How unfortunate it is in 2012 to be an aspiring pop star with a big soul voice who happens to be named Adele. So it was perhaps a stroke of shrewdness—or maybe even necessity—that Emeli Sandé chose to use her middle name as her stage moniker. “It was a mad coincidence,” says the 25-year-old Scottish-born singer. “When I started seeing how well Adele was doing, I thought, Man, I have to change my name! I needed to distinguish myself as an artist.” It appears that Sandé made the right move: Upon its U.K. release in February, her debut album, Our Version of Events (Capitol), which is out stateside in June, entered the charts at No. 1, displacing pouty chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die (Interscope) in the process.
Superficially, Sandé does share a few similarities with Adele: Both are young women from the British Isles with vintage pipes who sound wiser than their years. Sandé, however, has developed a signature style of her own, one retro-raw with a futuristic shimmer. It’s all part of what Sandé calls her “big, epic soul vibe,” as songs like “Heaven” and “Mountains” showcase a mélange of influences, from Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman to Portishead and Virginia Woolf.
Raised by her African schoolteacher father and white English mother in the small town of Alford, Sandé says she often felt isolated as a kid and turned to music to combat loneliness. “I grew up in a completely white community,” she notes. “I felt very different, and couldn’t find a place to fit in, which made me very shy and introverted. But I found refuge in music. I felt connected to people I heard on the radio—their music had an identity that I didn’t have elsewhere.” While her severe bleached-blonde quiff, cool minimalist style, and Frida Kahlo tattoo instantly mark her as a creative, Sandé was, until recently, studying to be a neurologist. “I’m interested in the brain and psychiatry,” she explains. “I wanted to explore the mysteries behind why we act the way we do.” Her initiation into the music industry came as a songwriter-for-hire for the likes of Leona Lewis, Tinie Tempah, and Susan Boyle, though the creative partner she bonded with most was Alicia Keys, who returned the favor by co-writing and producing the searching piano ballad “Hope” on Our Version of Events.
Despite the early commercial success that she has enjoyed, Sandé says that striving for meaning in the realm of lowest-common-denominator pop remains her ultimate goal. “Songs should be honest,” she says. “It’s always been my ambition to touch people the way that music has touched me. I hope to speak for a younger generation. I want to write songs that you can hear on the radio, but still say something.” That other Adele has even offered an enthusiastic cosign: After seeing Sandé perform on the Brit TV show Later . . . With Jools Holland last fall, Adele tweeted, “How incredible is she?” “It’s all so quick, going from being behind the scenes to where I am now,” says Sandé. “It feels like a big adventure, to be honest! I just have to pick up the pace and adjust.”
PHOTO: EMELI SANDÉ IN LONDON, APRIL 2012. TRENCH COAT: BURBERRY LONDON. NECKLACE: SANDÉ’S OWN. WATCH: ZADIG & VOLTAIRE. COSMETICS: M.A.C COSMETICS, INCLUDING EYE SHADOW IN DIAMOND DOVE, KOHL POWER EYE PENCIL, NAIL LACQUER IN MIDSUMMER’S DREAM. HAIR PRODUCTS: SHU UEMURA, INCLUDING EXTREME URUSHI. STYLING: ZOE JAMES. HAIR AND MAKEUP: YASMINA BENTAIEB. MANICURIST: MICHELLE CLASS. PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS: ROB LOW AND PAUL WHITFIELD. DIGITAL TECHNICIAN: ANDRÉ SKJEGSTAD. SPECIAL THANKS: EMPIRE RETOUCHING, PRO LIGHTING,DEXTER AND THE BOYS.
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