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Risks and Reflection: Emeli Sandé Keeps Moving Forward With 'How Were We To Know'

Thursday, 16 November 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Jack Alexander 

Whether she’s crafting hits for some of music’s biggest names, collaborating with game-changing legends or delivering genre-splicing solo offerings, Emeli Sandé has always bled for her art. But even by past standards, the kaleidoscopic emotional journey she unveils on her exquisite fifth record, ‘How Were We To Know’, required the singer to attempt to answer many of love’s most eternal, confounding questions.

You’d be forgiven for doing a double take when it comes to the arrival of this record. Since the release of her mega-selling debut ‘Our Version of Events’ in 2012, Sandé has always taken a healthy amount of time out between albums. Considering she only released the eclectic and acclaimed ‘Let’s Say For Instance’ just over a year ago, her swift return is a welcome surprise that builds on its predecessor’s candid approach. 

Described as a record where she “felt free to express herself more naturally, both lyrically and musically”, if ‘Let’s Say For Instance’ found Sandé dangling her legs into more vulnerable waters, ‘How Were We To Know’, which was essentially made at the same time during the pandemic, sees her fearlessly diving into a whirlpool of relationship issues to dish up visceral feeling alongside gorgeously accessible music. 

We caught up with Sandé to discuss exactly how love’s rich tapestry informed her new record, what the secret is to healing from heartache and why, from a creative point of view, she’s much happier not being Taylor Swift. 

You spoke about ‘Let’s Say For Instance’ as celebrating resilience, truth, happiness and rebirth, which made it sound like the start of a new chapter in your career and life. How does this record write the next instalment of your story?

It does feel like a new chapter and era in a sense. With ‘Let’s Say For Instance’, a lot of curiosities I wanted to explore, I was able to on that album. Genre-wise and lyrically expressing who I am to my fans from a different angle. There’s more of a maturity with this new album. It goes very deep into emotions within relationships, emotions with self love, there’s a lot about love on this album, and ‘Let’s Say For Instance’ opened the door to allow me to go a bit deeper and be more vulnerable. It definitely feels like it's telling a tale of the last 10 years of my life and it felt the right time to do it. And ‘Let’s Say For Instance’ was also a lot more experimental and risk-taking, pushing the boundaries. With this album, I don’t know if pop is the right word, but it’s more straight down the line emotional. 

You actually start the record by posing the question, ‘What am I supposed to do with all this love?’ It relates to the lyric of that track but also the questions you strive to answer throughout the record.

All This Love is one of my favourites. As soon as I played it I thought, ‘That’s the introduction’ because it starts quite small, acoustic guitar and vocal, and ends with absolutely everything in there, the choir and this explosion of emotion. It’s true that the question of not just love, but this energy we have within, where do we place it? Humanity is incredible when we’re focused and on the right frequency, so it was a deep question. By the end I kind of get there but it’s something I’ll always be asking. That’s a question that’s always on my mind. I’m always trying to make sure I’m channelling myself where I should, but some days are easier than others. 

You wrote the title track after the end of a relationship that left you re-evaluating your views on life and love. What did that process look like and what conclusions did you come to in order to move past what you were going through? 

People always say time heals and it does, time definitely helps, but it’s also about self-reflection and understanding that, if you’re in a relationship, two people are taking part in it. As much as sometimes, at the very end, we want to point fingers or blame the other person, it’s also about taking time to reflect on yourself. As we grew up, women of my generation were sold this line, like in Disney movies, about ‘this is success in life’ and ‘this is how you wrap everything up with a bow’ and everything’s perfectly done. I definitely bought into that dream when I was younger. But these days it’s more about growing maturity and realising life is imperfect. And the whole point is to grow and learn and if you get stuck in emotions and pause your growth because of that then everybody’s lost. That was part of my process in dealing with that time.   

Your love of different genres is displayed throughout all your albums. But with so much knowledge, and so many wide-reaching influences, at your disposal, how do you set about creating a musically and thematically cohesive album like this when you have the ability to go anywhere and bring in so many elements?

Lyrics above everything has to be the priority. What I’m saying and the message within each song is put at the forefront and the music is there to, hopefully, excite the listener, draw attention to what I’m saying, enhance it or give it the perfect setting. I do feel that thematically, even though I’m exploring different landscapes, melodically and lyrically that’s the spine of every album I’ve done. I hope that’s what fans will always hear as the familiar sound of me. 

