In February, Sade fans around the globe were rewarded for their years of anticipation, with the release of Soldier of Love, the Grammy-winning quartet’s first album in 10 years.
The world has significantly changed since the group put out the triple platinum Lovers Rock in 2000 — it was a year before 9/11, after all — but their sultry new songs and the cool, seductive voice of Nigerian-born lead singer Sade Adu bridge the gap timelessly, recalling their classic hits that have been staples of AC and smooth jazz radio for two decades: ‘Your Love Is King,’ ‘Smooth Operator,’ ‘Is It A Crime,’ ‘Kiss Of Life,’ ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ and ‘No Ordinary Love.’
All told, since the back-to-back 1984-85 releases of their hit debut album Diamond Life, which earned Sade a Best New Artist Grammy in 1986–and the follow-up Promise, the band has sold nearly 23 million albums in the U.S. and more than 50 million worldwide. Not surprisingly based on the group’s popularity with two generations of fans, Soldier Of Love debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. The lead title track single debuted at #58 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the band’s highest debut on this chart.
For Sade herself, the lynchpin of the band’s creative process, the unusually long delay between studio albums five and six – their discography also includes Stronger Than Pride (1988) and Love Deluxe (1992)–was a simple matter of integrity and authenticity. ‘I only make records when I feel I have something to say,’ she says. ‘I’m not interested in releasing music just for the sake of selling something. Sade is not a brand. Strangers would come up to me over the years and ask ‘What are you doing?’ When are you making the next record? And I always sort of gave them vague answers. And you’re kind of always making a record anyway, because your life and every day is all going to end up in there somehow, disguised. So it’s sort of a constant process.’
When that process leads to more concrete ideas for an actual studio project, Sade’s other members are happy to make the band a priority again. The call went out in 2008 for the group to re-convene at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio, near Sade’s home in the countryside of south west England. It was the first time the four principals had met up since the Lover’s Rock Tour wrapped in 2001. Bassist Paul Denman de-camped from Los Angeles, where he had been managing his teenage son’s punk band, Orange. Guitarist and saxman Stuart Matthewman interrupted his film soundtrack work in New York, and keyboardist Andrew Hale gave up his A&R consultancy.
In a series of sessions at Real World, Sade sketched out the material for a new album which, they all felt, was shaping up to be their most ambitious to date. In particular, the sonic layering and martial beats of the title track, ‘Soldier Of Love,’ sounded quite different from anything they had previously recorded. Hale says, ‘The big question for all of us at the beginning was, ‘Did we still want to do this and could we still get along as friends?’ She’s never, ever seemed to doubt what it was she wanted. You feel like you’re all on this quest that’s always’always been in the back of her mind. She’s got more stamina than the rest of us.’
Denman points out that because each member of the band lives on different continents and none brings any completed songs into the studio, the writing and recording process takes a long time. The album was completed in the summer of 2009, mainly at Real World. What became clear as the recording progressed was the way the music had moved away from the old country soul styling of Lover’s Rock and evolved with a more eclectic identity. At times, the band sounded like the original, early 80s version of Sade, with Matthewman back blowing soft sax on ‘In Another Time’ and the vocal on ‘Long Hard Road’ hymning. But with songs such as the quirky, high spirited reggae chant ‘Babyfather’ and the hypnotic, lushly arranged opener ‘The Moon and the Sky,’ Sade were exploring new territory.
‘I never want to repeat myself,’ Sade says. ‘And that becomes a more interesting challenge for us the longer we carry on together. It’s not an easy thing making an album. I mean, it’s better than digging a ditch but it’s not the easiest job. I always forget, you know, when I come back and think, ‘You know, this is so easy.’ To draw on the title track metaphor, I suppose it’s like a mission. You have certain rules and limitations, and a certain terrain that you can operate within and it’s still classed as music, and so you’re limited. So it is a bit like being a soldier, because you somehow have to find in yourself the ability to choose what you think at that time is the best thing.’
It’s fascinating to listen to Sade and Matthewman bounce back and forth as they discuss the group’s very intricate yet serendipitous songwriting process. Matthewman says, ‘Sade can just be sitting at a table, looking at the window. And you know, it’s really windy. I’m sort of pissed off because I can’t go off on my bike due to the wind and rain. But she’s actually loving it, looking out, seeing all the trees blowing. And that will completely inspire her to write something like, say, ‘The Safest Place’ or ‘Morning Bird.’
Sade continues, ‘The three minutes where the song really comes together and that moment where it sort of arrives from the ether or wherever, then the rest – a lot of the rest is working on maintaining that’the spirit that came to you from no will of your own. That’s the difficult part: being loyal to the original vibration and spirit of feeling that came with that song.’
Matthewman adds, ‘Where that comes from I don’t know. It just happens. Other times, it’s like an awful, dreadful birth, just trying to push the thing out. And then other times, it’s just so easy. You can’t force it. You can’t say, ‘Oh today is going to be the day we’re going to do something great.”
Sade, whose real name is Helen Folaside Adu, had no idea that she was destined for any sort of musical greatness when she was studying fashion at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, where she was raised by her mom along with her brother Banji after her parents split. While she had grown up listening to American soul music’and saw The Jackson 5 perform at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park’she only began singing after two old school friends with a fledgling group approached her to help them out with vocals. Two years after she discovered a knack for songwriting, Sade became the regular backup singer for the North London Latin Funk band Pride.
For three years, she and the other seven members toured the UK, often with her driving. Pride’s shows featured a segment in which Sade fronted a quartet that played quieter, jazzier numbers. One of these, a Sade co-write called ‘Smooth Operator,’ attracted the attention of record company talent scouts. She got many offers but held out for 18 months until she could convince a label to also sign some of her band mates. Epic agreed to sign her, Matthewman, Hale and Denman, who collectively became known as Sade. The group’s first single ‘Your Love Is King’ became a Top Ten UK hit in early 1984 and later that year ‘Smooth Operator’ became Sade’s first Top Ten hit in the U.S. and the band’s most successful international single.
For most of the past 20 years, Sade has focused on her personal life over her professional career, releasing only three studio albums of new material. Her marriage to the Spanish film director Carlos Scola Pliego in 1989; the birth of her daughter in 1996 and her early 21st century move from North London to rural Gloucestershire, where she now lives with a new partner, have consumed much of her time, attention and joy. But Sade claims that she wouldn’t be the artist she is today without these experiences out of the limelight.
‘You can only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself the time to grow as a person,’ she says. ‘We’re all parents, our lives have all moved on. I couldn’t have made Soldier of Love any time before now, and though it’s been a long wait for the fans — and I am sorry about that – I’m incredibly proud of it. I feel a responsibility when we’re making the music to create something with love in it. So I think people can then feel it, and I’m happy to say that’s what we have given them.’
Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+