The perennial podcasters sat down with the Scottish singer-songwriter in her London studio to talk about her career in music
Emeli Sandé is a Scottish singer-songwriter who also happens to be one of the most successful British solo artists of the last decade. Her collection of awards includes two BRITs, a pair of Ivor Novellos, four MOBOs and an MBE. Having been writing songs since before her teens, Sandé’s talent was so apparent that she was first offered a record deal when she was just 16. She decided against it in favour of entering further education and eventually signed a publishing deal with EMI in 2009. Around the same time she met producer/songwriter Naughty Boy (Shahid Khan) and forged a creative partnership with him which saw the pair writing for the likes of Chipmunk, Professor Green and Wiley.
She released her first solo single Daddy in 2010 but it was her collaboration with Professor Green on his smash single Read All About It that really thrust her into the limelight the following year. Her acclaimed debut album, Our Version Of Events, dropped in 2012 and became an instant hit as it reached No 1 in the UK album charts. Sandé’s second record, Long Live The Angels, arrived in November 2016 and more than matched the quality of the first, boasting singles like Hurts and Breathing Under Water.
Kingdom Coming, a new six-track EP which was released in November last year, provided Simon and Brian the perfect excuse to chat with Sandé about her career in music…
A lot of people talk about how they find it easier to write moody ballads, do you find it a challenge to write a song that is both uptempo and uplifting (like Starlight)?
“Yeah it was definitely a challenge for me but I try and reflect what’s going on in my life and how I’m feeling. Sometimes it can be easy to go to the same chords on the piano and really dig deep emotionally when it’s minor or something that is a bit more emotive melodically. It was a big lesson for me really, going on tour and asking fans, or just speaking to fans and hearing about what the songs meant to them. Some songs I might think, ‘Ah it was a bit too happy,’ or, ‘It didn’t speak to people as much as something that’s a bit deeper.’ Then when someone tells you, ‘Next To Me meant this to me and I was going through such a difficult time in my life but hearing this music was so uplifting,’ it kind of put me on this mission to make music that really instilled confidence in people and was uplifting.
“Everything that’s going on can really get people down and can seriously traumatise people. Maybe we shouldn’t all be able to see these horrific events all the time and every day. I think the psychological effect of that can be quite scary. Sorry to get so serious about it but I just feel that it’s a very hard time now to stay happy and feel good and positive and also feel confident that you can make a change.
“When you see so much disaster it can be disheartening. So I really wanted to be on a mission to counteract that and bring, with full force, a message of love and confidence. No matter what you look like, how many likes you get on whatever site, you’re human and you deserve to feel good and you operate better when you feel good and happy. Even though I did find it challenging before, I really enjoyed seeing people’s reaction to more positive-sounding songs.”
Are you typically sat at a piano when you write or will you come up with stuff at all kinds of inopportune moments?
“Yeah, to be honest it’s usually when I hear instrumentals because they really set a mood and tell a story before you’ve began the topline. It kind of pulls you into a world where it gets my imagination going so much. I see scenarios of different people, or different emotions from my past may come up. So I find that interesting. Then it’s a lot more pure sometimes when you’re sat at the piano because it’s fully your expression. I don’t play the piano the same as my favourite pianist so even though they can play a thousand times better than me I want my identity in how it’s being played. Sometimes I really enjoy being in control of the harmonies and the chords and the topline and you can fully oversee how it’s all interlinking.”
Would you say that Naughty Boy is the main person you’ve connected with as a co-writer? What are his qualities?
“Yeah definitely. I mean I’ve learnt so much from him and I’ve gained so much confidence just being his friend, for one, and being around him and seeing his process and that balance between being a kind person, which he is, but also being business savvy and not being taken for a ride. I feel like I’ve really learnt a lot from his character but as a collaborator we get along so well. When you can fight with someone and then be friends a couple of weeks later, that’s the type of person you want to write a song with.
