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"I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella for acrobatics and scales, Etta for passion and Roberta Flack for control."
ADELE BEFORE SHE WAS “ROLLING”
A Portrait of the Artist as a Fresh-Faced Ingenue, as HITS' own Roy Trakin Interviews Her Before the Release of 19

Four years ago, when Adele Laurie Blue Adkins first burst onto the scene with her XL/Columbia debut 19, she was a shy girl barely out of her teens, who enjoyed smoking and gorging on junk food. Her first album produced the hit single, “Chasing Pavements,” earned a pair of Grammy Awards (Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance) and has sold 1.5 million in the U.S. That, of course, has been overshadowed by her sophomore effort, 21, which came out earlier this year and is now closing in on 6 million, with six Grammy nominations, including Album, Song and Record of the Year, the latter two for the worldwide smash, “Rolling in the Deep.”

 

This interview took place shortly before the release of her first album, technically for the record company bio, but from all indications, she’s still the same Cockney-talking daughter of a single mother, born in working-class Tottenham, U.K., down to earth with a salty sense of humor. She graduated from the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, where her fellow classmates included future stars like Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Jessie J. After posting a three-song demo on MySpace, she attracted the attention of XL Recordings, which offered her a deal. After a spirited bidding war, she signed in the U.S. with Steve Barnett and Columbia Records, and the rest is history. The following conversation captures the U.K. songbird the day after her showcase at L.A. Hotel Café, just before her meteoric rise to stardom.

You can hardly hear your accent when you sing, but it’s quite pronounced when you speak.
Me and my manager were talking about that the other day. Some artists really cling onto their English accents…like Lily Allen, Jamie T, Kate Nash. I think it depends on the kind of artists you love. My favorites are American artists like Etta James, Roberta Flack and Ella Fitzgerald. And I taught myself how to sing by listening to them. So there are obviously major traces of them in my voice.

You reminded me of Roberta Flack with your Bob Dylan cover, “Make You Feel My Love.” You said last night it felt like it was written for you.
That song is amazing. It’s so convincing and you believe it so much, that you think it’s about you when you connect to a song. My manager played me that song in September after the album was already finished. He’d been going on about it for a year. I’m a fan, but he’s the real Dylan fan. When I first heard it, I couldn’t understand the lyrics. When I finally read them, I thought they were amazing. They’re my favorite lyrics of all time. My album’s not sad, but it’s bitter. “Make You Feel My Love,” the lyrics and everything about it, just kinda sums up that sour point in my life I’ve been trying to get out of my system and write into my songs. It completes the shape of the album. 

I’ve been told you don’t like being compared to Amy Winehouse.
I don’t mind. I love Amy. I think we’re very different, but you can’t kind of moan about being compared. You don’t come into your own anyway, in the media’s eyes, until the second or third album. It means everything to me to be compared to Amy Winehouse. I love her so much. Her first album, Frank, is like, in my Top Five of favorite albums. To make an amazing debut record, then a phenomenal second is quite rare. Not the private life side, but music-wise, it’s a complete compliment. I didn’t know she went to the BRIT School until I started doing interviews. She was in musical theatre. While I was there, there was no history of people doing well. It’s literally been in the last 18-20 months that loads of people have come out of it. There was no spotlight on the school when I was there. I went there simply because I hated my first high school. There were no aspirations or encouragement there for anything other than getting to the end without getting pregnant. It was a really rough state school. It was a pleasure to wake up everyday and want to go to school, and kind of skip to the bus stop. To go to school and classes with 40 other kids who wanted to be productive and make something of themselves was inspiring.

When did you discover you could sing?
I never have, even now. I have no musical history, knowledge or love of music in my family. We’re encouraged to, like, dream, but we’re not encouraged to get carried away with stuff, and believe something’s going to happen when it’s most likely not going to. There was so little chance that I would actually get a record deal, considering the amount of people who’ve never been discovered. The kind of music I liked was pop—Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Take That, TLC and Britney Spears. People who were megastars and, to be like them, even now, let alone when I was nine or 10, was the most unlikely thing ever, know what I mean? It’s difficult to have a passion for something when you think it’s not going to happen.

