by Robert Sandall, The Daily Times (UK)
Shes Britains most successful female solo artist but has remained a glamorous enigma – until now. Sade emerges from her country retreat to tell how shes a tree-climbing tomboy at heart
Sade is so very private, so extremely wary of the press that her friends – all of whom are bound to silence – have nicknamed her Howie, after Howard Hughes. The most reclusive British singer of the 1980s has kept such a low profile since her Smooth Operator days – one tour in 14 years – that, when we meet at the London office of her record label to hear the songs from her new album, Soldier of Love, I am the only person in the room who has met her before.
Its 10 years since her last album release, the 2000 offering, Lovers Rock. Despite or maybe because of that, the reverence she commands is palpable. She is the most successful solo female artist Britain has ever produced: she has sold more than 50m albums in a career that stretches back 27 years. And more than half of those albums were sold from the mid-1990s onwards, when Sade all but disappeared from view. Since then, she has only surfaced a few times and this is the only face-to-face interview she will consent to now.
Paradoxically, in person she is open, friendly and relaxed – shes happy to let me into her spacious Georgian house in leafy north London – and willing to laugh at herself. Unlike her songs, which are often freighted with introspective sadness and regret, her conversation is punctuated with a lively and very English self-mockery. She tells me about a graffitied poster of herself that her guitarist Stuart Matthewman spotted in New York. Above her glamorous image, some wag had sprayed the observation: This bitch sings when she wants to. Sade thinks this hilarious. It sums up her career pretty well. She makes music on her own terms.
She tells me how, on seeing a poster for Lady Gagas album The Fame Monster recently, she wondered: Why cant I get so worked up about being famous? She is a complicated, ambitious woman. Artistically, I have high aspirations. I dont want to do anything less than the best I can do, she says. Yet she spurns the promotional rigmarole of the industry, despite knowing that it’s hard to win the publics sympathy if you ignore them.
She learned the downside of fame – not the sweet, rosy thing anybody expects – very early on. As her albums sold millions all round the world, paparazzi climbed the trees around her London house to get an intimate shot of her. Rumours about her personal life plagued her, even the funny ones such as the report that she was about to buy Fulham Football Club. I came to think that those tape machines the journalists used would just scramble what you say, like a liquidiser. Its terrible, this mentality that if something seems simple, there must be something funny going on.
During one gruelling interrogation by a female tabloid journalist about her love life – which, as well see, has been far from straightforward – she burst into tears and vowed there and then to give up interviews altogether. It started to feel like opening yourself up to everybody youd ever sat next to on a bus. Why would you do that? Nor did she enjoy being promoted as this sophisticated lifestyle accessory, though she doesnt regret it. If the music didnt outshine the image, it just wasnt being listened to in the right way.
She doesnt look to have aged much during her long absence. On the eve of her 51st birthday, her face is unlined and she is still striking. Taller in person than she appears on stage (she is about 5ft 8in) with that large, domed head, wide-set eyes and coil of jet-black hair, she has an exotic allure that she professes not to care a fig about. People always used to say, Whats it like to see your face on the cover of a magazine? But it doesnt mean anything to me at all. I dont really see it. Im not trying to promote an image.
Despite being awarded an OBE in 2002, nowadays her largest fanbase lives in the States, where Lovers Rock sold nearly 4m copies. Her dressing rooms at American concerts are regularly festooned with flowers sent in by star admirers such as Aretha Franklin. Audiences are noisily ecstatic in the presence of a performer who, unlike every other Brit-soul export, doesnt try to play the gospel diva or even an American accent. Our transatlantic cousins like Sade, it seems, because she sounds like nobody but herself.
Reviewers here meanwhile complain that she cant really sing. The first time I put this to her, she giggles, the way she often does when fending off jibes. It can be very hostile, England. Not just to me, to everybody. Englands like a sour old auntie. You go and stay with her although she criticises you all the time and doesnt treat you right, even when youre doing your best. But you keep on loving her, in a certain way. And then you die. She laughs. Those bitches always outlive you!
So here she is, still cheerfully resident in the unkind UK, with no plans to leave if higher-rate income tax goes up or Soldier of Love performs no better here than her previous two studio albums. She keeps her London house for business meetings, but her home is now a village near Stroud, Gloucestershire, where she has been based since 2005 with her daughter, Ila, 13, and her boyfriend for the past four years, Ian, a former Royal Marine.
Stroud may seem a strange choice for a half-Nigerian soul singer whose music and lifestyle are usually construed as consummately urban. She has never lived down the image of her sashaying around in a designer frock singing Smooth Operator. But like so much of the little that is known – or believed – about Sade Adu, thats not right. She is very clear that her family roots lie deep in the English countryside. In her mind Sade is, and always has been, a country girl at heart.
