In a cavernous suite in a hotel in London’s King’s Cross, singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé is discussing the incredible work ethic she inherited from her Zambian father.
First came his desire for his two Scottish-raised daughters to make the most of their education. “That was his whole thing, and the idea that the next generation should take it further,” says the 32-year old with a smile. “He was quite strict and never allowed us to be complacent about education – ‘do you realise how lucky you are to even go to school? Your grandma and your cousins in Zambia can’t.’”
Second came his expectation that she and her younger sister, Lucy, excelled at all that they did. “Even with my sister playing football – he didn’t believe in doing something for just a hobby. If you’re here, in this country, then work your talents.” It came, she says from his belief that they were representing the only black people in the small Aberdeenshire town in which they lived, and “what people perceive of black people. So if you fail… That’s quite a lot to take on as a kid. But as harsh as it is, he was telling the truth.”
Luckily, that work ethic chimed with Sandé’s competitiveness. She excelled in both academia and at piano from the age of 12, and went to study medicine at Glasgow University before abandoning her studies to pursue a career in music. Her gamble paid off: she became a quadruple Brit winner who performed at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics and became Britain’s best selling musician of that year – and again the following year.
But as implied by the opening lines of Sparrow, the soaring power-ballad that’s her first single in three years – “I got wind beneath my wings, I think this time I’m gonna make it till morning…” – something went seriously awry.
I’ve interviewed Sandé many times, starting when she was a complete unknown and at various points on her vertiginous rise to becoming a hugely successful, not to mention ubiquitous, artist. But the last time we met was in late 2014 at her new place in the Hertfordshire commuter belt. Sandé was rattling round the neo-Georgian new-build mansion, a barely-lived-in, all-white home that felt like an opulent student crash pad. We were notionally there to talk about an Oxfam trip she’d made to Zambia. But really, we were there to discuss the break-down of her short-lived marriage to her student sweetheart.
She had met Montenegro-born Adam Gouraguine, a marine biologist, in Glasgow in her gap year before beginning her medical studies. He was her first boyfriend and they were together for ten years before getting married in the midst of what she described to me as “the madness” of her 2012. “It was literally: Olympics, wedding, fly to Montenegro, get married, fly back – and we had maybe a week’s honeymoon together,” she recalled with a still-incredulous shake of her head. “He was the person that had been there from the very beginning. And maybe I was just looking for, ‘OK, this is my guy. Whatever happens, no matter how crazy this gets, I’ve got someone.’”
The marriage lasted barely a year, rent asunder by, amongst other things, her insane international schedule. Inside, she knew things weren’t right. “I just felt I had to wake up. I don’t know, it was just a real…” she faltered. “I don’t want to call it a breakdown, but it felt like that.” That year, as she licked her wounds after a gruelling three years in the spotlight, her weight was fluctuating, her skin was breaking out, she had a severe new haircut, her voice was hollowed.
Were those the physical manifestations of her inner turmoil? “Definitely. I was just feeling lost. I was just all over the place, I guess. It was hard to focus. I wanted to try everything. I’d entered this new life, and, yes, I was alone, but I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. But I lacked energy. And I wasn’t even trying to lose weight, I just got really thin.
"Looking back, Jesus, that was bad,” she exhales ruefully. “Luckily, I had my family around me, and people who knew me from Scotland, who’d known me since before I was Emeli,” she says, referring to her real first name: Adele (Emeli is her middle name). You can see why she decided not to perform under that name.
Today, Sandé is cheerful and relaxed in a colourful, striped jumpsuit. Open at the chest, it reveals a tattoo just below her left collarbone: “Volim te Adame” – Serbian for “I love you Adam”. Didn’t she consider having it removed? “No,” she says firmly. “I did love Adam, and still do. I actually bumped into him in Glasgow last month!”
Sandé was filming a documentary series for BBC Scotland, a national search for busking talent. Walking through Glasgow city centre, camera crew in tow, there he was, her ex-husband, coming towards her. What are the chances? “I know!” she laughs, a big, hearty laugh. There had been a couple of emails but that was it, no other contact since 2013. “So it had been a long time. And it was really lovely, actually. You have so much history with someone… And because it’s been so long now, I felt, like, ‘wow, it’s really good to see you.’
Sandé is currently single. Ask her if she’s happy about that and her reply is grin-and-bear-it valiant: “I guess I’ve got to be!” Uplifting, defiant, hopeful, soulful, cheering: that’s the singer-songwriter’s new album, Real Life, all over. Early critical responses have been positive. But unlike 2012 and 2013, where she was constantly on the go, chasing the global success of her debut album, Our Version of Events, she’s more empowered to look after herself than before.
Her sister now works with her, which helps, and when she’s off-duty, Sandé seems to live a mostly quiet life in east London. Still, do her mum and dad worry about her, about what’s asked and expected of their daughter? “Yeah, definitely. My mum and my sister rough up my manager – ‘can we have a word?’ – if it’s ever getting too busy. I guess because of how things were five years ago, they’re even more alert to it now.”
She looks much healthier, too, a dramatic change from the Emeli I last met. Mostly vegan for five years (eggs are her only hold-out), she regularly hits the treadmill and is a late convert to yoga. “My sister’s been banging on about it for ages: ‘It’ll change your life, you’ll have this moment, you’ll get addicted!’ I thought, whatever… But now I get what they’re saying.” She started an online course, Yoga with Adriene, who has a 30-day challenge and whose complete beginners’ 20 minute work-out has 22 million views on YouTube.
There’s another new hobby, too: meditation. “Ten minutes a day,” she says proudly. “Hopefully getting to 15 this week, sitting on an upright chair, so it feels like an event!” she laughs again. The mantras – “observe your thoughts, but know that your thoughts aren’t you” – have been a boon. “The voice in your head, it’s all an imaginary thing. So just to be in the present moment has helped me a lot, on stage, in life.”
These days, the resurgent Emeli Sandé, flying on those wings, is no longer always bedevilled by thoughts of: “What am I doing tomorrow? What am I doing with my career? “Because actually,” she smiles again, “right now is really cool.”
Emeli Sandé's single Extraordinary Being, from the soundtrack to X-Men: Dark Phoenix, is out now. Real Life is released on Sept 13. Her UK tour starts on Nov 16.