Her debut album was just released this month but the Scottish-born singer Emeli Sandé has spent most of her 23 years preparing for the moment. There’s been a lot of behind the scenes action while she bided her time, waiting for the spotlight to turn on her. She co-wrote songs for Leona Lewis, Cheryl Cole and Tinie Tempah that have been the staples of daytime radio airplay in the UK. She has appeared on X-Factor (prompting Simon Cowell to call her his favourite songwriter) and is responsible for the hooks in Chipmunk’s ‘Diamond Rings’, Wiley’s ‘Never Be Your Woman’ and Professor Green’s ‘Read All About It’.
The long climb to becoming a pop hitmaker started with Sandé writing songs when she was just seven, showing off and singing for family and friends – as any enthusiastic pop kid wannabe would. Her Zambian father never had any formal musical training but taught the school choir and “had a good ear.” Early influences informed her style as a singer today, particularly Nina Simone (“She was a big reason why I wanted to learn the piano and be a songwriter”), Joni Mitchell and Mariah Carey (“Strong and feminine”).
At 16, she moved from her hometown of Aberdeen to Glasgow to pursue her music dream and from entering competitions in London she got noticed by the music industry. “I’d had a a bit of interest from labels but they didn’t know what to do with my music,” Sandé explains. “They were like ‘it’s a girl playing piano…’”. So she decided to do the sensible thing and start a career in medicine for stability and keep the music going at the same time.
But music pulled her back in. Sandé met producer Naughty Boy at a show in London and they formed a songwriting partnership. “We have a really good chemistry working together,” she says. That relationship formed the base of her debut album Our Version of Events. Before that, Sandé honed her craft writing songs for established acts with Naughty Boy. “One of the first things we wrote was ‘Diamond Rings’ for Chipmunk,” she says. “Then through word of mouth and being published I ended up writing for others.”
The list of her songwriting credits is a who’s who of UK urban pop acts. Tinie Tempah, Wiley, Cheryl Cole, Leona Lewis, Alesha Dixon, Devlin, Chipmunk, Professor Green, Susan Boyle and possibly the reformed Sugababes next.
“The main thing we like to do is write a whole bunch of great songs and say to others, ‘OK this is our collection, come and hear them if you want them. That’s the way I like to do it. I would hate if someone came to me and said, ‘OK it has to be like this, she needs this etc’. Then it would be a manufactured contrived song. I’d prefer to write a great song and if they like it then they like it.”
“But then writing for Susan Boyle, we were asked specifically to write for that album and to tailor it towards something she would sing. It depends on who we’re working for.”
She cites Susan Boyle’s ‘This Will Be Our Year’ as one of her favourite songs she’s written as a songwriter for hire. She’s also had the opportunity to work with Alicia Keys, who is one of her musical heroes. Sandé supported her at a gig in London and they kept in touch via email. When Keys invited her to New York to write with her, was Sandé nervous?
“I tried not to think about how big and how successful she has been,” she recounts. “I thought I’d just meet her as a person. We were on a level. We both play piano and operate in the same mindspace so it worked really out cool and natural.”
With all that co-writing going on, how did she ensure that her own voice can be heard on Our Version of Events?
“I keep the writing process very private. I’ll only write with people that I trust and I know. If I’m working with Naughty Boy, that’ll be the song, no one can change the lyrics. Then we give it to producers we trust. I think the writing is the main point and to be left alone to do it.”
She has a Frida Kahlo tattoo on her arm that gives an indication to how she operates and sees herself in the context of her solo material. “Her art is so striking and honest and that’s how I approach my music,” Sandé says. “The same with Nina Simone, all her flaws were there for her to see. That’s why people relate to artists. Plus, they were all self-portraits so it was her honesty.”
From open-mic nights in Glasgow, to supporting Coldplay in arenas, to writing songs for some of the world’s biggest singers, Sandé has the makings of a proper career in music now so it’s safe to assume she’s not going back to medicine. Being a sensible gal though, she’s left the option open. “I did a Bachelor of Science as it was shorter. I have 18 months left but I can go back if I need to.”
Our Version Of Events is out now on EMI. We have copies of the album to giveaway. Send us an email with your name and address at firstname.lastname@example.org before February 23rd to be in with a chance to win a copy.