"I was definitely standing alone for most of it when I was a kid," says Emeli Sandé. "I liked music none of my friends really got or knew much about. There certainly were not a lot of performances I could see in the north of Scotland. But there was a radio station from London that I listened to at night. That's how I found Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys. I managed to find the people I could relate to."
Fast-forward to 2012. Sandé, now 25, is a sought-after songwriter. Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Tinie Tempah, even Susan Boyle have recorded Sandé's songs. Sandé's own debut, "Our Version of Events," is the year's best-selling album in the U.K. (and on my own list of the year's best albums). The album enjoyed an unbroken 47-week run in the top 10 of the British charts, only the second album to achieve such a feat (the Beatles' "Please Please Me" had 62 consecutive weeks). Sandé performed in both the opening and closing ceremonies of London's 2012 Olympics. On the day she spoke with the Sun-Times, Sandé was awaiting news of the BRIT Award nominations. She received three.
Now Sandé doesn't just relate to Alicia Keys -- Keys produced part of Sandé's album.
with Emily King
• 8 p.m. Jan. 22
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• $15 advance, $18 door; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
Such a level of early success sounds like another soulful young British singer, Adele.
Then again, we are talking about Adele. Emeli is Sandé's middle name. Her first: Adele. She's wisely let that go.
"I thought having the same name as one of the biggest sellers in the past decade was not a good way to set yourself up," Sandé says, chuckling.
Simon Cowell once called Sandé his favorite singer. Career boost or cultural kiss of death?
"I saw it as a good thing," she says. "He knows pop music. He knows songs and melodies that will connect with people. I'm happy he thought that about me and my music."
But now Sandé turns west, coming to America with a short tour. Will her quiet-storm approach knock anyone over on these shores after Hurricane Adele?
"The way we've done it in the U.K., we started with really small shows, getting my name around on an underground level. I think we need to do the same thing over there," Sandé says. "It's about building a fan base from the grass roots. I want to spend a lot of time over there and understand the people I'm singing to. It's very different from the UK, and I want to understand it."
"Our Version of Events" is a fresh R&B breeze, full of easy pop melodies and a confident, alluring way around an arrangement. There's none of Adele's brass, none of Janelle Monae's wild, futuristic visions. The songs are simple, artful in their restraint, and Sandé has only the unwavering power and clarity of her voice, which is quite a lot.
After writing for so many other singers, Sandé says her own material came in fits and starts when she was able to squeeze in moments for herself. But those were the truest moments.
"There's no thought -- does that make sense? When it's my own song, I try it out freely. It's a natural process. I'm not sitting down thinking I have to write this for this genre and this style; that's what you do when you're writing for someone else. When it's yourself, you try to be as honest as possible. It comes naturally. The ideas are coming, you don't know where they're coming from, but when you come to and realize you're in that relaxed state, that's when you've got it. That's when it's you."
Seeing yourself on the page is one thing. Seeing yourself as the artist who deserves to deliver that song to the world, quite another.
"It takes a bit of courage, yes," Sandé says. "You have to have the belief that only you are the one to deliver it. ... I realized it working on [the song] 'Clown.' The label said no one else can sing that. I was adament it was a song I could sing on my own album. I crossed that line, I felt it. I had belief in myself as an artist."
After touring the U.S., Sandé will complete an EP, titled "Who Needs the World."