The former med student reflects on her stunning international success in the music business.
Singer-songwriter Emeli SandéOriginally aired on May 21, 2013
Tavis: To say things are heating up for British-born singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé would be an understatement. For the past two years she’s been dominating the British and European charts, outselling Adele, in fact, last year. Her latest CD, “Our Version of Events,” is now taking off here in the States. Let’s take a look at Emeli singing “Next to Me” from that project.
Tavis: I’m curious about this last name first. Tell me about your last name.
Emeli Sandé: Sandé.
Sandé: Yeah, it’s my father’s name, he’s from Zambia.
Tavis: Oh, that’s it.
Sandé: Yeah, that’s where it’s from.
Tavis: Yeah. You grew up in -
Tavis: – in Scotland.
Tavis: And that was like what?
Sandé: It was – we felt – I felt like an outsider. We were the only mixed-race family in the village, and it was big news when my dad moved to the town. It was actually in the local paper, African teacher coming to the town. (Laughter)
Tavis: Are you serious?
Sandé: Yeah. It was in the paper.
Tavis: That made the news, that you moved to town.
Sandé: Yes. Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) Black man comes to town – beware.
Sandé: He was very popular, and everyone embraced us. But I couldn’t help but feel very different from everybody, so I think that’s why I found such a big world in music, and that’s why I kind of – I was an introvert as a kid, but I loved the piano, and that’s where I felt at home.
Tavis: Right. So that’s where you went to for solace and to sort of get away.
Sandé: Yes. Yeah, I was very quiet until I got at the piano, and weekends, lunch breaks, after school, before school, I was just making music.
Tavis: When I read – first of all, I heard your voice first and then I read who, like, one of your major influences were, and I said, “Okay, now I see why I like her so much.” Nina Simone does not get the love or the respect that she deserves.
Sandé: Oh, man.
Tavis: But I’m told she’s like this for you.
Sandé: She is. She gets the love and respect from me. She, my dad introduced me to Nina Simone when I was about eight.
Sandé: He played me a song called “The King of Love is Dead,” and it just changed my life. It changed my life hearing that song and the way she played. I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman, I didn’t know where she was from, but it just, I don’t know, it just brought me alive.
I thought she was amazing, and since then I’ve really kind of aspired to her artistry.
Tavis: What is it about her voice or about her artistry that – I’ll move beyond this in a second, but I’m curious as to what it is about her that works, that so moves you as an artist.
Sandé: Well for me, up until then I’d loved the big vocalists, and she was the first artist that came along that was all about the tone and was all about the subtlety of how she delivered one word and suddenly, lyric became very important.
So for me it was that, it was just that subtle, those subtle changes and the poetry. It was the poetry of everything that really moved me.
Tavis: So tell me – I’m always fascinated, particularly these days, because so much of what we hear is like retrograde, so much of what we hear sounds the same.
Tavis: So you hear one artist and if you want to be a success then you want to sound like the artist who’s already a success, and it’s a very difficult thing, it seems to me, for people to have their own song styling, their own sound.
Tavis: You’re an original. You’re not a copy, you are an original.
Sandé: Thank you.
Tavis: I’m wondering how that happened for you and how important it was for you to be that, because I suspect with a voice as big as yours you could have sounded like somebody else.
Tavis: But tell me about this journey, to the extent that I’m right about this, of yours to be an original.
Sandé: Well, from when I was a kid I wanted to write. It was so important to me that I was writing my own material, and I think it was – like I said, I was so shy and so quiet, and the only time I had my own voice and I could really connect with people was when I was singing or on stage.
So it was always a very unique voice for me. If I was singing like somebody else, then it was almost like I was expressing myself like somebody else. So it was always a very original thing for me. It’s my voice, it’s my diary, it’s the way I connect with people.
So it was kind of I wasn’t intentionally trying to create my own path or be original, it was just I needed to say certain things and I needed to express myself, and that’s how it came out.
Tavis: Tell me about the songwriting. The voice is obvious and that’s clear, and there are a lot of people who have great voices. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to be a great songwriter. Tell me about the songwriting journey for you.
Sandé: Well, songwriting is my main thing. I know that I’ll do that for the rest of my life. Singing, I don’t know when I’ll, when my voice will run out.
Tavis: You consider yourself first and foremost a songwriter?
Sandé: Yeah, absolutely.
Sandé: I was a songwriter before an artist, and writing for me, I love – I was inspired by people like Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Stevie and “Storytellers.” People that could really change the world with their lyric, no matter who sung the song, they had still been the source of that message. So that’s what I really aim for.
Tavis: When you mentioned people who could change the world with their storytelling, obviously storytelling works, narrative works. Here again, everything doesn’t have to be socially redemptive. So why the call for you to use your lyrical content at some point, in some way, to change the world?
