Emeli Sandé: 'Divorce was painful for both of us so it's important something positive comes from it'
The singer talks to Susannah Butter about her marriage break-up, her hectic schedule, leaving her manager after 10 years, and how her new album has helped her to discover who she really is
Emeli Sandé describes her divorce as "like a big crash course in life". In 2013, a year after singing to a rapt crowd at the London Olympics opening ceremony, she split with Adam Gouraguine. She had been in a relationship with the marine biologist since she was 17 but they had only been married for a year. In the aftermath, she also left her manager of 10 years and took a break from touring. "It felt like a big upheaval of what I knew," she says now. "I needed to shake everything around for my sense of self, to move forward as an adult."
Sande (29) has just flown in from LA but has a zen attitude to jet lag and a ready smile. She wears a chunky gold cardigan and high-heeled patent black boots; her trademark shock of curly hair is dyed peroxide blonde. She's warding off a cold but that doesn't stop her drinking a large glass of white wine, which she acknowledges, "probably won't help".
It's "surreal" looking back on her career, she says. "I went straight from school into (the spotlight). I didn't have the chance to prove myself in the real world. I'd always have someone looking after me, picking up the pieces. It was independence that I was missing." She issues a disclaimer: "I don't know if that was a silly thing to want. A lot had changed in my life but I was singing the same songs and had the same set-up as when I was a kid."
She retreated, leaving her marital home in Hertfordshire for a flat in east London, where she has wanted to live since she was a child. "I love that it never stops going, even in the middle of the night. Anything goes."
But after a period of recovery, she's back, with Long Live the Angels, an album she says is "deeper and more grown up".
In one new song, Lonely, she addresses the courage needed to acknowledge that a relationship isn't working - "let's stop wasting all our energy ... don't lie to me, I knew you felt the changes," she sings.
She and Gouraguine were "the same person". "It was an amazing thing but it got to a point where we had to take our own paths, for me especially. He has a strong sense of himself but I just needed to know who I was."
Her marriage breakdown came during a time that her work schedule was relentless. "Everyone on my team would tell me to take a day off but I just enjoyed making music. Even when I had a day away from promoting, I'd call Naughty Boy and suggest we did a studio session, so I was burning myself out."
A hectic touring schedule meant "I wasn't the easiest person to be with". "He was so supportive but his life would take him somewhere else. It got a bit too difficult. I hope this album gives people the courage and realness to look at themselves because I avoided that for a while and had to face it eventually. It was so much work and I could tell it wasn't fair to us."
She continues: "I'm much better at putting emotions out through music so voicing my feelings was a big thing that I had to learn. I want the person I'm in a relationship with to feel great, so sometimes I'd not say how I was feeling to make sure everything was running smoothly, and run away from confrontation."
Gouraguine and Sandé aren't in touch but she still has a tattoo of his name and hopes he is happy. "It was painful for both of us, so it's important that something positive comes out of it."
Being single after more than 10 years with the same person was "pretty difficult". "The biggest challenge was finding out who I am. This album was about facing myself. There's no one else to blame, to depend on. I was learning not to validate myself on anything other than how I felt about myself."
Was there a wild rebound phase? "Yeah," she laughs. "I don't know how wild I got but I enjoyed the freedom. Freedom can be scary sometimes and I had to be careful that I wasn't going too wild or too safe." Her sister, who is "a brilliant teacher in London", helped.
Sandé grew up in Aberdeenshire. Her father came over from Zambia in 1985 to study and met her English mother in Sunderland, where Sandé was born. "He stayed here for us," she says. Although the family moved back to Zambia briefly when she was two, they returned to the UK because her mother was unwell and settled in Alford, where her father still teaches design technology. "My mum would always say we'd visit Zambia but it was too expensive. I wonder what my life would've been like if we'd stayed."
Growing up mixed-race, she "felt like an outsider". "I kept my head down but if we went to a different village we'd be stared at, which made me feel like I couldn't properly develop. I was very shy. I was so different to everybody that I didn't experience boyfriends and stuff at the normal age."
Music became her "sanctuary". Her father introduced her to "very intelligent women who were writing music and playing piano." "The first time I heard myself sing I was seven and recorded myself performing a Celine Dion song. It was 'you'd better think twice before you roll the dice'." She sings it jauntily. "When I heard it I burst into tears because I didn't sound like Celine Dion. I told my dad I was rubbish."
Her father, Joel, sings on one of her new songs, Tenderly. "I forced him into it," she laughs. "My mum keeps pulling his leg saying 'you know you'll have to go on stage', which makes him nervous." He recorded it on a family trip to Zambia in 2014, the first time she had returned since she was a child. "It was the last day, so it was quite emotional. My cousins were singing the song we'd been singing each night and my dad recorded himself harmonising with them on a dictaphone. It was such an important moment in my life that I wanted it to be part of the album."
Going to Zambia was "a life-changing event - a pilgrimage. It's very real there." She met her grandmother and cousins for the first time. They'd heard her song Next to Me but didn't realise "the scale at which it was all happening". "Next to Me was played at a nightclub and it blew me away to see how far the music had travelled." NGOSA is tattooed on her fingers. It's her great-great-grandfather's name, given to her by her grandmother because she asked for a Zambian name. "My mum wasn't happy about the tattoo but my dad liked it."
When she came back, she was inundated with offers from producers and artists who wanted to collaborate, but it was overwhelming. "It's difficult when there are so many options. I could only focus properly when I stripped it back to guitar and piano."
With this album, she's trying to "be more present in the moment". After a performance there's "an anti-climax". "You've reached these heights and you're like, 'OK, does anyone want to stay out? 'You try to keep the party going." This time around she's trying to practice mindfulness after shows. "I'd always pray before but forget after, so this time I'm trying to ground myself - if you keep floating up there for the rest of the week it's an unstable place to be. Just breathing is a big thing in my life now."
Sandé has a new boyfriend, the rapper, Hypo, and says: "I now feel entering any new relationship I have a stronger sense of self."
Writing songs is "like an addiction". "It's empowering - I was never desperate for someone to give me a song, I was doing it myself." But she had to fight her corner. "My experience is if you want to be a writer and take control of your music, you have to really prove yourself. I felt I had to push and hold on to things. I don't know if it's the same for men. I feel like some creativity has been lost."
She wants to support others, "especially women who don't have confidence or have been told they aren't sexy enough". She'd like to set up a music publishing company, "to give writers the same sanctuary I had".
We go on to discuss Trump: "Who knows what will happen?"
In 2013 she sung for Barack Obama. "He was very smooth and knew what to say to make everyone chill out. He said he hadn't heard my songs but his daughters love what I do. He and Michelle are so tall, like superstars." It feels like quite an uncertain time, with us leaving the EU. A lot of decisions are being made on fear, which I think is sad." Back in Scotland, her mother is "involved in the community and polling for elections" - it's uncertain there too, "very different to 2012".
She's "a bit worried" about returning to the spotlight but is staying cool. "I'm going to do it until I don't enjoy it anymore. "It's not something that I need to do to feel validated, I do it because I love it and I hope it can help people."