After huge critical and commercial success last year, breakthrough British sensation Emeli Sande has her sights set on America.
It's a long way from her roots. Born to a Zambian father and English mother, the singer-songwriter was raised in Scotland. She tells NPR's Michel Martin that being the only mixed-race family in a small village had a big impact on her.
"I've always felt very different, and when I was young it made me more of an introvert," she says, "but then as I grew older I kind of began to embrace that feeling of being different." She says the experience has inspired her music: "I really wanted to speak for people who feel different."
Sharing this message influenced Sande's dream of being a musician more than fame. "I was such a shy kid, being a star wasn't an appeal for me," she says. "It was more, I want to write great music that people really connect with."
That said, her musical career nearly didn't happen because education always came first.
"My dad is from Zambia, and his whole life changed through education," Sande explains. She chose a medical degree as a safe backup option, but after four years specializing in clinical neuroscience, she made the difficult decision to head to London. "There has to come a point where you take the plunge," she says.
The move paid off. In 2012, Sande's debut, Our Version of Events, was the best-selling album of the year in the United Kingdom. She worked with artists like Alicia Keys and Rihanna. And her voice and trademark platinum hair helped her stand out when she performed at the London Olympics.
Sande says her look is important to her as an emerging artist: "You want people to recognize you instantly, and you want people definitely to have an image of you when they hear your music."
Standing out on her own is important. Comparisons have already been made with British artist Adele (Sande's first name is also Adele). While Adele's album was inspired by a breakup, Our Version of Events has a more upbeat tone. "I try and give people a different way of thinking about things, or a positive way of thinking about things," Sande says.
After a whirlwind year, Sande is now on a tour of the U.S. She says focusing on "making a second album that I'm very proud of and taking the music over here is a big challenge ahead of me."
There are already fans and artists this side of the Atlantic who are waiting for her to make her mark. Jay-Z has been quoted as saying Sande has the talent to conquer America. That confidence is a boost for Sande.
"I've been so inspired by artists from over here — you know, Nina Simone was one of my biggest inspirations when I was a kid," she says. "So, to come and have a successful career over here would kind of complete a circle. It's important to me."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. So here she is, a big-voiced British soul singer named Adele with chart-busting songs, a fabulous look, and a fervent following on both sides of the Atlantic that includes many of her fellow artists. No, not that Adele. We're talking about Adele Emeli Sande. She's making quite a name for herself as Emeli Sande now.
Her breakthrough hit, "Heaven," came out in 2011. Let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN")
EMELI SANDE: (Singing) Heaven, heaven, I wake with good intentions, but the day - it always lasts too long. Then I'm gone. Then I'm gone.
MARTIN: Raised in Scotland, she's actually a former medical student who has become one of Britain's biggest musical success stories. Her debut, "Our Version of Events," was the best-selling album of the year in 2012 in the U.K. She's worked with artists like Alecia Keys and Rihanna. Jay-Z and that other Adele have gone on record as big fans.
This year, Emeli has her sites set on this side of the pond. She recently began a major U.S. tour and she was nice enough to interrupt her busy schedule to join us for a special performance and conversation in our studios here in Washington, D.C.
SANDE: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us. I can't skip past the fact that you were four years into a medical degree...
MARTIN: ...specializing in clinical neuroscience when you decided to focus on your musical career.
MARTIN: Was that a hard decision?
SANDE: Yeah, a very difficult decision. You know, my dad is from Zambia and his whole life changed through education, so for my sister and I, education was a big deal in our family, so I always knew I wanted to do music, but I always thought, OK, I'll get my medical degree and that will kind of be my fallback plan almost if music doesn't work out. But then there has to come a point where you take the plunge, and that was when I did it. Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, interesting, though, that you could have focused on music much earlier in your career. I understand that as a teenager you won a talent contest...
MARTIN: ...and brought you to the attention of a lot of people in the business. And so I'm thinking, you know, what was that like at that age when, you know, there are some people, that's all they dream of...
MARTIN: ...is being a doctor. And other people - that's all they dream of, is being an artist...
MARTIN: ...and star. What were your dreams?
SANDE: I dreamt of being respected as a writer and as a musician. It was never - I mean, I was such a shy kid. Being a star wasn't an appeal for me. It was more - I want to write great music that people really connect with. So that was my big dream, but I was really envious of people who had one direct goal because you would sit next to kids in med school and that's just all they dreamt of since they were four or five and I wanted to have that real focus, and I think that was definitely a pushing factor for me.
MARTIN: Well, can we hear a song?
MARTIN: What would you like to sing for us first?
