Emeli Sandé had global fame and a number-one album, then disappeared from public view. She tells Stylist about the importance of taking time out.
Emeli Sandé remembers the exact moment – in a hair salon in London – when she realised her life had to change.
It was 2016 and, having experienced massive fame playing the opening and closing ceremonies at the London Olympics in 2012, promoting a best-selling album with sales of £2 million and performing global hits Read All About It and Next To Me, Sandé was under pressure to keep up the momentum of her success.
She wanted to grow out her trademark platinum quiff but didn’t have the confidence to risk a change. “I decided to dye it again because I thought people wouldn’t recognise me, or like me, if I didn’t have the quiff,” she says. “That seems so sad now because it was just a hairstyle, but I thought it was a big part of who I was.”
However, the dye was left on too long. “My hair started flying off,” Sandé says. “I was looking in the mirror thinking, ‘Oh shit.’ But at the same time I thought, ‘Maybe this is a lesson. Your hair – you – can’t take this any more. Something has to change.’ I cut it all off and started again.”
And so she did, retreating from the huge success she’d created and rethinking the public persona she’d spent so long cultivating. First, there was the name: she adopted Emeli (a variation on her real middle name, Emily) when she entered the music industry – her real name is Adele. Then there was the look: sharp leather jacket, strong red lipstick and hair shaved at the sides. She looked poised and fearless, but she was no longer sure who Emeli Sandé actually was.
“It was exciting when people started to recognise me, but I didn’t know how to act famous,” she says. “[I thought], ‘Does this mean I have to change?’” This tension came to a head two years ago: she’d finished the promotional duties for her second album and she was left feeling wobbly and burnt out. So she retreated, built a studio in her home (“right next to the kitchen, so I can cook and make music without any pressure”) and began rediscovering herself.
The Emeli of today has a head of soft, honeyed curls and a relaxed, smiling face. Her album Real Life, out later this year, is full of gratitude and self-discovery. “I don’t have to be ‘Emeli Sandé’ now,” she says, “I can be myself.”
The album has been two years in the making. What’s the process you’ve been through?
I was getting over a very difficult and confusing time when I started working on this album – asking myself: ‘Where is my life heading? What do I want to do with it?’ I finally realised the importance of self-love and that message reflects in the music. I’ve gained strength and confidence. Now, when I’m happy, I feel extra happy.
How tough was that time?
Really difficult. Everything got smaller. I became very isolated. At the time, I thought it was completely normal – I didn’t think I was depressed or feeling anxious. But now, looking back, I realise I wasn’t myself at all.
What kind of things did you stop doing?
Seeing my friends, being social. I didn’t want to go out and do the things I would normally enjoy. I used to love interacting with people and doing fun things, making jokes. That energy and happiness went away. Everything became very serious. I was very introspective and I missed out on the joy of life.
How did you find your way out of that?
Well, my sister moved in and the energy around me became very nurturing. She’s younger than me but so much wiser. She is a big yoga advocate and begged me to try it. I thought, ‘No! So boring!’ But I needed my mind to stop racing. I found an online course, Yoga With Adriene, and it was life-changing. I learned to be still.
It sounds like making this album has fundamentally changed you?
Yeah, everything with this album was me kind of coming into who I really am. I wanted everything to be natural and real – all the instruments have been played live, nothing has been done on a computer. And then, beyond that, this is my real hair texture. I felt like I didn’t want to damage my hair to try and create this image of someone who isn’t actually the entire, authentic me. The more I grew my hair, the more I felt like myself. My quiff was a great look for the time, but you get trapped. I’ve been on a journey of self-identity, learning what it means to be a mixed-race woman. This is the authentic me.
How did having such a tough chick persona come about in the first place?
When I was getting into this industry I realised it was going to be difficult, because I wasn’t your typical kind of popstar. I was like, I’m not like these other singers, I don’t know where I fit in. I had to find a way to thicken my skin, and that was the leather jacket, the hair etc. It was about protection. I’m learning now that embracing my femininity doesn’t necessarily make me weaker. It’s important for artistic expression to be able to be soft when you need to be.
What was your life like growing up in Scotland, before you were famous?
I was the only person of colour in my whole school year. My mum used to call us ‘The Simpsons’ because we were such a different family in the village. [Emeli’s dad is from Zambia, her mum is from England.] I loved growing up there, but it created a lot of problems for me in terms of [identity]. Who am I? And how can I find myself here? When you’re going through puberty as a girl, it’s like, how do I do my hair? Then you don’t even have the right products.
You were recently in Scotland. Is it a place you still feel connected to?
Yeah. Usually I go at Christmas and see my parents but this time I went to Alford, the village I grew up in, then all the different [Scottish] cities, so it was a real tour. It’s interesting because when I moved to London, that’s when I changed my name from Adele to Emeli. And I really felt like Adele again when I was in Scotland. All these memories came back. That was where I had my first job, my first kiss, and where a lot of the journey of me getting into the music industry happened.
It’s interesting that you differentiate between Emeli and Adele. What’s the difference between them?
Emeli’s my stage persona. She’s professional, focused, serious. Whereas Adele is fun, imaginative. I guess how I am with my sister, that’s Adele. It would be so weird if she ever called me Emeli – that would really freak me out. Going back to Scotland made me realise, actually, I’m just Adele. But I love being a performer too so I’m trying to find a balance between them.
How do you feel about the timing of this album in terms of what’s going on in the world generally?
The message I get from politics globally right now is that the people in charge are bullies who can say what they want and discriminate against who they want because they’re in power. I want people to realise their own power again. We’re told to fear each other. It’s messaging that takes away our inner confidence and knowledge of what it means to be human. I want the album to be a reminder that we’re magic.
Emeli Sandé’s single Extraordinary Being is out now. See her on tour from September; emelisande.com
Photography: Rex features