By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sade debuted in 1984 — its first CD, "Diamond Life," featured a helpful parenthetical on the spine: "(pronounced Shar-day)" — and has sounded largely the same ever since. That's a compliment.
A Sade song sounds like ... a Sade song. Slow, sultry, deeply emotional and frosted with the iconic singer's cool, foggy, deliberately aloof voice. No evident trends, no guest rappers, no samples. The singles from the ’80s ("Smooth Operator," "The Sweetest Taboo," "Stronger Than Pride") are distinguishable from last year's "Soldier of Love," chiefly in the technical nuances of the production. The music, though, is stubbornly identifiable.
"To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do," said Sade — a k a singer Helen Folasade Adu, whose moniker is also the band name — during our interview. "We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change."
Received well, indeed. Over the same dates this weekend as Lollalaplooza in Chicago's Grant Park, Sade has nearly sold out three consecutive concerts at the United Center. "Soldier of Love" debuted at No. 1 when it was released in February 2010, possibly because fans were so eager to hear the first new material from Sade in a decade. In the last 18 years, Sade has released three albums. Like the pace of her songs, Sade is in no hurry.
Sade herself is as reticent as she is patient. In a rare interview, she talked to the Sun-Times about musical consistency, Justin Bieber and taking her own sweet time ...
Q: What does tour preparation involve for you and the band?
We're just talking about it now with the people working on the visual side of it. We're taking a long look at the songs to see how they really are in a way, how to represent them visually. In some ways, by looking at them in that way you learn something new, you see the songs a little from the outside. Once they're done, they're sent off somewhere. They're out there, and we have to rein them back in.
Q: Your first album in 10 years was out in February (2010), yet you're not touring until the following summer. Why the delay?
I couldn't sort of see myself going out there. I had to come up for air in a way. When we make an album, it's quite intense, very all-encompassing and consuming. I couldn't consider it, couldn't do it. I know it would have been the practical, sensical thing to do, to support the album and help it on its way. But I think if you're going to do something right you have to be 100-percent sure it's the best thing to do at that moment. I couldn't honestly feel that way, so I'm glad we took the breather before going back into it.
Q: You're never in any hurry, are you?
[Laughs] Having said that, I'm always late. The anxiety I feel when I'm late is nothing like the anxiety I feel when I'm on time. [Laughs] The few times in my life I've been early, it's all gone wrong. I'm in constant fear of being early. That's why I'm always late. Plus, obviously, I'm Nigerian. You can take the girl out of Nigeria ...
Q: Has Sony ever breathed down your neck, pressuring you for a new album next year instead of next decade?
They've lost all ambition with me. ... This is the only way I can go. You've got to be yourself. I'm much better at being myself. My life dominates me, and its circumstances come first. That actually enriches the music. I don't have that blind ambition just to do it. It has to feel right, otherwise I get sort of confused and wonder what I'm doing.
Q: Describe for me what happens — you release an album and tour in 2000-2001, then nearly eight years go by before the call goes out to reconvene the band. What has to happen for you to reach a creative boil?
It's hard to say. In some way, I feel the pressure boiling from the band. I suppose that kicks me into a more conscious state — more aware of the real practical side of it, the reality of what it takes. Also, I think I'll commit at the beginning. I have to get involved, get the train in motion, downhill picking up steam, then suddenly I find I'm doing it. I'm one of those people, if I stop and think it holds me back.
Q: You don't start writing until you're in the studio, right?
That's why making records is so expensive for us. I have collections of bits on paper, written little scraps of ideas from when I'm really excited by a thought or a feeling that's managed to make it to a bit of paper. We have that to start with, and that's it, really. Whenever we make an album, we have to go somewhere we can cut ourselves off from reality. That speeds up the process.
Q: Your music has evolved yet remained remarkably consistent and identifiable. You haven't flown off on stylistic tangents. How do you manage that?
To me, we're the punkest of punks within our own world, because we do what we do. We're not belonging to any particular genre, and we're always brave enough to do what we do whether it's understood or not. That fact that it's received well, we're endlessly grateful for. But our music is always approached in a way that's 'this is what we do, take it or leave it.' We don't have aspirations to change, only to develop within.
Q: Which means you must have an ESP with the band by now, right?
We've created our own language, so to speak, yes. We keep speaking and expressing ourselves with our own kind of language. If anything over the years, we've broken things down, become more abstract and more raw than it used to be, less polished. In a way it's more truthful, but that's subtle. Only a real lover of our music or someone who turns us up loud would really understand what I mean by that.
Q: Have you ever considered collaborations or side projects?
No, I feel safe in our little group.
Q: The only extracurricular project of yours I'm aware of is that bit part in "Absolute Beginners."
Well, yeah, talk about not being yourself. That was me sort of being someone else. It was very easy, like putting on a cloak, that becoming somebody for a little while. If I had to do that for a long while it would be grating. I didn't do other film work after that. I've tended to avoid becoming more famous than I already am, and I don't feel that's a very good way of expressing myself.
Q: Has fame been a challenge for you?
People generally let me be me. People are aware that I'm not someone particularly begging for attention. They hold back a bit with me.
Q: What music do you listen to?
I live in a house with an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old, so it's full of music. Just anything. My daughter and stepson are really broad-minded. When I was young, people were almost identified solely by the kind of music they liked. People fell into categories of who liked what. It's lovely about young kids now — they love music for the sake of it. It's so accessible, and it's all right to love Muse and Justin Bieber at the same time. That's infectious. There's no snobbery attached to their feeling for music.
Q: So Bieber's even gotten to you?
Justin Bieber singing "Cry Me a River" — that made me cry. We're sitting on the sofa at home, and my daughter showed it to me on YouTube. There's a kind of loveliness about him, an innocence. He's so maligned. I like Janelle Monae. I think she's sweet. We listen to a lot of rap and hip-hop. I love Raekwon. It's very heavy, I know, but I love the beats. I think he's genius.
Q: So many artists left the saxophone behind in the '80s. Not you. Why?
It's back there with the hats and the lampposts. [Laughs] We did leave the sax behind a little bit ourselves, but this album has a resurgence of sax. I think saxophone on a lot of '80s music is there like the synthesizer is there. It's fashionable. Leg warmers came along, and sax did, too. But if you love it, you hold onto it. The sax for Stuart [Matthewman] is like an additional limb. He loves it, and it's really infected our music. It's used for a reason, not just because it's the thing at that time.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.