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The queen of “quiet storm”: Tracey Thorn on the return of Sade

Sade mixed slick soul with social realism to create a unique sound. Now, after eight years, she’s back.

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

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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“He keeps asking me, is it sad to be an old woman?”: sparring with the French director Claire Denis

The provocative auteur talks to Ryan Gilbey about sex at 71, her obsession with Juliette Binoche and why his questions are “maybe a little bit pretentious.”

The 71-year-old French director Claire Denis is pocket-sized, but then so is a grenade. Welcoming me into her London hotel room, where a single lamp provides the only resistance against the fading light, she gets straight down to business. First there is the English-language title of her latest film, Let the Sunshine In. “I’m very unhappy with it.” She wanted A Bright Sun In. There is scarcely time to point out to her that this brisk, playful movie, about a middle-aged Parisian artist (Juliette Binoche) searching for love, is undamaged by the mistranslation. Denis has moved on, and is pondering the post-screening Q&A session she’ll take part in later. “I hate Q&As! You see a film, you don’t want to ask questions. All those stupid explanations.” She touches her throat, still tender from an operation three weeks ago. “The doctor removed a virus.” Really? You mean a cyst, or a tumour? “No!” she says crossly. “A virus.” Then she softens: “It was like coral from the ocean.” There is an odd glint in her eye, fearful but unmistakably titillated.

That look is there in her work, too. No other living director, not even Pedro Almodóvar or Catherine Breillat, has quite her knack for untangling the mysteries of sexual desire, or the role played in it by gender, race and class. It is the warmth, inquisitiveness and mischief in her films that make them so seductive. She is not above being shocking, as she was in the revenge thriller Bastards, set in a world of sexual exploitation where unspeakable acts are committed with a corncob, or Trouble Every Day, in which horny vampires nip out for a bite after sex. She is at her best, though, in a gentler or more thoughtful register.

Two fine films at either end of her career have dissected the tensions between white colonialists and black Africans. Her 1988 debut, Chocolat, set in colonial Cameroon, drew on her own childhood as the daughter of a civil servant; the family moved around French West Africa before Denis returned in her teens to Paris, her birthplace, to finish her education. She revisited the subject in her 2010 drama White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert as the owner of a coffee plantation in an unnamed turbulent African country. Unable to see that she is part of the problem, she continues making coffee while the nation burns.

Denis’s favourite among her films might be 35 Shots of Rum, an elliptical study of people of African descent living in a Parisian suburb. She retracts the remark. “I don’t have a favourite. Which is yours? Tell me.” That’s easy. Beau Travail (1999) which transposes Billy Budd (both the Melville novel and the Benjamin Britten opera) to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. Like much of her work, it has little dialogue. Why give an actor a monologue when character can be more elegantly expressed in shots of him fastidiously ironing his uniform or hurling his body around an empty dancefloor to “The Rhythm of the Night” by Corona?

Denis swoons. “Ah, Beau Travail. We had Benjamin Britten playing on these tiny loudspeakers. I was sleeping two hours a night. We were on the edge! It was great. I loved my 15 guys. And the real Foreign Legion wanted to stop us.” She mimes someone peering through binoculars. “They thought we were shooting a gay porno movie.”

You can understand the error. Much of the fascination of Beau Travail stems from its unusual gender dynamic: it’s an intensely homoerotic reverie in which many of the core personnel (not just Denis but her cinematographer and editor) happen to be female. As far back as the 1996 Nénette et Boni, about a young pizza-seller smitten with a female baker, Denis was complicating the audience’s point-of-view. We hear the oversexed fellow recounting his breathless fantasies, most of which revolve around the things he wants to do to the buxom baker with his “big French stick”. What we see, however, is an extended shot of his bare torso, the camera admiring the magnificent slopes of his shoulders and the play of light on his mahogany skin. The desirer has become the desired.

As her latest film demonstrates, Denis is an equal opportunities sensualist. Let the Sunshine In, wordier than we have come to expect from her, is an unabashed celebration of Binoche. “What brings everything together is Juliette’s frankness and strength. We were having lunch one day and I caught a glimpse of her cleavage. I said, ‘Juliette, I want to show what a sexy woman you are. Every shot in the film I am going to show your cleavage. Your legs, your feet, your hands, a short skirt, high heels, leather jacket.’ She is sexier than any young girl on the red carpet.”

