Photography by Deirdre O'Callaghan
Things haven’t always come easily for Emeli Sandé. While the 24-year-old Scot, famous in the U.K. for her soaring voice and a blazing white coif that ascends skyward, has found fame, the public eye is a strange place to be for a girl who never felt accepted in her hometown, let alone the limelight.
Sandé recently won the Brit Awards “Critics’ Choice” trophy, the same honor bestowed upon Adele in 2007 and Florence and the Machine in 2009, and her songs, including the trip-hop tearjerker “Heaven,” have gone to the top of the charts. But, having grown up in the only non-white family in a sparsely populated northeast Scotland town, Sandé says she was aware she stood out from an early age.
“I felt very different all the time,” she explains. “There was no possibility of ever fitting in, and I realized that quite young.”
Although Sandé won early validation at seven years old, when her parents encouraged her at-home renditions of Mariah Carey songs and later enrolled her in clarinet lessons and choir, it wasn’t until she was a teenager that her differences began to work in her favor.
When she was 15, Sandé won a songwriting contest and was offered a recording contract. Instead of spending her teenage years working toward fame, she shelved her musical ambitions to focus on her education.
She enrolled in the University of Glasgow, to pursue a degree in neuroscience, but continued performing, playing mostly at open-mic nights and working with friends on small-scale projects. One of those was “Diamond Rings,” a hit for the British rapper Chipmunk that Sandé helped write, landing her a gig writing for artists like Leona Lewis, Cher Lloyd, and even Britain’s Got Talent crooner Susan Boyle. Accolades from Alicia Keys, Adele, and Simon Cowell (who called her his “favorite songwriter”) followed.
Sandé credits her success to writing about feelings that other singers, not to mention their fans, can relate to.
“I’ve written songs that aren’t specific to me -- they’re about a feeling I’ve had,” she says. “When I hear somebody else sing them, it makes me feel so good, that [my songs] can be universal.”
Writing for others has been good to her so far, but these days Sandé is focused on her own work. Her debut album,
“It’s very surreal, when people you’ve admired for so long say nice things about you,” Sandé says. “You don’t let it sink in. If I ever sat down and really thought about it, I’d go crazy.”
Even if it can be difficult for Sandé to take a compliment, however, she admits that the praise makes her feel as though she’s arrived.
“I longed to fit into this ‘musical world,’ ” she says. “I felt connected to so many places in the world just from hearing music. It was a way I could confess things. It was the one place where I could put all my thoughts, all my feelings.”
Whether American listeners will respond remains to be seen, but for Sandé, making the album has given her the steady footing she’s desired for so long.
“I found my place in the world,” she says, “and that’s just amazing.”
WATCH: A Face to Face interview with Emeli Sandé below.