While still a teenager, Emeli Sandé got her first big break as a singer-songwriter. After her kid sister filmed her performing one of her own songs (the smoldering "Nasty Little Lady") at a piano in their rural Scotland home, Sandé sent the clip to a BBC talent contest. She was named one of the contest winners, and record-deal offers soon started pouring in. But instead of signing to a label, Sandé put her music career on hold and embarked on a six-year degree in medicine. Studying at Glasgow University, she specialized in clinical neuroscience "cause I really like all the brain stuff."
Starting in her early childhood, Sandé's father (from Zambia) and mother (from Cumbria) helped refine her musical knowledge and supported her ambitions as a singer and musician. By age eight, her broad and staggering talents were already attracting attention.
At age 11, full of pre-adolescent fire, Sandé wrote her first real song with a proper structure. "It even had a middle eight!" she remembers proudly. Over the next few years, word began to spread about a precociously gifted teenager from the middle of nowhere and her big-but-intimate voice.
After relocating to Scotland's biggest city and its buzzing music scene, Sandé began supplementing her student income by playing piano and jazz standards in hotels. Still, she struggled to keep up with songwriting while studying. Meanwhile, Sandé's mother sent a CD of her songs to the BBC's Radio 1Xtra. After DJ Ras Kwame played Sandé's songs as part of his Homegrown Sessions, Sandé took the stage at a showcase in Soho that resulted in her teaming up with producer/writer Shahid Khan (aka Naughty Boy).
One of their first compositions, "Diamond Rings," was quickly snatched up by British rapper Chipmunk. Featuring guest vocals by Sandé, the track became Chipmunk's first top-ten single in summerÂ 2009. By the following March, Virgin Records signed Sandé, who then decided to take time out from her medical studies. After writing a slew of songs for British acts like Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Tinchy Stryder, Cheryl Cole, and The Saturdays, Sandé set to work on her debut record.
Taking a cue from Joni Mitchell and her other songwriting idols, Sandé achieves an irresistible contemporary-yet-timeless quality. "I can still relate to a Joni song, even though it's 25 years old—that's the main and important thing to me... You get so many opinions of which direction you should be going in, and you hear horror stories of people writing 400 songs and the album being shelved." In Sandé's estimation, it's far better to "come knowing what you wanna do. And I know what I want to do."