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Emeli Sandé: ‘Being a woman in the music industry definitely made me feel insecure about the way I looked’

Emeli Sandé releases her fifth album ‘How Were We to Know’ in November  (Supplied)
Emeli Sandé releases her fifth album ‘How Were We to Know’ in November (Supplied)

Emeli Sandé can still remember that moment in 2012 when, sporting a vertiginous, blonde quiff and an emerald dress, she belted out her smash hit “Read All About It” at the London Olympics closing ceremony. “It’s one of those memories that I can still visualise so easily,” Sandé, now 36, tells me on a video call, shutting her eyes briefly as if to conjure the scene. “I can remember seeing all those eyes on me and thinking, ‘You really don’t want to mess up.’” It was also a moment that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the time: “There was a feeling of togetherness and this collective hope. Everyone was excited for the next decade and the future. A lot has changed, obviously. There are things we didn’t see coming, and deeper divisions now.”

It’s a rare solemn note in our conversation, which finds the Scottish artist in good spirits, speaking from her home studio in Aberdeenshire – not far from the house she grew up in and where her parents still live. For Sandé, the decade that followed the 2012 Olympics has been a fruitful one. She is on the cusp of releasing her fifth album How Were We to Know, a confidently written and unashamed paean to pop’s eternal subject: love. Something Sandé, a self-professed romantic, is very much in the throes of with her partner, and now fiancée, the classical pianist Yoana Karemova.

Sandé came out in March last year, almost inadvertently after she very nonchalantly told a reporter that the person she was dating was, in fact, a woman. “It wasn’t really planned. We were so in love, and I wanted to share that with my fans, so when he asked about my love life, it felt very natural to say it then,” she says now. “You know, I just want to express my love. I didn’t feel like doing the, ‘Hey everyone, I’m making a big announcement’ thing – and now I can just be myself. If people have an issue with it then that’s something I have no control over. If they no longer like me, then what can I do? I need to live my happiness. I need to feel good.” Mind you, the reaction has been mostly lovely. “I think we’re in a day and age where it’s just not a big deal.”

Certainly, a lot has changed since Sandé was a young woman coming up in the music industry. One can imagine that Sandé dating a woman in the 2010s would have had the tabloids and trolls frothing excitedly at the mouth. “I very quickly realised the reality of being in the music industry as a woman [back then],” she says. “And it definitely brought on some insecurities like, ‘How do I look? Do I look good enough to be in the position I’m in?’ But I got over them by coming back to the music, because regardless of what your hair looks like, is the song any good? Are you being the best musician you can be? I think prioritising that question helped reduce my insecurities about the other things because those are always going to be there, you know, you can’t really do much to change the industry.”

‘Embracing my natural self on a cultural and racial level has been a journey I’ve been on from the very beginning’ (Supplied)
‘Embracing my natural self on a cultural and racial level has been a journey I’ve been on from the very beginning’ (Supplied)

There was a time when Sandé seemed to be everywhere all at once – her face on every music channel and awards show; the gummy groove of her drum’n’bass banger “Heaven” piped through every car radio and shop speaker across the country. In 2013 she was at the White House, red-lipped and buttoned-up, serenading Carole King on the piano while Barack and Michelle Obama grooved along in the crowd. Later that year, at the 2013 Brits, she took home not one but two awards for best female and best album – the latter for her chart-topping, Adele-outselling debut.

She was there even when you didn’t know it; her robust pop prowess all over the several singles by Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Alicia Keys that she co-wrote, from “Half of Me” to “It Takes Two” and “Not Even the King” – each one bearing Sandé’s bloodhound instincts for a power chorus. “It was nice that people liked what I was doing, and it was fantastic to see more than three people coming to the shows,” she laughs. “But that time was so intense – you take any opportunity because it could be the last one and you’re operating at this really high energy, so by the end of those three years, I was exhausted. I felt I needed time to reconnect; I had been working so much that I forgot to check in with myself and get back to real life.” By real life, she means her family and her friends. “I suddenly disappeared out of everybody’s lives, I was missing birthdays and big events. So that was a big thing: going back and nourishing those relationships.”

It’s a journey: of going after what you thought you wanted, losing yourself a bit, and then coming back to that childhood confidence and passion again

Since then, Sandé has been on something of a mission: to return to a pre-industry state of mind. “I think we take that confidence for granted when we’re younger,” she says. “There’s a purity of ambition before it’s muddied by the reality of what it takes. It’s like you have a real sense of who you are and what you want to do and then you realise what it takes to become a singer. I went in with stars in my eyes, especially the way that first album took off, and every one of my dreams was suddenly coming true but it’s a surreal experience, a happy one, but it’s different.” She pauses for a moment to gather her thoughts. “It’s a journey: of going after what you thought you wanted, losing yourself a bit, and then coming back to that childhood confidence and passion again.”

To listen to How Were We To Know is to hear a musician finally comfortable in her own skin. “To embrace my natural self on a cultural and racial level has been a journey I’ve been on from the very beginning,” says Sandé, whose mother is English and whose father is from Zambia (“We knew we were a little bit different,” she laughs, speaking about her family’s life in rural Scotland). “Perhaps at the beginning, I thought I needed to transform into another character or become Emeli, whereas now I feel like I can be myself.” Her joyous anthemic ballad “True Colours” attests to all of the above. Her voice is clear and brassy, exploding at the chorus in perfect time with its orchestral crescendo.

In a lot of ways, Sandé says, this latest record, of all her albums, cleaves closest to her first, the smash hit Our Version of Events. “With that first album, you get so much time to let the music breathe, test it over time and see what works and I feel like I’ve had that luxury again with this new record – it just took four or five albums to get there! But I feel like finally, musically, I’m coming back to that pace,” she says. “I’m taking the time to listen to music again, songs I hadn’t listened to since I was a child, and I’m spending more time at the piano.” Sandé is sanguine, enviably so. Maybe it’s that Scottish countryside air. Or her fiancée presumably rattling about in the other room. As if reading my mind, Sandé says suddenly, “I’m falling back in love with my passion.”

‘How Were We to Know’ is out now via Chrysalis Records