British singer-songwriter Adele Adkins, who's in town for a sold-out show at the Bluebird Theater tonight, is having a moment. She's been nominated for four Grammy awards, including Song of the Year and Best New Artist, in conjunction with 19, an album named for her age upon the time of its release. But in the following Q&A, conducted for this week's Westword profile, she doesn't put on airs. Indeed, she's consistently funny, boisterous and down to earth enough to admit that she enjoys the thought of her ex-boyfriend hearing songs that ridicule him coming out of every radio in his vicinity.
The conversation begins with exchanges about Adele's impressive voice — when she noticed it wasn't like everyone else's, how her delivery developed, and when she was finally convinced that her singing compared favorably to that of contestants on Pop Idol, the American Idol precursor that she admits to loving even though she knows it's deeply uncool. From there, she talks about her fondness for both Etta James and Beyoncé, who portrays James in the new film Cadillac Records; her admission that her vocal stylings are at a more advanced stage than her tunesmithing; the difficulties she has in trying to write simple pop songs, as opposed to more complex compositions; the moment when she went from being an imitative singer to a more distinctive one; that dreaded old boyfriend; her concession that musical success hasn't improved her personal life; the impact of appearing on an episode of Saturday Night Live that also featured former veep candidate Sarah Palin; misinterpretations of comments she made about her readiness to win a Grammy; alterations she's made in her lifestyle as the result of unwanted attention from British tabloids; and her efforts to keep her head on straight at a time when most people's would be turned every few seconds.
Sounds like Amy Winehouse will have to find another drinking buddy.
Westword (Michael Roberts): When people listen to your music, they tend to notice your voice first and your songs second. Is that okay by you?
Adele Adkins: Yeah, I don't mind. Most people don't think I write my own songs. They must just think I'm like everyone else. But I don't mind, really. As long as I'm getting noticed for something (laughs).
WW: Was your singing voice as a little girl very unusual? Or was it something that blossomed when you matured?
AA: I think it was a bit of both. My mum always says that from the age of three or four, I had a really big voice. I don't think I was even singing back then. I think I was just shouting - like, "Mummy, get over here!" But I think my voice developed over the years. Up until I was about eleven, I was only into, like, the Spice Girls and Britney and Backstreet Boys and Take That and that stuff. Not in a snobby way. I only knew the top ten, you know? And then I got into Destiny's Child and Mary J. Blige and Faith Hill and Faith Evans and stuff like that - and Celine Dion. Singers with bigger voices. And then when I was fourteen or fifteen, I properly got into Marvin Gaye, and then I went onto Etta James and Roberta Flack and Carol King and Karen Dalton and Billy Bragg. So I think it's kind of developed in stages.
WW: Was there a time when you were thirteen or fourteen where your voice suddenly started sounding like it does now?
AA: I don't really rate myself as a singer, so I don't know really know. People started saying nice stuff when I was about fourteen. But when I was fourteen, our equivalent of American Idol had come out. And you know, in the early stages, 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. 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." So I don't know, really. I kind of felt something was going on when I got offered a record deal...
WW: I would say that'd be a pretty good indication.
AA: Yeah! (Laughs.) But I find it slightly difficult to rate myself and stuff like that.
WW: Did you ever try out for any of those TV talent shows?
AA: No. I would have, but I went to the BRIT School, and then MySpace happened. I would have, though. I love those shows. I think they're amazing.
WW: That's a rare thing for an artist like you to admit.
AA: Yeah, I get a bit of grief for saying that. I'm the biggest X Factor and American Idol fan. I love them all.
WW: Your style of singing isn't the style that a lot of people associate with those shows, at least here in the States. Here, all the contestants try to do the Mariah Carey run-up-and-down-the-scale thing...
AA: Yeah, but I love Mariah! (Laughs.) I don't know. I just like it. It's almost like bonding with someone — like falling in love with someone over the telly. I like that. And picking your favorite. I like that kind of stuff.
WW: You mentioned earlier that two of your influences are Beyoncé and Etta James. Have you seen Cadillac Records yet? [In the film, Beyoncé portrays James.]
AA: I haven't. I haven't yet. It doesn't come out in England until the Spring. And I could have gone here in America, because I'm here a lot. I got invited to the premiere, but I was flying home, so I couldn't. I want to see it with all my friends at home. Like my friends who were around when I got into Etta James. I want to see it with them. I don't want to go on my own - hang out in a cinema on my own and throw popcorn at myself (laughs). So I want to go when I get home. But I've read the reviews and I think Beyoncé looks absolutely beautiful in the photos. I'm looking forward to seeing it. I think it comes out in April.
WW: At what point did you start writing your own songs?
