Two years ago, Emeli Sande was questioning if her future was in music. The Aberdeenshire-raised singer, 35, had departed her major label home of 10 years, Virgin, and was looking for direction elsewhere.
“When I left the label, I left everything that attached me business-wise to music,” she explains. “I really had to ask myself, ‘Do you want to go back into this? And if you do, why? What do you want to offer with your music?’
“Because for 10 years I’ve just been on this, ‘OK, what’s next? Keep going’. It was very speedy. You don’t often get that time to really make a decision.”
Breaking through in 2012, Sande was a medical student best known for singing on hits by up-and-coming grime rappers like Wiley and Chipmunk. But following the release of her eight-times platinum-selling debut album Our Version Of Events, everything changed.
A decade later and Sande has a CV most recording artists would kill for – winning Brits, playing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, and being awarded an MBE.
Yet, she has also weathered a painful divorce and, during the pandemic, even entertained the idea of giving up music for good. “In my thoughts, I did,” she admits. “But I think deep down, music is something I’ll always do.
“When we were told to stay indoors and all shows were cancelled, there definitely was a point, especially during that first lockdown, where I did think, ‘This is it’.
“They were telling us to retrain. I was like, ‘Oh God, what am I going to do? I’m going have to start med school from year one again’.”
Sande overcame those anxieties and started work on her fourth album, Let’s Say For Instance, signing to an independent record label, Chrysalis. However, her goalposts had shifted.
“With this album, I wanted to really touch people and come back as honest as possible in myself, so when I do connect with fans, we’re having a really true personal relationship, and we can get a bit deeper in that sense.”
Sande started pulling the album together in March 2020. As well as newer songs such as Brighter Days, it features tracks that were written for her final album with Virgin, but rejected. But ever sanguine, she tells me there are no hard feelings.
“I would never speak out of turn, because I did have a wonderful 10 years with them and got to release albums that I truly believed in,” she offers. “They never forced me to put out a song that I hadn’t written and they always respected my artistry.
“But there is a difference going to an independent label, because there’s not that corporate pressure as such. And also, because I signed with Virgin so young – I was only about 21 or 22 – I hadn’t really fully come into myself as a woman.”
Many of the staff who signed her had also left in the intervening years and Sande describes parting ways with Virgin as a “natural end” to their relationship.
Let’s Say For Instance channels this newfound sense of personal freedom into 16 tracks of mid-tempo pop, R&B and soul. Some tracks, such as Look What You’ve Done, draw on genres like jungle or drum and bass, in a nod to her pre-pop career.
A new label is not the only major shift in Sande’s life. In April, she revealed she had fallen in love with a woman, a classical pianist, after they collaborated on a track for her new album.
Any worries she had about coming out publicly were quickly quashed. “I felt I really had to be honest about who I am and who I’m in love with,” she recalls. “And I didn’t really know what to expect, it was quite a daunting prospect.
“But thankfully, I have a supportive team around me. I’ve just been genuinely touched and overwhelmed by the love and the response, and I am just so thankful for it.
“We both feel so much better now we can get on with our lives, so it feels brilliant.”
Since rising to fame, Sande has had an uneasy relationship with the spotlight. Her lyrics have often been vulnerable and self-reflective, but still general enough to remain relatable. This was partly why she felt the urge to speak out.
“I was quite nervous, but it feels good and I think for me, in everything I do, I just try to be as bold and honest as possible.
“That’s part of my personality, whether it’s music or writing, I have to be bold and I have to be truthful, because [otherwise] it feels like I’m not being myself. So it did feel like this big part of my life where it didn’t see my personality.
“Everything else in my life was very open and honest. So why not the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me?
“Falling in love with the love of your life is something I want to shout from the rooftops and celebrate. I feel a lot more like myself now that I can be as I am in every aspect of my life.”
The bombastic, hopeful Brighter Days best encapsulates this feeling of wanting to share happiness with the world – an approach she learned from her sister.
“My sister is very spiritual. Well, we all are. But she’s read deeply about things and she says often to spread the light, spread the love; we think of that as a passive action.
“But really you have to be a warrior of light, not that you be aggressive with it, but you have to come as strong and as forceful as you can, because the other energies are very powerful.
“So with Brighter Days, and with this whole album, if I really want to uplift people, I have to be very strong about that.”
Sande is hopeful the upheaval in her life is over and that her late 30s brings peace.
“What do they call it? The Saturn Return? At 27, I really went through it,” she says, laughing. “And even though it was difficult at the time, now I’m 35, I’m like, ‘OK, that was necessary’. If you don’t take those steps in your 20s, you can end up living a life that isn’t quite you.”
As our conversation comes to an end, she adds: “It’s always been this big storm that was supposed to happen – and I just thank God that I’ve survived it. I feel so much better coming out the other side.”
Emeli Sande’s new album, Let’s Say for Instance, is out on May 6 on Chrysalis Records.