Emeli Sandé is proof that soul is on its way back to the forefront of pop music. Last week, the 25-year-old Scottish songwriter received both Album of the Year and Best British Female at the 2013 Brit Awards. Her debut album Our Version of Events sold the most units in the U.K. in 2012 with around 1.4 million copies. Sandé initially rose to prominence from her work with other musicians, including British rappers Chipmunk and Wiley.
Sandé also wrote songs for the likes of Rihanna, Leona Lewis, and Cheryl Cole before signing with EMI in 2010. The release of her debut single "Heaven" in 2011 increased buzz surrounding the 25-year-old singer, and three subsequent releases became No. 1 singles in the U.K. As the singer broke out across the pond, she began permeating American airwaves and has since caught the attention of critics and artists alike. A remix of her No. 1 hit "Next to Me" features Kendrick Lamar and has brought Sandé even more attention in the hip-hop world.
For an artist that's been writing songs for around 13 years, the recognition that her debut album has earned is well-deserved. Complex caught up with Emeli prior to her recent performance at the Key Club in Los Angeles as part of ChapStick Sessions. She talked about bringing her music to the US, promoting her music on social media platforms, and which rappers she wants to work with in the future.
Interview by Caitlin White (@harmonicait)
You're a few minutes away from a huge performance in L.A.
Tonight is ChapStick Sessions [at The Key Club] and they’re supporting new artists and showcasing people so I’m very excited to have the opportunity to present my music to as many people as possible.
The Internet gives artists an entirely new way to get support and promote their music. ChapStick Sessions is an example of that. How do you feel about the opportunities presented via social media?
I’m kind of split. As a new artist, it’s wonderful to use the internet and you can reach so many people that you couldn’t reach before. Also, labels have to listen to new artists [more] because you can’t ignore the fan base and what people want, which I love. But on the other hand I do think it makes our attention span so small now. We listen to a little bit, nobody sits and listens to a full album anymore which I miss.
I’ve had time to develop and understand myself as an artist in the UK so I come over here knowing who I am.
As a UK-based artist, what are some of the challenges you face with bringing your music overseas?
For me, it’s a big challenge because not only do you bring your music over here, but [it requires] an understanding of the culture, the people, how the radio works and how you do things because it’s very different from the UK. That part is challenging but I definitely feel that I’ve had time to develop and understand myself as an artist in the UK so I come over here knowing who I am. In that sense, I think it’s a great thing.
In the last year, you dropped your debut album and performed at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics, among other things. What was the reaction to Our Version of Events?
I was blown away, especially back home because you put something out—music that I love—and you never know how the public will react to it. For me, it was definitely a breakthrough album to introduce myself as an artist and to establish myself back at home.
What is your favorite aspect of the debut album?
I’m most proud that I got to say what I wanted. I think for anyone releasing a debut album, there is a lot of pressure from the label and people around you on how you should breakout. I got to say exactly what I wanted to say and be truthful and honest. I’m proud that I really stood my ground and was able to create something that was true.
I’m most proud that I got to say what I wanted. I think for anyone releasing a debut album, there is a lot of pressure from the label and people around you on how you should breakout. I got to say exactly what I wanted to say and be truthful and honest.
Who influenced you, musically, throughout your life?
I loved Nina Simone growing up, she inspired me. Joni Mitchell, Donny Hathaway, Lauryn Hill—all of these people inspired me growing up.
You've also been on tour a lot. Have you been enjoying that?
I’m finding it really exciting. On tour, we went to so many cities that I’ve never been to before so for me, it’s going somewhere new and feeling a different vibe. You can feel it's going to be different from the last experience. I’ve loved it, I’ve loved coming back [to the U.S.]. The last time I was here it was just a small acoustic session and this time people are singing the words back to you from bigger crowds. It’s just nice to see that progression.
What's been your favorite city on tour, so far?
I loved New York because it felt like New York was the first place I started to showcase my stuff. Portland was great, they were just so live and everyone was really hyper and into it.
What's the next step for you, musically?
When I write for someone else, it’s a more subjective process. You want the song to have emotion and you want to be involved in it but you’re thinking about what they want to say and how to help them say that. I see it more as assisting. But when it’s your own music and your own message that you want to put out, it’s definitely more emotional and more spontaneous.
The next step is for me to make something that is even better than the first album. The biggest challenge is creating something that I feel like I've progressed as a writer and a musician on. There are more tours coming up back home but for me the next step is solidifying [the success]—because you know you can breakthrough but then you need to follow up with something that people will love again and that establishes you as a real artist.
What do you think it will take for you to realize you've achieved the next level of success?
A Grammy would be amazing. I went to the Grammys this year, that was amazing.
What was that experience like?
Just seeing something on a scale that big was really mindblowing. Being involved in that whole energy in Los Angeles was amazing. I got to sing at the Clive Davis Pre-Grammy party which was incredible. That was definitely a feeling of where I want to take it next level, I really want to be more involved next year.
As a new artist, did you meet anyone where you felt starstruck that night?
I got to meet Joni Mitchell which was incredible. It was crazy, she was like, “I heard you on the radio.” That was the real thing, that was my highlight.
While you're a new solo artist, you've been in the industry for a while. You've done a lot of writing for other artists, too. For you, what is the difference in experience writing a track for someone else and one for yourself?
When I write for someone else, it’s a more subjective process. You want the song to have emotion and you want to be involved in it but you’re thinking about what they want to say and how to help them say that. I see it more as assisting. But when it’s your own music and your own message that you want to put out, it’s definitely more emotional and more spontaneous. Those are the different experiences I've have.
Now that you have success on your own, who would you love to collaborate with?
I would love to work with Lauryn Hill. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was 13 and working with her would be very cool. I love Kanye West as well, I would love to work with him once I reach the next level.