Adele: Lady Sings the Blues
By Aaron Hicklin
Ah, yes, that song. Every artist has a signature, and it's hard to believe that Adele will outdo the one that closes 21. If "Chasing Pavements" signaled her arrival in 2009, it was "Someone Like You" that proved she had staying power. Her heart-wrenching performance at the Brit Awards in February, alone at a piano, seemed a kind of miracle amid the pyrotechnics of the night's other performances. That was on a Tuesday; within a week the single had rocketed up the British charts, beating Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" to claim the top spot: " ‘Don't forget me,' I begged/ ‘I'll remember,' you said/ Sometimes it lasts in love/ But sometimes it hurts instead."
Adele wrote that verse two years ago, as her second big relationship crumbled. She remembers turning up to meet her producer and co-writer Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine, Sam Sparro, Bloc Party) the morning after the break-up. "I never get angry, but I was ready to murder -- I went in crying and stuff, and said, 'Let's write a ballad.' Paul was, like, 'Be a bitch about it. You have to be hard-nosed.' " The song that actually emerged was "Rolling in the Deep," the album's first single, and her first hit in the United States, where it's been embraced by mainstream radio that didn't know what to do with her earlier singles. A lot has changed since then. Gaga, for one thing, has remade the musical landscape by bringing spectacle back to pop. Against the flash and splash of Gaga, Katy Perry, et al, the stripped-back, soulful style of Adele risked being lost. In fact, the volume of everything else has made her spare, acoustic sets all the more striking. "My music's not stylized—it's not sold by image, or by my sexuality, or aloofness, or anything like that," she says. "I think it would be really bizarre if I started doing gimmicks and stunts -- it wouldn't suit my music." Nevertheless, she finds performing nerve-wracking and won't do big festivals like Glastonbury. "I've got lots of friends who are artists and they love it. They're, like, 'I was born to perform,' and I'm like, ‘Fuck off -- no one's born to perform.' " She points to the canal bank opposite: "That's like standing over there naked."
Between 19 and 21, and between 19 and 21, Adele says she evolved. "The difference between the first and second album is that I was more philosophical about it all the second time, and I'm hoping that if I'm happy I can embrace it enough to write a record about it." But even she seems to consider this a dubious scenario, breaking into a cackle almost as soon as the sentence has left her mouth. "It would be fucking awful if my third album was about being happily settled down, and maybe on my way to being a mom, and all the critics were, like, 'Yeah, it's fucking shit. Can you be miserable, please?' And all the fans were going, 'I just don't like you anymore. I don't bond with you anymore.' "
It seems unlikely that Adele will be writing about happiness any time soon. Although she quips that she sometimes finds herself "thinking about Ikea, or something" in the midst of singing one of her devastating break-up songs, it's clear that her feelings of loss and sorrow haven't been fully cauterized by writing about them. How else to explain her tears when she sang "Someone Like You," first on the U.K.'s Later … With Jools Holland last fall, and then again at the Brits? The song wasn't even slated as a single until the Jools Holland slot revealed its power to connect with her audience. When she sang it again at the Brits she says she pictured her ex sitting at home watching her performance with a certain satisfaction, thinking, Wow, right under my thumb, she is. But in almost the same breath she adds that she hopes he's proud of her. Does she believe in the concept of a soul mate? "Absolutely. He was my soul mate. We had everything -- on every level we were totally right. We'd finish each other's sentences, and he could just pick up how I was feeling by the look in my eye, down to a T, and we loved the same things, and hated the same things, and we were brave when the other was brave and weak when the other one was weak -- almost like twins, you know -- and I think that's rare when you find the full circle in one person, and I think that's what I'll always be looking for in other men." An assistant recently passed on some advice from a Brazilian lady she knows: "You will hurt until you stop hurting." Adele laughs at the Zen simplicity of this. "I'm trying to make that my new motto -- it will hurt until it stops hurting," she says. It just hasn't stopped yet.
To view a slide show of exclusive Adele photos, click here.