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Different Learnings

12 April 2012 | 1:58 pm | Cyclone Wehner

Songwriting soulstress and buzz act of the moment Emeli Sande reveals her diverse influences – from Sylvia Plath to Alicia Keys – to Cyclone.

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Adele Emeli Sandé is fascinated by Sylvia Plath, but she's not emo. The Scottish soulstress read Plath's novel The Bell Jar while studying neuroscience. “I was really interested in her breakdown and the whole psychiatry behind what happened,” she explains. Sandé progressed to Plath's pained poetry. “I have to be in the right mood to read it – it's very dark at times.”

Sandé established herself as a songwriter before premiering with the euphoric single Heaven late last year. The young Adele (Sandé has switched to her middle-name, for obvious reasons!) was born to a Zambian father and English mother. She grew up in the village of Alford, where her Dad taught maths and technology. Sandé demonstrated her musical precocity learning piano. In her teens, the Nina Simone fan scooped a talent competition orchestrated by DJ Trevor Nelson, but declined restrictive label offers, wanting to retain artistic autonomy. The academic Sandé then commenced a medical degree at the University of Glasgow. But soon she was questioning her vocation, music her true love.

In London Sandé bonded with producer Naughty Boy (aka Shahid Khan), co-penning – and singing on – Chipmunk's 2009 UK Top 10 Diamond Rings, the first of several grime collabs. Simon Cowell, of all people, commissioned Sandé to write for his Syco roster. Susan Boyle recorded her This Will Be The Year. Ironically, Sandé is yet to encounter her fellow Scot. “Maybe if I met her she wouldn't live up to my expectations and the dream would crumble,” she says humbly. “So I think maybe I'm just gonna keep her as this great character in my head!”

Sandé's solo career started promisingly when Heaven reached #2 in the UK and topped the charts while featuring on Professor Green's Read All About It. Sandé became the fifth consecutive female act to win the Brit Critics' Choice award, following Jessie J. Her debut album, Our Version Of Events, is now UK platinum. The singer aimed to create a “proper” album, not a collection of singles. As such, there are ballads as well as acoustic songs. Many have touted Heaven (helmed by sometime Kylie Minogue producer Mike Spencer) as a throwback to Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy. And Sandé doesn't deny a trip hop influence. “I listened to a lot of the Bristol scene that came out in the early '90s,” she reveals. “I used to work in Virgin Megastore when I was 17, so I would always check out old music that I'd kinda missed. So I listened to a lot of Portishead, Massive Attack – that was kinda that scene in the early '90s. I was definitely inspired by the way they mixed orchestral music with really dark, simplistic beats. I really love that.”

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Sandé's lyrics, too, take a darker turn, dealing with dysfunctional relationships; and it's no surprise that, aside from Plath, she's also intrigued by Virginia Woolf and tortured Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. “I always just write about things I feel passionate about,” Sandé says. Often she'll have a long discussion with Khan that culminates in a song.

Sandé may be wary of meeting Boyle, but she happily worked with another modern idol, Alicia Keys, in New York, the pair sharing a classical background. Keys produced Sandé's socially-themed Hope. “It's just so lovely when you meet someone you're inspired by and as a person they're just as inspiring. We had a great time.” Yes, the girl with the peroxide quiff is leading a very different life as a pop star. However, Sandé does occasionally miss her days as a med student. “I really enjoyed studying – and I had great friends up there,” she says of Glasgow. “I never thought I'd say it, but I definitely miss being in the library sometimes and just really focusing and feeling my brain waking and learning something new every day. I guess it's a different type of learning now in the music industry, but I miss that academic challenge.”