The smoothest operator touches down in Abu Dhabi

An interview with singer Sade ahead of her concert at Yas Arena on Friday.

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 13: Singer Sade performs live during a concert at the O2 World on May 13, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Frank Hoensch/Getty Images)
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In the current state of the music industry, timing is everything.

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Gone are the days when an album and multiple supporting tours would suffice in maintaining an artist's profile. Now, each pop-savvy artist is using an arsenal of social-networking tools and constant television appearances to maintain their presence.

While music channels and technology have made the relationship between artists and fans more intimate, the downside is it erodes their allure and mystery, arguably the lifeblood for long-term appeal.

Ask the Nigerian-born English singer Sade Adu, the frontwoman of her self-titled British soul group, and she admits that's it's just as good sometimes to disappear than be constantly in the public eye.

"I think people are way too scared to take a chance and let go," she says.

"They have this fear of getting lost. Sometimes space and change is really good. It's more alerting and engaging and exciting for the audience. It is hard to say, but I wouldn't do it differently because I am me and that's how I do it."

Even the most impatient fan can't argue with the results: with six albums released over 26 years, the group amassed more than 50 million in record sales, catapulting the 52-year-old Adu to become one of the most successful British female artists of all time.

The group's 2010 album, Soldier of Love, was released after a decade-long absence and sold a staggering 500,000 units in its first week of sales.

Even the group's rapturously received world tour - which touches down in Abu Dhabi's Yas Arena on Friday - had industry types scratching their heads over the fact that it was launched 18 months after the album was released, a time frame that would see most other current pop artists finishing their tours and getting busy writing their next albums.

Adu says the confusion stems from the misunderstanding of the "special relationship" Sade has with their fans.

"There is a loyalty to the music," she says.

"What is lovely is that people trusted that we will deliver. People bought the record without checking it out first, which is a testimony to the relationship people have with our music."

It is this relationship with the faithful that matters most to Adu, since casual listeners and the music industry failed a long time ago to understand what makes the band tick.

Sade was created in 1982 as a breakaway group from the eight-piece London funk band Pride. Adu (who was a backing vocalist), the multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman and the bassist Paul Spencer Denman formed the group as a way to develop their own songwriting. They made their live debut in 1983 at the now legendary Soho jazz venue Ronnie Scott's Club in support of Pride.

After the keyboardist Andrew Hale joined the group a year later, Sade began developing a loyal following with growing interest from record companies, forcing the band to separate permanently from Pride.

Propelled by the singles Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator, Sade's debut album, 1984's Diamond Life, was an immediate success, leaving listeners seduced by a sound rarely heard on commercial radio at the time.

Where 1980s pop was saturated with bombastic productions, Sade offered a more restrained yet accessible option, more content to sound aloof than seem eager to please.

The following albums saw the band moving on from those pristine yet sedate compositions to more dynamic territory that encompasses blues and reggae, but the group never lost their melodic touch, notching up hits along the way, including Sweetest Taboo, Paradise and No Ordinary Love.

Adu looks back on those early years with mixed emotions.

She says that while the success of the first three albums - released in a frenzied five-year period - allowed them to dictate their currently languid work habits, the group never managed to completely shrug off the tag of being viewed as simply a jazz group or a lounge act.

"I think it's from how we were projected in the early days because our first two songs, Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator, were probably the "jazziest songs" we've ever done. But it wasn't jazz at all, it was pop, and they were our biggest hits," she says.

"It's something that always sticks - how people are perceived when they first appear on the music scene. People are almost stigmatised by their initiation."

While Sade's repeated absence saw technological advances in recording techniques - now band members can simply email their musical contributions - Sade maintain an old-school ethic in that all members record together in one room.

However, this translates into the tricky task of reactivating the band after years apart.

Adu says the group never set plans to record; it just happens "when it feels right".

But she does admit the boys were often "more ready. I am way slower than they are".

The main reason behind her reluctance to return to the spotlight is that Adu is content being a homebody.

While other group members used the extended hiatus to pursue other musical projects, Adu says she was happy staying at home being a mother to her now 15-year-old daughter, Illa, gardening and "building or creating something".

When the musical urge returned, however, there were no fears the time away would render the band's distinct chemistry rusty.

"In a way, it is the opposite," Adu says.

"The embers are always burning, you have to fan them and they reignite. This way the work is not mundane, it's less like a job, it becomes a real event - like Christmas to a child. If it's every day, there would be no magic in it. That's what makes our projects exciting."

That musical hunger has transferred well on stage, with the group's world tour hailed by critics as one of the year's best.

Adu says the thrill of a rare Sade performance is shared as much by the band as the audience.

She describes the deep satisfaction of seeing a younger crowd attending the shows, crediting them with truly appreciating where the band are coming from musically.

"We crossed the age barrier and that's very nice for us. There has been some kind of evolution," she says.

"There is a freshness and raw quality in the music that when you listen at volume you can hear it clearly. I suppose that is why we picked up a younger audience because there isn't a preconceived idea that Sade is some sort of torch singer and jazzy. It's all kinds of things."

  • Sade plays at Yas Arena, Yas Island on Friday at 8pm. Tickets start at Dh295 from
  • Read an extended interview with Sade Adu and see the set list of Sade's recent Melbourne performance at the Arts&Life blog Scene& Heard at

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