Four years is an eon in pop music, so even though Emeli Sandé has had a slew of hits in the U.K. and a Top 25 entry in the U.S., she announced her return in September with all the subtlety of a 21-gun salute: "Hurts," the first single from the Scottish singer's new album Long Live the Angels, mixes bristling electronic claps and resplendent veins of gospel. "I wanted to draw a line," Sandé told Rolling Stone during a phone interview in October. "I have grown up. I have a lot more conviction and strength in what I want to say."
Sandé traffics in bombastic pre-hip-hop soul, a torrid sound that underpins much of the English pop to cross the Atlantic in recent years. After encountering success as a featured vocalist, Sandé broke out as a solo artist by applying her howitzer-caliber voice in precise doses on martial tracks like 2012's "Next to Me," which enjoyed brief success in the U.S. as well. "Her voice is one of the best in the world," Philip Leigh, who wrote and produced several tracks on Love Live the Angels (as part of the duo Mac & Phil), tells RS during a Skype interview. And Sandé's writing talents are also in high demand: Rihanna, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys have all cut her tracks.
But demand has its downside. According to Sandé, the frenzy around her debut album, Our Version of Events, which spent 10 weeks at Number One on the U.K. album chart, upended her routines. "When it was received so well, I wasn't really prepared," the 29-year-old remembers. "I wasn't expecting things to go that fast." Commercial success and the burdens of promotion seemed to take her away from her real passion: songwriting. "I needed to get back into the studio and live a normal life and write songs about how I was feeling as a grown up," she says. "It was important for me to chill out, get back to normal, and ground myself."
She cites getting older, being more comfortable with the music business and a trip to visit family in Zambia as important factors in her new grounding. (She also divorced in 2014.) When it came time to focus on another album, roughly two years ago, she spent extended periods writing and recording with Mac and Phil and others in locations that included an English farmhouse. "After months of chilling and talking and hanging out, there was freedom to express yourself without fear of judgement," Leigh says. "I think that's why [Long Live the Angels] is so mature. No holds barred. She's just gone through a lot and lived a lot more than she did the first time."
Despite being out of the solo spotlight, Sandé remained keenly aware of the prevailing winds in pop. "Pop music is getting more and more powerful," she noted. Her first solo hit, 2011's "Heaven," channeled gospel, and Long Live the Angels relies on the genre for extra wattage. (Gospel is having a major moment in the mainstream, used as a signifier of celestial grace on records by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper.) "I just love gospel," Sandé explained. "That's one of the first genres of music I started to listen to as a kid. It's something I really identified with being up in Scotland and feeling like I didn't really fit in."
Aside from a cameo from rapper Jay Electronica, gospel's massed vocals are Sandé's primary accompaniment. The album opens with "Selah," which pairs Sandé with a choir in an a cappella setting (and borrows its title from the Bible); in the choir's absence, Sandé's voice is often multi-tracked in formation to juice bluesy guitar ballads like "Give Me Something" and the lovely "Lonely." "Any excuse I could find, I wanted a choir," Sandé said. "It's one of the greatest sounds on earth. It's adding energy a thousand times to the music."
After the long gap between albums, Sandé hints that more tunes may be on the way soon. "I'm on a mission now to finish all these hundreds of songs that I just abandon," she said.
Then again, what's the hurry? "There's no need to rush into anything," she added. "I have a better grasp of that now."