From an unseen hallway, Sade's mournful voice floats into the TV studio like a ghost passing through a wall. She's singing these words, "I'm the king of sorrow..." The vocalist is backstage at HBO's comedy-interview program the Chris Rock Show. She's just wrapped up rehearsals for her appearance on the program to promote "Lovers Rock" (Epic), her first CD of new music in eight years. That's a lifetime in pop: time enough for the Seattle rock scene to have exploded like a supernova and to have collapsed like a white dwarf, time enough for Britney Spears to have gone from an innocent grade schooler to a stripteasing teen queen, time enough for the rap-rock genre to have bulked up its market muscle like a steroid-popping Bulgarian weight lifter. Time has passed, but it hasn't passed Sade by. Even when she's singing sad songs, even when she's just stretching her voice, she sounds as alluring as ever: "I'm crying everyone's tears..."
A few moments later, Sade slips into a small dressing room. She politely asks the reporter who is with her for permission to light a cigarette and then proceeds to chain-smoke for the duration of the interview. She smiles readily and laughs often, but something soft and vulnerable in her seems to clench reflexively like a baby's fist around an adult's finger when personal questions are raised. She exhales anxious gray smoke. She's not the interview type.
It's fashionable to be a press-shy celebrity to bemoan the loss of one's privacy while simultaneously courting the cameras at movie premieres and fashion shows. But Sade comes by her press shyness honestly. On the Chris Rock Show, she just sings her song and never says a word. Like a comet making its celestial rounds, she appears in the star-studded celebrity heavens infrequently and almost only when she has new songs to perform.
This time around, Sade, 41, has other things on her mind besides music. In her songs and videos hits like "Smooth Operator," "Your Love Is King" and "Kiss of Life" she evokes a world of romance and longing, of continent hopping and heart breaking. Her lyrics mirror her life. Since the release of her last CD, the elegant "Love Deluxe" (1992), Sade has divorced Spanish filmmaker Carlos Scola, taken up with Jamaican record producer Bob Morgan and, with Morgan, had her first child, Ila, now 4. Says Sade: "My happiest moment was definitely when I was in the hospital holding Ila. I just looked at her, and I wanted the moment to go on forever."
Sade has also encountered drama outside her romantic life. In 1998 a judge in Kingston, Jamaica, ordered an arrest warrant for Sade after she failed to appear at a hearing on reckless-driving charges. "It wasn't really a traffic incident, to be honest," says Sade, who claims that a Jamaican policeman tried to pressure her into giving him a bribe. "It got blown into some incredible farcical event." In order to avoid arrest, Sade says she plans never to return to the island.
The singer (who released a greatest-hits album in 1994) says she waited for calm to settle over her life before getting back together with her band and beginning work on "Lovers Rock."I've just really been living my life and waiting for a peaceful moment where I could go into the studio and concentrate again," she says. "When I go in, I like everything in my life to be very peaceful because I can't split myself up. I have to be able to just focus on that one issue and then put myself in 100%."
Motherhood also prompted a shift in her priorities. "It changes the way you work. I used to just go into a studio and just stay there until the album was done. I could be completely selfish and immerse myself," she says. "[Being a mother] made me stronger as a person. To be a mother you must be strong. Even if you don't feel it, you have to pretend."
She doesn't have to pretend to be resolute. Born Helen Folasade Adu in Ibadan, Nigeria, the daughter of a white English nurse and a Nigerian teacher, she's been overcoming obstacles cultural and artistic virtually her entire life. Sade says she has always felt "accepted," but when she was 11 and living in England, she recalls being surrounded by white schoolboys and assailed with taunts such as, "Go black home, you'll be all white in the morning."
"I was perfectly happy about being black and didn't consider it an insult," she says. "So I just singled one of them out he had really lank, greasy hair and acne and I said to him, 'What about the way you look? You should look in the mirror. I know who I am.' Once they were afraid of being singled out and humiliated, they left me alone."
Lovers Rock draws deeply on Sade's past. It's a solemn album, and although not religious, its soulful vocals and reggae-inflected grooves have the quiet power of prayer. In the meditative song Immigrant, Sade revisits the discrimination her father faced when he came to England. "He didn't know what it was to be black," she sings, "'Til they gave him his change but didn't want to touch his hand." On "Slave Song," she draws inspiration from the suffering of her African ancestors: "Teach my beloved children who've been enslaved/ to reach for the light continually." But just as prayers are ultimately about love, Sade's CD is suffused with that emotion as well. Not groping adolescent love but reflective, mature love in various forms. "The Sweetest Gift" explores love between a mother and a daughter (Sade wrote it for Ila); "King of Sorrow" is a pessimistic take on breakups; and "By Your Side" is a tribute to friendship.
Critics sometimes dismiss Sade's music as being too soft, too bland, too lovelorn. Sade says her critics should adjust the volume on their stereos, that her music sounds better when it's "played loudly." She lets tiny fluctuations in her music carry emotional weight, and she wants listeners to hear the particulars. After all, isn't love best measured in miniature? a look across a breakfast table, a forgotten anniversary, a hug that lingers past hello.
Sade's work over the years has become increasingly thoughtful and textured, and the songs on "Lovers Rock" are adorned with many lovely, epiphanic touches: the mumbled vocal sample that haunts "Every Word;" the way Sade almost whispers her vocals on "It's Only Love That Gets You Through," commanding close attention and conjuring a sense of intimacy. Other maturing pop stars shed their skin like snakes, looking to adapt to prevailing trends. Sade's musical evolution has come slowly, subtly. The power of her music is rooted in gentle grooves and meticulous vocal phrasing. It's a popular saying that the devil is in the details; it's also been said that God is there as well. In her details, Sade finds something else, something uniquely human: soul.