SANDE: I'd love to sing a song called "Next to Me" and...
MARTIN: And who will be joining you as well?
SANDE: Wonderful guitarist, Wayne Plummer, is joining me today.
MARTIN: All right. "Next to Me." It's from your debut album, "Our Version of Events."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEXT TO ME")
SANDE: (Singing) You won't find him drinking on the tables, rolling dice or staying out till three. You will never find him be unfaithful. You will find him - you'll find him next to me. You won't find him trying to chase the devil for money, fame, for power out of greed. You will never find him where the rest go. You will find him, you'll find him next to me. Next to me. Next to me. Next to me. You will find him, you'll find him next to me. When the money's spent and all my friends have vanished, and I can't seem to find no help or love for free, I know there's no need for me to panic 'cause I'll find him, I'll find him next to me. When the skies are gray and all the doors are closing and the rising pressure makes it hard to breathe and all I need is a hand to stop the tears from falling, I will find him - I'll find him next to me.
(Singing) Next to me, ooh. Next to me, ooh. Next to me, ooh. I will find him, I'll find him next to me. When the end has come and buildings falling down fast, when we spoiled the land and dried up all the sea, when everyone has lost their heads around us, you will find him, you'll find him next to me. Next to me, ooh. Next to me, ooh. Next to me, ooh. You will find him, you'll find him next to me.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are having a special in-studio performance and conversation with British singer Emeli Sande. She was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on her major tour of the U.S.
I mentioned, you have a fabulous look.
SANDE: Thank you.
MARTIN: I mean, for people who haven't seen you, you just look amazing.
SANDE: Oh, thanks.
MARTIN: One of the writers called it a shocking-blonde-size, super-size quiff dominates the top of her head.
SANDE: Good description.
MARTIN: Says the performance matches the hair. Definitely, you're distinctive. I mean, I would know it was you right away.
MARTIN: Is that important, especially to find a way to stand out as a new artist...
MARTIN: ...making your way in this business?
SANDE: Yeah, for me it was. You want people to recognize you instantly, and you want people definitely to have an image of you when they hear your music. So for me, yeah, it was important.
MARTIN: And then having the same name as Adele, how crazy is that?
MARTIN: I mean, that is your name. I mean, it's your name, too. But...
MARTIN: ...the fact that you're coming up at the same time, or really kind of just behind her...
MARTIN: ...and that is both of your first names.
MARTIN: It's interesting that the obvious comparisons have been drawn between the two of you, just in terms of your sound and your background. But I have to say that - I was saying this to one of our producers, that - her album was inspired by a breakup.
MARTIN: And while you have, you know, your torch songs, your baby-don't-leave-me songs, you sound like the girlfriend that you call when you want a dose of good sense.
MARTIN: I mean, are you really that even-keeled? Is that who you are?
SANDE: I don't know. I mean, I think I guess I try and put the sense in the music. I don't know how I am generally, but I try and give people a different way of thinking about things, or a positive way of looking at things. But I don't know. I hope I am.
MARTIN: Well, I'm thinking about "My Kind of Love," for example...
MARTIN: ...which is one of the songs on the album. When you talk about the fact that, you know, I'm the person who's there when all the flash-and-dash is gone.
MARTIN: And I think that that's that kind of good dose of good sense.
SANDE: Oh, cool.
MARTIN: Do you remember what inspired you to write that song?
SANDE: "My Kind of Love," I think it was while I was in med school, actually. And it's when you see people in that very vulnerable position in a hospital, you just learn so much from patients and you learn so much about what's important. And it was the families that would come day in, day out and just be beside their loved ones, you know. And I thought, God, that is my kind of love. That's the type of love that we all need, and when everything else is gone, then that's really all we have.
MARTIN: What about other aspects of your background, the fact that your father's from Zambia, your mom's from England?
MARTIN: Are there aspects of that that you think inspired your music, as well?
SANDE: Yeah, definitely. I mean - and growing up in Scotland as well, being kind of the only mixed-race family in this very small village. I've always felt very different. And when I was young it kind of, it made me very more of an introvert. But then as I grew older, I kind of began to embrace that, that feeling of being different. And that's really what the message is in the songs. I really wanted to speak for people who feel different. So it's been a big influence on me as a writer.
MARTIN: Among your many honors last year was that you performed in both the closing and opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.
MARTIN: Was that agony or ecstasy?
MARTIN: I mean, I could imagine it being fabulous, but I could also imagine it being just a total nightmare...
MARTIN: ...from a performance standpoint. Like, what?
