Emeli Sande going it alone to success
Emeli Sand� spent years penning songs for the likes of Alesha Dixon, Professor Green and Alicia Keys, before topping the charts with her own debut album and bagging a Brit. SIMON PARKIN founds out more.
With the Brits Critics Choice award tucked under her arm and a number debut album, 2012 is shaping up to be Emeli Sand�'s year.
It's been quite a journey for the 24 year-old Scot, who started out writing songs for the likes of Alesha Dixon, Professor Green, Cheryl Cole and Tinie Tempah, and collaborating with Chipmunk and Wiley, before enjoying a worldwide hit herself last year with the epic Heaven.
Smart, sussed, talented, utterly transfixing on stage, the singer-songwriter's sold-out European tour arrives in Norwich next week, with support from South London singer/songwriter Josh Osho.
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2012 has been quite a year for you so?
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.
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Is there one favourite moment that sticks out so far?
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.
What did you want to try and achieve with your debut album Our Version of Events?
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.
Heaven was a huge hit for you, an epic pop song with sweeping strings. How did that come about?
It just started as a late night conversation really. Naughty Boy, the producer I work with all the time, had a beat running in the background, I got the first line, and it started from there. I love how songs like that develop: before we knew it we were putting strings on with a synth, Naughty Boy suggested the Funky Drummer loop and it came together really organically.
A lot of people say it reminds them of Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy. Do you take that as a compliment?
Absolutely. I'm a big fan. I don't think the song is lyrically or melodically that similar, but because the Funky Drummer loop has been used so much and it has strings on people do make the connection. I don't mind though: the whole Bristol movement was really exciting, so I'm actually glad if people get the same vibe from the song.
For someone who has written both for yourself and other people, what's the key to writing a good song?
Simplicity. When I think back to stuff I was writing when I was 17, it was too complicated; there were too many words and parts. The key to a classic song is keeping the melody simple and the lyric effective. It's much, much easier said than done. But if you can get that right, then, well, you're there.
Looking back to your 17 year-old self penning these complex songs, it must have felt amazing 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.
Did it feel a bit like a victory against the odds?
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.
Did you have to change anything to get that record deal?
Well, I think I'm the same person as I was, and they're definitely the same songs. A lot of people didn't see the potential in them or perhaps me. I guess I had to become more confident. When you get knocked back so much you kind of learn to believe in yourself, stand up for yourself, because you can bet that nobody else is going to do it.
Does that mean that it feels odd to be still writing for other people?
You've been working on stuff for Sugababes, haven't you? Yes, but to be honest I haven't met them or anything. They've just taken some songs that I've written. So it's not like I'm bashing out stuff in the studio with them.
It's a strange scenario isn't it, being a songwriter-for-hire. Would you ever take on someone else's songs yourself?
Only if it was by someone I really, really respected. Otherwise I'd be like, let's see what I can do myself.
Who would make you change your mind?
Now you've put me on the spot! Who could it be? Maybe Tracey Chapman.
Has the success of Our Version Of Events made you excited about a second album. Surely having a chart-topping album gives you a certain amount of power to go in the direction you want?
I guess so, but to be honest, I haven't felt trapped or forced into things that I didn't want to do anyway. The second album I need to approach with the same spirit I think, if I want it to succeed. But that is a long, long way off. I have a lot to do for this record first.
n Emeli Sand� plays the UEA on April 4
n Our Version of Events is out now.
n Further listening: