When an artist as young as 20-year-old Adele Laurie Blue Adkins emerges with a voice so soulful, powerful and resonant of some of the greats in R&B history, you can't help but wonder how she developed such deep musical roots.
As with many aspects of the Londoner's red-hot career, the answer is surprising.
"My cousin Gemma is a hairdresser, and when she was studying it, I used to be her hair model. I've got so much hair; I've got the biggest hair in the world!" Adele says in a typically ebullient rush of words. "She kept doing these hairstyles, and I was like, 'No, I don't like them.' I used to go to these hair-styling shows with her as her hair model, and I'd be embarrassed when the judges were walking around and I had these rubbish, normal hairstyles. I was like, 'I've got to find something!'"
So Adele went to a record store and started scouring old LP covers in search of inspiration. "I saw Etta James' bleached-blonde hair and big catty eyes, and I saw Ella Fitzgerald's primped '40s hair, and I just fell in love with them! So I bought these albums--they were like two for five pounds in a bargain bin--and they were amazing. I had heard of Ella Fitzgerald, but I'd never even heard of Etta James. But I bought these records and never even gave them to my cousin, because when I heard Etta James, it was like my life was over. She's amazing!"
"Amazing" is a word that Adele uses a lot these days, and with good reason, because there's no better way to describe her meteoric rise. Born in Enfield, North London, her musical talents were obvious early on, and she attended the BRIT School in Croydon--England's version of the "Fame" high school, which also has produced recent pop phenoms Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis, Imogen Heap and Kate Nash. On the strength of some demos on her MySpace page, she signed to a small English label in 2007. Released the following year, her debut album "19" took first the British and then the American pop charts by storm, scoring hits with songs such as her indelible second single, "Chasing Pavements."
When the Grammy nominations were announced last month, the tune netted Adele three nods--for record and song of the year and best female pop vocal performance--and she also is contending on Feb. 8 for the coveted best new artist prize. "People keep asking me if all of this has sunk in, but I don't think it ever will, to be honest!" she says with an infectious laugh.
Unlike many of her anorexic peers, Adele is a real woman who isn't ashamed of her curves. "As long as my boy likes it, I'm fine with it," she says of her plus-size status. "Over in England, it's kind of a bigger issue than it is here, which is weird, because the whole Hollywood look comes from here, obviously, and the whole world kind of follows that. But I feel like I'm taken seriously here: I'm not a celebrity here, I'm a musician, and I don't think it matters what I look like."
This kind of strength and candor is what has set her apart from the pack: Fans connect because they've been there. Like several of the songs on her debut, "Chasing Pavements" was written after the end of a relationship that broke her heart. After a fight with her then-boyfriend, she found herself running down the street at 6 a.m., and she realized she was chasing a shadow that wasn't worth catching.
"When I was writing the first record, even though I had my record deal, it was a small indie in England, and it wasn't a big deal: There was no hype in the beginning," Adele recalls. "I was so consumed with feeling like an idiot in that relationship, it didn't even occur to me that I was going to be putting it down on a record and it could potentially be heard by loads of people. Now sometimes a fan will come up to me and be like, 'Oh, that assh---; blah, blah, blah!' I get a little bit like, 'Oh, I appreciate it, but you don't really know about it, and I'm not even thinking about it anymore!'
"But to be on stage in front of like 4,000 people, it's always amazing to hear people sing back lyrics that you wrote in your bedroom when you were feeling like s---. You felt like s--- back then, but you feel like a million dollars now when people are singing back the words that you wrote! It's nice to have a couple of thousand people on your side thinking 'That guy is a p----!'"
Now that her life is becoming the stuff of gossip-column fodder, Adele admits she may be a bit more circumspect on her next album, which she plans to begin recording after her American tour concludes at the end of the month. "But the lovely thing about the reception to the first record is that people believe me and they relate, and there's no a better feeling than that, so I'm trying not to think about it too much," she adds.
"The big thing is I don't want to write songs about being a bit famous. You know when someone comes out with a second record, and their first was so amazing, but then they get so hung up on themselves and they're basically complaining about the lifestyle that the fans have got them? That's the worst! Hey, it's everyone's dream: Everyone wants to be a pop star! It's the best job in the world, so my main aim is to not complain."
Adele, James Morrison
7:30 p.m. Monday
Park West, 322 W. Armitage
MORE CHAT WITH ADELE
Q. You know, there's been very little discussion in the interviews you've done about your songwriting. How do you know when you've written a keeper?
A. When I remember them! I use my phone as my Dictaphone. It's when I don't have to record them is when I know that they're going to be good. It's like I've already got a connection with them. If I can remember like the guitar part or the bass line, it's always a good sign, and I still get a tingly feeling when I write a song that I like. It's exciting to imagine people dancing to them or falling in love to them. I write some awful ones as well.
Are you your own toughest critic?
A. Yeah, me and me mum. My mom is amazing, but she's like, "That's a load of bulls---, don't ever sing that to me again!"
Q. You said sometimes you'll remember a guitar part, or a bass line. Do the songs come to you fully realized with the whole arrangement, or do you just get a vocal melody or a particular part?
A. A bit of both, usually. I mainly write on guitar or keys--piano.
Q. Which do you prefer more: live performance or recording?
A. I love them both equally, but in very different ways. I like rolling into the studio at like midnight, after being out with my friends and kind of making a few moments, chilling out with the producer and just writing, recording and taking different takes, kind of getting into my voice more and more. Then, when I'm live, you can kind of do a song differently, but your fans kind of want to sing along with you, so you can't really go off too much. But to me on stage in front of like 4,000 people, there's not a feeling like it at all, really. To have people pay their own money to come and see you and give you an hour of their time, it's amazing, and it's always amazing to hear people sing back lyrics that you wrote in your bedroom when you were feeling like s---. You felt like s--- back then, but they make you feel like a million dollars when people are singing back the words that you wrote.
One more question: Kanye West has said many times that he's a big fan, but you haven't met him, righjt?
A. No. Maybe at the Grammys! But if I do, I'm gonna faint and pass out--I'm such a huge fan--and it will just be so embarrassing!