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Despite four Grammy nominations, Adele is figuring out how to be herself

Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, who performs under only the first of her four names, has earned plenty of plaudits for 19, an album whose title corresponds to her age at the time of its release. As a result, she's earned four Grammy nominations related to the February 8 congratulation-fest, each in a major category: Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (all for the moody but exhilarating "Chasing Pavements") and Best New Artist. Still, some reviewers have suggested that her songwriting isn't nearly as intriguing and fully developed as her voice, a rich, multi-faceted instrument that makes her sound like a profound old soul. Rather than take umbrage at this analysis, however, Adele does something unexpected: She concurs.

"I agree with that," she declares during a stopover in New York City, her words bursting out like elementary-schoolers fleeing class at the sound of the day's final bell. "I think I know my voice better than I know my writing skills so far. I think that's a good thing. I'm twenty, and hopefully my progression as a songwriter and as a musician — as a guitar player and a bass player — will get better. And it's good to have progression as you write more albums. So I completely agree with that. I think it's constructive criticism."

Adele Laurie Blue Adkins doesn't want to peak early.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins doesn't want to peak early.

As this comment implies, Adele seems extraordinarily self-possessed for someone in the first grip of fame. She's frequently compared to Amy Winehouse, another young British singer with a fondness for updating classic musical styles; in addition, Adele recorded the 19 track "Cold Shoulder" with Mark Ronson, whose savvy production touch is a key to Winehouse's success. But she refuses to be turned into a Winehouse-like caricature by the entertainment press in her native country.

"I was drinking a lot in the summer, so I was kind of asking for people to take pictures of me — because I was being an idiot and getting drunk," she allows. "Whereas now I don't drink anymore, I don't go out anymore. I just stay at home and watch films and get a take-away and play Rock Band."

Many public figures might resent being forced into a monastic existence by rabid reporters and persistent paparazzi — but if Adele feels that way deep down, she hides it well. She says she made the decision to cut back on clubbing because "I just saw photos of myself and quotes I didn't like," and she doesn't see the sacrifice as unfair. "I'd give up a lot more than drinking for what I'm doing," she maintains — and besides, staying out of the tabloids keeps the focus on her music. "I don't want to be known as a celebrity," she insists. "I want to be known as a singer."

She's never been the shy, retiring type. "My mum always says that from the age of three or four, I had a really big voice," she notes. "I don't think I was even singing back then. I think I was just shouting — like, 'Mummy, get over here!'" Before long, she was warbling along with ultra-commercial fare by the likes of the Spice Girls and Take That, a cuddly British group that didn't make it especially big in the States. And while her influences grew more sophisticated — she cites Etta James and Karen Dalton, among others — she never fell out of love with cheesy radio fodder. She's the rare rising star to admit an addiction to talent contests like Pop Idol, the U.K. model for American Idol, and says she might have auditioned for the show had she not doubted the compliments she received for her singing.

"In the early stages" of Pop Idol, "you've got all their parents, and they're like, 'Yeah, she's the next Whitney, the next Mariah.' And then they go in and they're shit," she points out. "So when my mum was saying that, I was like, 'Oh, yeah, you're trying to con me. You're trying to get me to make a fool of myself.'"

Fortunately, she didn't need television to get noticed. Adele attended Croydon's BRIT School, a performing-arts facility with a growing reputation for producing noteworthy performers; Leona Lewis and Imogen Heap are fellow alums. The positive feedback she received there was echoed by visitors to her MySpace page, which she launched at age sixteen in late 2004. By then, she'd begun to pen tunes — her first, a piano ballad dubbed "Hometown Glory," turns up on 19 — and she feels that delivering her words, as opposed to someone else's, helped her hone a personal style.

"I used to try to sound like Beyoncé, and I'd sing Destiny's Child songs all the time," she recalls. "And I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald. She's like an acrobat with her voice. But my voice kind of came into its own when I started writing my own songs, for sure. I'm inspired mainly by American artists, and for a while, I had this really American twang to my singing voice. And when I was writing my own songs, I'd use British slang and stuff, and it sounded stupid when I pronounced it with an American accent. So I think I started coming into my own then."

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