Emeli Sande has topped 4½ million album sales and written songs for Rihanna, Alicia Key and Katy Perry. The Scottish singer recently released the long-awaited follow-up to her debut album Our Version of Events, which was Britain’s biggest-selling album of 2012, beating Adele’s 21. Sande, 30, talks to me about fame’s highs and lows, why she doesn’t use her first name, and the best advice she received from Alicia Keys.
What are you doing in Australia?
I am promoting my music and it’s my first time here.
What was your first break in the music industry?
I started as a writer, so I feel like that is how I got my foot in the door, but my big break as an artist, I featured in a song called Diamond Rings with [British rapper] Chipmunk – that was my first top 10. And then when I released a song called Heaven – that was my first ‘OK, I’m here by myself’. So when Heaven came out, I felt like I got rolling.
Have you always wanted to be an entertainer?
Yes – since I was a kid I used to listen to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Nina Simone. I just always knew I wanted to be a singer. I studied medicine. I would have loved to have done that as well, but music was always my big passion and my one big dream.
Do you prefer writing or performing?
I think you have to have an equal balance because sometimes you’ve been in the studio so long with the same people and you’re over-thinking a lot of things – but equally, I love them both.
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
I try and just get everyone to chill out because we rehearse so much and then people can get a little bit nervous before going on stage, so we just try to chill. I like incense; we have a little prayer before going on stage, just try to get in the zone.
You are based in London. What is a typical day for you there?
Well, I have a studio in my basement, so usually I wake up, listen to what we did last night. I don’t know, but I live in Shoreditch, which has a lot of bars, restaurants. So yes, I’ll hang out there and make music most of the days.
What was your childhood like, growing up in Scotland?
Quite quiet and very peaceful. I could spend time focusing on school and music because it wasn’t a big city to distract you from anything. So looking back, I think I did take it for granted how beautiful the scenery was and how beautiful the whole thing was. But then, as you get older, you start to realise you are pretty lucky.
What has been the biggest change in your life since finding fame?
Travel. So far we have been in Uganda, Los Angeles, and now we are here, and that is just this year. So I feel so lucky I can see different cultures and people. That is the biggest change.
What is the best and the worst thing about being famous?
The best thing is hearing stories about what the songs have meant to people. It is always just a great reminder to keep doing what you’re doing. And the worst thing is, I usually look really scruffy and a bit, like, downtrodden, so when people recognise me, some people are like, ‘You look so much like Emeli Sande’, and I’m like, ‘I am her!’ [laughs].
Is it true you decided against using your real name Adele Sande, due to Adele’s growing success?
Yes, I didn’t have to but I did feel like I wanted my own name, and she was really like big then even … My grandmother’s name is Emily, so I kind of feel like I am representing that. She is the original Emily Sande in Zambia, and now I get to spread it a bit further.
Have you got used to people calling you Emeli?
Yes, my mum and my sister still, and everyone that knew me before, call me Adele, but I kind of feel like it helps me get into entertainer, work mode.
You have collaborated with amazing singers and producers; who have you enjoyed working with the most?
Naughty Boy, I love working with him. Labrinth was amazing when we did Beneath Your Beautiful. Alicia Keys, I have been a fan of hers since I was about 13. So I went to New York to work on her album a few years ago and it was so surreal, like we were on this rooftop and she was showing me her whole life in New York.
Who is on your bucket list to collaborate with?
I would love to write a song for, and even perform with, Beyonce. I would love to work with Kanye West.
What has been your biggest career highlight so far?
There is a songwriting award in the UK called Ivor Novello. When I was growing up, I was like: that is an award I really want to get and work for. So when I got that for Clown and Next To Me, that felt like a really good achievement. Singing for the [London] Olympics was amazing.
What was that like?
Pretty nerve-racking, but it just felt so amazing to be part of something so poignant, and it was such a big thing to be a British culture representative in that way – kind of an honest reflection of London and Britain. It was a really important moment that I’m proud of.
What has been your biggest pinch-me moment?
Performing in front of the Obamas and Carole King – they were literally sitting there and I was singing an Aretha Franklin song with some of Aretha Franklin’s original band. So it was always, like, pretty mind-blowing.
Do you plan to come back to Australia?
Yes, if this trip goes well and everyone likes the performance I would love to come back.
What has been the best advice you have been given?
Once, a couple of years ago, I rang up Alicia Keys – she has kind of become like a mentor to me, like a big sister that I could call and ask questions. She said, ‘Emeli, I’m going to tell you something Oprah Winfrey told me … Oprah said, ‘I had spent my whole life searching for something and finding it in me’ and at the time I was like, ‘OK, hopefully I will understand what that means’ … Unless you take time to really work on yourself and build your own self-confidence and self-love, then you are kind of always going round in circles. I feel I fully understand it now.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I have a couple more albums and hopefully have some kids. I hope I would have spread my music around the world. I would love to have it as far and wide a
WE WENT TO Din Tai Fung, World Square
WE ATE Pork Dumpling / Xiao Long Bao; Vegetable and Pork Jiao Ze; Vegetarian Jiao Ze; Crab Meat and Roe with Pork Dumpling
WE DRANK Lychee Mint Freeze
Photography by Edwina Pickles