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London Now: Emeli Sande

Emeli Sandé, Aaron Warkov

London is the place to be right now. Come for the Summer Olympics or the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, stay for the city's many cultural gems, including singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé.

Dress by Prada.
Earrings by Linn Lomo.
Heels by Ports 1961.

Photographed for
Sky by Aaron Warkov.
Produced by William Carducci for Urban NYC.
Stylist: Aline Pimental for Agent Oliver.
Hair and makeup: Yasmina Bentaieb.
Prop Stylist: Matt Jackson for Brydges MacKinney.

Emeli Sandé, with her avant-garde blonde bouffhawk, her just-as-publicized interest in neuroscience (she has a degree from Glasgow University) and her Brit award-ready debut album, Our Version of Events, seems every imperial inch the British singer-songwriter of the moment. But when she uses her soft northern accent to tell her origin story, it’s hard not to picture Keith Richards hiding under his covers in 1956, listening to Elvis sing “Heartbreak Hotel” on Radio Luxembourg. Sandé’s roots are in American rhythm and blues, and she found the sound that would be hers by listening to it piped in from a faraway place.

Sandé’s father was an emigrant from Zambia, and in the tiny Scottish town of Alford in Aberdeenshire, where Sandé grew up, her Cumbrian mother might as well have been from Africa, too. “My parents met down in England at university,” she says, and then the family moved north, way north. “So Scotland was a brand-new place for everyone, to be honest.” Sandé liked school and her friends, but “there weren’t too many people who shared my musical taste,” she says. She would often wind up in her own “little private world,” which found its capital in Rhythm Nation, a program hosted by the BBC Radio 1 DJ Trevor Nelson. “Every Thursday night I would listen to his show,” she says. “That’s where I learned about Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill—all because of that. It was kind of my connection to London.”

 Photo by Aaron Warkov.        

Sandé wanted to be a musician since the age of 8. “But we were living in rural Scotland,” she says. “I had no idea how to get into the industry.” She started writing songs anyway. She mailed tapes of them to record company addresses she found on the back of CDs. She submitted videotapes of herself performing to any talent competition she heard about. And when Nelson and Rhythm Nation held an “urban music competition,” she sent in her tape and this time she won.

Her parents made Sandé wait until she was 16 to sign a record deal, and even then they encouraged her to attend college, which she did, entering school in Glasgow and deciding on neuroscience. Not exactly the typical musician’s backup plan. “Medicine was challenging, and it seemed like such a cool career,” she says. “Something where you could be really scientific but at the same time interact with human beings rather than being locked in a lab somewhere.”

She graduated with her neuroscience degree, but even with such a demanding course, she concentrated on music first—Sandé sang jazz standards in Glasgow hotel lobbies when she wasn’t studying for psychiatry finals. At 25, she’s been dubbed Simon Cowell’s “favorite songwriter,” with credits ranging from Brit R & B divas such as Leona Lewis to English rap for the likes of Professor Green. And her understanding of the human brain has come in handy after all. “When I was asked specifically to write for Susan Boyle,” she explains, “I tried to meet as many people from the label that knew her. I tried to imagine what her life must be like and what type of lyric would really be believable coming from her.”

Ultimately, though, Sandé believes songwriting is not a science. “I write from instinct,” she says. “The best songs I have are the quickest to write, with the least thought process. They just kind of come out.” Still, does she know which part of the brain they come from? “I guess it would be on your right side somewhere,” she says. “It’s definitely not your frontal lobe. I know that much.” She thinks for a minute. “Yeah, your hippocampus is coming into play somehow. Memory.”

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