She’s been out of the spotlight for eight years, yet never out of the charts. She’s sold 50 millions records and doesn’t need to work again. She lost a marriage and a house too, but rebuilt the house and rediscovered love, gave birth to a daughter, and finally figured out how to deal with fame. Guess there was nothing left to do but bring out a new album. Welcome to the complex world of Sade.
Each listen of Sade’s Lovers Rock started the scratching at the back of my head, setting off a nagging reminding me of something out of reach, the half-revived memory of a previously-forgotten loss. For a long time after first hearing the album I struggled to identify what it recalled, mentally thumbing through my old albums, before realizing that the feeling it evoked had less in common with music than it did with literature. I thought of The Great Gatsby, where doomed love is set against the thrum and hiss of the jazz age. Like that novel, Lovers Rock is underscored by a non-specific melancholy, as though Sade’s world had been soured beyond hope.
What is she so sad about, I wondered? What’s she mourning? I’ve thought some of these same thoughts each time I’ve listened to the new record from Sade. Mostly only in passing though. Her music has often seemed stylized—beautifully constructed but ultimately lacking any really convincing passion. But something’s happened in recent years, and a different Sade is emerging. Listen to the new album and it’s clear that the restraint which marked her previous work has given way to a greater intimacy.
Helen Folosade Adu was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, 41 years ago and raised in Colchester, Essex, an unremarkable English backwater, after her mother separated from her NIgerian father when Sade was four. She grew up listening to soul legends—Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye—and wanted to be a drummer before becoming convinced that she’d be a writer. Instead she ended up in art school. “I wanted to do painting but I ended up in fashion ’cause I wanted to make a living out of it, to have a trade, which was very much how I was brought up. But I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t reverent about fashion, I didn’t love it at all.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever been ‘in’ date. I think we’ve been out of date from the start.” Sade
By chance something else happened to rescue her from frustration. Some old school friends formed a band and asked her to join as a vocalist, and she did so, reluctantly, on the basis that she’d stay “until they found a proper singer.” From there she moved to another group, a sprawling Latin funk group called Pride. It was the early ’80s in London, a time marked musically by a mood of abandonment and experimentation, which could lead to unfortunate consequences. In the case of Pride, this meant an eight-piece collective remarkable more for optimism than musical ability. For Sade, the two years spent traveling around Britain in the back of a van meant time to hone her nascent ability as a songwriter.
Let’s get this into context. With Sade it’s unlikely there will ever be a full, naked baring of the soul. In terms of contemporary icons, it’s better to listen to Mary J for stories of drama and shattered devotion. But Sade, today, is all about the acknowledged presence of absence. What’s missing in her music is as important as what’s present.
So on Lovers Rock there are no swooping saxophones and no lush instrumentation. There is instead spare, deceptively simple arrangement—sometimes no more than an acoustic guitar. And there is her voice, offering, instead of glossy lifestyle anthems, tracks like “Immigrant” and “Slave Song”, whose lyrics, suffused with anger and regret, make poetry out of the sometime pain of the black experience. One line on “Immigrant”, He didn’t know what it was to be black/’Til they gave him change and didn’t want to touch his hand, is one written by an artist seemingly less concerned with describing an imagined reality, as perhaps she did before, than delineating the contours of the world as it is, here and now, close-up and uncomfortable.
By the time Pride had clawed their way up to a show at London’s leading jazz venue, Ronnie Scott’s, she had co-written “Smooth Operator,” the song which had A&R people thronging to the front of the stage, impatient for her to ditch the group and sign solo. When she eventually did, she took three of Pride with her, Start Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul Spencer Denman, and they formed a band which has rarely faltered, from their debut single, 1984’s “Your Love Is King”, through the hit albums Diamond Life, Promise, Stronger Than Pride and 1992’s Love Deluxe, each of which has spawned its own raft of singles, including the quintessential Sade hits “Paradise”, “Sweetest Taboo”, and “No Ordinary Love”.
It’s Sunday when I meet Sade. She, and the fellow members of her band, are rehearsing for forthcoming live dates in a cavernous North London performance space. She is dressed casually, smokes copiously and the mood is relaxed. Sade hasn’t released an album of new material in eight years. Rumors of depression and addiction have been rife during that time. Hang out at London fashion and music parties and her absence is taken as proof of that, QED, the stories must be true. But for years I’d seen her walking around Islington, North London, where she and I both live, betraying little visible sign of any terrible struggle with inner demons. Equally absent, on those occasions, was the kind of entourage of personal assistants, managers and hangers-on that orbit most stars who’ve sold 50 million albums.
