The most personal works of art are often the ones that, paradoxically, strike a profoundly universal chord. This quality is a common thread in the creations of Emeli Sandé's favorite artists: figures like painter Frida Kahlo, musicians Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Lauryn Hill, poet Sylvia Plath and author writer Virginia Woolf. With her debut album - Our Version of Events, which was the biggest-selling album of 2012 in the U.K. - her kinship with these artists is clear. Drawn from the depths of her psyche, Sandé's songs have connected on a primal level with audiences around the globe.
"I wanted to do something that spoke for people who might not have a voice on the radio. I wanted to give them a platform," the singer-songwriter recently explained to a journalist. As an immigrant - her Zambian father and English mother moved the family to Scotland when Emeli was a young child - Sandé knows what it's like to be different.
The choices she's made in her career have also set her apart. After her kid sister filmed Emeli performing an original song at a piano in their rural Scottish home, Sandé sent the clip to a BBC talent contest. The teen was named one of the contest winners and offers from record companies started pouring in. But instead of signing to a label, she put her music career on hold and embarked on a six-year degree in medicine. Studying at Glasgow University, Sandé specialized in clinical neuroscience - "'cause I really like all the brain stuff," she says.
As evidenced on Our Version of Events, Sandé holds a deep affinity for all the heart stuff and soul stuff as well. Our Version of Events is warm, wise, frank, funny, thoughtful and as inimitable as Sandé's vertical shock of blond hair and the Frida Kahlo tattoo that takes up most of her right arm. She's clearly made an impression, as demonstrated by the outpouring of awards (a BRIT "Critics Choice," a Q and three MOBOs, to name a few), accolades from the press and admiration from other artists.
People hailed Our Version Of Events as one of the year's best debuts and the Associated Press called it "stunning." "Ms. Sandé has a perspective-altering voice, clear and brassy and weapons-grade," said The New York Times while The Times of London observed that she "combines Winehouse sass and Nina Simone purr."
Sandé was the only artist to perform at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London She's toured with Coldplay and Alicia Keys. The latter was so impressed that she co-wrote and produced the track "Hope" on Our Version of Events and penned three songs with Sandé for her own album, Girl on Fire. Other early admirers include JAY Z, Rihanna (who included a new Sandé composition as a bonus track on her latest album) and Adele, who tweeted "How incredible is she?" after watching Emeli perform on television.
Between her own videos (including "Next To Me," "Heaven" and "Daddy") and collaborations on tracks/videos such as Pro Green's "Read All About It" and Labrinth's "Beneath Your Beautiful," Sandé has surpassed 75 million views on VEVO. The video channels have embraced her and she's also appeared on such shows as "TODAY," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Conan," "Rachael Ray," "Live! With Kelly" and "106 & Park."
Throughout Our Version of Events, Sandé creates a heady and complex soundscape, from the strings-drenched epic "Daddy" ("about addiction, to anything," says Sandé) to the hypnotic "Heaven" (early-'90s drum-and-bass topped off by that glorious, soul-stirring voice). While the record bears a sharp and shining retro-futurist feel, it's also rife with raw emotion-a phenomenon that Sandé credits to a dogged commitment to acting on instinct.
"Anytime I write something that's trying to be too smart, it doesn't work," she confesses. "Any song I have to work on longer than a day, I just leave it. It's not gonna work. Everything that's good is really instant."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that those instincts have been honed by over a decade of songwriting experience. Sandé's parents helped refine her musical knowledge and supported her musical ambitions from the start. By age eight, her talents were attracting attention, both good and bad: Sandé and her classmates wrote a song for a school talent show - for which Sandé's friends ended up stealing all her ideas. "I thought, 'Well, if it's worth stealing then it might be all right," she recalls with a laugh. "That was the first time I thought I might be a songwriter. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and I always knew I wanted to write, 'cause the people I was listening to all wrote. I never thought it was an option to sing anyone else's songs."
At age 11, full of pre-adolescent fire, Sandé wrote her first real song with a proper structure. "It even had a middle eight!" she remembers proudly. "It was called something like 'Tomorrow Starts Again.' All my songs were about world peace and all these political issues. I had a lot of fun with all that." Over the next few years, word began to spread about this precociously gifted teenager from the middle of nowhere and her big-but-intimate voice. In addition to nabbing the ears of UK radio stations, Sandé was invited to perform at MTV's Camden studio. Then came her triumph at the BBC competition and the resulting record-deal offers.
"Doing the rounds of labels, I just didn't like it," says Sandé. "I just thought, I'd rather be a bit more in control than this. It was hard at the time because it was so tempting. But I got accepted into medicine at Glasgow University. It would have been too much of a risk to say no to medicine then go down to London and just be another singer."
After relocating to Scotland's biggest city and its buzzing music scene, Sandé began supplementing her student budget by playing piano and jazz standards in hotels. Still, she struggled to keep up with songwriting while studying. "My head was full of facts and exams," she recalls. "I found it really hard to experience anything to write about other than sitting in the library. My writing speeded up, though, as soon as I started going down to London and meeting producers there. Before, it was just me and a piano so the sounds I could make were quite limited."
Meanwhile, Sandé's mother sent a CD of her songs to the BBC's Radio 1Xtra. After a DJ played Sandé's songs, she played a showcase in Soho that resulted in her teaming up with producer/writer Shahid Khan (aka Naughty Boy). Khan and Sandé immediately clicked as writing partners. "When we started together, it took the music to something completely original," she says. "It took me out of my jazz piano niche, and it took him out of his urban scene. Then we started writing for pop people."
One of their first compositions, "Diamond Rings," was quickly snatched up by rapper Chipmunk. The track, featuring guest vocals by Sandé, became Chipmunk's first Top 10 single in the summer of 2009. By the following March, Sandé had decided to take time out from her medical studies and signed to Virgin Records in the U.K. After writing a slew of songs for acts like Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Cheryl Cole, Sandé set to work on her debut record.
Taking a cue from Joni Mitchell and her other songwriting idols, Sandé achieves an irresistible contemporary-yet-timeless quality on Our Version of Events. "I can still relate to a Joni song, even though it's 25 years old-that's the main and important thing to me," she says. "I'm not too bothered about what category my music goes in and there's no point in limiting who you can reach, but I want it to be respected," she adds. As such, Sandé has firmly stood by her long-nurtured musical instincts and crafted brilliantly genre-warping songs that first and foremost speak to her own sensibilities. "You get so many opinions of which direction you should be going in, and you hear horror stories of people writing 400 songs and the album being shelved," she says. In Sandé's estimation, it's far better to "come knowing what you wanna do. And I know what I want to do."