AA: I was sixteen when I wrote my first song. I wrote "Hometown Glory" when I was sixteen.
WW: That's on the album, so obviously you were writing at a high level from the very beginning...
AA: Yeah, I guess so. Maybe (laughs).
WW: Of course, some critics have suggested that your voice is ahead of your songwriting at this point. What do you think about that?
AA: I agree with that. 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.
WW: Where do you rate your songwriting? Do you still see yourself as a beginner?
AA: I like to think I'm a beginner. I want to put out at least ten albums. So in terms of the amount of albums I want to put out, I think I'm at the beginning.
WW: You've talked about your fondness for pop music, but it seems to me that your songs are more complicated than that. Have you tried to write simple pop songs?
AA: Yeah, I wrote one song I wanted to get to the Pussycat Dolls. But I don't know how to get it to them. I think it'll need bikinis in the video, and I don't want to wear a bikini in a video (laughs). But I love pop songs. I just think my own songs are more complex because maybe I'm a bit more honest in my songs. It's more than just rhyming words. I'm talking about the dark part of it as well as like the simple he-left-me-and-now-I'm-lonely. I think that's part of it. And simple songs are the hardest to write.
WW: When you try to sing a simple pop song, does it not seem as true to you as when you're expressing something more personal?
AA: Yeah. For me, yeah, definitely. That's part of my personality. I think I have the wrong voice to sing those simple, simple pop songs.
WW: When you first started singing, you've admitted that you were more of an imitator than an original. At what point did you develop your own style - and was singing your own songs a big part of that process?
AA: Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to try to sound like Beyoncé and I'd sing Destiny's Child songs all the time. 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 - when I was about sixteen, yeah. But I think I'll still be coming into my own when I'm thirty.
WW: That dovetails into a question I was going to ask. Do you have a destination in mind when it comes to your singing - a level you want to hit? Or do you just want to keep growing, and wherever it leads is fine by you?
AA: I want to grow constantly. I want things to be exciting. I don't want to get bored. I just want to write records that I'm remembered for. I'm really proud of 19, but this isn't the record I want to be remembered for.
WW: For you, it's more important for a song to hold up for ten and twenty and thirty years, and not just be something people enjoy today?
AA: Yeah. Definitely.
WW: I know that 19 was mainly inspired by someone you broke up with. Have you been in contact with him?
AA: I haven't. He's been in contact with me. I've seen him a few times. He's a bit bitter (laughs).
WW: So he hasn't come up and said, "All is forgiven"?
AA: He can't say "all is forgiven." I didn't do anything wrong. It was him! I'm the one who has to say it's all forgiven! And it's not all forgiven! (Laughs.)
WW: Is it satisfying to think of him walking around his old neighborhood hearing your songs about him coming from somebody's window?
AA: Yeah, it's amazing. 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. I'm very pleased with it (laughs).
WW: One of the lyrics on the new album that jumped out at me is from "Right as Rain." You sing, "Who wants to be right as rain/It's better when something is wrong." Is that a sentiment that you still agree with?
AA: Yeah. If you feel rubbish already, things don't really hurt is much when something bad happens. If you feel great, it just really, really hurts. So yeah, I still agree with that.
WW: I was thinking about that in terms of you writing material for your next album. Everything seems to be going so well for you right now. Does that make it more difficult to write songs?
AA: My career's going well. My personal life isn't (laughs).
WW: So your newfound celebrity hasn't improved your personal life?
AA: No, it hasn't improved that. I don't hang out with celebrities. I hang out with just people, really. So stuff still goes really wrong. In my career, I can sometimes get my own way, but not in my personal life (laughs).
WW: There's the perception that once you become a star, everyone kowtows to you...
AA: That's true, but you sometimes come across as a dickhead in your personal life, because you have to question everyone's motives. You know? It makes you feel like a dickhead, and I think some people think you're an idiot because of that. Which is always hard to get your head around. I try my hardest not to be like that. But you're still like, "What do you want? Who are you?"
WW: You feel like you have to put everyone through this test?
AA: Yeah, and it's annoying. It's hard. It's difficult.
WW: A lot of Americans discovered you during your appearance Saturday Night Live. Did you have any idea about the impact it would have when you were asked to do the show?
AA: I knew it was a big deal. SNL isn't big in England, obviously. I've only seen a few on YouTube and stuff. I knew it was kind of an institution here - and Sarah Palin wasn't meant to be on it the week I was on it. She was supposed to be on it the week after. It was really last minute that she ended up being on the show. But the Tina Fey impression and the election - all of that was huge. They'd had their best ratings for decades. And people around me were always muttering stuff about that, but I didn't want to hear about it, or else I would have thrown up and been ill. Afterwards, though, I knew I'd just been part of something that was quite monumental. And it showed in the charts in the next week, and I was stunned.
