The conference room at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Baltimore is oppressively taupe. Taupe walls, taupe chairs, taupe tablecloths. Pull back the taupe curtains and enjoy the view: a taupe building made of taupe bricks.
“It’s a bit grim in here, isn’t it?” asks Sade.
Casually dressed in red denim, red lipstick, a red satin jacket and silver hoop earrings big enough to shoot basketballs through, she beelines for a switch on the wall and dims the lights. Soft. Softer. Off.
As she takes a seat in the afternoon sunlight, those reds seem to glow like cosmic embers. At 52, one of the most magnetic singers of our time sips lukewarm coffee from a paper cup and tries to explain how music’s inexplicable gravity pulled her out of a nine-year silence.
“It’s that feeling that you can get a little bit better,” she says. “That there’s somewhere to go and you haven’t expressed it all.”
Sade — who performs at Verizon Center on Wednesday — is referring to her 2010 album “Soldier of Love,” her first public moment since finishing off a world tour in 2001 and retreating to her home in Gloucestershire, England, to give her young daughter, Ila, her undivided attention.
Her invisibility solidified her reputation as the great sphinx of modern R&B, but “Soldier of Love” stands as Sade’s most expressive album. She describes its creation as both “a mission” and “a spiritual experience” — a John Coltrane-ish pursuit of a sound that comes from within, yet remains forever out of reach.
“I think I’m getting better at letting it out,” she says. “When I’m in the studio, my guard is down. I don’t have any feeling that I should be protecting myself in any way — which is good, because then I can say it like it is.”
Sade’s faithful fans kept “Soldier of Love” at the top of the Billboard albums chart for three consecutive weeks last year, but the singer says that dropping her guard for those same fans in real time is far more difficult. Recounting the April launch of her world tour in France, she describes the moment she stepped back onstage as “a mixture of elation and fear.”
“I was just relieved that it was over,” she says. “Relieved that it was a success.”
Listen to her sing and it’s difficult to locate the point when Sade’s voice ends and silence begins. Her thoughts unspool in a similar fashion. She chooses her words carefully, speaks in fragments, but with great warmth. Then halts.
“Radio interviews are really snappy and I’m just bad at that,” she says of the conversation before this one. “I just close down . . . I get a reputation of being a smack addict or something because I’m just not snappy.”
Sade smells like banana bread. There’s a thin, square slice of it on the plate in front of her, untouched. So it’s not really Sade that smells like banana bread, but the room, which Sade controls via light switch, via contemplative silence, via laughter that comes pealing at frequencies even lower than the bruised alto in which she sings.
Sade is also the name of her four-piece band — saxophonist-guitarist Stuart Matthewman, bassist Paul S. Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale — which has enjoyed more than a quarter of a century of mainstream success, selling more than 55 million albums across the planet.
The group first splashed down in 1984 with “Diamond Life,” a glitzy, jazzy debut album built around the band’s namesake and an indelible hit single, “Smooth Operator.” Five airy, evocative R&B albums would follow, each somewhat timeless, as if born in a musical ecosystem protected from contemporary currents.
The singer says her band has always considered its place in the greater pop continuum with equal parts ignorance and defiance.
“I don’t really feel like I ever belonged,” she says. “But I don’t really feel like an outsider. I think you only really feel like an outsider if you’ve been an insider.”
That sense of un-belonging can be traced back to Helen Folasade Adu’s biracial childhood. The daughter of a Nigerian lecturer father, she was raised by her British nurse mother in the village of Holland-on-Sea. It was there that she fell under the spell of soul music and the proto-hip-hop of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. “That was my way of connecting with my could-have-been history,” she says.
At 18, she moved to London to study fashion and design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. By 26, she was a reluctant pop star.
“When we started the band, she wasn’t doing it to be famous,” says Matthewman. “It just doesn’t really interest her.”
Over the years, she’s ignored her press. “I wouldn’t want it to affect the process in any way,” she says. “I don’t think anything particularly good comes out of it if you’re someone who challenges themselves, anyway. It’s not like I’m oblivious to my mistakes or shortcomings.”
She’s also been a dogged guardian of her privacy — something she protects even more fiercely in the era of social media. “People are so used to having their lives filmed, they're not even conscious of having cameras around,” Sade says. “I still have that sort of suspicion when a camera comes out. I view it as a thing to fear.”
That might make this tour especially terrifying — the technology sleeping in her fans’ pockets has changed so much since 2002.
The singer gets wistful thinking about concertgoers chasing after digital moments to put on YouTube before others have had the chance to experience those same unexpected moments in real life.
“It’s like a preview at a movie,” she says. “Everything is prequeled. Life is prequeled. Are we only living to upload it?”
Sade’s commitment to living in the now, of course, applies to music. “It’s never a backdrop to another event,” she says of her listening habits. “It is the event.”
And that’s a little tragic considering how many naysayers have written off the group’s music as the stuff of bubble baths, dinner parties and dorm-room make-out sessions of yore.
But over the years, Sade’s songs have gained depth and intensity, articulating our most tangled feelings about heartbreak, desperation and loss with emotive elegance. That intensity is tough to summon, which is why the singer says she was unable to raise her daughter and pour herself into her music at the same time.
“It’s about going within,” she says of her process. “There’s not room for everyday normal things when I’m making a record. It’s not like a job. It’s a state of mind. It’s a state of being. Maybe that sounds a little bit dramatic, but that’s what it is.”
The songwriting is a collaborative effort, but Matthewman says that the singer holds most of the creative cards, especially as an editor. “She has a big influence on our sound in the stripping away,” he says. “She’s amazing at that.”
She also negotiates the balance between the brash and the delicate. You can hear it on the title track of “Soldier of Love.” “I’m at the borderline of my faith,” she sings sorrowfully over bursts of military percussion. “I’m at the hinterland of my devotion / I’m in the frontline of this battle of mine / But I’m still alive.”
Launching her U.S. tour at Baltimore’s 1st Mariner Arena the following night, she opens her set with “Soldier of Love.” But it’s the group’s more billowy hits — “The Sweetest Taboo,” “Your Love Is King,” “Cherish the Day,” “No Ordinary Love” — that cause the audience to sway like a field of uncut grass, singing along as if they’ve lived her lyrics.
Sade loves this. “Once a song’s out there, it’s no longer mine,” she says. “And that’s the whole purpose of music: to belong to people.”
She’s also more pleased with her voice than she’s ever been — this is her first tour since quitting smoking — but she still puts her faith in the material.
“It’s almost that the songs are imprinted in me,” she says. “I’ve never tried to be a great singer, just a singer of great songs.”
And those songs have to last. After tracing the American interstates through September, she says she’ll fly home to Gloucestershire where she can take long walks in the woods behind her house, dig around in her garden and try to do a better job of getting dinner on the table before 9 p.m.
Could it be another decade before we hear from her again?
Could it be forever?
Sade’s brown eyes search for an answer in the ceiling. Or maybe from God. Her reply is slow. Rhythmic. Like the refrain of a song that tries to wring out fresh meaning with each repetition.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know . . . I really don’t know.”