Sade was born Helen Folasade Adu in Ibadan, Nigeria, the daughter of an English district nurse, Anne Hayes, and a Nigerian university teacher, Bisi Adu, who had met in London five years earlier. The marriage broke down and the four-month-old Sade – her Ibadan neighbours refused to bother with her English name – returned to England with her mother and older brother Banji. Her parents divorce left an abiding impression that comes through in her songs: Theres a lot of me in them, probably more than I realise. Love often figures as unattainable yet powerfully enduring, or a long hard struggle. All of this, she acknowledges, can be traced back to her parents troubled marriage. My mother left my father because she found it impossible to live with him, although they loved each other very much. It was hard for my mother because he was the man of her life. On her wedding day my father gave her a red rose and when he died she threw it in his grave. Shed kept it for 30 years. That was the moment I realised how deeply she cared for him.
The couple stayed in touch and even talked of getting back together when Sade was 21, but it didnt happen. He was a very strange man, my father, very boyish. But he definitely loved my mother very much. This despite his having fathered four more children – two boys, two girls – by three different women. Sade stays in touch with all of her step-siblings, who live in Switzerland and America.
The broken family went to stay with her English grandparents on the Essex-Suffolk border near Colchester, and while her mother worked all hours nursing in local villages, Sade was largely raised by her grandparents. Theirs was an unusual story of radical English non-conformism. Grandfather Hayes was a Catholic socialist small farmer, the son of upper-middle-class parents who were involved with Whiteway, a quasi-socialist utopian community, formed around the turn of the century on a back-to-the-earth ideology promoted in Russia in the late-19th century by the writer Leo Tolstoy.
Her great-grandparents had eventually left Whiteway, Sade learnt, because they were devoutly religious and found some of the communal stuff at Whiteway a bit risqué. They werent into the open unions, which basically meant sharing partners. Her grandfather stayed in the Stroud area, briefly trained as a monk, and tried to enlist on the leftists side in the Spanish civil war. After marrying, he moved east. But he was always waxing lyrical about the West Country. He knew the novelist Laurie Lee and he loved that area. Weve ended up five minutes from his old stomping ground in the Slad valley. Theres a spot near her cottage where Sade says she always pictures her grandfather as she drives past.
When Anne Hayes announced in 1955 that she was marrying a Nigerian, her parents found it difficult, but fortunately my granddad was a big fan of the black-American singer and human-rights activist Paul Robeson, which made it easier. In recognition of this, Anne gave her firstborn son, Banji, the middle name of Paul.
Sade grew up not, as has often been reported, an Essex girl but an East Anglian tree-climbing tomboy who loved watching cowboy movies. She has retained many guy-ish characteristics – a deep, mannish voice, a loud, ready laugh, and a legs-apart stance – which sit oddly with her elegant looks. She betrays a rare hint of embarrassment when this is pointed out. There were no girls of my age around, so I played with the boys on the fringe of my brothers circle. I didnt have a girl friend till I was nine. But I had complete freedom, out on my bike from morning till night, helping my grandparents dig their garden. I was very independent. My mum gave me that freedom, though she didnt have much choice because she was working full time. She still loves gardening. Its so satisfying after youve spent a day trying to write songs!
When her mothers job changed, at 11 Sade moved to a coastal town near Clacton which I didnt like. The majority of people living there were over 65 and it wasnt country enough for me. Next stop was London where, having shown a talent for art at school, she won a place at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Here she eventually traded the earthiness of the country for a rough urban equivalent: slogging around in a battered transit van, usually driven by herself, singing backing vocals in a soul band called Pride. Her London home was a squat in a disused fire station with an outdoor bathroom shared briefly with her then-boyfriend, the style journalist Robert Elms.
Music wasnt her first choice. After graduating Sade set up as a clothes-maker. But she was a fan of the American soul giants Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, and being a black singer in a largely white ersatz soul outfit lent credibility to the outfit. I didn’t have any confidence as a singer, but I found that I liked writing songs. Smooth Operator, which she sang solo, soon attracted record-company talent scouts, although at first, her fierce loyalty to her band meant she ignored them. Sade is keen on loyalty to the point of clannishness, according to one longtime friend.
Finally, in 1983 she signed to the Epic label, on condition that she took three of her bandmates with her (guitarist and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, keyboard player Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Denman). Their earnings from recording and live work have always been an even four-way split. There have been arguments over the years – because my naffometer is much more sensitive than theirs, she claims – but no break-ups or new members. The band remains one tight unit under the control of a matriarch who likes the nickname Auntie Sade. None of the other three has ever spoken a word against Shard. Theyre like old family friends, she says. There are moments when its like Christmas and the skeletons come out. But generally its good.
What wasnt good in the early days was being branded cheerleaders for aspirational Thatcherite values. To be fair, they did themselves no favours, titling their debut album Diamond Life and exuding a glamorous aura very much in keeping with the materialistic impulse of Britain in the 1980s. Sade defends her youthful image as an echo of the dressy style favoured by her American soul heroes.
But the old charge that Sade was the backdrop of the yuppie era still rankles, making her unusually tetchy. With my family history, that really irks me. And it so annoyed me at the time, when we were secretly giving money we didnt even have yet to Arthur Scargill and the striking miners.
