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INTERVIEW: Emeli Sande on returning to Scotland to uncover a new generation of musical talent

© Alan PeeblesEmeli Sande
Emeli Sande

Emeli Sande’s latest project was a real step into the past.

The BBC Scotland series took the multi award-winning singer right back to her earliest musical moments in the northeast of Scotland.

But with the new BBC show, Street Symphony, her latest album just out and a UK tour starting in November, it’s very much the future Emeli is looking to.

She shot to dizzying fame with chart-topping singles and albums and performed to global audiences at both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics.

She has had heartbreak, too, with divorce from husband Adam Gouraguine and admitted she felt “lost” and feared she was having a breakdown.

Now, though, she has told The Sunday Post how, in her 30s, she is in a much better place.

“It was a difficult phase, but an important one,” says Emeli, 32.

“Sometimes you can’t be as busy and you have to process things.

“There are some things you can’t rush and healing takes time. Taking that time and building confidence was important.

“That was definitely needed but now I feel like I’m in a different phase of my life. I feel a lot freer and a lot happier.

“I feel grounded a lot more sure of myself.”

© Alan Peebles
Emeli Sande

Street Symphony is the four-part series that sees Emeli return to her musical beginnings, but will also hopefully act as a springboard to success for young talent.

She has been scouring the country, looking for the nation’s best buskers. She hand-picked her favourite street performers with the aim of honing the finest untapped musical talent to play alongside the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at an emotional concert at the City Halls in Glasgow.

“I loved the idea of scouting for talent on the streets of Scotland and then having the classical music element at the end,” said Emeli.

“I never had the guts to busk when I was starting out although doing the programme definitely inspired me to want to give it a go.

“I have so much respect for the buskers I met because you have to be so brave to put yourself out there and just see what happens.

“It was great to see their passion and raw hunger for music. When I asked what their ambitions were they all said they just wanted to be able to play live and share their music.

“It was a great reminder for me of the real point of music, taking away the whole industry aspect.

“I joined in singing with a couple of them and it was so much fun.”

Inverness, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh are the cities in the quest, but it all starts in Alford, near Aberdeen, where she grew up.

“There were just lots and lots of memories,” says Emeli with a beaming smile.

“I hadn’t seen my old primary music teacher, Mrs Simpson, since I was maybe eight. She had such a big influence on me because she made learning music so much fun.

“It was a real blast from the past and we remembered so many stories together. I always remembered that she had these massive earrings in all the time.

“It was really heart-warming and watching the kids practicing was a really lovely experience.

“Seeing them all sitting on the floor, learning, took me back to when I was doing that.

“It is so important to have musical education as a part of young people’s lives.”

Read All About It, Beneath Your Beautiful and 2012 album Our Version Of Events made Emeli one of the biggest names in the music business and she followed it up with 2016’s Long Live The Angels.

It has taken until now for her latest Real Life, out on September 13.

She says she has waited until now to make the album she really wanted to.

“Getting the connections with the people I wanted to work with took the longest part.

“I wanted to get it completely right and when I found the team it all fell into place late last year. I feel the time it took was definitely necessary.

“I approached the vocals for this in more of a performance style rather than as a pop song.

“I was listening to Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin a lot and wanted to capture the element of freedom they have in their music. I’m really proud of it.”

And she insists that she doesn’t feel the pressure because of the multi-million-selling releases that have gone before.

“The industry is so different now and I just want to release music and be able to get my word and my message out.

“It’s not something you can predict and I really try not to worry.

“If you do, it can stifle what you want to say. So it’s just a case of getting it out, touring it live and seeing what people think. I don’t think there’s any point in worrying.”

Emeli visiting her old primary school

One of the other steps back into the past Emeli took was revisiting Zambia, where her dad, Joel, is from.

She took inspiration for the album from the visit, only her second time there as an adult.

“I went more when I was a child and I would like to try and go back once a year now,” said Emeli.

“It’s obviously a very different culture and lifestyle. It’s a place that feels very in sync with the earth and when the lights were off it was nice to go back to that natural cycle.

“It was different being around a massive family. In Britain, there’s my sister and I and my mum and dad, but over there you have my grandma, all the cousins, all the uncles and everyone is living in the same village.

“No one treats me any different, I’m just one of the family. I can’t speak the language although I want to learn so I can communicate on a deeper level.”

Emeli’s tour, which kicks off at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, has two Scots dates. She’s at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on November 17 and then Glasgow’s SEC Armadillo on November 19.

“There is a special energy in Scotland and it always feels like I get a very warm welcome,” said Emeli.

“And having studied in Glasgow, it feels like a second homecoming. I get to meet old friends I went to uni with. I’m really excited about the tour.

“It can be nerve-racking but I try not let it get to me because you give a lot better performance when you’re relaxed.”

Street Symphony starts on Thursday, September 19 at 10pm on BBC Scotland.


A role worthy of note

This summer Emeli took over from former athlete Steve Cram as the new chancellor of Sunderland University.

Emeli was born in the city and the university had a crucial part in her life.

Her mum and dad, Diane and Joel, met while studying at what was then a polytechnic and they actually missed their graduation in 1987 because it coincided with her birth.

“I was so honoured when the university offered me this role,” said Emeli. “It’s a great privilege.

“The university has an ethos of trying to bring as much equality in education as possible and that’s a great thing to be a part of.

“My mum and dad were both the first in their families to go to university.

“I came along and they didn’t get to the graduation so it was nice to be able to mark that all these years later.

“They can’t be believe I’m the chancellor and are really proud of me.”

And, having studied medicine at Glasgow University, she’s excited to be taking over just as Sunderland opens a new school of medicine this month.

It’s one of only five new medical schools established to address the regional imbalance of medical education places across England.

“It’s good to be there at the start of that,” she adds.