At a time when the focus is on youth, we might think that all their music is loud, hugely produced in mega-shows, with the visual part at least as important as the music itself…sculptured bodies, provoking dress… and that the only way to sing is an elaborated wail (for women) or a hoarse shout (for men) in the typically Afro-American blues style. But surprise, the biggest hit of recent years has little of these things: Adele is an English songwriter and singer who has had a meteoric rise to fame at 20 years old – helped by the Internet, downloads and awards, but above all by a lovely warm lyrical voice and songs which stay in the mind. Has anybody not yet heard of her?
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was born in 1988 in Tottenham, North London, to a teenage mother and a father who walked out when she was two. Her mother Penny, then 20, brought her up single-handedly, moving to Brighton when she was 9, then back to Brixton, and West Norwood in South London. She loved to listen to music and sing, doing Spice Girls impersonations at dinner parties; she cites the Back Street Boys and Whitney Houston as early influences (now she loves Etta James and Beyoncé) – but she was already writing her own music. At age 14 she went to the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon – “incredible being among 700 kids who want to do something” – where she says she was pretty eclectic: “you like what you like”. Graduating in 2006, she was more inclined to go into A&R, helping other careers, rather than starting her own.
However, she had recorded three demo songs of her own which a friend posted on MySpace, where they became very successful, leading to a phone call from XL Recordings – who she had never heard of – who recommended her to a Manager, and signed her in September 2006. In a recording session she met Jim Abbiss, who produced the majority of tracks on her debut album 19 and the second one 21 – the album names reflecting her age at the time they were produced.
So after a single in October 2007 Hometown Glory and another in January 2008 Chasing Pavements, the album 19 had another 10 songs of hers, and went straight to Number 1 on the British Charts. Later in 2008 after favourable reviews she went on a US tour, but kept cancelling out because of a love affair “I was drinking far too much and I couldn’t bear to be without him” but an appearance on Saturday Night Live in October 2008 (where she sang two songs) catapulted 19 to the top of the iTunes charts and made number 5 on amazon.com.
The album 21 came out in January 2011, won 6 Grammy awards, became platinum in the UK, diamond in the US, and has sold 26 million copies worldwide…. In 2011 and 2012 she was Billboard’s Artist of the Year, and in 2013 she won an Oscar and the Golden Globe Award for her original song Skyfall, theme of the 23rd Bond film. Doesn’t get much more successful than that, does it?
What’s behind it?
The absolutely refreshing thing about Adele (pronounced a-dell) is that she sings – sings in a robust sonorous contralto, with occasional incursions into the upper register. She doesn’t dress extravagantly ( always black), she doesn’t dance or strut on the stage, she doesn’t always indulge in the screeching which seems to have put most pop singing under the Afro influence (although to have some songs like that appears to be inevitable commercially). No, what she has done is to take the microphone and sing of her emotions in her own songs, which often have simple accompaniments, unusual placing of the words, and lyrics which are neither banal nor repetitive. Asked by one interviewer if she was an “anti-pop star” she said she didn’t want people confusing what she is about. It’s about the voice, it’s about the emotion she communicates – it is for listening. She imposes the atmosphere, and takes the audience with her.
Both her hit albums have been written after the breakup of love affairs, and the doubts and sense of loss when being alone:
Should I give up or just keep chasing pavements
Even if it leads nowhere?
is from the first album.
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I remember what you said:
“Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead”
is from the second.
Living with fame
Can Adele live with fame, with the adulation, with the loss of privacy, with the pressure to produce and perform? According to her producer, she is “the least affected person – she doesn’t change”. In her interviews she is candid, funny, and sometimes outrageous when her London roots come through, particularly with an English host – speaking in an ungarnished London accent, throwing in swear words, and giving huge hoots of laughter when something appeals. She says she is so nervous before she goes on stage – worried she might not manage to pull it off. But then when the song starts and she sings “something creeps out which upsets me” and then the emotion – wrapped with artistic discipline, a lovely melodious voice and absolute clarity of diction – reaches out to the audience.
In late 2012 Adele had to operate her vocal chords, and couldn’t speak for months. She says her voice came back better than ever – but one perceives she produces the high notes in the throat, not from the diaphragm, and this in a professional leads to high wear and tear on the vocal chords. She now has a man she loves (Simon Konecki), a son born in October 2012, she is not into smoking or drinking any longer, and no drugs. She has moved to a huge house in West Sussex, and is resolutely private about various things in her life, while being generally very open, humorous and engaging.
Asked if she has to break up this relationship to produce another album, she gives a big hoot of laughter and says “well if it goes on like this for 3 or 4 years, maybe I shall have to!”
Her music and lyrics are easily available on the Internet or for download – so check out one of today’s favourite singers – and Good Listening!