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Reluctant Return to Spotlight

A Reluctant Return to the Spotlight

John Pareles | NYTimes.com

When a man from a radio station asked Sade what she had been doing in the 10 years between albums, she told him, “I’ve been in a cave, and I just rolled the boulder out of it.”

She chuckled as she recounted the exchange, with her feet tucked up on the couch at her Georgian house in the north London neighborhood of Islington.

A January rain pelted the trees outside the window of the second-story drawing room, atop a graciously curving staircase. Sade, a slender figure in black pants and a black V-neck sweater, made things cozy, feeding kindling to a crackling fire in the hearth. An interview about her new album, “Soldier of Love” (Epic) — only her sixth studio album dating back to her 1984 debut, and due for release on Tuesday — stretched into a four-hour conversation.

“I’ve got absolutely no real perception, properly, of time,” said Sade, 51, who was born Helen Folasade Adu in Ibadan, Nigeria. Her father was a Nigerian university teacher of economics; her mother was an English nurse, and raised her in rural England after the couple divorced. Sade’s speaking voice is even lower than the husky alto in her songs, the elegantly subdued ballads that have sold more than 50 million albums worldwide.

Sade’s hits, like “Smooth Operator,” “No Ordinary Love” and “The Sweetest Taboo,” were ubiquitous through the 1980s and 1990s, purring out of radios and lending ambience to countless lounges, restaurants and boutiques. Sade emerged in the music-video era (her debut album, “Diamond Life,” appeared a year after Madonna’s did), when many pop stars believe they need maximum media exposure to sustain a career. Instead Sade has hung back, letting the songs alone define her. It’s a decision that may, in the end, make her more cherished. Fans have not forgotten her; preorder made “Soldier of Love” No. 2 on the Amazon sales chart last week.

As far as the music business was concerned, Sade might as well have been in some cave after 2002, when she and her band finished touring for their 2000 album, “Lovers Rock.” She vanished from stages, magazine covers, gossip columns and other celebrity-promotion zones, though she did contribute a song to a 2005 benefit DVD, “Voices for Darfur.”

sade

“With most artists they’re more of a big person in their public persona than they are in their private persona, and I’d say with Sade it’s almost the other way around,” said Sophie Muller, a friend she met while attending Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design who became her video director and, for “Soldier of Love,” the album-cover photographer. “Her whole self is not for public consumption.”

Ms. Muller added, “Somehow the idea of being a singer and making music has been confused with being an international personality. She’s bravely decided she doesn’t have to do the other thing. It’s not something she’s thought about, deciding, ‘Let’s make it more mysterious.’ It’s just her own way.”

Sade had scheduled a meeting with her manager after our conversation, knowing he was going to try to talk her into more promotional efforts. Perhaps she was procrastinating.

“I love writing songs,” she said. “But then, going beyond that, I find it a little bit difficult, the sort of opening myself up to everything that’s attached to it in the music business generally, the expectations and pressures that are put onto you. Some people love all of the trimmings and everything that comes with that. But I happen to not be one of those people.”

Even as she was working on “Soldier of Love,” she said, “I ventured in with a little trepidation. I wasn’t eager to get back out there and be recognized again.”

Though she said that her life has been “a rugged roller-coaster ride” for the last few years, she is “actually quite happy now.” The album is, in part, “a purging of all the things that have gone on,” she said. “There’s quite a lot of my history in the album, one way or another. It’s not all about me, but there’s bits of me in there.”

In conversation Sade has an easy laugh and a casual sense of humor. But she worries about being “too candid” with the press; she guards the privacy of the people she’s close to, past and present.

For Sade, reticence is a matter of both temperament and songwriting strategy. “That’s the trick in a way, like conjuring,” she said. “You’ve got to allow so much to go in there. But it isn’t just your own, because then it’s T.M.I.” — too much information — “and when you listen to the song you’re thinking of the person rather than your own emotions.”

“If it’s too attached to the performer,” she added, “it pushes you away, it’s a bit repulsive. Because that’s theirs — it’s not yours.”

The new album doesn’t radically change the sound of Sade, which is also the name of the band she has led since 1983 with Stuart Matthewman on guitar and saxophone, Andrew Hale on keyboards and Paul Denham on bass. “Soldier of Love” is another collection of slow, pensive songs, mostly in minor keys, often pondering lost love and uncertain journeys. The band takes pride in being proficient but not flashy, and even the album’s most elaborately multitracked and programmed arrangements come across as modest.

The first single, “Soldier of Love,” is as close as Sade gets to current R&B with its martial percussion, subterranean bass throb, sudden zaps of samples and somber strings. The rest of the album is gentler, resuming and subtly updating Sade’s understated R&B-reggae-jazz-pop fusion.

Yet in their own quiet way, many of the songs on “Soldier of Love” hold a new desolation. Sade’s music began as a British take on the suave 1970s American soul of Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, often projecting a serene reserve that reassured listeners and drew them in. Now some of that reserve has vanished. On the new album Sade’s voice shows more ache and vulnerability, moving closer than ever to the blues.

Song after song testifies to pain, loneliness and a longing for refuge.

