SUCCESS has come assuredly for Emeli Sandé. Following a ten-week run at No.1 with her debut album, Our Version Of Events, she performed at the London 2012 Olympics and had legends such as Madonna and Stevie Wonder singing her praises. Awards including an MBE and three Brits in two years rolled in.
But it all came at a price. By the age of 27, in 2014, the medical student turned singer-songwriter had a life that was unrecognisable. Her two-year marriage to marine biologist Adam Gouraguine had broken down and a reset was needed. The result is her new album Real Life, which she describes as a ‘life-changing journey of self-discovery’.
‘I feel an entirely different person,’ she explains in her soft Scottish lilt. ‘My divorce was a big shake-up – I was so busy working and had never taken the time to be alone. I was neglecting my relationship with myself and the people that loved me the most. I needed to deconstruct to reconstruct. Real Life is definitely a part of that rebuilding.’
Sandé says she loved being on stage but adds: ‘I was losing who I was by listening to too many external opinions. Now I spend time journalling and meditating because when you put yourself in front of the world, you need to know what you’re doing there and what you want to say.’
Born to a Zambian father and an English mother, Sandé and her younger sister Lucy were in the minority as black people growing up in Aberdeenshire. It wasn’t until they went to Zambia as a family in 2014 that she realised where her musicality came from.
‘Going to my family’s village, they’re so musical and soulful,’ she says. ‘Everything is deeper, richer and more potent. Music is woven into every part of their life. I think it was a bit weird to them that I make a living out of it!’
Inspired by her Zambian relatives, Sandé has softened her sharp blonde quiff into curls.
‘In London, I had a Jamaican hairdresser who had really short blonde hair, which I thought looked really cool,’ she explains. ‘Mine slowly developed into a similar style. But straightening it took a long time and damaged my hair so much, and the deeper I get in to my African heritage and culture, the more I want to embrace being my natural self and not use any chemicals on it.’
Writing with Alicia Keys has also inspired Sandé.
‘I loved how she helped herself and how kind and positive she was to the people who supported her,’ she says. ‘And also how realistic. You’re putting yourself out there so you can’t expect everything coming back to be good, and you can’t take things personally if some people don’t like you.’
Sandé hopes her new album will lift people up during these turbulent times.
‘If I can make someone feel just a little bit better, even if it’s for three minutes with You Are Not Alone so they don’t struggle alone…’ she says. ‘Life isn’t always perfect but without struggles there’s very little growth. We need to embrace all of that and seize the day.’
In the meantime, the singer-songwriter will be touring the UK from November. ‘I’m going to really enjoy performing this album live,’ she says. After that, will she be ready to love again? ‘I’m dating at the moment and hopefully the right person will fall right in to my path,’ she says. ‘I definitely want to keep my heart and mind open to new experiences.’
■ Real Life is out now (Virgin EMI). For tour details see emelisande.com