Sade, Grammy Contender And A (Less) Reluctant Star

Posing for cameras at a red-carpet event is an everyday occurrence in the entertainment world, an almost mandatory requirement for Celebrity 101.

But for Sade, a woman who has had arguably the most uncommon career in music, doing things that typical stars do is atypical. So when she decided to walk before paparazzi at Alicia Keys’ Black Ball for Keys’ Keep a Child Alive charity a few months ago, it was an event in itself, and a first for the enigmatic performer.

“I don’t think I’m a good star. I don’t do all the stuff,” remarked Sade in a recent interview, chuckling about her career milestone at the charity event, where she also performed. “I think I’ll remain a novice; I’m not going down there again, at least not for a while.”

Photo: AP Photo
Echo 2010 Music Awards, Berlin, Germany

While red carpets may not be in her future, Sade seems to be sharing a bit more of herself with her most recent comeback, the release earlier this year of Soldier of Love. The critically acclaimed album, which has a strong chance to be among those mentioned when the Grammy nominations are announced Wednesday, debuted at No. 1 on the album charts when it was released in February. It came after a 10-year break from recording for Sade, the band that she fronts and bears her name.

The 51-year-old Sade is known as much for her reclusive nature as her captivating, hypnotic slow grooves. In an era when performers rarely cede the spotlight, putting out project after project and lending their names to clothing lines, fragrances, video games and more, Sade only appears when she has new music, and a new Sade album is, in itself, an event. Her last album was 2000’s Lovers Rock, and that followed an eight-year break from making music.

So it was slightly surprising to see Sade singing on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” after the album’s release. She appeared in a hilarious skit with Wanda Sykes on the comedian’s now defunct late show, and appeared on shows like BET’s “106 & Park” to promote the platinum-selling album.

She acknowledges that she’s feeling slightly more comfortable in the media’s gaze.

“I’m a reluctant star in many ways, but the only way you can get around that is changing, and I think I am changing, lightening up a bit, in regard to being there and being seen and being judged,” she said.

“(Sometimes) I’m OK for a minute, and then I’m like, `What have I done, what have I done? I pressed the yes button! It’s too late, the missile is already on route,'” she said, laughing. “But it’s not always bad when you press a yes button by mistake.”

But while Sade may be opening up a bit, when it comes to her music, not much has changed since the Nigerian-born, British-reared singer and her band made their debut over 25 years ago with what would become their signature sound: Sade’s smoky vocals backed by an intoxicating, jazzy mix of horns, bass and percussion. From “Diamond Life” to “Sweetest Taboo” to “Soldier of Love,” Sade creates captivating, passion-filled songs that deceptively fit into the easy-listening set, yet remain smoldering and sexy.

“It’s not like a fashion thing; it’s not like a trend thing,” said Sade, born Helen Folasade Adu. “It’s just because our sound is very much our sound, which means it either appeals to you or it doesn’t, but if it does, then it gets to the heart because the music comes to the heart, and it’s resilient and it survives because of that.”

Guitarist and saxman Stuart Matthewman, who along with keyboardist Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Denman has been with Sade since their first album in 1985, said while Sade listens to plenty of contemporary music like hip-hop and pop – she is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter, after all – she never chases a contemporary sound.

“Kids who listen to hard-core hip-hop, when they go home at night they put on some Sade because they know it’s honest and she’s not trying to be anything else than she is,” he said. “Throughout her career, she’s never been anything else than Sade. … We do what we do and I think people like us for that reason, the integrity that Sade keeps.”

She also doesn’t try to keep up with deadlines, hence the long wait between her last two albums (“I’m Nigerian and I’m always late by 10 years,” she joked). She didn’t spend years and years working on her latest album; the group started working on it in 2008 and were done in a year. But before she went into the studio, she found herself itching to create songs: “I was just desperate to make more music and write.”

“She makes the record or she writes lyrics when she feels that she has something to write about, whether it’s her own experience or watching other people,” Matthewman said. “She writes about what she knows.”

While those life experiences are uniquely Sade, the songs on which they are based have universal appeal. Soldier of Love had one of the year’s biggest debuts with more than 500,000 sold in the first week and became her latest platinum album. Next year, she’s planning a North American tour to kick off in Baltimore in June.

“I try my hardest not to pay too much attention to that element and numbers because I feel the success is in the making; if you’re true to yourself as an artist, and you’re lucky, then that’s one thing, but if you treat yourself as an artist and you don’t become successful, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed,” Sade said.

Which may be another reason why Sade remains the most atypical of stars.

“She’s pretty oblivious to all of those kind of things,” Hale said of Sade’s accolades. “They’re not what drives her. What drives her musically … is something much more.”