Emeli Sandé on How Divorce and 'Isolation' Shaped Her Second Album

Janell Shirtcliff
Emeli Sandé photographed Oct. 27 at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.

Outside the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, Emeli Sandé stands on the hotel steps awaiting a car to take her to Santa Monica to perform her second and third gigs of her first 24 hours in Los Angeles. A flowing blue Oxford trench coat reveals one of her 10 tattoos, north of her heart and inked in Serbian Latin: “Volim te Adame.”

“It means ‘I love Adam,’ ” says the 29-year-old in her delicate Scottish accent, referring to the marine biologist she started dating at 17, married in 2012 and divorced a year later. “[He’s] my ex-husband. But I do” — still love him, that is. Sandé trails off with a laugh, suggesting that the romantic feelings she once had have developed into something more platonic.

Parting ways with her teenage love, and the aftermath of that decision, largely inspired Sandé’s sophomore album, Long Live the Angels (Nov. 11, Capitol), an autobiographical account of becoming a single adult for the first time. Just as Sandé tied the knot, her career had soared to sudden heights. Her debut full-length, Our Version of Events, contributed sunny pop hooks to the British soul revival and was the United Kingdom’s best-selling album of 2012. That year, she performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London and was named recipient of the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award. In the United States, her breakthrough single, “Next to Me,” reached the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 with 50 million on-demand audio and video streams, according to Nielsen Music.

Rising in the ranks as the other Adele — her real name is Adele Emely Sandé, which she changed at the onset of her career to avoid overlap — she started drifting from her husband, Adam Gouraguine, largely hidden from the public eye at his request. “It just came to a point where we weren’t in flow with one another,” she says. Sandé decided to take time off, from her husband and her career. From 2013 until 2015, she spent her days writing songs in her kitchen and nights frequenting underground London jazz clubs. “When I took that time off, everything marinated and I reflected on what had happened,” she says. “That’s why it’s such an important thing for me to express it through music. But there isn’t any story I could tell you that ‘this happened’ or ‘this happened.’ It was just what we felt was the right way to move forward.”

Sandé wades through the fallout on Long Live the Angels, which she insists isn’t a breakup album. Instead, it comes across as a chronological diary, tracing her evolution from bewilderment (wounded lead single “Hurts”) to newfound solitude (“Lonely”) and, finally, acceptance (closer “Babe”). “I feel really good now,” she says later, seated in the backseat of a cab. “I feel secure in how I move forward, who I am and what I want in my next relationship.” (That would be with Hypo, the British rapper-producer who she started dating earlier this year. She’s reticent about giving any details, other than “it’s all good.”)

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Sandé grew up in Scotland, where she wrote her first song at 11. Becoming an artist was her calling, but she took a detour, attending the University of Glasgow and earning a degree in neuroscience. A chance encounter in 2009 with Naughty Boy, the famed producer who has since scored hits with Beyoncé and Sam Smith, altered her trajectory. Sandé served as guest vocalist on English artist-producer Labrinth’s U.K. top 10 hit, “Diamond Rings,” in 2009, leading to a deal with Virgin in 2010 and putting her studies on hold.

“I had no experience in the industry with anything, so I would have said yes to everything,” she says. Her naivete yielded strong professional returns following the release of Our Version of Events, and she soon earned credits on albums from Katy Perry and Rihanna. Almost inevitably, critics started to brand her as overexposed, and today, she has a different perspective. She retreated to London, out of the public eye — not because she was tired of the spotlight, but so she could find her creative center for a follow-up. “It was more a decision that I needed a bit of isolation to write this album,” she says, “and get it to the depths that I wanted to take it to.”

A cursory listen of Long Live the Angels suggests that a turn toward religion may have assisted in coming through the other side of her divorce — “Dear God, help us keep floating,” she sings on “Sweet Architect”; “All these nights I’ve prayed” on “Every Single Piece” — and the gospel choir on “Breathing Underwater” only suggests it further. But it’s all metaphorical, says Sandé. “Whenever I’m making music, it’s always a very spiritual experience,” she says. “I didn’t mean to put in all these references to God, but it was such a big growth in my life, and I feel like my understanding of what I consider God — or what I consider important to myself — just became the main thing.”

Four years have passed between her two LPs, but Sandé is already eyeing a third and plotting a spring tour. “We’ve been anticipating Emeli’s return,” says Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, who wants to “present her music to U.S. audiences and bring her the attention she so rightly deserves.” Adds Sandé: “There was definitely a point where I thought, ‘Do I want to get back out there and do all of this?’ But performing live is a big love of mine. It felt right to get back out there and do it.” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Billboard.