SANDE: I mean, you know, it was terrifying. You know, I've never felt that nervous before, but, God, what an honor. You know, once I'd finished singing and it had gone well, yeah, I was ecstatic and I was very happy to be involved in something that I felt really represented our country in a very honest and frank way. So a real honor to be involved, but I hope I never feel that nervous again in my life.
MARTIN: I think you're going to sing one of the songs that you sang there...
SANDE: Yes. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...which we're excited about. I'm sorry. I can't replicate, like, the sounds of like tens of thousands of hyped people.
MARTIN: But I'll just - in spirit.
SANDE: OK. Yeah. We'll imagine it.
MARTIN: And it's "Read All About It."
MARTIN: OK. Let's hear it, and then you can tell us about it.
SANDE: OK. Cool.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "READ ALL ABOUT IT")
SANDE: (Singing) You've got the words to change a nation, but you're biting your tongue. You've spent a life time stuck in silence, afraid that you'll say something wrong. If no one ever hears it, how we gonna learn your song? So come on, come on, come on, come on. You've got a heart as loud as lions. So why let your voice be tamed? Baby, we're a little different. There's no need to be ashamed. You've got the light to fight the shadows, so stop hiding it away.
(Singing) Come on, come on, I wanna sing. I wanna shout. I wanna scream till the words dry out. So put it in all of the papers. I'm not afraid. They can read all about it. Read all about it.
(Singing) Let's get the TV and the radio to play our tune again. It's about time we had some airplay of our version of events. There's no need to be afraid. I will sing with you, my friend. So come on, come on. Yeah, I wanna sing. I wanna shout. I wanna scream till the words dry out. So put it in all of the papers. I'm not afraid. They can read all about it, read all about it.
(Singing) Yes, we're all wonderful, wonderful people. So when did we all get so fearful? Now we're finally finding our voices. So take a chance, come help me sing this. Yeah, I wanna sing. I wanna shout. I wanna scream till the words dry out. So put it in all of the papers. I'm not afraid. They can read all about it. Read all about it.
MARTIN: Thank you for that. Tell me about it, would you? What was on your mind?
SANDE: Well, this song - first, I did this with - there's an MC in the U.K. called Professor Green. So I was just singing the chorus. And then I started to think, well, what do I mean when I'm singing this song? What does - his verses were very personal. So when I was writing it, I was just thinking about been too afraid to kind of tell your truth, and conquering that. So, yeah, I was writing it to myself, but hopefully writing to others, inspiring others to kind of speak up, stand up and talk about things that are not right around you.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything that you've accomplished so far.
SANDE: Thank you.
MARTIN: What is Emeli Sande dreaming of next?
SANDE: You know, making a second album I'm very proud of. And taking the music, you know, over here is a big challenge ahead of me.
MARTIN: Well, you have a lot of people here who are already pulling for you. I mean, Jay-Z has been quoted as saying he thinks that you have the talent to conquer America. I don't how you feel, with those choice of words. I don't know if that's what you're aiming for, but, certainly, that there are a number of artists here, people who already are excited about seeing you and working with you.
MARTIN: What will that mean?
SANDE: What would it mean? I don't know. I've been so inspired by artists from over here. You know, Nina Simone was one of my biggest inspirations when I was a kid. So, to come and have a successful career over here just - I don't know. I feel like it would kind of complete a circle, you know, and it's important to me.
MARTIN: Well, welcome.
SANDE: Thank you.
MARTIN: We're glad you're here. We hope you'll come back and see us. Don't act like you don't know us.
MARTIN: Thank you for coming. Emeli Sande's debut album is called "Our Version of Events." She's in the middle of a 14-city headline tour in the U.S., and she was nice enough to stop by in the middle of a very busy time, our studios in Washington, D.C.
Thanks so much for joining us.
SANDE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: What should we go out on? Something from the album, we'll play it. What would you like to hear?
SANDE: "My Kind of Love."
MARTIN: Good choice.
MARTIN: "My Kind of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY KIND OF LOVE")
SANDE: (Singing) I know I'm far from perfect, nothing like your entourage. I can't grant you any wishes. I won't promise you the stars. But don't ever question if my heart beats only for you. It beats only for you. 'Cause when you've given up, when no matter what you do, it's never good enough. When you never thought that it could ever get this tough, that's when you feel my kind of love. And when you're crying out, when you fall and then can't pick your happy off the ground. When the friends you thought you had haven't stuck around. That's when you feel my kind of love.
MARTIN: You were just listening to Emeli Sande's song "My Kind of Love." That's from her debut album, "Our Version of Events."
And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.