With plenty of money in the bank – The Sunday Times Rich List recently valued her as worth £30m – Sade has moved into a lower gear career-wise and devoted more time to her personal life. This has not been an easy ride. As an obstinately independent woman, long used to looking after herself, Sade is, as one old associate puts it, no pushover at the dating game. Ive paid some rugged dues, she observes of her romantic relationships. Her six-year marriage to the Spanish film director Carlos Pliego ended in 1995 because he found it hard to share me with the world. Despite her buying a flat in Madrid and spending as much time with Pliego there as she could, it wasnt enough and the marriage unravelled after her long absence on an American tour.
A subsequent affair with a Jamaican musician she met in London produced her daughter, Ila, in 1996, but ended unhappily. This proved a difficult experience for a black-British woman who, with her complicated background, has at times struggled to feel she belongs. As a teenager, she saw the Jackson 5 on television and was more fascinated by the audience than by anything that was going on on the stage. Theyd attracted kids, mothers with children, old people, white, black. I was really moved by that. Encouraged to explore her boyfriends Jamaican roots, the family visited Kingston, but got arrested for speeding, came home and split up. Relations between the three are now strained.
Her new man, Ian Watts, whom she met after moving to Stroud, she believes to be The One – and the real country article. Ian was a Royal Marine, then a fireman, then a Cambridge graduate in chemistry. I always said that if I could just find a guy who could chop wood and had a nice smile it didnt bother me if he was an aristocrat or a thug as long as he was a good guy. Ive ended up with an educated thug! Sade laughs like a drain at this, and is still chuckling as she recalls her mother introducing Ian to someone as Sades current boyfriend, like he was on a conveyor belt, or something.
Ians 18-year-old son, Jack, lives with them in the cottage in Stroud, so they make a modern nuclear family. Ian is Ilas dad, really. He does all the things a dad would do, and she really looks up to him. Her daughter has a caring stepfather and an older stepbrother she adores. Sade says: I feel like Ive won the lottery, finally.
Im not someone who needs a lot of money. You could break into this house and leave after half an hour without finding anything worth stealing, says Sade, and its hard to disagree. The first-floor drawing room of her London house is a large but sparsely furnished space with a couple of white fabric-covered sofas, a polished-wood floor and nothing much on the walls. For the past hour weve been sitting on a red rug in front of a one-bar electric fire that must be about as old as she is. She has several of these obsolete burners, she says. Theyre my favourite.
Frugality – another traditional country habit – is her style, but shes generous with it. As soon as the royalties rocked up, she helped her mother buy a house in Clacton, bought her brother Banji a place in the States, and supported various unnamed friends in business ventures. Her touring musicians comment on how fair she has been in awarding valuable songwriting credits for their contributions a rare thing in the tightfisted world of pop accountancy.
She has done this on the strict understanding that none of the beneficiaries talk about it, or ever write anything about me, which they havent. Its not just a personal-privacy thing, or control freakery, she claims, I just dont like the power relationship it implies. She isnt shy about the money per se. I always wanted to have money. When I was a little girl I used to do the football pools. But the great thing is when youve got it, your life doesnt revolve around money any more.
Hers clearly doesnt. Shes dressed today in a plain black top and nondescript black trousers. As we talk, she rolls her own cigarettes and blows the smoke up the chimney above the empty fireplace. (She gave up smoking for five years but reverted, as she always has, while making her new record.) Outside on the drive is her boxy old Volvo estate, which she traded for her vintage BMW after she had Ila. Her stylist, video director and friend Sophie Mueller used to say that behind the wheel Sade drove like an immature man in a womans body. Its hard to picture her like that in the Volvo.
With her sensible country head on, she realises how fortunate she is. She has sorted out her home life, earned all the money she will ever need, and continues to make music in her own time and in her own way. Is it still worth it? I think it is. After every album, I think, Right thats it, no more. But how lucky am I at my age still to be doing this without any outside pressure?
Her place in Stroud is a small cottage she calls a cave, a stone-built wreck that, five years after she moved in, is finished, kind of. There are still wires hanging out of places. She and Ian are now doing up a nearby farmhouse but God knows when well finish that. She enjoys the easygoing privacy of living in Stroud, where the local newspapers pay her no attention. Theyre more interested in Eddie the Eagle, hes a bigger star in those parts than I am. And Ila appreciates the countryside. Shes fascinated with frogs and newts and worms and slimy things, just like I was.
How to balance career and family is now her big issue. Being a mother is the biggest and hardest job Ive ever undertaken. Im not complaining, but Ive never had a nanny. For years after she was born I put Ila to bed every night. As soon as she arrived she became the centre of my life. She took her five-year-old daughter on her last world tour in 2002 but I didnt let her see any of the concerts because I didnt want her to hear people shouting for her mum. She wasnt ready for that. Ila sings on one of the tracks on Soldier of Love but Sade is in a quandary as to what to do with her when she accedes to the inevitable pressure to support her new album with a big tour.
She professes to love performing, regarding her concerts as the ultimate riposte to her critics. Whatever anybody might say about me, when I feel the warmth we get back from the audiences, particularly in America, I think its worth all the bullshit. I actually prefer singing live now, I feel much more comfortable than I did. I used to be a bit frozen and worried about my vocal performance, as if I hadnt learnt the language properly. These days, Sade is perfectly at home with herself. Its much easier for me to express myself now.
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