It’s been nearly five years since Scottish soul-pop singer Emeli Sandé released her debut album, Our Version of Events, but back in February 2012, the album’s breakout hit “Next To Me” made her a household name in the U.K. and beyond. Overwhelmed by the whirlwind success and fearing overexposure, Sandé decided to take a break from the limelight. That break turned into a three-year hiatus, which saw the recording artist connect with her Zambian roots, marry and then divorce her partner of 10 years, and embark on a journey of self discovery.
On Friday, Nov. 11, she’s back with her second offering, Long Live The Angels, crammed full of heartbreak, spirituality, and self-reflection, and a tour to support the collection is coming in the spring. Sandé sat down with EW to talk about singing for the Obamas, connecting with others through lyrics, and taking advice from Alicia Keys.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: During your time off was there a moment when you just felt like you had to get back in the studio?
EMILE SANDÉ: I was always in the studio. I was always writing, just hanging out. But there was definitely a moment when I thought, “I really have to focus now.” I was trying a lot of different production and just writing for the fun of it, but then I was like, “No, I need to really start thinking about what the album is.” Then we went to this farm out in Oxfordshire and that was when it all started to come together. We only had the instruments and we started making everything from scratch. I knew that was what I’d been waiting for: something organic.
You had a lot of success very quickly with the first album, but then you felt a little overexposed. How do you deal with that going forward with this album?
It’s great to have all these platforms, but it did get to a point where I knew I wanted to make music that’s me. I felt like I still had to catch up with myself song-wise because all that personal growth wasn’t being reflected in the music. Then I started working with a guy called Philip Lee. He’s just such a great guitarist and he’d write these riffs and suddenly the melody would just come. We’d spend just a little more time on it and the song was finished. It felt really natural with him.
It’s a very emotional album, dealing with heartache and loss, but there’s also something very cathartic about the listening experience; it seems like there’s a real sense of moving forward?
I was writing about real life, real emotions on this one. I have a much stronger sense of myself and I’m more confident in who I am now, so I’m glad that really came through in the music.
You’ve written for a lot of other big names in the music industry Alicia Keys, Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle. Is there one that you’re most proud of?
There’s a song I wrote with Alicia Keys called “101.” I just loved it. I loved the night we wrote it and I love listening to it now. It was just the keys and her voice. She gave me a lot of advice on the industry, music, and staying true to who you are. It’s not often you get to sit with an artist and build the song up. Often you just send the music over, so it was so nice to sit with her at a piano and totally write a song. We were just telling each other stories, like, “What did you do yesterday? What did you dream about?” And suddenly we had songs.
Another theme of album is spirituality, but not prescribed religion.
I love studying religions and I love learning about other people’s beliefs and faiths and there’s a common denominator in all things. This album reflects me growing up and having a more grown approach to what God might be, what the big creator is. I feel like I just broadened my understanding of it. So on the song “Sweet Architect,” the word “architect” just felt more natural to me to describe this great designer.
Your dad’s from Zambia and you had the opportunity to visit the country during your time off. How did that influence your writing or your approach to the music?
It was just life changing. I just grew up after that trip and really felt fulfilled. It definitely added to the conversation of what I wanted to say. Different influences from the trip are weaving in and out of the album. We went around Zambia just looking at injustice towards women and how music is powerful enough to change people’s thinking, and it did remind me of the power, responsibility and the platform musicians have.
Did anyone know of your success there? Had they heard your music before?
We went to a jazz bar and they played “Next To Me” and everyone was singing it and I was just like, “Wow, this is so cool.” My dad started playing some stuff and my cousins were like “Wait, a minute! That’s her!”
There’s a track on the album, “Tenderly,” that your dad’s on. Is he a musician too?
He took the school choir, but he didn’t play formally. He has a great ear for harmonies and he’s the one that introduced me to a lot of big singers when I was a kid. His whole family — the Zambian side — is so musical.
You’ve had some huge moments in your career so far; you preformed at the Olympics Opening Ceremony and for the Obamas. What’s been the highlight for you?
The Olympics was when I was like, “Whoa, s—, a lot of people know the words to my songs.” And performing for the Obamas was mental, and for Carole King. There’s been so many key moments where I’ve been like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.”
What songs are you most excited to perform from the new album on tour next year?
I love performing “Hurts” live every time because you have to get fully involved emotionally and go for those big notes at the end. I was so excited for “Garden” to come out, just to show people it because it’s quite different. They both just have a really different vibe and because they’re such honest songs, I’m not so much performing; it’s just me telling the story.