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."
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."
Not long thereafter, record companies came calling. An indie imprint called Pacemaker Records issued "Hometown Glory" as a vinyl single in 2007, and by early the next year, Adele had inked a contract with XL Recordings. The album that resulted is filled with songs that chronicle an unpleasant breakup, and she readily enjoys the thought of her ex hearing the likes of "First Love" ("I need to taste a kiss from someone new") and "Tired" ("Fed up of biding your time/When I don't get nothing back"). "It's amazing," she admits, laughing. "He's working in a phone shop, and I'm sitting in a New York office right now, looking out at Manhattan. So I'm very happy."
Although 19 didn't become an immediate smash upon its U.S. release, the album benefited from a lucky break: Adele was the musical guest on the episode of Saturday Night Live that featured a guest spot by Sarah Palin. The Republican vice-presidential candidate "wasn't meant to be on it the week I was on it," she maintains. "She was supposed to be on it the week after. It was really last-minute that she ended up being on the show." This change resulted in a major upgrade in security at SNL's studio. "There were a million Secret Service people! And they kept following me!" she says. "They walked into the dressing room to make sure I was meant to be there." The agents were on hand again at the end of the show, when Adele and Palin met during the ritual goodbye gathering of the episode's performers. She remembers that "they got into a big circle around me while we were talking."
To make sure you didn't lunge at her?
"I wasn't going to lunge at her!" she answers amid a booming guffaw. "I don't know. Just to protect her. I would never hit her! She's too little!"
Despite her small size, Palin — and the massive audience she attracted — gave 19 a big boost. Shortly after Adele's appearance, the recording moved from number 46 to number eleven on Billboard's album-sales chart and topped the iTunes roster. Moreover, radio stations began spinning "Chasing Pavements" in greater numbers than ever, bringing the song to the attention of infinitely more Grammy voters.
When the nominations were announced, Adele told the BBC she didn't feel ready to win one of the trophies — a comment that she says was widely misinterpreted. "I think they made me sound really ungrateful in it, really snobby, and I got really pissed off," she confirms. "All I was saying is, I hope on my fourth record I get nominated for a Grammy. I don't want to peak on my first record, like so many artists do, you know?"
After all, in a few years, her songwriting should be much better.
For more of our interview with Adele, go to blogs.westword.com/backbeat.
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