Emeli Sandé’s Musical Trilogy Is A Gift to Us All
By Charles Karel Bouley II
America, you probably don’t know Emeli Sandé, and you really should. At a time where many decry and denounce the music industry as filled with trite or fluff, she’s the real deal, a bonafide legend-in-the-making. She just completed her third hit album and tour, and at 32, she’s just getting started.
And she answers her own door.
“Hello, I’m Emeli, welcome!”
“She answered the door herself!” Funny the first thing you think about when you’re going to meet someone for the first time whose work you truly respect. In other words, when you’re a #FanBoy.
“Would you mind going around the side, I’ll meet you there, my traveling companion has allergies,” she quickly added as she signaled for us to meet her at the side fence.
Again, not only did she answer the door but was about to go around the side so we could enter without disturbing anyone, the “we” being myself, my crew of two (Brandon Riley Miller and Daniel Charleston) and most importantly my 13 pound wonder pup Ember (I’m her service human or vice versa). I had made everyone aware I had a service animal and apparently, word got through.
As we enter, Luca (a friend) is in the kitchen making cheesecake while another friend is outside enjoying the view of the Hollywood Hills from the hilltop AirBnB (worth $1.5 million, we would later Zillow it). There’s a keyboard in front of the sofa, situated near a grand fireplace. It’s warm, inviting, a friendly atmosphere from the get-go. It was like joining friends for a late morning. It just happened to be with Emeli Sandé, a multi-platinum international superstar now on her third album and at the finish of yet another sold-out live tour.
For American audiences, she’s the singer of that catchy song “Next To Me,” a single from her debut album “Our Version of Events” in 2012. The single would peak at #25 in America on the “Billboard Hot 100” but dominated at #1 elsewhere. It was actually the third single from that album in Europe, the first two being “Heaven” and “Daddy” in 2011 with the album following in 2012. The album is 8x Platinum in the UK, 3x Platinum in Ireland and Gold or Platinum in a multitude of other countries.
I discovered it in 2012 in Ireland, and fell in love. It’s been part of my job for almost 40 years to find new music, new artists, and my heart literally leapt with joy when I found Sandé. She is the stuff from which R&B legends are made.
As we sit by the enormous fireplace to begin our chat for my upcoming season of my show “Life in Segments” as well as the daily “Karel Cast” I realize how youthful Sandé truly is; something it’s easy to forget given the complexity of her lyrics and depth of her body of work. She was a mere 25 when her first major label album truly took off and now at only 32 has lived many musical lifetimes in a short period of time.
The media story would have you believe that she was happily studying to be a neuroscientist and then right before graduating, ran off to be a Pop star. And while that sounds great and has some fact to it, the real story is Emeli loved music from the beginning. In fact, as we begin, I remind her of a song she wrote at an early age, “Tomorrow Starts Now…”
“Oh my god! Wow, I wrote that at like six or seven,”she laughed. “I’m not sure why I never did anything with it, I should revisit it!”
But even at six, there’s a theme, about the future, about empowerment, and it wasn’t an accident.
“My dad always introduced me to very strong lyricists, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, so I always had this example of very serious lyrics,” she stated. “I think I took that on board from when I was quite young,” she added.
Born in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear to a Zambian father and English mother, Sandé grew up in a mixture of the UK and Scotland. Her parents went to Sunderland University, where she recently became a Chancellor herself.
“It’s amazing to be able to experience it all with your family. It’s one of the main reasons for doing it, really, to be able to do it with family,” she recalled. “I got the honor of being the Chancellor of Sunderland University, where my parents went, I was born in Sunderland and being able to hand over the degrees was such a beautiful moment,” she said beaming with a smile.
It was her parent’s relationship that inspired “Mountains” from her first album and I couldn’t help but ask how the rest came to be given the emotional maturity of the lyrics and depth of much of the content of the record and her, well, youth.
“I think when you are around people’s energies you take in what they’re going through and sometimes it gets processed as a song one way or another,” she began. “So some of ‘Our Version of Events’ was friend’s relationships, my relationships and certainly my parent’s, especially on ‘Mountains’ which is about a more mature connection,” she concluded.
The success of the first album immediately put Sandé in the musical fast lane. But there was an EP prior, “Adele Sandé,” and several singles. Adele is her first name, she decided against it for obvious reasons once the other Adele broke with “19.”
But soon after the first EP came a major label and a major deal. Was that whirlwind the catalyst for the ballad “Clown,” including the video imagery of men in uniforms instructing her to sign a deal and lyrics like “Paved the way for my crash landing, I’ve done it again, another number for your notes…?”
“That time was my first experience with having to do showcases for people and learning the whole infrastructure for sure,” Sandé added. “But on a deeper level it’s just, when you’re looking out there and for some reason you may feel that you’re the loser, or that the whole system has been designed for that to be your place…And in the song, I’ll have time for please, I’ll have time for the pleasantries you won’t need to upkeep once I realize how I can get from the back of the line…about getting to a new place.”
