Interview: Emeli Sandé

The ever composed Emeli Sandé speaks to Anna Burzlaff about song writing and women in pop

Maybe it was growing-up in a small Scottish town, maybe it was her family, or maybe it was the influence of artists like Nina Simone that drew Emeli Sandé’s connection to music so deep. Regardless of the cause, the effect has been astounding. Sandé’s debut album, Our Version of Events, has been a resounding success, and her performance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games not only cemented her position in Ireland and England, but catapulted her to a worldwide audience; if you’d never of Emeli Sandé before, things were about to change.

But this wasn’t a question of instantaneous success. Unlike the ceaseless stream of faux musicians Simon Cowell gives birth to at such an alarming rate it makes you question the validity of his humanity, Sandé worked long and hard for the place she is in now. The Scot was writing for the likes of Susan Boyle and Cheryl Cole long before her name struck any resonance in the public’s mind.

Working in a climate where her songs were wanted but her voice wasn’t was far from easy. “When I was trying to get signed as an artist it was really difficult because people wanted my songs but they didn’t want me to sing them, so that can really get you down,” she says.

So much for the notion of the hedonistic pop star, Sandé is so grounded it’s almost difficult to believe. Yet then again her source of influence is unusual, and arguably her upbringing, in a small Scottish town, played a role in her humility. “It definitely made music more important to me because I used it to create my own world, somewhere where I was normal because I could associate myself with any other musician, so it was very important for me to have music. I don’t know whether it influenced my lyrics or anything like that. It just made music so important to me and I just spent so many hours trying to create, and trying to create this new world for myself.”

Names such as Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf are more likely to be listed as a feminist academic’s inspirations as opposed to a pop star’s. However as is becoming clear, Sandé is no ordinary pop star. The term even seems somewhat incongruous when applied to her. In an industry which often displays more exposed midriffs than it does genuine talent, the need for figures like Sandé is there, and the artist herself is the first to acknowledge it: “I think that as far as we’ve come as a society, women still come second in a lot of industries. Having been in the medical industry and the music industry, women still don’t get to be strong and maintain their dignity even after so many of these powerful women have come. I just think it’s important that there is a lot of fun out there in the pop world, but you should also use that platform to encourage young people, especially young females, that this is a way you can be and it’s important to be educated and to be the best at what you’re doing.”

This argument is nothing new. There are constant debates within the media about the role of pop stars and their influence on an often impressionable young audience. However, avoiding any notions of didacticism, it’s refreshing to hear someone within the industry speaking about the topic in a balanced way. Sandé neither attacks the industry nor endorses it. Perhaps it’s her Scottish tone that makes her words seem so well-meaning. “There are two different sides to it. In some ways I think almost it is empowering in the way that women can get up there, say what they want, tell people what they’re going through, but at the same time it’s dangerous because young kids aren’t looking up to scientists or academics, they’re looking up to people they see on TV every day, so we definitely have a responsibility. But there are great people coming through, like Adele; you’re getting people recognised in song writing and real, proper musicianship. So it’s a balance, I just hope it can stay even and that we can have more women that have a strong message to give to kids.”

It would seem the doubts that wrapped Sandé on entering the industry has built a singer and songwriter that is incredibly humble. When a camera comes close to her during the interview she grows uncomfortable and she is quick to acknowledge that she’ll have to keep her hair the way it is for fear people may not recognise her: “I don’t think I can change my hair until at least the third album.” Yet, on the other hand Sandé is assertive. She doesn’t shy away from messages of female empowerment and seems steadfast in providing the world with a different kind of pop star.

Watching Sandé play to an intimate audience in a small lecture theatre as she accepts the James Joyce Award from the L&H, does resonate with her appraisal of the art form she holds so dear. Maybe it’s her song writing skills, maybe it’s her ability to translate emotion so well, or maybe it’s that rich tone to her voice, but as she plays to the crowd her description of what music meant to her as a child becomes quite clear. As she fondly puts it: “I felt like [music] was a magic power. You know, when you’re standing there you can just create something from nothing.”

Emeli Sandé’s debut album Our Version of Events is out now.