When did the realization start to kick in that this was something you could do as a career?
Not until I got my record deal. And then when the album went to #1, I was, “Alright, great, wicked”… When I first started singing in front of friends and family, it was the era of Pop Idol. And the first few episodes are about those people who are really awful. And their parents are saying, “She’s the next Mariah! The next Whitney Houston!” My friends were telling me, “You’re really good.” And I’m going, “Don’t try it.” I’d never go on one of those shows. It never dawned on me that I could possibly do this for a living and not have to support myself working in an office from nine-to-five.

You grew up with a single mother.
My father wasn’t really around. He was a ship mechanic in Wales. I first heard music on the playground at school. Even though my family didn’t have a musical heritage, we all loved music. We only knew about chart music, the Top 10, though. When me and my mum moved away—she had me very young and was always reliant on her family—I remember going to a new high school and getting into Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Faith Evans, Ludacris. I recall my friend Alicia’s mom playing me a Billie Holiday record, “God Bless the Child.” It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I loved the passion in it. And it was all about the voice. I believed her and there aren’t many artists I believe. I believe Etta James, Roberta Flack and Bruce Springsteen. I love Ella. I never had a music lesson. I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella for acrobatics and scales, Etta for passion and Roberta Flack for control. They are the best singers ever.

You grew up in the section of North London called Tottenham.
And then we moved to Brixton, which is in south London.

In “Hometown Glory” you talk about the collision of cultures: “I like it in the city when two worlds collide/You get the people and the government/Everybody taking different sides.”
That song is about London, my love for cherishing my memories. That line is about when I went on a march against the Iraq war. I’m not into politics. I know nothing about them.  It was just such a moment, to see all these people come together to stand against something. There were skinhead punks hanging out with rude-boy kids in hoodies… all in one place, marching through the city. I’d never seen anything like it, even in the movies. It was great to be a part of it.

The song is obviously autobiographical.
I was about to attend university in Liverpool and I changed my mind. I didn’t want to move out of London and leave my friends and family behind. My mum said if I wanted my independence, I should go. Because I depend on her so. I love her so much. She’s my best friend. I’m such a mommy’s girl. She told me, if I stayed in London, ran out of money and couldn’t pay the rent, she would always be around to help me. And that’s not learning to live on my own or standing on my own two feet. If I got kicked out of my residence, I’d go back to my mum’s house, give her my washing, take her toilet roll and her milk and bread. And we had a big argument about it, and I ran upstairs, cried my eyes out, wrote “Hometown Glory,” came back down, sang it to her and told her I was staying. And she said, alright. It could be about wherever you’re from. Even if it’s not a city. It could be a village, a county, whatever. It’s about being able to walk past a bus stop, a clothing store, a restaurant, a bar or a coffee shop and have memories of them. In Liverpool, I had no memories whatsoever.

How important is American success to you?
This is exciting. I want to do really well here, but no more than I want to do well anywhere else. America’s no more important to me than the U.K., and vice versa. I want to do well in Europe, Asia, Australia… Just because I want as many people as possible to hear my music. But you know, America is so huge, it’s so daunting. It’s so exciting and weird to come here. I’ve been to New York a few times. I did my video here in L.A. It’s so weird to come all this way to do shows, and have them sell out. I can understand that happening in Europe, where there’s only a channel between Britain and the rest of the continent, but how the hell have people heard of me here? The N.Y. shows just sold out on the back of My Space. It’s ridiculous and amazing how many people want to talk to me.

Do you feel a camaraderie with this so-called new wave of U.K. female singer-songwriters? Or is there a sense of competition? Don’t you think it would be beneficial to start a good show biz feud?
No, I don’t. The U.K. press have been trying to get me and Duffy going for three months now and it’s like, “Fuck off.” We haven’t even met and the Sun is writing that we had a cat fight in the toilet. To be honest, I feel quite distant from Leona Lewis and Kate Nash and them right now because it’s like a year since they came out. I kinda feel a pact with Duffy. We’re both Welsh. In the U.K., it’s like we’re kind of bouncing off each other, which I quite like.

When did you first start writing songs?
16. I write on guitar or bass. “Hometown” was the first song I wrote, and for that, I wrote the music and the vocals at the same time. A lot of the songs on the album are all about one person, one guy. Sometimes, I’d leave his house in tears, I’d be in a cab riding home, and come up with a phrase. Like “Chasing Pavements.” We had a full-blown fight at a club, hitting each other in front of all our friends. Now, I hate making people feel awkward, so I just left, but he didn’t chase me. I was running down Oxford Street, which has these gigantic, wide sidewalks that go on for miles, and I just remember saying to myself, “Where are you going? What are you doing? You’re just chasing pavements… and you’re never going to catch it.” I went straight home and wrote the song.

