Nadine McBay

When Emeli Sande first moved to London, she had Frida Kahlo tattooed on her arm. To the promising young songwriter, the long-suffering artist was a symbol of fortitude and bravery. Sande had just given up a stable future in medicine for the fickle world of music, and needed a dose of fearlessness.

To the disapproval of some of her tutors at Glasgow University, the then 22-year-old left to pursue an “over-ambitious dream” of making it big in music, a dream she'd cultivated throughout her childhood in Alford, Aberdeenshire.

“When I moved to London, I was writing songs on the piano by myself, sitting alone,” says Sande, now an MBE for her services to music.

“I was taking inspiration from a lot of great women that my dad had introduced me to initially, women like Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell – really inspiring, unique songwriters."

The Khalo portrait wasn't Sande's first battle scar. She already had the title of Virginia Woolf's 1929 influential essay A Room Of One’s Own inked on the other arm.

There's intent and self-knowledge in that phrase. For while Sande first came to prominence through Top 10 collaborations with urban artists Chipmunk and Wiley, she says working alone offers her the opportunity to “dig deep and find out what I really want to say”.

In 2012 she became an instant household name when her towering vocals featured at the London Olympics. Our Version Of Events, her elegant debut, became the biggest-selling album of that year, beating even Adele's previously all-conquering 21.

The collaborations continued, as did a prominent sideline as a songwriting gun for hire, writing for the likes of Tinie Tempah and Professor Green as well as Cheryl Cole, Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle.

Later this year, Sande will follow 2016's Long Live The Angels with an album written and recorded in her new studio outside London. With some finishing tweaks to be made, for now there's Sparrow, a tender, soaring anthem set to a military drumbeat.

Written entirely by Sande, the song marked a turning point for the musician, who built the home studio with long-term collaborator Jermaine Scott, aka Wretch 32 last year.

“Sparrow came from having the confidence again to write on my own," she says. “Having the studio has given me that space of my own that I've always longed for. Of making music on my own, on my own watch. That song came from having the freedom to sit at the piano for as long as I want, to sing as loudly as I want."

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In the past, Sande would often co-write hits with producers and collaborators in a day. Sitting alone at the piano, she developed Sparrow from an idea swirling around her mind for months, maybe years.

In breaks from working with Professor Green and Alicia Keys on their forthcoming albums, Sande would return to the piano and the song fragment. The lyrics became the song's opening lines: “I got wind beneath my wings, I think this time I’m gonna make it to morning”.

“That was in my head for a very long time,” she laughs brightly. “I think you know when you have something special. When there is that special spark, you have to treat it like it's something very fragile. When you're writing with others, nobody has time to wait for two weeks for the next line.

“That's the beauty of writing alone. You can let it marinade, let it inspire the next lyric, really respond more."

The song reflects a personal journey of healing and rebirth, she says.

“I think it takes a long time to emotionally recover from life at times,” Sande says. “When that moment comes, when you are like: 'Wow, I feel like myself again'. You feel stronger than you did before and you see hope return, and ambition, and I think that song for me was about that moment.”

Previous album Long Live The Angels was written during a period in which Sande married Adam Gouraguine, her boyfriend for seven years. They divorced in November 2014, a year after their marriage in Montenegro. The after-effects are apparent in Long Live The Angels, a record which edged closer to contemporary r 'n' b and the understated folk blues of Tracy Chapman than the billowy, X Factor pop with which she was once associated.

“When I go back to that album now, I feel it's more of a transition between the first one and this one,” she says. “I was doing a lot of self-discovery, a lot of healing, and I think that's reflected in the exploration of sounds on that album. It's an emotional diary really. It wasn't just romantic heartbreak, it was a personal insight.”

On the track Sweet Architect, she reflected how break-ups can radically alter a person's sense of self.

“There's this destruction of who you thought you were or should be, and then you have to start rebuilding from the ground up," she explains. “That was the message of the album, really. That it was better to do that, than continue on what is not the right path.”

This year's album is the result of “true confidence”, she says. “Now I know which path I'm on, now that I have scrutinised myself, looked at all the emotions. Now I have a new awareness of myself.”

Sande worked on the album with a clutch of trusted musicians, including Wretch. For the first time, all lyrics are written by her alone and they have their origins in the same period which birthed Sparrow.

