Interview: The Songwriting Confessions of Emeli Sandé

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Emeli Sandé at Elton John's Oscar After Party

(Jason Kempin/Getty Images for EJAF)

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Emeli Sandé has made her mark as an artist, becoming the top selling musician in the UK for all of 2012, but she started her career in the same way that luminaries like Carole King did: as a songwriter. She’s the pen behind “Half of Me,” the dramatic exploration of public versus personal personas on Rihanna’s Unapologetic. She’s also a co-songwriter on a group of tracks on Alicia Keys’ latest, Girl on Fire, including the kiss-off/self-affirming single “Brand New Me.”

And Simon Cowell has taken a shine to her, putting her on songwriting duty for several UK X Factor faces, including Leona Lewis and Cher Lloyd. Sandé spent years as a working songwriter before convincing the industry she could be an artist herself. Her debut, Our Version of Events, naturally features songs composed by Sandé, for Sandé. In spite her success, the challenge of writing songs continues to interest her — no matter where they turn up.

“When I look at songwriters who’ve inspired me, their songs work in any genre,” Sandé told “That’s why I always like testing myself like, ‘Can I write a big pop thing?’ And then go and write something that’s completely different in a completely different genre with an artist like Susan Boyle. And then go write for Rihanna as well. I think that if you’re good at writing then you have to be able to do it in any genre. And if the production changes, they song can still stand. I love that challenge.”

Her style, very evident on the tracks recorded by Rihanna and Alicia Keys, seem to contain a confessional note that tracks with the public perception of the artists. But Sandé says the songs are entirely her own.

“It’s really personal. I usually sit down and I find it difficult to think, ‘Okay, I need to write about this because this artist is going through this.’ Usually words come out and I don’t know where they come from, but when I look back it’s been something I was experiencing.”

What makes these works confrontational but not aggressive in tone is something of Sandé’s style, which is familiar on her own album. But Sandé is quick to give credit to the person interpreting her work.

“I love it when you hear such a familiar voice that you’ve heard over the past decade or so singing your song. I love that they bring their own interpretation. I’ve been lucky to work with some very strong female artists that know exactly who they are as people and as musicians. When you hear them singing your lyric, it’s still your lyric but they brought it to life in a different way. They’ve brought something new to it. It’s refreshing for me and it makes me look at what I do [from] a different angle as well.”

Artists sign up to work with Sandé knowing they’ll get her distinctive tone. But now, they also get the brand name of a BRIT Award winning artist. Sandé is a star in her own right who adds a very personal part of herself to the very intimate songs she composes.

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