Emeli Sandé on Spirituality and Knowing Herself
“I want to rebuild everything on concrete instead of sand”
I’m walking through King’s Cross station, en route to meet multi-award winning, multi-million-selling singing sensation Emeli Sandé in a nearby hotel. Except there’s a problem: I’m crying my eyes out. The track Shine from Emeli’s new album is spinning in my headphones, and it’s hit me. Hard.
“…Express yourself/It’s good for your health/ Nothing to fear when truth walks beside you…”
BALANCE has never commissioned an album. But if we had, it would be Real Life. Like much of the album, Shine is a clarion call to positivity, togetherness, self-belief, following your heart and all the good stuff to get you sobbing on a beautiful Wednesday morning. To sit with Emeli and talk about this, and so much more, is a life-affirming joy. Indeed, meeting the 32-year-old is like catching up with a dear friend; she’s open, funny, talks from the heart and, dare we say it (we dare!), she has a great energy.
“The biggest thing really was being alone for the first time,” Emeli says of the genesis of her third – and, may we say, best – studio album. “You know, I’d been in a relationship since I was 17 and then we got married. But the marriage didn’t work and it was also really important for me to have that time.
“So I got to 27, and everyone says that’s the year when everything’s gonna hit you, and it really did happen to me. I got to a point like: who am I?
“I love being a singer and all this stuff, but for the first time I was finally alone. It was me figuring out the world.
“Yeah it was emotional and sad, but at the same time there was a seed of hope in me even at that stage, I’m going to face the world as I am, and find out who I am on a deeper level.
“I want to rebuild everything on concrete instead of sand.
“I’ll know from the very beginning that this is done with purpose and this is my true intention.”
Of the end of her marriage to marine biologist Adam Gouraguine, Emeli adds, “I didn’t know myself enough to promise myself to someone. I think that’s the biggest thing with marriage.
“I hope one day it can be blissful and smooth and wonderful. But unless the two people getting involved completely know themselves and understand what they’re getting into, then I think it’s dangerous to do all that. Then again, we’re in this society of rush, and all of your friends are getting married. Looking back, I was 24, so yeah it was difficult with all the emotional pain of it. But I also think it was so necessary for me to grow as a person.
“It was God or the universe being, like, ‘You need to be alone’. This is gonna feel bad now, but how can you promise yourself to somebody if you don’t know yourself yet? That’s the conclusion I’ve made .”
What is apparent is that Emeli is in a good place right now. She talks with zest and zeal, and is endearingly confident. Indeed, as the old saying goes: “When the pupil is ready, the master appears.” As in, when you’re ready for something to happen, it probably will, and you sense that next relationship may be blossoming by the time you read this. If it’s not, it will be on Emeli’s terms. “I do feel great,” says Emeli, “and that started with gratitude, something I try and do every morning. When you get caught up in the rain or work, it’s the gratitude of the small things. All the things we have and seeing how unfair it is in other places, that’s why I’m trying to incorporate a lot more gratitude into my life.”
“That’s a beautiful place to be when I can fully let go of myself and let the music take over.”
One thing Emeli is grateful for is that voice. Even an ardent atheist wouldn’t mind us describing it as God-given. It’s truly spine-tingling and can make your spirit soar one moment, before deftly ripping your heart out the next. This is talent. What connects Emeli to the true greats of the past is soul; she sings from that special place, where you know she means every damn word.
One of those soulful greats beloved by Emeli is the iconic Whitney Houston, and she shares a story regarding the singer’s tragic passing in 2012.
“I was releasing the first album and Heaven was my first single,” Emeli explains. “I was performing at G-A-Y on the night that my album came out. Then I got a text message from my sister that said ‘Whitney’. And I thought, “What? Why has she texted me ‘Whitney’?” So I Googled it and she had died, which was crushing to me. No one had told me because they didn’t want to upset me, as it was literally five minutes before I went on stage. So there I was, I’d just found out that Whitney had died, and I just went out, singing Heaven, on the night of my album release.
“Things like that really make me think that something bigger is really going on.
