On the Verge: Emeli Sande blasts toward breakthrough

Korina Lopez
Emeli Sande is a Scottish singer.
  • Her summer tour starts July 2%2C with stops at Lollapalooza%2C Outside Lands%2C Essence and Made In America
  • She sports a sizable tattoo of artist Frida Kahlo
  • The singer once pursued a degree in neuroscience

Famous family, sort of: British singer Emeli Sande got her first taste of fame when she and her parents moved from her mother's native England to the rural town of Aberdeenshire in northern Scotland. Her father, who is Zambian, was the first African to move there. "We were the first mixed family in the town," she says. "It was big news."

Sande — who goes by her middle name, since her first name is the same as another famous singer, Adele — has been playing piano since she was nine and wrote her first song when she was 11. "I loved where I grew up; I had time and peace to learn my craft without distractions," she says. "It was a fundamental part of my life. Thinking of melodies was a magical thing for me."

Dr. Sande?: Although she has always wanted a music career, at one point Sande, 26, who is married to a scientist, did pick a more stable route by studying neuroscience. She used her songwriting as a means of paying her way through medical school. After five years at the University of Glasgow, she dropped out of the six-year program to return to making her passion a full-time gig.

Already a big deal: Debut album Our Version of Events has hunkered down in U.K.'s top 10 album chart for a record 65 consecutive weeks since its 2012 release, ending the 50-year reign The Beatles held with Please Please Me, according to Official Charts Company. In the USA, she's angling for, if not the same level of success, a deep impression. Single Next to Me has climbed to No. 6 spot on USA TODAY's hot adult contemporary airplay chart and No. 20 on the top 40. She has also won three Brit Awards (critics' choice, album of the year and female solo artist). She did a cover of Crazy In Love for The Great Gatsby and co-wrote Here It Comes with Rick Smith of Underworld for Danny Boyle's 2012 film Trance. On Thursday's American Idol finale, she performed Next to Me with fourth-place finisher Amber Holcomb. Next week, she'll play the White House in tribute to Gershwin Prize winner Carole King.

Success has taken "a long time to build up, since at first I was a songwriter," she says. "Then it all blasts you, it all happens so quickly."

Even Elton John is a fan, predicting that she'll be a Grammy Awards contender in 2014. "I'm overwhelmed that a legend has such respect for my music," Sande says. "I hope I don't let him down."

Musical Olympian: If her name sounds familiar, you might have seen her performing at the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2012 Olympics in London. "It was terrifying to be in front of that many people," she recalls. "I was fine until right before it was time for me to go on. But it's such an honor to be involved in something so important for the U.K."

Behind the scenes: Before she stepped onto any red carpet, Sande and her blond mohawk worked in the background, penning songs for stars like Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Susan Boyle. Her musical instincts tap into a deep well of influences, too. "I love Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston for their vocal acrobatics," she says. "As a songwriter, I was influenced by a mix of artists: Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan." Her musical idol? Nina Simone, hands down. "The way she held the tone, caressed a lyric," she says. "(When I write), I imagine how she'd sing a lyric."

Permanent inspiration: While Lindsay Lohan reminds herself to breathe with a discreet tattoo of the word on her wrist, Sande openly shares her adoration for the late controversial painter Frida Kahlo with a large tattoo of the artist on her forearm. "There's something so raw and honest about her work," she says. "To me, she embodies strength."

Another chance to see her: If you missed her opening gig for Coldplay's 2012 tour, Sande will return to the USA for a summer tour. She kicks off July 2 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and is set to perform at Lollapalooza, Essence, Jay-Z's Made In America and Outside Lands Festival.

Later down the road: Sande has a plan B if the music thing doesn't work out for some reason. "One day, I can see myself doing music therapy. That would be a nice medium."