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She played the resulting demos to Troy Miller, a producer she knew from his work with her friend Laura Mvula. The multi-instrumentalist, composer and conductor has worked with Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones and Rag 'n' Bone Man and used to play drums for Amy Winehouse. Sande wanted him for the beats she heard in her head for Sparrow.

“I said to him that I had always hear this militant, marching beat,” she says. “It's always been a dream of mine to play with just a drummer and keep it acoustic. He just pulled up a snare and started drumming and it came to life. I feel with his performance, it really gets across this message of defiance that had sparked the song in the first place.”

On the day Miller and Sande met to discuss the album, they spoke for hours about what sort of album she wanted. Rather than the trend of focussing on individual songs and seeing what people gravitate towards, Sande wanted to make an album as a distinct body of work.

“I've always wanted to make something which consistently has the same sonic, the same producers throughout the album,” she says. “We spoke about Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, music made in the seventies played live on analogue instruments. That's what inspires me. We played a lot of music, like Bob Dylan, music where the story can still breathe, even though the story is powerful.”

Miller wrote the album's string arrangements and conducted the subsequent recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road – surely the stuff of over-ambitious childhood dreams. Sande credits Miller with much of the “boldness” of the album, which will be released in the same year as she heads a series for the new BBC Scotland channel.

In Emeli Sandé's Street Symphony, the singer will visit Scotland's cities and towns in search of the best music being made on the streets.

“When they approached me with the idea I thought it was wonderful,” she says. “Going back to Scotland will be a pleasure, and there's so much talent on the streets. When I lived in Glasgow, you were guaranteed music on the streets, wherever you were. I think there's a real hustle, a real rawness when you're making music for people.

“Sometimes we hide in our studios, or behind our computers. But when you are putting yourself out there in front of people, I think that has to be commended and I can't wait to see them and help them on that journey.”

Much of her new album, she says, was written in an attempt to help encourage and uplift. Featuring more of her beloved Gospel choirs, the album comes “from a place of complete honesty, a truthful place”.

Though not a regular church-goer, when she does visit, it's “for the message that's being spoken about and also the music”. She began listening to Gospel music as a child in Aberdeenshire, where her parents still live. There she attended Alford Academy, where her Zambian father was a teacher.

The shy, studious child and her younger sister Lucy – now a lawyer – were the only young black people then in the area, an experience she later related to a US radio station as “very isolating”.

It was through music that Sande found connection, firstly through the record collection of her father Joel. Though he and her English mother Diane Sande-Wood had nurtured a deep respect for education in their daughters, when Emeli was grappling with the question of leaving university after scoring a No 6 hit with Diamond Rings, the track she wrote for Chipmunk, Joel advised his eldest to follow her heart.

A tender family snap of the pair features on the cover of Kingdom Come, Sande's solo EP from 2017. Taken in 1992, it shows her as a five-year-old with attitude, school skirt topped by a pink sweater and the cool stare of a teen idol.

Much of the chart music of that era had a depth that's harder to find now, she says.

“I grew up listening to songs with lyrics like: 'There can be miracles as long as you believe',” she says, referring to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston's Oscar-winning track from The Prince Of Egypt.

“The sentiment wasn't cheesy or corny, it was genuine. While a lot of the music we have now is great, and I would love to dance to it at a club or whatever, it made me think about the power of music, and how there was so much music that would give you strength, or encourage you to be your own individual or have that spiritual dimension to it.

“It made me think, that if I had the opportunity to make an album where I can share my strength, what I have learnt, give people some hope and a bit of light. I took on that responsibility in a way, and I could only have done that with the confidence of believing that it's possible to do that."

A wish to foster a sense of the possible drives Community Clavinova, her project helping to supply digital pianos to organisations which work with people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to learn and play music.

This year, as well as releasing her new album and at least a couple of surprise collaborations, Sande wants to do more with the project as hard-pressed councils continue to cut budgets for music education.

“The project is something that is very important to me,” she says. “I don't think music should be limited to those who can afford it, only shared with a certain level of society. For me, music really did save my life in a lot of ways.

“I know the importance of having access to musical instruments. Especially pianos: I think they can change a child's life. They don't have to become a musician, but on a more emotional level so much can be released and expressed through music.”

It was only through the help of a family friend that Sande grew up in a house with a piano.

“Somehow we got one for free,” she says. “We would never have been able to afford one. Without that, my whole life journey would have been held on hold. Maybe it would have never started.”

Sparrow is out now