Emeli Sandé on Identity and Refocusing Her Mind

Gemma Calvert
By Gemma Calvert,
updated on Jun 18, 2019

Emeli Sandé on Identity and Refocusing Her Mind

While scaling the heights of the UK and US charts in 2013, Emeli Sandé was also experiencing the heartaches and emotional difficulties of a divorce from her highschool sweetheart, which left her feeling lost – not just personally, but with her music, too.

Now, she’s in an incredibly positive place. Focused on taking care of herself emotionally and physically, her music may be skyrocketing, but her feet, and heart, are firmly planted on the ground

In her bedroom in Shoreditch, east London, Emeli Sandé has installed a treadmill where she jogs every morning, before sinking to the floor for 20 minutes of yoga and meditation.

Fitness fanatic? Lucky to have an hour spare daily to invest in her health? For singer-songwriter Emeli, there are no labels, only truth. Moving her body, as she’s discovered after a very private struggle with depression and anxiety, is now as fundamental to her living as breathing oxygen. Her emotional wellbeing depends on it.

“Exercise has made such a difference to me,” says Emeli. “I feel so much happier, and I’m not doing it to lose weight, but to feel good and like myself again.”

“The physical changes are a by-product of the emotional changes. I’ve learned that you can’t give yourself all the time. With yoga and meditation, energy comes back in, and it’s also about what you put into your body, and who you spend time with. Anything less, and you’ll just drain yourself out.”

Emeli Sande in a white blouse and jeans, gazing away from the camera

Photography | Joseph Sinclair

Emeli has been there. The aftermath of her well-documented divorce from childhood sweetheart Adam Gouraguine in 2013 preceded depression and growing anxiety about her place in the music industry, which would surprise anyone familiar with her stellar rise to global stardom.

Emeli was three years into a medical degree when she quit to become a singer. By 2012 she was the UK’s most promising new artist, scooping a Critics’ Choice Brit Award – a surefire indication of future stardom, with previous winners including Adele and Florence and The Machine. Her first album debuted at number one, has sold more than 5.4 million copies to date, and has been certified platinum seven times in the UK and Ireland. Emeli was also awarded an MBE last February, and has written songs for megastars including Rihanna and Katy Perry. Yet despite her money-can’t-buy achievements, five years ago Emeli began emotionally unravelling.

“I doubted whether I wanted to continue being a musician,” she admits. “I questioned whether people wanted to hear me, because people were saying I was on TV too much. People said I was overexposed, and then I thought: ‘Maybe I don’t have a place in this music industry, and if people don’t want to hear it, what shall I do?’

“I was going through my separation, and really trying to get my head around the industry and where I sat in it. It was everything all at once, and I lost my confidence. Even though I was shy as a kid, I was very confident about what I wanted to do, and I worked to try to make it happen. The saddest part, when someone’s suffering like that, is you lose your natural personality and the confidence goes.”

Emeli opened up to her best friend and younger sister Lucy – mum of her beloved nine-month-old nephew and with whom she lives with part-time – but put on a brave face to everyone else. The problem, she understands now, is she didn’t fully comprehend how troubled she was.

“People who really knew me, they could have seen but, me? I was thinking: ‘I’m just tired and stressed.’ At the time, I was like, ‘I’m not depressed,’ but looking back this year, and knowing how I am now as a person, I’ve realised.

“I never had therapy, and that would have fast-tracked [things]. It’s scary because it’s like quicksand if you don’t recognise it.”

I wanted to make music that's happy, and not be lying about being happy

Songwriting has always been Emeli’s counsel. Her 2016 album Long Live The Angels was an audible outpouring of heartbreak, with ‘Breathing Underwater’, a track documenting her divorce, so emotionally raw you want to leap through the speakers and hug away Emeli’s pain.

When we meet at a riverside cafe in east London, it’s to discuss her new album, Real Life, which in contrast to her last, is like a fizzing ball of bright sunshine – reflective of her newly restored state of mind after spending the past year transforming her health, both physically and emotionally.

“This past couple of years, I thought: ‘I want to be in control and I don’t want my emotions to be dictating my body,’” says Emeli. “I’ve been through something and now I’m out the other end, but even before those difficult years, I’d never felt this energised or happy. Once you defeat something, you’re stronger than ever before.”

Emeli’s motivation to get back in the driving seat of her own life was twofold. Last summer, she returned from a music festival “inspired to feel fully empowered in myself”. She also watched a YouTube video of Whitney Houston’s rousing ‘Welcome Home Heroes’ performance from 1991, which reminded her of the artist she needed to be.

“It’s the most pristine, perfect performance vocally and visually; she had so much energy for the crowd,” says Emeli. “When you go on tour, you have to have energy. I just thought: ‘I want to get my energy back, to express myself properly.’ I wanted to make music that’s happy, and not be lying about being happy. That was the biggest incentive to me — feeling and expressing myself [again].”

Emeli Sande wearing a red dress, smiling and dancing

Photography | Joseph Sinclair

Emeli believes she has been afflicted with anxiety “most of her life”, but in recent months, through meditation and yoga, has learned to “quiet” her mind.

“My anxiety came from over-thinking, but learning how to breathe has helped me to relax and release endorphins,” she explains.

“It sounds silly because we all need to breathe to stay alive, but sometimes you’re doing shallow breathing all day, and that affects your mentality.”

Born Adele Emeli Sandé (professionally she chose to use her middle name), Emeli grew up in Alford, a tiny village near Aberdeen, with her Zambian dad Joel, Cumbria-born mum Diane, and sister Lucy. A self-confessed “loner”, she locked herself in the music room every lunch break to play the piano, but while she was conversationally introverted, her creative talent spoke volumes.

“I couldn’t express myself so much through talking, that’s why it got channelled into singing or weird hair,” says Emeli, who began dreaming of being a pop star after seeing Alicia Keys in concert at 16. When she quit university and moved to London to follow her dreams, she discovered more expression by dying her hair, styling it into a quiff, and decorating her body with tattoos.

“Looking back, I think that was my delayed teenage rebellion! It was a breaking free of some sort, and I felt a confidence from completely having no expectations,” she says.

Emeli’s confidence was also boosted by making friends “on a deep level” with people as equally music-obsessed as she, plus finally living in a culturally diverse city, vastly different to Alford where Emeli and her sister were the only two mixed-race children at school.

“London is so special because there’s black culture, and so many different kinds, so many mixed-race people,” explains Emeli.

“I’d always been like ‘I’m black and I’m different’, but then you start to dissect it into: ‘I’m mixed-race and my mum has a whole separate culture.’ In London everyone can be who they are, as long as they’re bringing the best of themselves. I love that freedom of mind. It’s just: ‘Who are you? Show us and be bold about it.’”

To read more of Emeli's exclusive chat with us, pick up the July issue of Happiful in supermarkets from Thursday 20 June.

Emeli’s new single, ‘Extraordinary Being’, is out now. Taken from the new album, Real Life, out soon.

Happiful July 2019 cover

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Photography | Joseph Sinclair
Make-up and Hair | Yasmina Bentaieb
Styling | Krishan Parmar

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