“You can talk about stuff and sing about stuff but if you don’t live it in the end then it’s all fake.” —Sade
And that laid-back mood extends to a lack of neurosis concerning the rest of her band. While Sade’s been silent, Matthewman, Hale and Denman have been hard at work. They were responsible for much of the sound on Maxwell’s debut album Urban Hang Suite and also for an album of their own as Sweetback, which, though generally over-looked, featured sublime vocal performances from artists such as Maxwell and Bahamadia. Both projects helped lay the template for the current musical direction of Sade, burrowing reverb and echo effects from dub reggae as well as an ease and fluidity, not to mention tougher beats and basslines, from R&B.
“Sometimes,” Sade tells me in a side room away from the rehearsal space, “I think our songs get lost in how people perceive them and how they get listened to. I didn’t want this record to be smoothed out. I wanted it to be rougher. To retain the spirit [of] when they’re conceived rather than taking it further and making it more of a song. Like Stuart went to replay the guitar parts on some of the tracks and we weren’t happy with the new parts, so oftentimes we’d retain the original performances just because they felt right. We just wanted to make it slightly more extreme, to make it more obvious what we are.”
I find myself nodding almost despite myself. The Sade version of extremity, after all, remains velvet-smooth, even on tracks like the haunting “Immigrant”. Yet beneath the words and the music is an undertow of emotion that lends the record its own distinct life. In comparison to most contemporary R&B, which offers little in the way of subtext, this is something to be savored. From the futurescapes of Timbaland and The Neptunes to Destiny’s Child sisterhood anthems, black music is currently all about clamoring for attention, demanding to be heard. Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and their like may offer an alternative but often this is predicated on a romanticized sense of the past, as though what’s modern and futuristic can’t compare with the analogue and the organically grown. Sade fit into neither camp in that they’re a mixed race British group who are unconcerned with either recapturing the roots of soul or claiming its 21st century crown. And yet for all that, they’ve made music that has pushed forward the parameters of modern soul, often by running contrary to the mood of the time. “I don’t think we’ve ever been ‘in’ date,” notes Sade dryly. “I think we’ve been out of date from the start.”
Bear in mind after all, that in the early-’80s, when they first formed, critic Nelson George was lamenting The Death of Rhythm & Blues in a book which measured the stars of the ’80s such as Alexander O’Neal and Anita Baker against their soul predecessors and found little to celebrate. Contrary to George’s prediction, R&B thrives today. But it does so as a woefully imitative medium, apparently content to mimic the sounds of innovators Timbaland and Rodney Jenkins ad nauseam. The story has been different in Britain, where the club culture of racially mixed urban areas like London, Bristol and Manchester has produced hybrid music forms and artists who thrive on eclecticism such as Massive Attack, Tricky, Björk and Roni Size, alongside genres such as drum & bass and UK garage. It’s this milieu that informs Lovers Rock, if not directly, then certainly by demanding of the group a more open-ended approach to how they make music in 2000.
Yet until now, Sade has never more than hinted at unrest beneath the smooth patina of her music. Lovers Rock, by contrast, bubbles with restless discontent, as though its spartan form can barely hold the weight of its emotions. Much of the reason for that—beyond Sade’s own natural inclination toward somber lyrics—has to do with what’s happened in the eight years between her last two albums.
In the late ’80s, Sade fell in love with, and married, Spanish film director Carlos Pliego, relocating from London to Madrid as a consequence. But by the making of Love Deluxe, their always-turbulent relationship had finally broken apart for good. “It was a very sad situation,” she sighs. “I had to leave… very quickly… with a very small bag. It took five years for it not to be something that affected the way I felt. It wasn’t like I was crawling out of bed every day or anything like that, but it would have really undermined love for me to get over it quickly. If you really love someone that’s the way it is.” Back in Britain, her new house in North London began to subside, forcing her to move out while it was propped up and put back together in 18 months. Literally as well as metaphorically, it felt as though her life was falling apart. There were times when she wondered if she would ever make another record. “If there’s something big going on in my life I can’t switch it off in the middle and go make a record,” she says empathically. “Luckily, because I am in the position that I don’t have to work, I can put the people in my life as a priority. A relative of mine got very sick and I was there looking after her with my mum. I couldn’t walk away. You can talk about stuff and sing about stuff but if you don’t live it in the end then it’s all fake.”