Sandé: Well, I don’t know if I was as ambitious as to change the world, but I do feel like – the reason why I called the album “Our Version of Events” was that I feel a lot of people are not represented in pop music and popular culture.
I wanted to find a way to speak for people. It was important for me, because so many people spoke for me when I was a kid and made me feel less invisible, and I wanted kids or whoever is listening to my music not to feel so voiceless.
Tavis: Who do you think – you went there, so I’ve got to follow you in, Emeli – who do you think is not represented or underrepresented in music that you are speaking for, or to, at the very least?
Sandé: I don’t know if there’s a specific group of people, but people that come to my shows are definitely people that feel outsiders. They feel like I don’t feel sexy, I don’t feel like – I can’t go out every night on Friday and I can’t connect to that, and I feel so much pressure to do that.
So I feel like there’s heaps of people from so many different ages. You meet seven-year-old kids that have been through crazy childhoods that have somehow connected to these lyrics.
You meet – I get letters from 70-year-olds talking about how “Next to Me” reminds them of their husband. For me, keeping that lyric as open to people as possible is such a – it’s a gift for me and it feels amazing that people have really connected in that way.
Tavis: Have you figured out, at least for yourself, what it is about that lyrical content, what it is about your songwriting style that allows a song to work for a seven-year-old as much or as well as a 70-year-old?
Sandé: Right. To me, I don’t know – when I write songs that come very quickly and my ego is completely removed from the process, those are the songs that really seem to resonate with people because it really isn’t about me.
It’s not about me trying to get on the charts or anything like that, it’s just about some – I don’t know where these songs come from, but I definitely feel it’s a very spiritual process. I think people connect to that and people are innately spiritual.
Tavis: Yeah. I started this conversation off and everybody’s saying the same thing these days about you – that is that you are blowing up here now on the charts like you’ve been in Europe for quite some time now. How are you processing the fact that it’s happening for you now in the States?
Sandé: Well, I’ve come over here with the mind-set that we’re starting from the very beginning, so for me it’s exciting. Every little tiny thing that happens, I just get so excited about it, and it’s so important for me to come over here and be able to share my music and be an artist that can connect worldwide. So I’m very, very excited.
Tavis: Because we’re on the inside and you have been on the outside, I’m curious as to your take about what, if anything, you find different about the process or the process, as you would say (laughter) – I love that accent – what do you find different about the process of becoming a hit maker in our country versus someplace else in the world?
Sandé: Well, the scale. The scale is almost, for Europeans it’s (unintelligible). It’s massive.
Tavis: Is it harder, is it -
Sandé: It’s harder in some ways, just thinking about how many different places you need to go. Sometimes you feel like a very small drop in this huge ocean. But then in another sense is people, I really noticed that there’s a real attention to melody over here, and there’s such a history of soul music that goes back and back and back, and gospel music. So for me in that sense, connecting on that level is easier.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I was going to ask you about that, because you’re right about the first part of your statement, which is that there is a history in this country of melody.
But melody is – you used a wonderful word earlier about people being rendered invisible. Melody is becoming more and more invisible in this country. I think part of what people are connecting to is real music, and that your stuff does have a melody. So tell me about how important melody is for you. Obviously, it is.
Sandé: Yeah. Melody is the first thing that comes to me when I’m songwriting. I learned piano classically first, and then I went into soul, and so melody has always been the first. It’s so important.
Especially when we go to different countries in Europe where people don’t speak English as their first language, they’re connecting to the melody somehow, and that can be more powerful than anything you’re trying to say.
Tavis: I’ve asked this question of any number of artists over the years who have been trained classically, to your point, first, and then discovered whatever else they were doing, whether it’s jazz or R&B, pop.
Tavis: For you, the value and the benefit of having been trained on piano classically first?
Sandé: I think it is melody. It’s appreciation and attention to detail of phrasing and those sorts of things, and studying the greats, studying people that have made music that has lasted three, 400 years. That is, that’s ultimate pop. That is music that isn’t going away.
I think having that standard set for you at such a young age can only make you aspire to want to really grasp that.
Tavis: Is your father still living?
Tavis: He is.
Tavis: So he made news by going to the village, (laughter) and you’re making news around the world. I’m just curious, what’s Daddy saying, what’s Papi saying about all of this success?
Sandé: I mean, he’s very happy. He’s a proud African man, so when he gets emotional, it’s a big deal. He’s very proud, and he’s just, he’s very happy, and he’s happy that he’s been such a massive part of the journey, and as am I.
Tavis: And we’re all the better for it. Congratulations on the success.
Sandé: Thank you.
Tavis: Your first time on our program, but I pray not your last.
Sandé: Thank you.
Tavis: Emeli Sandé is the name. The project is called “Our Version of Events.” You’ll want to add this, and remember the name; you’re going to be hearing it and saying it a lot into the future. Emeli, good to have you here.
Sandé: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thank you for joining us. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.