life. Music was this little magic corner I could go to and create something from nothing. Still to this day it’s such a great feeling when a song appears.” 

She was educated at Alford Academy secondary school, where her father was a teacher. That must have put pressure on her to do well? “Massively,” she laughs. “There was no room for misbehaving or grade-slipping, which when I look back I’m thankful for. Education propelled my dad’s life forward and gave him so many opportunities, so he was adamant that my sister and I didn’t take it for granted.” 

Thus when she was offered a record deal at age 16 she turned it down in favour of studying medicine at Glasgow University. “I wanted a bit of stability,” she explains. “Moving to London and trying to chase a dream was something I ultimately ended up doing but I wanted more security. I loved medicine. Growing up, I really loved physics, chemistry and biology, and I loved the academic challenge. Plus my dad wanted me to graduate before I went on to do anything with music.” 

Music after medicine


At only 24 years old, Sande was chosen to perform at the open ceremony of the Olympics. Photo credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

After graduation she co-wrote songs with Naughty Boy for other artists and sang with the Chipmunks on their number six hit “Diamond Rings” before signing a deal as a solo singer and releasing her debut album Our Version of Events in 2012. 

That same year she performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. “To be trusted in such a high-pressure situation was an honour, especially since I’d only just made my first album. It was very nerve-wracking but I managed to pull myself together. I’ll always remember how it felt looking at that microphone, knowing that I was surrounded by thousands of people and that millions were watching it around the world.” 

Next, the White House

A year later she was at the White House at a ceremony to honour Carole King. “That was equally nerve-wracking. There was Carole, who I’d really admired as a songwriter growing up, and the Obamas sat next to her, and I was two yards away. Being in the White House, getting to speak to all these important and powerful people and sing for them, was unforgettable. I spoke to Carole and she was lovely. She was like a ray of sunshine, so positive, and she said ‘Please keep the art of songwriting alive’. I felt touched that she appreciated what I was doing.” 

"Being in the White House, getting to speak to all these important and powerful people and sing for them, was unforgettable"

And Barack and Michelle Obama? “My first impression was ‘Wow, I didn’t realise how tall they were’. Barack was fantastic. He put me at ease and he really made me feel like I’d just come round to his house, which I kind of had. He was like ‘Let’s put on a show guys’ and he helped everyone chill out, which is quite a talent in a situation like that.” 

Stage or studio?


After two years of lockdown, Sandé found herself desperate to get back on stage. Photo credit: Stuart Westwood / Alamy Stock Photo

Having recently worked with another hero, Nile Rodgers, on the song “When Someone Loves You” Sandé has just finished recording her fifth album for release later this year. I wonder if she’s happier in the studio or on stage? “I’d say it’s equal, especially after lockdown and not being able to perform,” she concludes. “Sometimes you come off tour, you’re absolutely exhausted and you think "Right, I’m staying in the studio for six years now." But after two years of not being allowed to get out there and perform I missed it so much. You miss the energy and the connection.” 

Emeli Sandé is performing at Nocturne Live (nocturnelive.com) on June 16th and at the Love Supreme Jazz Festival (lovesupremefestival.com) from June 30th to July 2nd 

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