“And the lyric: ‘Oh Heaven, will you recognise me?’, it just felt like somebody was passing through to the next wherever, questioning God. ‘Will you recognise me now on this Earth?/I’ve changed so much from this innocent spirit you put down here/Am I still in your favour?’ So singing that song was very emotional.
“I felt like somehow I was speaking for her [Whitney] or speaking of her journey. Because why am I singing Heaven now, when one of my biggest inspirations has just passed away? And why is my album being released on the same night? You know? Stuff like that just makes me think a bit deeper about this whole thing.”
Like Whitney, faith is important to Emeli. Unlike Whitney, you sense Emeli won’t waver. The drive and determination are too palpable.
Of faith, Emeli says: “It’s always been there my whole life, and especially when I make music – it’s just like meditation, really.
“That’s a beautiful place to be when I can fully let go of myself and let the music take over.”
Yoga and meditation have also played a key part in Emeli “reconnecting with her soul”. Indeed, if you’ve lost your mojo of late, the one-two of yoga and meditation will always be beneficial.
Emeli explains: “My sister’s really incredible and she was the one who kept saying, ‘You know, you should really try yoga and meditation’. I used to think all of these things were from another world, and not really part of my life. So I just tried being around people who were really into this.
“I also have a friend, Kim, and she said I should really try it. Everyone around me was just saying ‘yoga, yoga, yoga’. Then I went to this festival in Bulgaria called Meadows In The Mountains, and it was really beautiful. People were performing about climate change, and doing yoga. It was very open-minded and that really changed my perspective a lot.
Emeli continues, unprompted, “There’s a 30-day challenge and I got through the first 30 days. I really felt amazing afterwards. I felt reconnected with my body, reconnected with my soul and my spirituality, because that hadn’t been a big part of my life for so long. It’s always been a big part of music for me. You know, praying and connecting. So it reconnected me with myself.
“From there it cleared my mind and made everything a lot more simple. From that point, that’s when the growth began and I really started to build my confidence up and just get healthy and exercise more.
“Physical changes were a big push into how I feel now.”
“Don’t feel guilty about sleeping. Performing live is such a big energy expenditure.”
So, what’s next? Possibly an odd question given there’s a new album and tour. We suggest to Emeli that she might like to have a go at composing or performing a James Bond theme song? Given the occasional echoes of Shirley Bassey and Emeli’s love of strings, we can visualise it.
“Yeah, I would love that,” she enthuses. “And if I could just do me, then that would be awesome because I just love an orchestra and the drama, and you’re just given a licence to do that with that.”
And, Emeli fans, you might want to keep your eyes posted on her social media accounts. That’s because she has become taken with the idea of dropping an album without any fanfare.
“I definitely want to bring music out faster. I don’t want such big gaps inbetween releases. I’d love to bring out a small project because I’ve never delivered something that is vocal and piano, and I’ve never released anything that was me playing and singing at the same time. That’s my truest and I don’t think anyone’s ever really heard that… No planning – just release and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think of these songs?’ Where they don’t have the pop structure and what I would naturally just do at home. And just sing. That’s what I really want to do. I’d love to do something very raw.”
Emeli adds: “I’m also writing a musical at the moment with a writer from New York. So we’re adapting a book and putting my music to it. The book is called An American Tragedy.
“I’ve always wanted to write a musical, so this is my first step. You can really bring things to life. And I’m also getting really into melody. So I’m trying to challenge myself to sing, and not just write words, but compose proper piano pieces.
What’s on the immediate agenda is her UK tour. You might think that means champagne and partying, but – as the theme of our issue celebrates – what will win the day for Emeli will ultimately be rest.
“I have a vocal coach who says people really underestimate rest, and if you have time, don’t feel like you always need to be out doing something.
“If you’re in your hotel room, just sleep. Don’t feel guilty about sleeping. Performing live is such a big energy expenditure. Even though it’s just an hour-and-a half, that’s the most intense hour-and-a-half of the day you’re gonna have to give. Your energy has really got to be on point.
“I’m definitely gonna rest more this tour, do yoga every day and try not to party as much.”
Emeli’s new album, Real Life is out now and she is touring nationwide from November. Go to emelisande.com for more details