“Daydreamer” is about falling in love with someone you know is bisexual.
That’s about a friend of mine whom I’ve known for six years. We never actually got together. But on my 17th birthday, for some reason, I don’t know why, I didn’t fancy him anymore, I just kind of fell in love with him briefly. I had no problem with him being bisexual, but as a girl, I get so jealous anyway; I can’t fight off girls and boys. When I said that to him, he told me not to worry about it. Two hours later, he was kissing my gay best friend next door. But it turned into a song.

Last night, you said “Melt My Heart to Stone” was your favorite song on the album.
I just love singing it. When I wrote that song, I was crying. All the words came out in one take, as I was singing it. And I was crying. That’s when I broke up the relationship. That’s what the song is about.

Do you have to experience heartache and sadness in order to sing the blues?
When I started my album, I had three songs. I didn’t write any new material for eight months. And then I met my future ex-boyfriend. It was amazing that when it went really sour, I wrote all my songs about it. At the time, with the album, I had to be feeling quite sorry for myself to be creative, but I’m not experienced at writing a whole album. So my second album might be really happy. I just don’t enough experience to tell. When I couldn’t write for eight months, I tried to write about fictional things, made-up stories or other people’s situations or problems, but I couldn’t do it. The main thing for me is, I have to believe what artists are singing about… That’s how you connect with songs. And that’s what seems to have paved me so well in the U.K. and Europe—I’m honest. People can relate to me. They believe me. I’m accessible. I’m not some sort of concoction. You can come up to me and go, “Hi,” and I’ll be, like, “Hi” back.

Are you sensitive about your weight?
I love food and hate exercise. I don’t have the time to exercise. Go buy my record, then I’ll be able to lose weight. I actually don’t care. I don’t want to be on the front cover of Playboy or Vogue. I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or Q magazine. I’m not a trend-setter. I’m a singer. I never wanna be known for anything else. I’d rather weigh a ton and make an amazing album then look like Nicole Richie and do a shit album. My aim in life is to never be skinny.

Are you the type of person who feels incomplete without a relationship?
Yes. I’m quite miserable at the moment. I’m having fun, but it is such a weird thing. And this is where I think some people have a downfall with it and kind of go down the wrong track. It’s like, you do all this huge stuff and you’re admired, people want to talk to you and know you, then you go back to the hotel room alone.

How do you deal with that?
I drink. I’m a big drinker. I like everything. In the U.K., I can legally drink. Here I can’t. I prefer white wine, but I like Jack Daniel’s. But I don’t drink out of control.

Now that you’re famous, will you proceed on a number of one-night stands?
Oh, no! I’m not a whore. I have intimacy with my boyfriends. One-night stands are skanky.

There is something in you that reminds me of Janis Joplin.
Thank you so much. That’s lovely. I love Janis Joplin. I have all her live DVDs. Love her.

You’re an old soul in a young body.
Maybe a bit. I get really scared right before I go on-stage, but as soon as I’m there, I love it. I feel more at ease on-stage then when I’m walking down the street. It’s like singing in the shower at home. I love entertaining people. It’s a huge deal to me that people pay their money that they earned to spend an hour of their day to come and watch me. It’s important to me that I entertain them.

Will you continue to smoke cigarettes?
I have to continue. My doctor said, when you give up smoking improperly, your voice falls apart because of all the crap that’s in it. And then it has to be rebuilt. I have no time in my schedule for my voice to fall apart, but I have cut down. I used to smoke 30-40 a day. I’m on 15-20 now. I’ve cut down by half. When I stop working this record, I will. When I have a few months off to write all my songs, I’m going to stop smoking.

Why one name, like Cher?
Cher!!?? Not Elvis or Madonna? I hate my second name, Adkins. It’s just so boring and British. My middle name is great. Adele Laurie Blue Adkins is too much of a mouthful. And Laurie Blue Adkins sounds a bit folkie. I’d rather just be Adele. If someone went, “Adele Adkins,” I wouldn’t turn around. If they say, “Adele,” I say, “Helllooooo?”

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