“You go into a very deep personal place with your music and you want to trust them as you would a family member and you want to really be able to open up and try different things and make something that sounds really shit one day and then know that they have faith in what you’re going to do the next day. So he always had a true faith in me that I felt from the beginning. He’s always stood up for me and from the beginning said, ‘You don’t need to be in with a writer, you should be doing this yourself.’ I just think that he’s a great guy and he really spots talent and knows how to nurture it.”
How does a typical session work between the two of you?
“That’s the thing I love about him, everything is always spontaneous. You never know what the next session is going to be like. Usually I put my piano in his studio and sometimes I’ll sit down and put down some chords. And that’s the great thing about him, things that I would forget or just think, ‘Oh it was nothing,’ he’ll be like, ‘Come on, let’s record it,’ and he gives you that push you need. So yeah sometimes it’s piano or he’ll be like, ‘Ah mate, I made a sick beat last night,’ and he’ll tell you the whole story of the track… Something supernatural always happens in the studio like, ‘Then this angel came and I saw this number,’ and it’s like stepping into a magical world. Because I’ve got such a big imagination we can be big kids together all the time. So just capturing our imagination and putting it into songs makes it such a pleasure to work with him and it’s always exciting.”
We really like the song Wonder, we wondered who did what on that one?
“I had been at home just playing that riff and I think maybe I had the Wonder part and again it was just showing him. Something that could have stayed as a voice memo for the rest of my life he was like, ‘Yeah let’s record that.’ So I put it in the piano and he started building a tribal beat around it and yeah it was great. Just stacking the harmonies on the chorus really brought it to life and we were so excited about it, we really wanted our A&R to come down and hear it immediately and it was just such a sunshine song.”
We have to ask about Next To Me, is that something that would evolve really quickly or do most of the songs that have been really successful take more time than that?
“For Next To Me it was quite quick. I was with Craze & Hoax, I was round at their house and that came really quickly I think. At least the chorus and then I think the ‘oo oo’ part got added a bit later. I don’t remember the writing of that one taking that long. It’s just once it’s been decided that this is going to be a single, it’s the process then of getting it polished and ready and all the technical parts that make it take so long. And also the pressure to get it perfect, because you know that people are really going to hear this one. But writing it was quite quick really.”
It is possible to get a realistic picture of whether a song is any good, we assume it’s pretty clear when you’ve got something like Next To Me in the bag?
“For me it’s not. I love making music and it’s like they’re your children almost, you just love them all -so Next To Me I didn’t know. I thought, ‘Yeah cool, it was a great session’ and I love working with Craze & Hoax so let’s just see. My A&R at Virgin was like, ‘What’s this song you just did!?’ He’s not always excited, let’s put it that way, it takes a lot to get him excited about an idea and music. But when he knows it’ the right thing you’ll see him come to life and definitely with Next To Me that was that. I guess that’s why he’s so good at his job!”
You’ve also got that rare skill of being able to write for other people. Do you pride yourself on that ability?
“I love it and it’s always a great challenge. Often it’s songs that you’ve written alone, just at the piano or something. To hear their interpretation or to hear they’ve heard a part of it and it’s meant this to them in their life, it’s humbling because it reminds you that the music is so much bigger than you, or you having to sing it. When something is very important I think you have to perform it but some songs they could fit anybody… well not anybody, but they can speak for certain people. I do love doing that and I love that it’s something that I can do a lot more of in the future because it allows me to learn so much.”
Might you have that artist in mind when you actually write or is it typically a song that you wrote that might be your own song?
“I found that I have more success when it’s just songs that I’ve written. I think sometimes you try to overthink things or second-guess someone. Unless you’ve really had the time to sit with them and understand their story and what they specifically want and who they are as a person, I think you have to spend so much time with someone to really understand their energy like that. Usually it’s songs that I’ve done by myself. I do try and write to a spec, but I usually find that you can tell as it gets a little bit robotic. If I’m trying to write, thinking about what they want to say without meeting them.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells, Jake Bugg and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the 40-minute interview with Emeli Sandé – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.