If you don't know Emeli Sandé, you will soon. The 24-year-old Scottish-born singer and songwriter has already topped the charts in the UK with her debut album Our Version of Events, and she'll head stateside this summer as the opening act for the world-conquering rock band Coldplay. With a shock of blonde hair and a soulful voice that alternates between power and intimacy, Sandé is a distinctive presence even in a crowded field. After serving as a songwriter for UK stars like Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle and Tinie Tempah, the life-long singer's own music has swiftly earned her similar levels of notoriety. She was recently named the winner of the Critics Choice Award at the 2012 BRITs, an honor that has previously gone to supernova Adele, Florence + The Machine and BET Music Matters alum Jesse J. Alicia Keys has taken notice, too, and the multiple Grammy-winner recently recruited Sandé as a writer and collaborator on her new album. Emeli Sandé will make her live U.S. television debut on the Conan show tonight [April 16]. BET.com caught up with the newly added BET Music Matters artist to talk about her stint in medical school, late-night writing sessions and the Alicia Keys songs she can't wait for you to hear.
BET.com: You started singing and writing at an early age, but you didn’t commit to it right away. You actually went to medical school for a few years at the University of Glasgow. Why that particular path?
Emile Sandé: I left music school when I was really young. My dad was always a really big advocate of education and I always knew that once it was time to pursue a career in the music industry that I wanted to have a proper education behind me. I've always been fascinated by the human body, so I felt like medicine would be the perfect subject for me. I really wanted the academic challenge as well.
Did you like school?
Yeah, I loved it actually. I was a real geek in school and I really loved learning as well as my teachers. My dad was actually a teacher at the same school where I went, so I really enjoyed it, actually.
Did he warm up to the idea of you being a musician?
Yeah, my parents were always really supportive of my music as well. They knew that that was in my blood and it was eventually what I was gonna do. So they came to every show and they paid for piano lessons and all of that.
What kind of music were you into as a kid?
My dad introduced me to a lot of great artists when I was about 8 or 9. Really great singers like Anita Baker and Mariah Carey. But it was when he showed me Nina Simone, that's what really, really moved me and made me want to write songs and learn the craft and pick up the piano and all of that. I grew up in Scotland and my only real connection to any kind of music scene was through the radio. I used to stay up late and listen to late night shows in Scotland like Rhythm Nation. Through that I got exposed to people like Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys. As I got older I really started to get into a lot of different types of music. When I was 17, I got my first job at a record store and that exposed me to a lot of new sounds.
In addition to writing your own songs, you’ve also written for quite a few other people as well. Is there ‘wow factor’ that comes with hearing music stars singing one of your songs?
Yeah, I have that feeling often. With Cheryl Cole, definitely, and Leona Lewis. I had watched her [Leona Lewis] rise as an artist, so then getting to contribute something was really cool. And then getting to work with Alicia, I mean I’ve been a fan of hers since I was 15 so that’s been a real honor. It’s always an amazing experience to work with someone on a song and to hear their interpretation of it. You get to kind of watch it become its own animal.
What’s a great song that you’ve heard recently that you wish was one of yours?
There’s a great band called Labyrinth, I don’t know if you guys have them in the States yet, but their song I really love. Also, Ed Sheeran. He has a song called “18” that’s really good.
How was the experience of working on your own album? It must have felt like a long time coming.
Yeah, it was a long time coming. It was a lot of writing first and then featuring with other artists. It feels like I’ve been working on this album for three years because even when I was writing other stuff, I was working on this, too. But now that it’s out and people have responded to it, it’s such a great feeling. It’s been really affirming to see that people are connecting with the songs and to know that it’s me that they’re connecting to.
What else have you found gratifying?
Seeing the album perform well on the charts has been such a blessing. Beyond that, the shows have been a thrill, too. Seeing the fans singing your songs and meeting them and hearing about how the music impacted them and what their own interpretation of it is. I think that’s why you do it — to connect with people and to speak for people that maybe aren’t being spoken for. It’s a great feeling.
Now you’re back to work working on Alicia Keys’s next album. How’d you guys meet?
She was on tour in London for her Songs in A Minor [10 year] anniversary and I opened up for her. So we connected that way and ended up really hitting it off. Then we met in New York and had a writing session together that went well. After that we kept in touch and when she next came to London we wrote some more. So it’s been going on like that. It’s been a lovely experience. We’ve made some very beautiful songs and I’m excited for people to hear them.
How about Coldplay? What was it like touring with them?
Really ace. It was a really great experience. I’ve always been a massive fan of them as writers. And seeing them perform huge venues and the way they kept the crowd and were able to make intimate moments — that was an amazing learning curve for me.
Your first name is Adele. There’s another big artist out from the U.K., you might have heard of her, also named Adele. Has that made it hard to avoid comparisons?
[Laughs] Yeah, people definitely pick up on that. I took my middle name three years ago when she won the BRIT Critics Choice award and she just started getting bigger and bigger after that. So I think that was a good idea to distinguish myself as my own artist, and we are very different people. I’m a fan of Adele’s — I love what she does. What I love about her is her honesty; she makes such beautiful songs from a simple and straightforward place. I love to see people resonate with that.
You’ve talked about the importance of focusing on songs that come the most naturally to you. Do you have any rituals for getting the creative juices flowing?
Well, usually I have to make sure that it is past 10 at night. I’ve never written anything interesting before then. Beyond that it’s really about surrounding myself with people I trust. I need people with no kind of ulterior motives and who give me good conversation and good feedback and new ideas. It’s also good starting out with an instrument, either a guitar or a piano. That way there’s not really any thought to genre or radio, it’s just about what sounds best and really focusing on beautiful music.
You had a life before you were a professional artist. Do you ever think about doing something else besides singing later in life?
I’d love at some point to finish the medicine degree; I think that would be good. Uniting music and medicine could also be really cool — I might like to try something like that. I want take my music career as long and as far as it can go, but yeah, there are a lot of things that I’d like to do. I’d like to try writing for film and things like that, as well. But music is definitely what I’m focused on now.
Lastly, why do you think music matters?
I think music matters because physically we’re born to listen to music and be moved by music. I’m not going to get too medical on you, but if you look at our ears, they were designed to listen to melody. Music is universal and it speaks to people all over the world and from all different backgrounds so I think it’s one of the most important gifts that we have.
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(Photo: Lauren Dukoff/EMI Music)