Like many people I was excited to hear that film director Ava DuVernay had persuaded Sade to record a new original song, her first in eight years, for the forthcoming movie A Wrinkle in Time. Announcing the news on Twitter, DuVernay wrote, “I never thought she’d say yes, but asked anyway. She was kind and giving. A goddess.”
It’s how we all think of Sade. A goddess, a queen. Yet of course, behind all that she’s a real person: Helen Folasade Adu, born in Nigeria in 1959, to a Nigerian academic and an English nurse. When her parents separated she moved back to England with her mother and brother, growing up in Essex listening to Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers. As a teenager she saw the Jackson Five at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, where she worked behind the bar: “I was more fascinated by the audience… They’d attracted kids, mothers with children, old people, white, black. I was really moved. That’s the audience I’ve always aimed for.”
Before becoming a singer, she studied fashion, and modelled a bit, but was no mere model-turned-singer. Instead she had put in three years of touring, from 1981 to 1984, with London soul band Pride, until their standout song, which she’d co-written, “Smooth Operator”, came to the attention of record companies. Refusing to abandon her bandmates, she only signed to Epic once they’d agreed to take Stuart, Andrew and Paul as well – and together they became the band Sade.
This was the period in the wake of post-punk when a Soho scene grew up around the Wag Club, which started in 1982, and attracted a crowd who dressed in zoot suits and danced to a mixture of Latin jazz, northern soul, funk and hip hop, as opposed to the chart hits being played in other West End clubs. Where punks had revelled in being guttersnipes, the new soul or new jazz aficionados, like the New Romantics, were more inspired by the Oscar Wilde line: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The first Sade album, Diamond Life (1984), embodied much of that scene, and was a sophisticated record made by strugglers and underdogs. “We’re hungry for a life we can’t afford”, she sang, “we’re hungry but we won’t give in.” There’s a song about the Salvation Army picking up the pieces for the casualties of uncaring 1980s capitalism – “doing our dirty work” – and a cover of Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together”, a plea for racial and social integration (“no matter, no matter what colour, you are still my brother”). Set against these is “Smooth Operator”, which I’ve always thought of as a Roxy Music type of lyric about urban sleaze and corrupt glamour: “He move in space with minimum waste and maximum joy/City lights and business nights/When you require streetcar desire for higher heights.”
As with the fashion, there was a vintage element to the sound. a kind of classic soul/jazz vibe, produced by Robin Millar (who also produced the first two Everything But the Girl albums). In love with simplicity and acoustic instruments, his skill was in arrangement – “congas in on the second verse” as we used to joke with him. With Sade this was enormously successful and right from the start the band created a signature sound that they have barely deviated from their entire career.
We’d bump into them at Power Plant Studios, and while their fashion sense and style could make them seem a little dazzling or intimidating, they were also warm and friendly. Sade once told me that my singing reminded her of Chet Baker’s trumpet playing – not his singing, she was at pains to point out, but his playing, which she felt was a greater compliment. I took it as such, and admired the specificity. This was clearly someone who cared about detail.
As a singer, Sade sounds like no one else. There’s a plangent tone to her voice, a liking for the long-held note, almost vibrato-free. A precision of diction. No melisma, no swooping octave leaps. And there are two very distinct tones – softness with just a slight husk in the bottom range, and above that, a more strident note, bringing a hardness which is vital, adding the only sharp edge.
But of course you can’t talk about Sade without talking about what she looks like. It wasn’t just her beauty, it was how she carried herself: always, to go back to that first band name, with pride. Her style and poise was a legacy from the fashion school days. She always knew exactly which Levis were correct. She could make a trench coat look edgy. She could make huge hoop earrings look like the crown jewels.
The style of the times meant that women in pop tended to wear more clothes than they do now. Bananarama were considered sexy in their dungarees, and Annie Lennox was androgynously cool in a man’s suit. Soul singers – even the girls – wore peg-top trousers, crisp tucked-in shirts, bolero jackets, bow ties and felt hats. Yet given Sade’s beauty, it is striking how little she used her sexuality. On the cover of Love Deluxe (1992) she appears uncharacteristically naked – though with arms folded so nothing can be seen, the shot more stylised than erotic, more about art than sex. She holds herself, eyes closed, and it is clear you’d get nowhere near her.
If she often looked unreachable and untouchable, what more powerful statement could there be from a young black woman? Belonging to nobody, beholden to nobody but herself, she held the male gaze at bay, deflecting it, controlling it. The band carried her name, and behind that reserve that appeared a mixture of shyness and strength, a core of steel held everything together.
It grates on me how, given their huge international success, the band get overlooked when the history and triumphs of British music are recounted. In the US, her legacy is clear – artists such as Rakim, Kanye West and Beyoncé express their respect and love for her work. In the Eighties she ruled over the “quiet storm” radio stations, which specialised in a genre of smooth soul – music to have sex to, rather than march to.
But Sade herself often smuggled politics into the songs. You won’t find lyrics about yachts or champagne or limos. As a writer she is a product of Eighties social realism. She sang about Jezebel, who “wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth” but was another struggler, a survivor – “every winter was a war, she said, I want to get what’s mine”. Both “Slave Song” and “Immigrant” explicitly address racism: “He didn’t know what it was to be black/’Till they gave him his change/But didn’t want to touch his hand.”
Sade’s whole career tells a story of precision and minimalism, from the scraped-back hair to the fact that there are only six albums in 26 years. She has remained incredibly private, rarely gives interviews, and avoids the chat-show sofa. She does, however, go on tour with every new album, feeling that the songs come alive on stage. For this, she’s called reclusive, though what this means is that she is still playing no one’s game, and living no one’s life but her own.
Tracey Thorn’s album “Record” is out now
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special