EMELI SANDÉ: London artist adds Essence Festival to growing list of personal firsts

Photo by KATE DAVIS-MCCLEOD
Photo by KATE DAVIS-MCCLEOD

Emeli Sandé, the brilliant British artist who sang for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is looking forward to the multiple firsts she’ll experience this weekend.

“I’ve never played a festival in America before, so, one, getting to go to New Orleans, a place I’ve never been to, and playing Essence, is just fantastic,” Sandé said from London.

Sandé’s list of performances for special occasions keeps growing. In addition to the Essence Festival and Olympic ceremonies, she performed for a concert in May at the White House, staged in honor of singer-songwriter Carole King receiving The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.

“All of these things, you can’t plan for them,” Sandé said. “You can’t steer your career in a way to be invited to these events.”

Sandé found the prospect of performing King’s classic “Natural Woman” at the White House with the composer and President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in the front row daunting.

“I rehearsed and practiced for the whole weekend,” the 26-year-old singer, songwriter and pianist said. “But once I met Carole King, and saw how professional everybody was, I felt a lot more relaxed. Meeting Carole King was a dream for me. Getting to speak to her about songwriting, it was just amazing.”

After Sandé sat down at the piano to perform “Natural Woman,” she turned to King and said, “Carole, you’re such a hero of mine. It’s such an honor to be here this evening and to play this wonderful song.”

Naturally, Sandé knocked the song out of the park. Also in May, Sandé performed a duet of her hit, “Next To Me,” on American Idol’s season finale with fourth-place finisher Amber Holcomb.

Sandé’s album debut, Our Version of Events, appeared in the U.K. in February 2012. It became Britain’s best-selling album of 2012 and, so far, 2013 as well. Our Version of Events also spent more consecutive weeks in the Top 10 than any debut album in U.K. chart history, exceeding the Beatles’ 1962 release, Please Please Me.

Our Version of Events debuted in the U.S. in June 2012. A few months before, the immensely popular British band, Coldplay, introduced Sandé to huge audiences in the U.S. when she toured with them as a supporting act.

“I learned so much from seeing how they function, how they operate,” she said. “No matter how big they are, they still put so much detail into every aspect of the show.”

Born in northern England to an English mother and Zambian father, Sandé spent most of her childhood and youth in Scotland. Her father, a school choirmaster, introduced her to the music of Nina Simone, Miles Davis and many more great artists.

“I vividly remember the first time I heard her Nina Simone,” Sandé said. “We were waiting for my mom to finish work and my dad played ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead).’ It changed my view on artists, musicians. She opened my eyes to what can be expressed with music.”

Sandé was nearly finished her studies for a degree in medicine from Glasgow University when decided to pursue music seriously.

“I followed instinct and connected with people,” she said. “The songwriting thing wasn’t in my plan, but I enjoyed the year that I focused on songwriting for other people. I learned about the art of songwriting. I learned about the music business from a backseat position, without the pressure of being an artist.”

After writing songs for others, singing for recordings by Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Devlin, and joining Naughty Boy and Wiley for a Top 10 remake of White Town’s “Your Woman,” Sandé release her debut single, “Daddy,” in 2010.

For professional reasons, she adopted Emeli, her middle name, as her first name. A young British singer with whom she shared the same first name, Adele, had recently become a major star.

“I love being Adele at home and Emeli on stage,” she said. “Also, Emeli is my father’s mother’s name, so I feel like I’m continuing her legacy from Zambia.”

Sandé’s headway in the U.S. includes being named Best International Act (U.K.) last weekend at the BET Awards. But she’s toured the U.S. just a few times so far.

“There are so many places I still haven’t been,” she said. “It’s a new adventure for me.”

Of course, the U.S. is the source of so much of the music she grew up with in Scotland.

“I loved Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker,” she said. “Those massive voices have always inspired me, so I find it so exciting to bring my music to America.”