Adele: Lady Sings the Blues

5.15.2011

By Aaron Hicklin

She had to have her heart broken -- twice -- to break the charts, but Adele is not about to let fame to go her head. As she begins a U.S. tour, the singer opens up about the heartache behind her music, the danger of fan mail, and why she thinks 'singer' is too big a word for her.

That's one interpretation, but Adele is the first to acknowledge the irony of securing her professional success by singing about her personal failures. "I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for not making my relationship with my ex on 21 work, because he's the love of my life," she says, before adding that she would have been willing to give up everything for him. Everything? "Well, I would still be singing in the shower, of course, but yeah -- my career, my friendships, my hobbies. I would have given up trying to be the best." Instead of giving up her career she has cemented it. "He made me really weak, but at the same time really fucking fearless, so I managed to channel that. I don't know if I'll ever beat this album in terms of how people connect to it."

To see Adele perform live is to realize the wisdom of Rick Rubin, one of the producers of 21, which was recorded in Malibu. They met on the set of Saturday Night Live in 2008, when Adele performed songs from 19, and the two clicked (it was the same night that Sarah Palin was featured as a guest, so the ratings were astronomical). After Rubin saw her perform at the Hollywood Bowl he told her she needed to find a way to infuse her records with the same quality she brought to her live performances, that visceral immediacy that makes her recent single "Someone Like You" such a punch in the gut. "As soon as I met him he just got it," says Adele. "I didn't even have to say what I wanted. He just knew straight away. We were literally locked down in the studio, in a good way. It was just all about the song, which is something that will follow me forever." (Though she loved working with Rubin, Malibu was another story. "I was hoping to make some local friends, maybe find a nice organic café, things like that," she says. "Everyone lives behind a gate, and they're so fucking rich they never have to leave, so I didn't meet anyone.")

Her ascent since 21 was released here in February has been so rapid that she is still playing catch-up to the less savory aspects of celebrity. In Cologne she was freaked out by a camera-wielding fan who didn't know when to back off, and following the incident of the crispy tissue, her mail is now prescreened. Mostly, however, the fan mail is of a more rewarding kind. "I get a lot of mail from people who tell me that I make them really happy to be themselves, and really comfortable with who they are, which I love," she says. "I would hate it if someone was, like, 'I wish I was you' because I'm as insecure about myself as the next person." In what way? "Just that I'm not good enough -- in my music, in my relationships, and that I'm never going to be brave enough to tell someone how I feel." It's an illuminating admission for someone whose songs speak so plainly and powerfully, but for Adele, as perhaps for her audience, songs are capable of scaling mountains beyond the limits of regular speech. A few nights earlier, in Brussels, a young gay kid thanked her for giving him the strength to come out. "He fancied someone at school, but he wasn't out. And he listened to ‘Someone Like You' and came out to his best friend and then to the boy he fancied, and it turned out that he was gay as well, and now they're together -- he's like 15. I had to leave so I didn't burst into tears."

Tags: Music
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