But it can be hard and I have to always keep an eye on not going too far because I want it to make sense. I also had one mixer throughout this album, a fantastic guy called Matt [Huber] who’s based in LA. That adds to the cohesiveness. So those three elements keep it glued together. And also making sure each song tells a story and falls in the right place on the album. If you’ve got to a place of deep contemplation it doesn’t make sense, lyrically, to go back in the story. That’s important, making sure that there’s progress through the lyrics.    

With regards to how emotional this album is, it’s well known you have a background inneuroscience, a fascination with how the brain works, and a strong interest in psychology. Is there a connection between those interests and needing to express yourself as a songwriter?

Sometimes it’s hard to find science and psychology with music, but essentially I’m channelling emotions into songs so it’s an interesting process to see how the brain connects everything and how the brain receives sounds and chords. I’ve been to a few music therapy sessions and it’s incredible seeing exactly what music can communicate. So, sometimes I think about it, especially when I’m making music without lyrics, or when I’m listening to classical pieces of music. It’s telling a story that’s obvious to me but it could be a completely different story that you hear. I find it really interesting how the brain interprets music.      

You once said that ‘As a songwriter I often want to hear just music, not lyrics.’ Might you ever like to do an instrumental record?

I really would, actually. It’s something I’ve never considered as a possibility but these days I listen to a lot of lo-fi hip hop and classical and jazz, bossa nova, so it would bring a new challenge. I think the biggest challenge is there isn’t as much repetition. Within a song you’re really providing a bed for the lyrics to be sung on top of the music. But it has to function in a certain way and what I love about jazz and classical is that it’s always changing and always evolving. You can start here and end up [somewhere different]. The same way I try to do it on an album, you can do it with a piece of music. That’s the exciting part, how much you can move around with instrumental music.    

After your debut album became such a huge smash you were quoted as saying, ‘If I became distracted by the trappings of success, my music would suffer and change. It would become something that wasn't important any more, because you're just speaking about yourself.’ Looking back over a decade later, how easy was it to hang on to that kind of integrity as everything exploded?

The hardest part was that you get so busy. If something is popular and people want to hear it you’re divided between living your dream — this is what you’ve always wanted so of course you want to take every opportunity and perform every show live — but then you’re also being taken away from the studio and you’re not writing as much as you used to. Within a week I usually write two or three songs so that’s not happening any more.

That was the hardest part, to keep that creative integrity going. But in other ways it’s quite easy because it’s just how I’m built. I can’t stop loving making music. I can’t stop putting that part first. So, even though I’m easy going with other things around my career, when it comes to that I put my foot down. I need to feel like I’m growing musically. I need the time and space to write what I need to, so that’s just in me. It’s not something that’s gonna change.    

Following that success you talked about needing to go away as you’d become overexposed. Subsequent albums didn’t find you in quite the same position again, so was that something you resented or, realistically, are you happier not being a Taylor Swift, who has that level of attention and scrutiny day after day, year after year?

Yeah, I imagine that could be quite intense. You have to have a certain personality for that. I always want to make sure my music gets as much exposure as it can. My music might not be for everybody, but when you put so much work into something you want to make sure it can reach as many people that may want to hear it, or it might help them in some way. So it’s definitely a priority and it is nice being able to make music for people that want to hear it and people that look for it. That’s a nice feeling. 

Every time you do a show or release an album you know you have a really loyal fan base behind you and they accept you for who you are. There was a lot of pressure after that first album, to recreate it and get that success again. But I didn’t want to follow any type of formula because, in my eyes, there really wasn’t a formula. It was just emotions and songs. I enjoyed working with Naughty Boy but I wanted to try R&B and do songs like Garden. I took a lot of artistic risks and I wouldn’t want to be as big as the biggest pop star if it meant I couldn’t take those risks.     

That comes back to something I’ve seen crop up in a lot of interviews with you, which is your use of the word ‘freedom’ in so many different contexts. What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom means…being able to have the time and space to be genuinely creative and for it not to become a job. Of course it is a career, it is a job, and I’m really thankful, I feel very lucky I can pay my bills with something I love, but it’s a lot more than that for me. It’s creating music, it’s within my soul. So freedom is being in a position where you can grow in that sense and now I have a room [studio] of my own, I have my own space to do that. That feels like a great step in the direction of freedom. Having a team that also respects me as a musician, that feels like another great step there. That’s freedom for me.

Emeli Sande Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue November 21 2023 - LONDON Union Chapel

Compare & Buy Emeli Sande Tickets at Stereoboard.com.


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