“The ground is full of broken stones/The last leaf has fallen/I have nowhere to turn now,” Sade sings in “Bring Me Home,” a elegiac tune over a hip-hop beat. In the album’s closing song, “The Safest Place,” she offers her own affection as a sanctuary: “My heart has been a lonely warrior before,/So you can be sure.”

For the last five years Sade has had what she calls a “partner,” Ian Watts. They live together in rural Gloucestershire, England’s west country, where they are raising Sade’s 13-year-old daughter, Ila, and Mr. Watts’s 18-year-old son, Jack. Sade is considering marriage. “There’s lots of regrets about time wasted and all those mistakes in the past,” said Sade, who was divorced from the Spanish filmmaker Carlos Pliego in 1995. “But there’s something lovely about knowing that when it’s right, you really know it’s right because you’ve already been through all the wrong.”

Sade spends most of her time in the west country, only occasionally driving her Volvo into London. At her Islington house there were sheets over some furniture, and old cassette tapes on the shelves along with books of art and photography. For Sade the past decade was filled largely with domestic matters: gardening, parenthood, building a house (now nearly finished) in Gloucestershire, tending to someone terminally ill she declined to identify. “If you’ve got a sick friend, or someone you love is dying, to say, ‘See you later, I’m going into the studio’ — I just can’t do it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to me enough at that moment.”

Her daughter traveled with Sade’s 2002 tour, but Sade would put her to bed before going onstage. “She never saw me sing,” Sade said. “She’s just a little tiny thing, standing there, with her mum out on the stage in front of all those people? I thought it would be too weird for her.” A few years ago, Ila asked her, “Mum, are you famous?” Sade recalled. “Now she’s completely sure and aware what the situation is.” (Ila Adu sings backup, along with Mr. Matthewman’s son, Clay, on the song “Babyfather.”)

Sade hesitated to plunge back into songwriting. “That feeling of revelation, of exposing myself emotionally,” she said, “That was maybe something that held me back, subconsciously, from going into it again. But it isn’t all about me, and it’s not only me, and the only way I can forget about it is by doing it.”

She started cautiously. The band members had scattered in the ’80s and ’90s — Mr. Matthewman in New York, Mr. Denman in Los Angeles, Mr. Hale in London — and Sade thought that having them fly in to work would signal too much of a commitment at first. Around 2005 Sade began working on songs with Juan Janes, an Argentine guitarist living in London, in her basement studio at the Islington house.

They wrote “Mum,” about atrocities in Darfur, for the benefit album, and early versions of “Babyfather” and “Long Hard Road” from the new album. With her move to Gloucestershire, that collaboration petered out, but eventually her band, her friends and her family nudged her toward music again. One factor was that Mr. Watts could now look after her daughter while she was holed up in the recording studio.

“I wasn’t pressured by the years going by, really,” Sade said. “Only through the band’s desire to make a record.” Band members had been hinting, and waiting. “I’ll always drop everything to work with her,” Mr. Matthewman said from his recording studio in New York. The members reconvened in 2008, the first time they had all been together since the tour.

Since its second album Sade has created songs in a way that is now a bygone luxury for most bands: writing together in a fully equipped studio, spontaneously, rather than bringing in finished songs to polish up. For a week or two at a time, and then for longer stretches, the band members lived at Peter Gabriel’s residential Real World Studios in Wiltshire. Mr. Matthewman recalled Sade instructing, “Don’t tell the record company.”

“I have to escape the mundane realities of everyday life in order to go there and dig down within myself,” she said, adding that at Real World, “you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I can’t work, I’ve got to go and cook a meal.’ You have no choice but to address the demons.”

When Sade talks about songwriting she turns mystical. It’s “alchemical,” an “out of body experience,” an attempt to preserve insights from the “etheric moment” between wakefulness and dreams. And with the band working together where they can record at all times, “we are able to capture that in the studio, to capture it technically in the right frame so it sounds good,” Sade said. “It is almost like a church, because you’re going to that room, you know your purpose, you know what you’re going to do in there, and you don’t have to take anything in with you that you don’t want to take in there.”

The band did not rush. “If you’re only making an album every 10 years, it better be good,” Sade said. Eventually Sony Music executives did learn that Sade was working again, and wanted the album released before Christmas of 2009. That deadline passed; Sade said she’s happier to re-emerge in a new year, and a new decade. The band finished the last mix of “Skin” — a song about a reluctant breakup, with acoustic guitars and Sade’s close-harmony vocals in the foreground as eerie electronics and percussion ping in the distance — around 5 a.m. on the day another band had booked Real World.

An album meant a cover photograph, and Sade was reluctant at first to appear on it. “Everybody around me said, ‘You’re mad,’ ” she recalled. The compromise was a photo with her back turned, gazing out over ruins. “You’re not looking at me,” she said hopefully. “You’re surveying the journey ahead and the history as well.”

Through a quarter-century of recording, Sade has heard regularly about how her songs’ mixture of mourning and consolation have brought her fans comfort. “If it’s like a lighthouse to guide someone past the rocks, that’s a great thing,” she said.

The next round for Sade is a handful of television performances of the song “Soldier of Love,” adding the drummer Pete Lewinson as the band did on its 2002 tour. Eventually Sade intends to gear up for a tour.

“I do want to get on the stage and sing the songs,” she said. “But then I just want to disappear again.”