Before emerging in recent years as one of the most acclaimed young songwriters and artists in theU.K., Emeli Sande took a little medical detour.
Who is Sande? Her inaugural North American tour brings her to Lincoln Hall on May 30. But she’s already a star overseas. Her recent resume includes credits on a string of songs by major U.K. artists, collaborations with Alicia Keys, an opening slot on Coldplay’s upcoming U.S. arena tour, a Brit Critics Choice Award (previously won by Adele andFlorence + the Machine), and a debut album, “Our Version of Events” (Capitol), that ties together soul, electronic music, pop and rock with sharp, literate songwriting (to be released in America next month).
Yet, before plunging into music full time, the 24-year-old singer studied neuroscience for more than three years at Glasgow University in her native Scotland. Reminded that the neuroscientist-musician career combo is fairly rare, Sande laughs. Music was always a driving force in her life, she says. But growing up in a biracial family with a Zambian father who was a respected educator meant that a premium was put on schooling and making sound career choices. Her passion for music was never discouraged, but college was never not an option.
“All the way through my childhood I loved school, and my dad underlined the importance of education,” Sande says. “I wanted to be a musician, but I also wanted a degree to give me more stability and power in my life.”
Couldn’t she have picked something a little less complicated than neuroscience, though? “I just find the whole human body so fascinating, and the brain in particular, the mystery of it. I thought that it would be fun to study.”
As it turned out, spending six hours a day studying the brain’s inner workings underneath a microscope was a chore, she says. But working in hospitals and treating patients proved inspiring.
“It was frustrating that you couldn’t fix someone as quickly as you could with medicine,” she says. “But I would love someday to pursue a career where I can merge music with medicine, and its therapeutic effects on people.”
Music worked its own therapy on the young Emeli. At age 7, her parents overheard her singing. “Their validation motivated me more than anything to give music a try.” By the time she was 11, she was writing songs on piano, and drawing inspiration from her father’s record collection, which included Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and lots of African music and jazz. Her father later took 16-year-old Emeli and her younger sister to see an Alicia Keys concert in Glasgow, and Sande came away with a lasting image of what she wanted to be.
“We sat way back in the arena, but the whole vibe of it, the way she presented herself, the way the crowd was reacting to her was exciting,” she says. “The moment I heard her songs, I felt I was hearing an intelligent woman doing exactly what she wanted to do without compromise, and yet all these people were coming to see her. She was making a connection through her music without losing her integrity. She showed me that you could have both.”
While on a weekend break from college, she played a solo set at a London club with Naughty Boy (a k a Shahid Khan) in the audience. Afterward, he introduced himself and suggested they collaborate on some songs. The success of “Diamond Rings” in 2009 and her signing to a Virgin Records a year later prompted Sande to hang up her lab coat for the time being to focus on music.
Demand for her work increased, and she wrote songs for a parade of singers and rappers, including Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, Tinie Tempah and Cheryl Cole. Meanwhile, she and Naughty Boy worked on her debut album, with an array of genre-busting styles: from the propulsive, Massive Attack-like electro-soul of “Heaven” to the raw acoustic “Breaking the Law.”
“I want to put the poetry back into pop music,” Sande says. “Melody is a way to get people to listen, and maybe to encourage them to sing along. But the words have to say something. I try to look at an ordinary event and take a different angle on it.”
“Heaven” is a typical example. It grew out of a late-night discussion in the studio with Naughty Boy about religion, and what it means to be a “good” person in a world full of distractions and temptations. “At one point, he said, ‘I guess you just have to keep your heart clean,’ and that line triggered something in my head,” she says. “After that, it was a flow of consciousness. We had a piano loop going around with the chords, and once I had the concept for the lyric, the song came easily.”
Another key track on the debut, “Hope,” she cowrote with Keys. Sande met her idol after Keys invited her to open a show in London. “She reached out asking if I wanted to write with her,” Sande says. “We’ve been working a lot since then, and we have a great relationship. She’s taught me a lot.”
The biggest lessons she’s gleaned from Keys? “She reminded me to enjoy the moment, to take time to celebrate the successes, because everything moves so fast. We’re always trying to get to the next thing, so it’s important to embrace the things we’ve gained.”
Keys also reinforced a notion that Sande has tried to live up to since she first saw the singer-pianist as a 16-year-old: “With music, she told me to strive to be different, don’t try to fit in. Make the music that I feel, that I want to hear, and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks.”
Emeli Sande: 8 p.m. May 30 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $15; lincolnhallchicago.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye