By Martin Owens
With a No. 1 debut album and a Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits, 2012 is shaping up to be Emeli Sande’s year.
It’s been quite a journey for the 24 year-old from Aberdeen, who started out writing songs for the likes of Professor Green, Cheryl Cole and Tinie Tempah, before enjoying a worldwide hit herself last year with Heaven. Taking time out of her most recent tour, the award winning singer speaks to Martin Owens about her recent successes.
To say it’s been quite a year for you is an understatement…
“Tell me about it. Right now I’m in Moscow with The Kooks and Baxter Dury. It’s crazy, the people are quite eccentric – I’m loving it. And every day is like this at the moment. There’s always something really bizarre happening. I definitely couldn’t have imagined being in Russia doing this, a year ago.”
Is there one favourite moment that really sticks out?
“There are so many. Opening up for Coldplay in Glasgow in front of 16,000 people was incredible – it was basically a homecoming for me, but I was coming back as a pop star. That was genuinely weird. And sitting at a piano with Alicia Keys, writing for her. That was a proper, ‘Woah, is this really happening?’ moment.”
Alicia Keys, of course, has sold over 30m albums. Is it really nerve-wracking to work with someone like that?
“Well, not anymore, because we’ve now done so much writing together. But definitely, when I first met her it was very daunting. She’s really chilled out and we have a pretty cool relationship. But I still have to remind myself that the 14 year-old me would never have believed this could have happened.”
What’s the biggest difference between writing songs for other people and writing them for yourself?
“That’s a hard one. If I’m in the room with them, you have to bring their feelings and emotions at that moment to the forefront of your mind, and try and help channel that. Whereas of course when I’m writing for me, it’s just what I’m going through. But having said all that, usually when I’m writing songs for other people they’re not in the room. And so then it is the same approach as it would be if it was a song for me – and at the end of the process I figure out who it would be a good song for.”
There must be a song you wish you’d saved for yourself, though?
“Ha! That genuinely hasn’t happened yet. And I think that’s because when you write something for someone else and then they sing it in their own way, it really starts to feel like it’s their baby rather than yours. You have to let it go, let it live.”
So was there a moment where you said to yourself, I don’t have to write for other people, I could do this myself?
“I can see how it might seem that way, but actually, it was much more gradual than that. I guess when I wrote Heaven I really did realise that this could be a really good introduction to me as a recording artist. But you do just have to get out there and do it, get chucked on stage and see if you sink or swim.”
The album isn’t just 12 versions of Heaven, though, what did you want to try and achieve with a debut album of your own?
“Well I guess I just wanted to try and take it back to how I wrote songs in the beginning. I had quite a classical training as a songwriter: I play piano, so it was important to make sure I got that across. But more than that, I wanted people to see every side of me as an artist, so it was important to have songs there where there could be a real connection with the lyric, rather than there just be throwaway pop. That was the main thing for me.”
How did it feel to win the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits?
“I was so excited. It meant so much in terms of my confidence because my album wasn’t out yet, and no matter how happy you are with a new record, there will always be doubts lurking somewhere. I’d spent so long behind the scenes writing for other people and featuring on other people’s records so it just felt so good to get the acknowledgement for me as an artist in my own right. And then the doubts come back a bit, because of course winning the Brit doesn’t predict anything – it’s not a surefire guarantee of success. At best, it’s a guess!”
Did it feel a bit like a victory against the odds then to finally get such acknowledgement?
“Well, yes. It was a long journey to get signed – once you get established as a songwriter it’s quite hard to get people to recognise you as an artist in your own right. It felt like a long battle to get people to see me and believe in my music. Lots of labels didn’t want to sign me. So it was great to prove people wrong in that sense.”
And now you’ve had some success, has it made you realise what some of your heroes, and some of the people you write for, have to do to maintain it?
“Oh yes. When I speak to Alicia Keys she gives me so much advice because she’s seen it all a hundred times. Things like making sure I have a day off, which seems simple but probably keep you sane. I’m even more impressed with Alicia now because I understand what goes into a career as a pop star.
Including playing live. Did playing with Coldplay help you work out what kind of live show you want to put on?
“What is really amazing is that they make it seem like they’re playing just for you, even though it’s actually a massive arena. It was a big learning curve for me because I was probably most worried about how I make some of my more intimate songs work for that many people. But watching Coldplay – not just the sheer energy of the performance but even the way they warm up beforehand – makes you realise that there are so many little things you need to think about if you want to get your live show right. I learnt so much from them – and in fact I’m touring America with them in the summer, so I must have done something right!”
Emeli Sande’s first album Our Version of Events is out now, check out www.emelisande.com