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Emeli Sandé on Writing for Rihanna and Alicia Keys – and Her Plan to Win Over America

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Emeli performing at Clive Davis' pre-Grammy party on February 9. (Lester Cohen/WireImage)

You probably haven’t heard of Emeli Sandé yet, but you have likely heard her music.

The British R&B/jazz singer has been penning tracks for some of the biggest stars on both sides of the pond, including Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Leona Lewis, for years. Although she tells omg! that “every song is special for different reasons,” one that especially stands out to her is Keys’ “101,” which is about a cheating lover and on the “Girl on Fire” singer’s brand-new album.

“Just the way it came about … it was the first song we wrote together and we had a real natural chemistry of musicians together,” explains Sandé, who also wrote a song with Keys for her own debut, 2012’s Our Version of Events. “And I just love the lyrics. They’re so poetic and the way she sang it … having someone that I admired for so long singing it, it really stood out to me as a very special song, and I love listening to it now.”

Another stand out: “Half of Me,” a ballad on Rihanna’s new Unapologetic album that Sandé finished for the superstar after she wrote the first verse. “You saw me on a television/Setting fire to all the buildings,” the song begins. “Yeah I guess you saw me stealing/But you've no idea what I've been needing/Talk about when we were children/Not the kinda kid that you believe in.”

And the finished product really made Sandé proud. “I love that song and how she really connected to it,” she tells omg!. “And I really wanted to write something a little bit different.”

Rihanna’s camp loved it just as much. “We were doing ‘X Factor’ in the U.K. and we were on the same show in the finals, and I bumped into her management and they were saying how much they really loved the track and ,’Thanks for contributing,’” she explains. “So. that felt really cool and writing for someone so ginormous was a big thing.”

But now, Sandé, 25, is making a name for herself. Her first full-length debut album, Our Version Of Events, was released a year ago, and she already has a slew of #1’s across Europe. She was chosen for the honor of performing in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of last summer’s Olympic games. While she’s already a big hit in the U.K. – her “Next to Me” video has a whopping 26 million views on VEVO – she’s just starting to leave her imprint here in America … one state at a time. “Next to Me” is just now being pushed to radio in the U.S.

“For me, the only way to do things is to build up a fanbase with live music first, and then go from there,” she tells omg! from a stop in San Francisco. “I don’t really have any kind of strategies [on how to win over fans here], just to work hard and remember how big this country is. Building it live is kind of the first step.”

And on Monday night, she’ll be a part of the ChapStick Sessions, along with Skylar Grey, which will be streaming live on Facebook from Los Angeles’ Key Club beginning at 8 p.m. PT. “It’s such a great way to get my music out there and exposure as an artist over here,” says Sandé, who also holds a degree in clinical neuroscience.

Another fun fact: her real first name is Adele, but as we all know there’s already a pretty popular British singer who goes by that moniker, so Sandé uses her middle name. “At the very beginning of my career in the U.K., she tweeted me because she had seen me on ‘Jools Holland,’ and she really liked what I was doing,” shares Sandé. “It was a really cool encouraging thing to do for me.”

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