Sade addresses her demons (2024)

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This was published 14 years ago

By Jon Pareles



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WHEN a radio interviewer asked Sade what she had been doing in the 10 years between albums, she told him: ''I've been in a cave and I just rolled the boulder out of it.''

She chuckles when recounting the exchange, as an interview about her new album, Soldier of Love - only her sixth studio album dating back to her 1984 debut - stretches into a four-hour conversation.

''I've got absolutely no real perception, properly, of time,'' says Sade, 51, who was born Helen Folasade Adu, in Ibadan, Nigeria. Her father was a Nigerian university teacher of economics; her mother was an English nurse and raised her in rural England after the couple divorced. Sade's speaking voice is even lower than the husky alto in her songs, the elegantly subdued ballads that have sold more than 50 million albums worldwide.

Her hits, such as Smooth Operator, No Ordinary Love and The Sweetest Taboo, were ubiquitous through the 1980s and '90s, purring out of radios and lending ambience to countless lounges, restaurants and boutiques. Sade emerged in the music-video era (her debut album, Diamond Life, appeared a year after Madonna's first), when pop stars tend to believe they need maximum media exposure to sustain a career. Instead, Sade has hung back, letting the songs define her. It's a decision that may, in the end, make her more cherished.

Fans have not forgotten her: Soldier of Love debuted at No. 1 on the US pop album chart last week and debuted at No. 4 on this week's ARIA chart.


As far as the music business was concerned, Sade might as well have been in some cave after 2002, when she and her band finished touring for their 2000 album, Lovers Rock. She vanished from stages, magazine covers, gossip columns and other celebrity-promotion zones, though she did contribute a song to a 2005 benefit DVD, Voices for Darfur.

Sophie Muller, who became friends with Sade after they met while attending London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, says most artists are more of a ''big person'' in their public persona than they are in private.

''I'd say with Sade it's almost the other way around,'' says Muller, who became her video director and, for Soldier of Love, the album cover photographer.

Sitting with her feet tucked up on the couch at her Georgian house in the north London suburb of Islington, Sade cuts a slender figure in black pants and a black V-neck sweater.

She says she loves writing songs. ''But then, going beyond that, I find it a little bit difficult, the sort of opening myself up to everything that's attached to it in the music business generally, the expectations and pressures that are put on to you. Some people love all of the trimmings and everything that comes with that. But I happen to not be one of those people.''

She says she ventured into working on the new album with ''a little trepidation. I wasn't eager to get back out there and be recognised again.''

Though she describes her life over the past few years as a ''a rugged roller-coaster ride'', she insists she is happy now and describes the album as a kind of purging.

''There's quite a lot of my history in the album, one way or another. It's not all about me but there's bits of me in there.''

The new album doesn't radically change the sound of Sade, which is also the name of the band she has led since 1983, with Stuart Matthewman on guitar and saxophone, Andrew Hale on keyboards and Paul Denham on bass. Soldier of Love is another collection of slow, pensive songs, mostly in minor keys, often pondering lost love and uncertain journeys. The band takes pride in being proficient but not flashy and even the album's most elaborately multitracked and programmed arrangements come across as modest.

The first single, Soldier of Love, is as close as Sade gets to current R&B, with its martial percussion, subterranean bass throb, sudden zaps of samples and sombre strings. The rest of the album is gentler, resuming and subtly updating Sade's understated R&B-reggae-jazz-pop fusion.

Yet in their own quiet way, many songs on Soldier of Love hold a new desolation. Sade's music began as a British take on the suave 1970s American soul of Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, often projecting a serene reserve that reassured listeners and drew them in. Now some of that reserve has vanished. On the new album, Sade's voice shows more ache and vulnerability, moving closer than ever to the blues.

For the past five years, Sade and her partner, Ian Watts, have lived together in rural Gloucestershire, in the west of England, where they are raising Sade's 13-year-old daughter, Ila, and Watts's 18-year-old son, Jack. Sade is considering marriage. ''There's lots of regrets about time wasted and all those mistakes in the past,'' says Sade, who divorced the Spanish filmmaker Carlos Pliego in 1995. ''But there's something lovely about knowing that when it's right, you really know it's right because you've already been through all the wrong.''

The singer spends most of her time in Gloucestershire, only occasionally driving her Volvo in to London. For Sade, the past decade has been filled largely with domestic matters: gardening, parenthood, building a house (now nearly finished) and tending to someone terminally ill she declines to identify. ''If you've got a sick friend, or someone you love is dying, to say, 'See you later, I'm going into the studio' - I just can't do it,'' she says. ''It doesn't matter to me enough at that moment.''

Sade says she hesitated to plunge back into songwriting. ''That feeling of revelation, of exposing myself emotionally - that was maybe something that held me back, subconsciously, from going into it again. But it isn't all about me, and it's not only me, and the only way I can forget about it is by doing it.''

She started cautiously. The band members had scattered in the '80s and '90s - Matthewman in New York, Denman in Los Angeles, Hale in London - and Sade thought that having them fly in to work would signal too much of a commitment at first. About five years ago, Sade began working on songs with Juan Janes, an Argentine guitarist living in London, in her basem*nt studio at the Islington house.

They wrote Mum, about atrocities in Darfur, for the benefit album, and early versions of tracks on the new album, Babyfather and Long Hard Road. With her move to Gloucestershire, that collaboration petered out but eventually her band, her friends and her family nudged her towards music again.

''I wasn't pressured by the years going by, really,'' Sade says. ''Only through the band's desire to make a record.'' Band members had been hinting and waiting. ''I'll always drop everything to work with her,'' Matthewman says. They reconvened in 2008, the first time they had all been together since the tour.

Since the group's second album, Sade have created songs in a way that is now a bygone luxury for most bands: writing together in a fully equipped studio, spontaneously, rather than bringing in finished songs to polish up. For a week or two at a time, and then for longer stretches, the band members lived at Peter Gabriel's residential Real World Studios in Wiltshire. Matthewman recalls Sade instructing: ''Don't tell the record company.''

''I have to escape the mundane realities of everyday life in order to go there and dig down within myself,'' Sade says, adding that at Real World, ''you can't just say: 'Oh, I can't work, I've got to go and cook a meal.' You have no choice but to address the demons.''

The band did not rush. ''If you're only making an album every 10 years, it better be good,'' Sade says.

Eventually, Sony Music executives did learn that Sade was working again and wanted the album released last Christmas. That deadline passed; Sade says she's happier to re-emerge in a new year and a new decade. The band finished the last mix at about 5am on the day another band had booked Real World.

An album meant a cover photograph and Sade was at first reluctant to appear on it. ''Everybody around me said: 'You're mad,''' she says. The compromise was a photo with her back turned, gazing out over Mayan ruins. ''You're not looking at me,'' she says. ''You're surveying the journey ahead and the history as well.''

Through a quarter of a century of recording, Sade has heard regularly about how her songs' mixture of mourning and consolation have brought her fans comfort. ''If it's like a lighthouse to guide someone past the rocks, that's a great thing,'' she says.

The next round is a handful of television appearances to publicise the album. Eventually, Sade intends to gear up for a tour.

''I do want to get on the stage and sing the songs,'' she says. ''But then I just want to disappear again.''

The New York Times

Soldier of Love is out now.



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