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Her Own Musical Blend: Emeli Sande Writes For Herself

Jun 3, 2012
Originally published on June 3, 2012 9:37 am

Emeli Sande is already a star across the pond. Her debut album topped the charts in the UK this year. Her songwriting prowess has won wide acclaim and with her BRIT Critics' Choice Award, she joins the company of artists including Adele and Florence and the Machine.

Now it's time for another coming-out party of sorts. Sande is bringing her unique mix of pop ballads, soulful belting and dance arrangements to North America for a new tour. Her album, Our Version of Events, is out in the U.S. this week.

While Sande has become a performer in her own right, she came to that through writing songs for other people.

"I began writing when I was about 6 or 7. And even at that age, I just thought it was so incredible that you could create something from nothing, and it was all in your mind and imagination," she tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin. "The combination of poetry and music I just thought was incredible."

Her fallback plan should the music begins to fade? Neuroscience. She says she's always been fascinated by the brain, and Sande was even in medical school before switching to a career in music.

"I would love to go back and use the degree in some way," she says, "but within the music industry, you have a window, and you kind of have to seize the day when it comes."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Emeli Sande is already a star across the pond. Her debut album topped the charts in the U.K. this year. Her songwriting prowess has won wide acclaim and she took home the BRIT Critics' Choice Award, joining the company of artists including Adele and Florence and the Machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now it's time for another coming-out party of sorts. Sande is bringing her unique mix of pop ballads, soulful belting and dance arrangements to North America for a new tour. Her album, "Our Version of Events," is out in the U.S. this week. Emeli Sande joins us now from the studios of KALW in San Francisco. Emeli, welcome to the program.

EMELI SANDE: Thank you very much. Hello.

MARTIN: Before this solo album, I mean, you had a hand, or a voice rather, in a lot of different projects. You did guest vocals on a number of albums and wrote songs for artists like Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle even.

SANDE: Yes.

MARTIN: And then your released your big hit single called "Heaven." Let's hear a little bit of that right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF "HEAVEN")

MARTIN: I mean, you have such a strong voice it's hard to imagine that you weren't always writing for yourself.

SANDE: From when I was a kid, I always had the ambition of being a musician and an artist in my own right, but, you know, I grew up listening to people like Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman who were just such incredible artists and they were in control of everything, their whole artistry. So somewhere I think, for me, was a big ambition of mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: When did you start writing songs?

SANDE: I began writing when I was about 6 or 7. And even at that age, I just thought it was so incredible that you could create something from nothing, and it was all in your mind and your imagination. And the combination of poetry and music I just thought was incredible. So when I was 7, I remember showing my parents my first song and it wasn't great and...

MARTIN: Do you remember what it was?

SANDE: It was something about an alien coming from space and the verses explored his journey and I mean, my parents thought, you know, they obviously told me it was great and to keep working on it. And I'm glad I did, you know. You have to start from somewhere.

MARTIN: Can you sing a little bit of it still?

SANDE: Oh, do I remember it? (singing) Coming from planet space, oh, baby. I mean, it was a proper pop 7-year-old's song.

MARTIN: But what has been kind of attached to your story is the fact that you were pursuing a much different career path. You actually went to the University of Glasgow and studied neuroscience.

SANDE: Yes. I mean, I was always interested in the human body when I was a kid and I would always talk to my dad about what happened in the brain and how different connections were made and I really loved school. You know, education was such a big part of my life and I always had it in my head at some point I would go and pursue music and really go after my dream because I felt like a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: It's your fallback plan, neurology?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDE: Yes, yes. You know, I always feel that I would love to go back and use the degree in some way, but, you know, within the music industry, you have a window, and you kind of have to seize the day when it comes.

MARTIN: How did you get discovered? I mean, were you just writing music and someone heard it or you were performing in clubs? What was your big break?

SANDE: When I was 16, I sent this video of me performing just in my house on my first piano to London for this competition. Ended up winning the competition and the prize was a record deal. But it wasn't a very good record deal. It was kind of, you know, one that wouldn't give you a long career or anything like that. So at that point, I found management and, you know, they advised me, you know, you should go to med school. We'll wait till you're done. And then...

MARTIN: Oh, your music manager told you to go to med school?

SANDE: Yes, which is quite rare. And then, after that, the connection to London was made and that's how it all came together.

MARTIN: I want to play another song off of the new album. This one is called "Mountains." Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "MOUNTAINS")

MARTIN: I've read that this song is for your parents. Who are they? What is their story?

SANDE: Well, my dad is from Zambia and my mother is from North England. And, you know, my dad really bettered his life. He's very, very intelligent and he came over to the U.K. to study engineering and that's where he met my mum. And they had a real struggle at the very beginning because they were, you know, interracial couple and it was, you know, '85 in quite a deprived area of England.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MOUNTAINS")

MARTIN: Emeli Sande, her debut album is called "Our Version Of Events." It is out this week. And you can hear more of her music on nprmusic.org. Emeli, thanks so much for talking with us.

SANDE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And this is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW CREDITS)

MARTIN: I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.