The first time I met Emeli Sandé, at the end of 2010 – long before she was the biggest-selling musician of 2012 and 2013 – she talked me through her tattoos. Well, some of them.
On her wrist, the Scottish singer/songwriter had “First Lucy”, in honour of her younger sister, “The idea being, first Lucy, then everyone else,” she explained. “I’d do anything for her.” Lucy’s matching inscription was “First Adele”, Adele being Sandé’s actual first name (Emeli is her middle name). But as pop star names go, another singer had already bagged that one.
On the back of her neck, meanwhile, the future star of the Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies – and, it seemed, every other major event of 2012 – had the legend: “Did our last castle look like this?” She wouldn’t tell me what that one meant, but was more forthcoming about the Virginia Woolf quote on her left arm: “A room of one’s own”. It dated from this one- time medical student’s placement in Spain the year before she signed her record deal.
But most striking of all was the ink on her right arm: a portrait of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It was an impressive – not to mention large – likeness of the painter whose muse was as turbulent as her private life.
“All my tattoos,” Sandé reflected, “like with my songs, as I’m growing up, they start to mean more and more. The Virginia Woolf quote – it’s the idea that the more you become a woman and the more you become involved [with people], the more you need your independence to create. Frida has the same meaning. She was a woman who had a masculinity to her – it was very strong, which I loved.”
So the creator of modern, empowering anthems Next to Me and Read All about It wears her heart on her sleeve and her heroines on her skin. And earlier this year she went further still. The 27-year-old travelled to Mexico City to make a documentary (Sunday ITV) about Kahlo. She visited the artist’s former home, talked to people who knew her, and took the fume-filled temperature of the chaotic mega-city in which the painter found both inspiration (partly via on/off lover and painter Diego Rivera) and pain (a traffic accident, miscarriages). She even tried on Kahlo’s clothes.
“When I moved to London from Glasgow, it was my first real liberation, a feeling of: OK, I’m not a doctor any more,” says Sandé when we meet for lunch in a private members’ club in central London. “So my Frida tattoo was a real statement that I was making the commitment to being an artist. Because you can’t have a tattoo like this if you’re a doctor – you have to wear short sleeves.”
Sandé needed to represent visually the bold move of swapping her medical studies at Glasgow University for an assault on the pop charts. Who better than an artist who painted some 70 self-portraits, and depicted herself with self-lacerating honesty – warts, moustache and all? “Frida Kahlo to me represents bravery and art,” nods Sandé.
She felt a kinship in other ways. Kahlo, who died in 1954 aged only 47, was half-Mexican, half-German, and was conflicted by feeling both European and Latin American. Sandé was born in Sunderland to an English mother and Zambian father, yet grew up almost entirely in rural Aberdeenshire.
“I lacked identity, really. My only identity was as a musician. I think that’s why I clung to it so much, and needed it so much in my life… I just felt like, ‘Oh s**t, I’m the weirdo everyone’s looking at. Up in a tiny village in Scotland, how can I ever fit in? Outside of my friends and teachers, I’m still this weird black girl!” she laughs.
After a spell in Hackney, north-east London Sandé now lives just outside the capital. She’s spent some of the money accrued from album sales totally four million on a Hertfordshire pile in which she’s building a studio. But while she regularly visits her parents in her home village, and finds “peace” there, she won’t be drawn on the independence referendum.
“I’m ignorant to what it would really mean,” she says of a Yes vote. “There’s Scottish pride and feeling like you’re British – but I don’t really feel anything. I’m a bit Zambian, a bit Cumbrian [on her mother’s side], a bit Scottish, live in London… so I’m a bit like a gypsy to be honest. So I don’t know. I’m too ignorant of the facts to even make a decision, especially publicly.”
As Scotland’s biggest worldwide musical export, she knows any pronouncements would be seized upon by either political camp north of the border. This guardedness comes, in part, from her experiences promoting her phenomenally successful debut album Our Version of Events.
She concedes that she was probably overexposed. “I was exhausted by the end of it. I wanted respect but never really had a need to be famous. I loved that people connected with the album, but it made me uncomfortable to be that well known. There are too many opinions about you.
“I am a shy person,” admits this triple Brit Award-winning chart-topper who managed to wed her long-term boyfriend, marine biologist Adam Gouraguine, away from the paparazzi glare in September 2012, and who maintains a private life that is very much that.
This discomfort in the spotlight was one of the reasons she declined the offer to take Jessie J’s place on the judging panel for The Voice UK (Kylie Minogue took the slot). Sandé doesn’t have anything against talent shows per se – indeed, as a jobbing songwriter she has written for Leona Lewis, Alicia Keys and Rihanna, and for Britain’s Got Talent’s greatest success story, Susan Boyle.
She explains the seeming incongruity of her composing for SuBo in typically straightforward terms: “The request was just Syco and Simon Cowell respecting what I did… and that clip of her first Britain’s Got Talent performance, it just made me so emotional. Susan Boyle is a real woman. It reminded me of people up in Aberdeenshire, my mum and my aunties. People that dream – and everybody dreams. And I thought, ‘This is a real person who hasn’t had the best life, who’s inspiring people, and who’s sold a s**tload of records’ – how cool is that to be involved?” Sandé shrugs and smiles.
That said, she thinks The X Factor, The Voice and the like are useful at developing musical talent, “only if it’s not manipulated and over- edited. If people get a chance to do something they dream of, you can’t be snobby towards that. I just wish there was more [new] songwriting on those shows. And when they exploit dreams, that’s heartbreaking. That’s what p***es me off. Don’t do that to people just so we can watch it on TV.”
When we speak, Sandé is just back from a “writing camp” in Paris for Rihanna’s next album. The following week, she is bound for New York, to write again with Alicia Keys. And immediately after that she’s visiting Zambia, under the auspices of Oxfam, with her family.
But beyond that, there’s the matter of that Difficult Second Album – a comeback record anticipated almost as keenly as that of the other Adele. The evening before our interview, Sandé performed with Chasing Grace, a new act signed to a song-publishing company she’s co-founded. She sang two new songs, Peace and Boats. But ask her how far along she is with the follow-up to Our Version of Events, and she grimaces. “Right now I don’t know. I don’t even know the sound of it.”
Perspectives: Under My Skin – Emeli Sandé in Search of Frida Kahlo, Sunday 10:00pm on ITV