The new place she landed was, well, everywhere. With a hit album, multi-country tour, videos, guest appearances, that pace kept up for over 24 months, and as with any overwhelming experience, can take take time to process. So when did the whiplash hit Sandé?
“About two years later…when you are still working for the album because it has been successful, which is wonderful…But as an artist I love creating music more than anything so not being able to go back, recap, be in the studio creating new expressions that’s when I began to feel the whiplash,” she recalled.
The next album would be “Long Live The Angels” in 2016 with rhythmic singles like “Hurts” and a hint of things to come with the choir and “Breathing Underwater.” A second album, after a hit, is even harder than the first for many; the expectations from everyone, including yourself, can be unrealistic. What was it like once it was time to settle down and work on the new project?
“Life gets real and when you have tremendous success and everyone’s happy and everyone’s your best friend and then to slowly see that change to where it’s not…it’s like hmmm, this is how it is, this is the truth, I’m glad to see it even if it’s a sad truth,” she recalled. “But it’s the freedom to know the truth in that sense…my point being you just get to see everything for it’s realness and that’s what made me want to delve deeper lyrically and with my art and actually get to the real truth so I can stand on something solid.”
And Sandé found that being a singer, daughter, wife (she married her childhood sweetheart right after hitting it big in 2013, but divorced a year later), pop star each required a toll that could not be ignored.
“It’s very hard to juggle the job of wife, daughter, singer, pop star,” she stated. “It was a big lesson to learn that you can’t compartmentalize your life. At one point it’s all going to come down and be like a tornado. You can’t separate things and people. Unless I’m giving 100% I’m never going to be happy but when you divide so much of your time you find you’re only giving 20% because it’s physically all you have to give.”
“Long Live the Angels” did well, and was followed up in 2019 with “Real Life,” another step on a musical journey, a journey that has been woven between the songs of three albums different and unique, each a phase of discovery for the young artist and woman. The seven years since the release of the first album has seen her perform for Royalty at home, and for President’s in America (The Obama’s had Sandé sing at a Whitehouse event); she has topped the charts internationally and sold out large venues; and she has done small festivals, including GLBT Pride events, she has leant her music to political campaigns (the anthem-esque “You Are Not Alone” for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK) and even let her hair go more natural.
She has become Emeli Sandé. And she’s remembering to sing.
“I love sitting and playing the piano with just no intention of using it or recording it, just pure meditation. Singing…singing when you’re not doing it as a job is a lovely experience. I’m trying to do that more, just sing more openly. When you get paid to sing, you sing less. That’s my New Year’s Resolution ….to sing…I mean why do I not just sing in the house any more. That’s the whole point of singing!”
“Real Life” brought Sandé back home, and in some ways, feels like completion of the first three steps of her musical journey.
“Yes, this album was a way of re-grounding myself,” she reflected. “The whole process, the entire album was made at home, around family. Energy and your surroundings are so important. It was a grounding, it was a let’s rebuild from scratch if this is the beginning of a journey. Although to me I see ‘Real Life’ as kind of a closing of a chapter, closing of a trilogy. It’s quite a nice feeling closing the book. ‘Real Life’ does kind of feel like an ending to that trilogy (Our Version of Events, Long Live the Angels and Real Life),” she concluded.
But while Sandé may be musically moving on from the trilogy of her first three albums, the beauty of streaming is that discovering new music is just a click away. American audiences now have not one, not two, but three albums full of instant classics, contemporary R&B, Funk, old-school, new-school, ballads with heart, jams with soul, all from a young woman just starting to realize her musical power. It’s a ground-floor opportunity to catch up with a lot of the world and discover one of the greatest artists you may not yet have heard.
Sandé is one of the artists that gives the first adopters, the taste makers, the gays, the World/International music fans, those that find and trumpet music first, arrhythmias. She never disappoints, or at least hasn’t to date. “Sparrow” from her latest LP came right as the world was embracing the #MeToo movement, “You Are Not Alone” as the world seems to be fracturing apart, “I’m A Survivor” at a time when many feel hope for each other or the planet may be lost. All three of her albums take the modern-day human experience and make it relatable in song, all while trying to uplift and entertain.
That’s the stuff of superstars.
The interview ends, we sit and chat, laugh, check the home price on Zillow for fun, they taste the cheesecake and approve (I’m a vegan but it looked great) and Sandé herself shows me, my shemagh and dog (or keffiyeh and K9, scarf and dog) and crew out and we leave all alive with energy from a great chat, filled with conversation and joy…feeling just like after listening to one of her albums.
If you know her, then you can’t wait for a fourth album and beyond. If you don’t, you need to “binge listen” and fall madly in “Real Love.”
Charles Karel Bouley, aka Karel, is a history-making entertainer and host seen daily at youtube.com/reallykarel as well as at https://reallykarel.com There are four seasons of the Free Speech TV Show Karel: Life In Segments available at the website as well. The daily audio is available on all streaming services from Spotify to iTunes, Spreaker to Deezer, iHeart and more. There is a dedicated Karel.Media / Karel Cast app available at all app stores at at the website reallykarel.com Karel can be read at Thrive Global, Medium, Gay Entertainment Directory and more.