In the wake of that turbulence, she forged a new relationship with a boyfriend she’ll only name as Bobby, who was working with a band in her basement studio. They have a daughter, now four, called Ila, to whom Sade has devoted the past few years of her life. Despite the gap between albums, Lovers Rock was recorded in only a year. But the weight of Sade’s experience during the past decade impresses itself on the album. She has for much of the time been at best preoccupied with the complexity of other people’s lives, at worst extremely unhappy. And while at times she may have wanted to fast-forward past the rawness of the emotion around her, the consequence of it is that Sade herself remains grounded in a world of real responsibilities and concerns, rather than isolated amongst her own preoccupations.
A small, yet important, fact: When Sade signed her first record deal with Epic in the early ’80s, she accepted a small advance, worth £60,000, in exchange for an unusually high cut of sales for a new artist—15 percent. It was a deal that ended up proving immensely lucrative, and it has freed her from many of the commercial demands that often encumber artists. Put simply, she only works when and how she wants to. As one executive at her label, Epic, put it to me: “Who’s going to argue with a woman who’s sold 50 million albums? She’s more powerful than anyone working at the label, including the [President].”
“I just want to be who I am in the end, that’s all you are anyway.” —Sade
But such power has had its drawbacks. Unstinting commercial success over 16 years means Sade hasn’t suffered, or enjoyed, the kind of mid-life crisis that afflicted, say, U2, the turning point that prompted them, at least briefly, to throw caution to the wind by drafting in Howie B and digitally remixing their sound and their image. While in Sade’s cases there have been remixes from Nellee Hooper, Mad Professor and most recently, The Neptunes, there has never been a video or photo shoot that dazzles or shocks. She’s not Busta or Björk, performers who relish playing with and confounding expectation. She’s always been Sade, and because being Sade has worked so spectacularly well, she sees no reason for change.
The result is that Sade now seems like an artist from a different era. It’s not that her music is out of date. But what separates her from most famous names is her attitude toward fame itself. Back in the ’60s Warhol presciently declared an era of 15 minutes of fame for everyone. And celebrity today is based less on what you do than who you are. Kato Kaelin, John Wayne Bobbitt, the cast of Survivor or Big Brother; none of these people have worked long and hard to secure recognition on the basis of their achievements. They’ve found themselves in the spotlight and, with varying degrees of success and desperation, have tried to cling on to their brief moment for as long as possible. And the true celebrities of our age, like Madonna, grin and bare just as maniacally under that light as the wannabes and no-hopers, so that we don’t get bored and find someone else to lavish our attention on.
That’s why Sade, who has a keen distrust of media attention, seems to belong to a time before celebrity when there was only fame and it belonged to Hollywood stars whose image was carefully maintained by the studios. By nature she’s a classicist whose own sound and style has evolved only gradually over the years, rather than altered with each passing trend. Sade tells me about how she first new she was famous. The doorman at a hotel practically spat in her face. “He said to me, ‘Why did you do such a shit version of “Why Can’t We Live Together?” Why did you destroy that song?'” It taught her that fame didn’t automatically bring slavish adoration and very quickly she became wary of it, putting on a scarf and sunglasses whenever she walked outside, ducking her head if passers-by called her name.
Even today she sighs with relief after I turn off the tape at the end of the interview, as though she’d just tiptoed through a minefield with her eyes shut. This, too, aside from the trials of her personal life, is why Lovers Rock is so ambiguous yet pervasive in its discontent. It’s the sound of an immensely private person who’s found herself in the public eye. Before she made Lovers Rock, Sade had to think through the whole tricky business of fame, with its Faustian pay-off between success and lack of privacy. She thought of her daughter and her friends and her family, the people whom she treasures more in life than any professions, and what might be at stake in returning to the spotlight. Whether she might lose more than she gained in doing so. With the rest of her band on the phone wanting to get back to work and Epic hungry for another album she still hesitated.
“After you make a record your life changes. Beforehand I was living my little anonymous life. But that whole machine that starts going when you make a record… it was all about how that change was going to affect my life, and my new life as a mother.” Eventually though she came to a realization that felt so simple and clear that the apparent conflict between her private and public lives simply dissolved away. How could Sade, the mother/friend/singer/star cease to be any of these things when each of them, after all, is Sade herself? “I just want to be who I am in the end, that’s all you are anyway. It doesn’t matter what anybody says about you, you are who you are in the end. Because in the end I breathe and sleep and laugh and cry, and all the things that everybody does. And that is me.”