Sade’s whims haven’t failed her yet
— Helen Folasade Adu, a.k.a. pop soul chanteuse Sade, had been a complete vegetarian for nine years when she spotted some lambs on her farm in England.
“I hate to say this,” she intones in the warm, husky voice beloved by her fans for the last 25 years, “but when I saw these lambs gamboling through the field and I started to salivate and I thought I should get to the tandoori shop quick before I pull a leg off one of the lambs. It’s weird. I just thought the natural thing to do right now was to eat meat. I went through the whole veggie period thinking that was a good thing, and maybe it was for that time.”
This whimsical shift in the 51-year-old singer’s eating habits provides some insight into the decision making behind one of the more enduring and idiosyncratic career paths in pop music. Since their debut album, “Diamond Life” in 1984, the band Sade, which also includes guitarist-saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and bassist Paul Denman, has sold over 50 millions albums worldwide, won three Grammys and had a No. 1 album this year with “Soldier of Love.”
Yet after a steady stream of recordings in the ‘80s (“Diamond Life,” “Promise,” “Stronger Than Pride”), they have released only three albums in the last 18 years. The gap between “Lover’s Rock” and “Soldier” was nine years.
The band has retained its following, however, with particularly strong support from African-American listeners, for whom the half-Nigerian, half- English vocalist has remained both a sex symbol and an icon of elegance in a rather unrefined musical era. Dressed in black corduroy jeans and black silk blouse with her long black hair hanging loose around her shoulders, Sade more than lives up to her image during a conversation at a venerable New York hotel.
As her sudden renewed desire for meat suggests, this lady trusts, and is guided by, her impulses, and has a sense of life’s priorities for which commerce is but one consideration. A prime example of her philosophy is the recently announced American tour, which begins in June and arrives at the Staples Center on Aug. 19, a good year and a half after the February release of “Soldier of Love.”
When it is suggested that the more logical time to tour in support of that album would have been this summer when the album was still hot, she smiles and acknowledges “that would have been the more sensible thing to do promotion-wise. But I just wasn’t ready to do that.... Sometimes I think you have to go with what you think is right as opposed to being a promotional tool for the album.”
Part of the delay is practical. It will allow Sade’s 13-year-old daughter Ila to travel with her mother and see her perform live in concert for the first time. But it also reflects the singer’s own view of herself and how she works best creatively. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m in that moment and I’m doing it. The rest of the world’s lost. If I’m cooking some food or making soup, I want it to be lovely. If not, what’s the point of doing it?”
She speculates that gaps between records and tours have been one secret to the band’s longevity. “Without them we probably would have been d-i-v-o-r-c-e-d a long time ago,” she says, laughing. “Actually, the gaps make making a record such a special privilege.”
The tour, which will kick off with a European leg in the spring, will be in large arenas, just as the band’s 2001 tour was. Prior to that the band regularly played venues like the Greek Theatre, which seemed optimal settings for the sexy, minor-key intimacy of Sade’s catalog.
“When you play arenas you can create whatever you want,” she says of the decision. “At a theater the height of the stage and the limitations of the theater can make you feel more separate from the audience. I think we can create a feeling of being in a theater by the nature of the production and intimacy of the moment.”
Back in ’84 when Sade broke through with “Smooth Operator,” color was a very contentious issue in pop music. It was the days of MTV when black artists’ ability to penetrate the playlist was limited by both their R&B-based music and their dark skin; Sade’s multi-culti looks and exotic heritage helped the band cross over in an era when many black artists could not.
Though there is a long tradition of mixed-race performers being identified as “black” in the United States, coming from England Sade was able to embrace both sides of her racial identity. In so doing she became a rare symbol of comfortable multi-culturalism on this side of the Atlantic.
“I noticed the reactions when I first came over here,” she recalls of her early trips to America. “London was a really multi-racial city … It’s incredible how comfortable people are with race there. But I was surprised when I came to America the first time. It was very, very rare to see black and white couples holding hands.”
As for her own role as a symbol of mixed-race normalcy, “I like to think that our popularity transcends that kind of caste system. But then when I was young and watched a game on the telly with my mom and brother, it didn’t matter which country the person came from, if they were black we wanted them to win. The same if it was two boxers, the black one had to win. People do bask in their reflection.”
When asked how she’d identify herself today, Sade ruminates. Finally she replies, “I’d probably say more black than white because I’m more like my dad or my granny and less like my mother, who’s white. Maybe if I was more like my mother I’d feel differently … I look a lot like my father and his mother. What’s interesting is that I spent my life away from my dad. When I was 20 I went and stayed with him solidly for a month to six weeks. Just me and him, and it was very intense. What I discovered was myself even in his choices and taste and mannerisms. I realized I haven’t just inherited him socially, but his physical attributes.”
In an age of artists who blog and tweet opinions, heartaches and promotional messages on an hourly basis, Sade, predictably, demurs. She is not on Twitter or Facebook, though the band has an official Facebook page. She does, however, search the Web “looking for bricks and railing” for her farm.
One 21st century music business convention she does acknowledge enjoying is sampling. “When it comes to sample clearances, I’m probably the cheapest chick in the west,” she says, quite amused by that idea. She has, however, turned down many prominent MCs, including Jay –Z, who have wanted to rhyme over her beats or do “collabos” with her singing a hook on a hip-hop track.
“I’m too scared,” she says. “They’ll find me out. It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ They’ll find out there’s nothing there. As for collaborations, I’m collaborating with the band and do what we do. I see myself as a member of this band who does these songs that we write.”