WW: Did you have much of an idea who Sarah Palin was or why so many people were interested in her at that point?
AA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The election - the McCain, Palin, Obama thing - was huge in the U.K. It was almost as big as it was here. And I was an Obama fan, so I really didn't want to meet her. But even though I don't believe in what she says politically, I'll remember that night forever.
WW: Did you get a chance to meet her?
AA: I did meet her. She was going to come to my dressing room, but I said "no." I met her afterwards when we went on to say our goodbyes, and she was really, really nice. A really nice lady.
WW: Was the security very different at that show than at other shows you've done?
AA: Yeah! There were a million Secret Service people! (Laughs.) And they kept following me! When I walked in with my makeup guy, I walked into the dressing room. All my stuff was already in there, because we got there on Thursday. And they walked into the dressing room to make sure I was meant to be there and stuff like that (laughs). It was funny. I quite liked that.
WW: The Secret Service guys didn't know how you were?
AA: Uh-uh (laughs). And afterwards, they circled. They got into a big circle around me when we were talking.
WW: To make sure you didn't lunge at her or something?
AA: I wasn't going to lunge at her! (Laughs.) I don't know. Just to protect her. I would never hit her! She's too little (laughs).
WW: As we speak, we're a few weeks away from the Grammys, where you're nominated for four big awards. The BBC originally ran a quote that made it sound as if you aren't ready to win one. What's your feeling about that now?
AA: I'm not ready to win a Grammy. I don't think anyone's ever to win a Grammy. But I think they made me sound really ungrateful in it, really snobby, and I got really pissed off about the article. 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? I want to be around forever. That's all I meant by it.
WW: I didn't see it as negative at all. It seemed very modest...
AA: I know! All of the English press seems to think it made me sound ungrateful and all the Americans have been like, "Yeah, she sounds gracious." But I do want to win a Grammy. It'd be amazing to win a Grammy. I just don't want to get my hopes up and then feel let down. I feel like I've already won by being nominated for a Grammy. It's the biggest thing that's ever happened to me.
WW: Will you be performing on the broadcast?
AA: I don't know yet. Nothing's been decided.
WW: How do you feel about being up against so many young British performers, like Duffy and Leona Lewis?
AA: I'm chuffed. I'm chuffed. I'm very proud. I think it's amazing. I think it's excellent. I love both of those girls.
WW: You're constantly being lumped in with those two singers plus Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Does that bother you?
AA: Not at all. They're lovely. I don't mind being lumped in with them. For me, it's amazing. It gets to be annoying sometimes. I think it's a bit lazy, treating us like a gender rather than a genre...
WW: It's not as if you all sound the same...
AA: Exactly. But you know, whatever. I don't mind. If I didn't like their music, I'd be a bit bothered. But I'm a big fan.
WW: The U.S. tabloid press seems to think you need to be in the headlines all the time, like Amy Winehouse is, to be part of that group, but you aren't really holding up your end of things. Although maybe you are getting in bar brawls every night and I just haven't heard about it...
AA: I don't get harassed by tabloids here. At home, I do. I can't get into a bar here. I'm illegal. I'm twenty. They won't let me in. Cover me when I turn 21. I'll be all over the front pages (laughs). I'm joking.
WW: So in England, there are all kinds of articles that start of like "Adele was seen at this place talking to this person"?
AA: Yeah, yeah.
WW: Does that make you more or less eager to go out on the town?
AA: Less eager. 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. 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.
WW: You don't drink at all anymore?
WW: Was that a difficult decision to make?
AA: Not really. I just saw photos of myself and quotes I didn't like.
WW: Is there a part of you that feels it's unfair that you're being forced to change your lifestyle because of all the press attention?
AA: No. I'd give up a lot more than that for what I'm doing. I love what I'm doing. I'd give up a lot more than drinking for what I'm doing.
WW: You see it as an opportunity to keep the focus more on the music?
AA: Yeah. I don't want to be known as a celebrity. I want to be known as a singer.
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WW: Things are happening very quickly for you. How do you feel you're handling it at this point?
AA: I think I'm doing fine. I still hang around with the same people I've always hung around with. Nothing's changed, really, apart from the fact that I'm away from home a lot more. And a lot more people know who I am. I have a lot more friends.
WW: You seem to be very level-headed. Is that something people tell you a lot?
AA: Yeah. My friends are the same, the team that's working with me is the same from before anything happened. So yeah, I do hear that a lot. And as you know, this doesn't come really naturally. You have to work at it - to make sure I don't run off with the fairies (laughs). But I think I'm on top of it.