Adele: Lady Sings the Blues
By Aaron Hicklin
Adele talks a lot like this, in quick-fire sentences and a broad "oh my bleedin' gawd" Cockney that rolls merrily along, challenging you to keep up. When I transcribe our conversation, I have to set the playback speed to slow in order catch it all. Lots of things are "brilliant" or "amazing," or more often "fucking brilliant" and "fucking amazing." She cackles like a hyena. On stage that evening she will address her perplexed Dutch fans in the same way, peppering them with anecdotes about her wiener dog, Louis Armstrong, her mom's paragliding excursion to Spain, and a "crispy tissue" she received in her fan mail ("There was a note saying, ‘This is what I imagine you doing to me.' Oh, you sent me a crispy tissue -- I'll definitely get in touch with you; hey, let's get married and have children!"). And then, out of nowhere, she'll launch into a song, and it's as if Henry Higgins had staged an intervention. Her big, supple voice fills the space, and keeps on filling it. It's a voice that could raise the proverbial roof, the kind of voice you feel you could listen to for a very long time and still come back for more.
Where did it come from, this miraculous talent to create these contagious songs? Heartbreak, obviously, but also an instinct for putting it into words that makes her seem preternaturally wise. For someone who hasn't read a book in more than 10 years -- "and that was a Jacqueline Wilson [children's] book" -- Adele has an uncommon gift for writing. She thinks it may have something to do with the way she learned to express her feelings as a child. "I don't know if it's because I'm an only child, but I was never, ever good at saying how I felt about things," she says. "From the age of about 5, if I was told off for not sharing, or I didn't tidy my room, or I spoke back to my mom, I'd always write a note as my apology." Those notes, hundreds of them over the years, became a mechanism for examining her feelings, and a forerunner of the two albums that would spin those feelings into gold. What else are the songs that fill her first, 19, and second, 21, but letters of regret and disappointment?
And then there was music itself. Adele Adkins, to use her full name, was 3 years old when she saw her first concert, accompanying her mom, Penny, to see the Cure. One of their numbers, "Lovesong" -- a hit for the band in 1989, the year Adele was born -- would end up as a cover on 21, a tribute to the mother whose musical enthusiasms have done so much to instruct and inspire her daughter. Growing up in the London borough of Tottenham, one of the most impoverished communities in England, was not easy, and mother and daughter struggled alongside everyone else. Music was a way to escape the grind. "Even when I was 10 and 11, I knew my mom had brilliant taste in music -- I just wasn't ready to embrace it," says Adele. "Now they're my favorite artists." She has thought about recording a cover of "Troy," by Sinéad O'Connor, the first song that ever made her cry, and another favorite of her mom's, but doubts her ability to deliver it. "As an artist she is everything I would like to be—it's all about the song," says Adele. "She moves me when I hear her."
Adele has always gravitated to the melancholy in music. While her mom was playing the Cure, young Adele was transfixed by Lauryn Hill, whose 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was similarly inspired by a relationship that went sour. Adele recalls belting out Hill's "Ex-Factor" when she was 10, "with so much passion that my mom was, like, ‘Do you know what this song is about?' and I was like, ‘Nah, not really.' " But if the meaning of the lyrics eluded Adele, their emotional depth registered. "I remember having the sleeve notes -- no one has sleeve notes anymore -- and reading every lyric and not understanding half of them, and just thinking, When am I going to feel like this? When am I going to be able to write and sing like this?" She thinks she might still be singing Beyoncé trills ("not that there's anything wrong with that -- she's my fucking idol -- but still you need to branch out") if not for the Brit School, spawning ground for a string of musical talents, including Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis, Katie Melua, Kate Nash, and the U.K's latest export, Jessie J (Jessie, Adele, and Leona were in the same year). She was 14 when she was accepted, and 18 when she left. In the four years between she learned her craft. "A lot of people feel trapped by youth, but at Brit I felt fucking alive," she says. "They taught us to be open-minded, and we were really encouraged to write our own music, and some of us took that seriously, and some of us didn't. I took it very seriously." She wrote "Hometown Glory" first, and then "Daydreamer" -- about a bisexual boy she fell in love with. By the time she left she had three demo songs on MySpace and a recording contract. "I didn't have to face the real world -- everything fell into my lap," she says. "I've been very fortunate."