Adele at 20
(From 2009): Parked in her new tour bus outside a popular venue in Atlanta, Adele curls up on a built-in leather sofa and tosses a long, ruddy ponytail behind her right shoulder. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and two hours before tonight’s sold-out gig, the queue of ticketholders stretches a full city block. Gazing out the window at so many fans dressed in green, Adele smacks gum, fidgets with her Navajo-style poncho (“It’s Ralph Lauren!”), and jabbers like Eliza Doolittle about her whirlwind year: She’s sold 500,000 copies of her debut album, 19, and posed for an Annie Leibovitz spread in the current issue of Vogue.
It’s hard to believe this London singer’s not old enough to buy herself a celebratory bottle of champagne on her first U.S. tour. That’s because her voice – the clef-defying alto in the hit song “Chasing Pavements” – is of a certain vintage, more akin to Dinah Washington at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival than to the Jonas Brothers at the 2009 Grammy Awards.
Adele Adkins, who turns 21 in May and has already dropped her last name in favor of a one-word moniker, beat out the Jo Bros for the coveted-but-often-cursed “Best New Artist” Grammy this past February. She couldn’t be more “chuffed” about the honor, even if the same title once belonged to infamous lip-sync group Milli Vanilli and “You Light Up My Life” crooner Debby Boone. The category has a long history of talent that couldn’t live up to the hype (2004 winner Evanescence is one example). Yet, winning on the heels of last year’s Best New Artist – troubled fellow Brit Amy Winehouse – makes Adele’s career seem sturdy enough.
Like a modern-day Lulu schooled on Mary J. Blige, Adele’s brand of “heartbroken soul” was hard-won in a south London town where she grew up in the minority. “If I was in a white, middle-class school, I wouldn’t have heard things like Destiny’s Child,” she says.
She credits a close friend’s mom for turning her on to Marvin Gaye and the classic R&B that inspired her to ditch a teenaged fascination with the metal band Slipknot and start writing “real songs about real things,” such as boyfriend troubles and breakups. Later, at the BRIT School for Performing Arts (also attended by Winehouse and Leona Lewis), Adele honed her craft with musical theory classes and penned the material for what would become 19.
Of the ex about whom much of her debut album was written, Adele says, “Now it gets a little embarrassing sometimes, because he’s moved on and he knows I’m still out there singing about him.”
Although she collaborated with veteran songwriter Anthony “Eg” White on “Melt My Heart to Stone” and “Chasing Pavements,” Adele’s lovelorn lyrics and unadorned singing stand out. She manages to channel the melodic ease of Burt Bacharach while getting stateside airplay alongside Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink. By comparison, Welsh singer Duffy, also nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammy Awards, feels a bit like a studied throwback.
Adele’s newfound popularity in the U.S. is about more than just her music. “I get nervous about being called a ‘role model,’ but I’m proud to be who I am,” she admits. The outspoken singer, whose wardrobe consists “primarily of leggings and jumpers,” doesn’t fit the typical underdressed popstar mold, and she has no immediate intentions of changing.
Adele also has a lovable self-confidence that translates well to the small-screen. None other than Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour hand-selected a long-sleeved black satin gown by designer Barbara Tfank for Adele’s Grammy performance, watched by 19 million viewers. But her biggest TV moment came back on October 18, 2008, when, just minutes after that infamous pre-election skit featuring Tina Fey and Sarah Palin, Adele performed “Pavements” in one of the most auspicious “Saturday Night Live” debuts ever: the show achieved its highest overnight ratings in fourteen years, and the very next day, 19 topped the iTunes charts.
Yet, to believe that Adele’s career owes as much to the Republican governor of Alaska as to the internet isn’t quite fair. “I would be nowhere without MySpace,” she says of the social networking site. A friend began posting her songs on MySpace in 2004, where she was discovered by indie imprint XL in 2007 and grew an online fan base of nearly 90,000 over five years – all of which made it easier to ink a North American deal with the venerable Columbia Records in 2008. Living up to the careers of her Columbia label mates Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand may be a long shot, but Adele’s not afraid to try.
Raised by a doting single mom, Adele has a “40-a-day” cigarette habit, but “quit drinking last summer” to stave off stardom’s downward spiral. She’s no Winehouse: her only known addiction is to the ballads she pulls out onstage every night. Of those, she counts Etta James’ bluesy “The Fool That I Am” as her favorite, but also does a respectable rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” and a rollicking cover of the Raconteurs’ “Many Shades of Black.” At the end of June, Adele will fulfill a dream with a show at the Hollywood Bowl co-headlined by her idol, Etta James. (“I love Etta more than I’ll ever love my kids,” she laughs.)
But for right now, she and her band are on their own, keeping this Georgia crowd on its feet to the catchy groove of “Cold Shoulder.” After the drums fade, and Adele launches into the first song she ever wrote– a love letter to London called “Hometown Glory”: “I like it in the city / when two worlds collide … Round my hometown / memories are fresh / round my hometown / the people I’ve met / are the wonders of my world/ You are the wonders of world.”
When Adele points to the audience and belts the final phrase, the room is smitten.
© 2009 Kristi York Wooten
This piece was written in 2009 for Newsweek, but was never published.
ADELE “HOMETOWN GLORY” MARCH 17, 2009
(Video and screenshot by Fadia Kader)
(Also be sure to check out Mara Davis’s awesome video interview here.)