EMELI SANDE with EMILY KING at the Pike Room

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EMELI SANDE with EMILY KING at the Pike Room

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While still a teenager, Emeli Sandé got her first big break as a singer-songwriter. After her kid sister filmed her performing one of her own songs (the smoldering "Nasty Little Lady") at a piano in their rural Scotland home, Sandé sent the clip to a BBC talent contest. She was named one of the contest winners, and record-deal offers soon started pouring in. But instead of signing to a label, Sandé put her music career on hold and embarked on a six-year degree in medicine. Studying at Glasgow University, she specialized in clinical neuroscience "cause I really like all the brain stuff."

As evidenced on her debut album "Our Version of Events," she holds a deep affinity for all the heart stuff and soul stuff as well. A fervent songwriter since the age of 10, the 24-year-old Sandé gracefully flaunts her rich voice and penchant for sophisticated melody on "Our Version of Events." The album reveals her to be an uncompromising creative force in the vein of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Lauryn Hill (each of whom Sandé names as a key influence on her unforgettable sound). Just as key to her as these musical influences are artists in other media like painter Frida Kahlo (a tattoo of the artist adorns Emeli's forearm), poet Sylvia Plath and writer Virginia Woolf. The common denominator for all of these influences is a raw honesty that permeates Sandé's work.

It's clearly having an impression as the early awards, accolades from the press, and admiration from other artists have already begun to pile up. She has already been announced as the winner of the coveted BRIT Critics Choice Award for 2012 (recent winners include Adele and Florence + the Machine) and in an unprecedented twist, was also nominated as Breakthrough Artist at this year's BRITs as well. The Times of London notes that she "combines Winehouse sass and Nina Simone purr "and ID magazine counters that "Emeli Sandé is not the next so and so, she's the person other acts will be compared to in the coming years." Early admirers include diverse artists like Coldplay and Alicia Keys (both of whom she has recently opened for) and the latter was so impressed that she has been writing with Sandé for her next album and co-wrote and produced the track "Hope" on "Our Version of Events." Keys has also been effusive in her praise, telling Dazed and Confused she was "a magnificent new artist... We did some writing together for my upcoming record. I just love her style and her flow -- super raw" and Adele, upon viewing Sandè's performance of the track "Next To Me" on Jools Holland, simply Tweeted "How incredible is she?"

Throughout "Our Version of Events," Sandé creates a heady and complex soundscape to showcase her towering talent. There's the strings-drenched epic "Daddy" ("about addiction, to anything," says Sandé) and the hypnotic "Heaven" (early-'90s drum-and-bass topped off by that glorious, soul-stirring voice). But while the record bears a sharp and shining retro-futurist feel, it's also rife with raw emotion -- a phenomenon that Sandé credits to a dogged commitment to acting on instinct. "Anytime I write something that's trying to be too smart, it doesn't work," she confesses. "'Kill The Boy' was the first idea that came into my head. Any song I have to work on longer than a day, I just leave it. It's not gonna work. Everything that's good is really instant."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that those instincts have been honed by over a decade of songwriting experience. Starting in her early childhood, Sandé's father (from Zambia) and mother (from Cumbria) helped refine her musical knowledge and supported her ambitions as a singer and musician. By age eight, her broad and staggering talents were attracting attention, both good and bad: At primary school in the small Aberdeenshire town of Alford, Sandé and her classmates wrote a song for a talent show -- for which Sandé friends ended up stealing all her ideas. "That was the first time I thought, 'Well, if it's worth stealing then it might be all right!'", she recalls with a laugh. "That was the first time I thought I might be a songwriter. I always knew I wanted to be a musician, and I always knew I wanted to write, 'cause the people I was listening to all wrote. I never thought it was an option to sing anyone else's songs."

At age 11, full of pre-adolescent fire, Sandé wrote her first real song with a proper structure. "It even had a middle eight!" she remembers proudly. "It was called something like 'Tomorrow Starts Again.' All my songs were about world peace and all these political issues. I had a lot of fun with all that." Over the next few years, word began to spread about a precociously gifted teenager from the middle of nowhere and her big-but-intimate voice. In addition to nabbing the ears of UK radio stations, Sandé was invited to perform at MTV's Camden studio.

Then came her triumph at the BBC competition and the resulting record-deal offers. "Doing the rounds of labels, I just didn't like it," says Sandé. "I just thought, I'd rather be a bit more in control than this. It was hard at the time because it was so tempting. But I was doing my exams at school, then I got accepted into medicine at Glasgow Uni. It would have been too much of a risk to say no to medicine then go down to London and just be another singer."

After relocating to Scotland's biggest city and its buzzing music scene, Sandé began supplementing her student income by playing piano and jazz standards in hotels. Still, she struggled to keep up with songwriting while studying. "I had a lot of writer's block and my head was full of facts and exams," she recalls. "I found it really hard to experience anything to write about other than sitting in the library. But I was doing shows and everyone on the course knew I was a musician. My writing speeded up, though, as soon as I started going down to London and meeting producers there. Before, it was just me and a piano so the sounds I could make were quite limited."

Meanwhile, Sandé's mother sent a CD of her songs to the BBC's Radio 1Xtra. After DJ Ras Kwame played Sandé's songs as part of his Homegrown Sessions, Sandé took the stage at a showcase in Soho that resulted in her teaming up with producer/writer Shahid Khan (aka Naughty Boy). As a writing partnership, Khan and Sandé immediately clicked. "When we started together, it took the music to something completely original," she says. "It took me out of my jazz piano niche, and it took him out of his urban scene. Then we started writing for pop people."

One of their first compositions, "Diamond Rings," was quickly snatched up by British rapper Chipmunk. Featuring guest vocals by Sandé, the track became Chipmunk's first top-ten single in summer 2009. By the following March, Virgin Records signed Sandé, who then decided to take time out from her medical studies. After writing a slew of songs for British acts like Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Tinchy Stryder, Cheryl Cole, and The Saturdays, Sandé set to work on her debut record.

Taking a cue from Joni Mitchell and her other songwriting idols, Sandé achieves an irresistible contemporary-yet-timeless quality on "Our Version of Events." "I can still relate to a Joni song, even though it's 25 years old -- that's the main and important thing to me," she says. "I'm not too bothered about what category my music goes in and there's no point in limiting in who you can reach, but I want it to be respected," she adds. As such, Sandé has firmly stood by her long- nurtured musical instincts and crafted brilliantly genre-warping songs that first and foremost speak to her own sensibilities. "You get so many opinions of which direction you should be going in, and you hear horror stories of people writing 400 songs and the album being shelved," she says. In Sandé's estimation, it's far better to "come knowing what you wanna do. And I know what I want to do."


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