Denis, too, is wearing a leather jacket. Her vanilla hair is full of kinks, her tiny buttonhole eyes darting and alert. She sniffs the air. “Am I dreaming or can I smell a joint?” She squints at the window, which looks out onto a dingy Soho back-street, and inhales deeply. “Such a nice smell…”

I steer her back to Binoche. The pair went straight from finishing Let the Sunshine In to their next collaboration, the intimate intergalactic story High Life, which is exactly the way Denis likes it. She can’t bear letting go of her actors. “In life I am maybe not possessive enough. But in film – so much.” Directing Huppert in White Material, she was forever touching the actor’s hair, petting her almost, telling her: “I want to take you home with me.” She hates it when someone she has worked with appears in another director’s movie. “I get jealous. You spend two months looking so closely at them that you can tell if a single eyelash is out of place. Then they are gone.”

 Sensual: Denis with leading lady Juliette Binoche. Credit: Francois G. Durand/Getty

High Life, Denis’s first movie in English as well as her first with special effects, throws her together with another cinematic phenomenon – the actor Robert Pattinson, currently doing a bang-up job of distancing himself from the Twilight series that made his name. Pattinson, a long-time Denis fan, has called High Life her “craziest” film and described the director as a “punk”. She looks aghast. “My craziest? No. His, maybe. Well, there is some craziness in it but I won’t tell you where. Yes, Robert said many times he was afraid because I was like a punk. I am a simple person. I just try to communicate simply.” High Life also brought her into the orbit of Zadie Smith and her husband Nick Laird. “They didn’t write anything,” she explains. “I met with them because I wanted more than just a translation of the French script. But they felt there was no space for their own vision.” (At the time of writing, Smith and Laird are still listed as its co-writers on IMDb and Wikipedia.) The movie will feature music by the British band Tindersticks, whose frontman, Stuart Staples, has been working with Denis on and off for years. My suggestion that their gorgeous scores are the glue between her movies prompts her angriest objection yet.

“Glue? No, it is not glue! Glue holds things together. Music is there to be like the soul.”

I say that I meant it in the same way that Nino Rota’s music connects Fellini’s films.

She sits back in her chair, eyeing me suspiciously. “Hmm. I will ask Stuart. But it is maybe a little bit pretentious.”

What we can agree on is that Let the Sunshine In explores a subject overlooked by most cinema: the role of love and sex in the lives of older women. While Denis was shooting the film, her mother died at the age of 94. “She was very clear-minded, still interested in sex and attraction.” One night, she fell out of bed and Denis had to enlist a strapping young Italian from a nearby pizza joint – it could be a scene from one of her films – to come to the rescue. He scooped the old woman up in his arms and slipped her back into bed as though sliding a pizza into the oven. “Once he was gone, my mother looked up and said, ‘He was so good-looking!’”

Is it harder for women to express their sexuality as they get older? Denis thinks not. “It is worse sometimes for men. They are so afraid to not get a hard-on.” We can always use Viagra, I suggest. She scoffs. “That’s no fun. Better that I use a piece of wood or buy a sex toy. I think it’s humiliating for a man to take Viagra. It’s so good to be together as a couple and both of you can feel the hard-on going and coming back and going again. The smell of sex coming in, coming out.”

She has been married once and is now divorced. The ring she wears was given to her by “the man I live with. The man I love.” They have no children. “I decided at 39 I didn’t want to be a mother. No regrets, no crying. Maybe because my own mother was not so happy to be one. She told me, ‘You don’t need to be a mother!’ She was so free.”

Only when she sees a photograph of herself does Denis realise she is ageing. “Inside, not at all.” I ask if she notices that she is treated any differently now she is 71. “Sometimes when I’m walking or riding my bicycle, I’ll hear a guy whistle and then he passes me and sees my face and says, ‘Oh, sorry!’” She laughs. “Maybe from the back I’m better.” And is she happy? “With getting older? It’s a disaster. It’s a wreck. To be able to stay up for three nights without sleep, to get so drunk you are in a coma – these things I miss the most. On the other hand, my body is able to move, I still have feelings and I’m making films.”

She has to prepare for the dreaded Q&A now. The PR assistant hovers nearby. “I overheard something about joints and Viagra,” he says. “Claire, were you incriminating yourself?”

She jabs a finger in my direction like a scolded child trying to shift the blame. “He kept asking me, ‘Is it sad to be an old woman?’”

I protest that this wasn’t quite how I phrased it. “You raised the question many times,” she says, sniggering naughtily.

“Well, you’re not so young either. And you will suffer, too.” She takes my hand in hers, which is warm and firm, and musters her sweetest smile. “So fuck you,” she says. 

Let The Sunshine In is released on 20 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge