The minute you hear that voice, the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you realize this is someone special.
She’s just 19, but Adele Laurie Blue Adkins—you can call her simply Adele—sings like a woman three times her age, a soul sensation in her native U.K. who is poised to conquer America with 19, her debut album, which comes out in the States on XL /Columbia Records after debuting at #1 in the British charts.
The first single, “Chasing Pavements,” a #2 hit in the U.K., characterizes her autobiographical approach, written after a brawl in a London club with her boyfriend, which sent her fleeing out the door onto Oxford Street.
“I hate making people feel awkward and I hate feeling awkward, so I just left, but he didn’t follow me,” she explains. “I was running down these gigantic, wide sidewalks that stretch for miles, thinking to myself, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing? You’re just chasing pavements…that you’re never going to catch.’ Then, I went straight home and wrote the song.”
Brash, wise beyond her years, but down-to-earth and focused, Adele was raised by a single mom to whom she’s devoted in the racially mixed, working-class London neighborhoods of Tottenham and Brixton, where she worshiped pop idols like Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, Take That and Britney Spears, not daring to dream one day she might follow in their footsteps to stardom herself.
“I didn’t realize this was something I could do until I got my record deal,” Adele admits. “I taught myself how to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald for acrobatics and scales, Etta James for passion and Roberta Flack for control.”
You can hear Ella’s scats in “My Same,” Flack’s flair for sensuous melody in Adele’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” from his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind and James’ slow-burning urgency in “Melt My Heart to Stone.” But there’s also plenty of Adele in songs like “Tired,” where she reveals an otherwise hidden working-class British accent, “When I don’t get nuffin’ back.”
Although she went to the same performing arts school in Croydon that Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Kate Nash did, Adele is no pop tart, one-hit wonder, American Idol finalist or the puppet of some svengali producer. She’s an original, with a vocal style and personal charisma that is all about human warmth, honesty and embracing the audience.
“I have to believe what I’m singing about,” she says. “That’s how you connect with songs. And that’s what seems to have paved the way for me in the U.K. and Europe. People can relate to me. They believe me. I’m not some sort of concoction. I’m accessible. You can come up to me and go, ‘Hi,’ and I’ll be, like, ‘Hi’ back.”
Together, the songs on 19 compose a diary of a year in Adele’s life, one that began with her deciding to stay in London rather than attend university in Liverpool, which led her to write “Hometown Glory,” a paean to the city and her cherished memories of growing up there. And while insistent she knows little about politics, the verse, “I like it in the city when two words collide/You get the people and the government/Everybody taking different sides,” was about her taking part in a post-9/11 protest march against the Iraq war.
“It was just such a moment, to see all these people come together to stand against something,” she says. “There were these mohawk punks next to rude-boy kids in hoodies. It was great to be a part of.”
“Hometown Glory” was the first song she wrote for the album and it came after an argument with her mother about whether to leave London for Liverpool—which her mom thought best to teach her to stand on her own—or remain home, where she was surrounded by things that made her feel comfortable.
“The song is about wherever you’re from, being able to walk past a bus stop, a clothing store, a restaurant, a bar or a coffee shop and have your memories of them,” she says.
“Daydreamer” tells the story of her falling in love with a longtime friend she knew was bisexual. “I had no problem with that,” she laughs. “But I get so jealous anyway and I can’t fight off girls and boys. When I told him that, he said not to worry. Two hours later, he was kissing my gay best friend next door.”
Adele calls “Melt My Heart to Stone” her favorite song on the album. “I just love singing it. When I wrote it, I was crying,” she explains. “The song is about breaking up a relationship.”
Her manager, a Dylan fan, tried to get her to cover “Make You Feel My Love” for a year before she agreed, eventually coming to believe it was written for her. “The song is so convincing,” she says. “But when I first heard it, I couldn’t understand the lyrics. When I finally read them, I thought they were amazing. The song just kind of sums up that sour point in my life I’ve been trying to get out of my system and write into my songs. It completes the shape of the album, which is not sad, but bitter.”
The latest in the current spate of talented female singer-songwriters emerging from the U.K. scene, Adele was the first recipient of the Brit Awards’ newly inaugurated Critics Choice prize last December even before her debut album was released. She was also honored as the winner of BBC Music’s Sound of 2008 poll of music critics, editors and broadcasters, as the most promising new musical artist likely to emerge this year.
Her first U.S. performances in New York and Los Angles this spring sold out just on the basis of a mention on her MySpace page, which has received more than 2 million profile views and 2.2 million plays since it was launched on New Year’s Eve 2004.
And while American success is important to her, Adele insists it doesn’t mean more than winning over audiences around the world.
“I want as many people as possible to hear my music,” she says. “I want to do well in Europe, Asia and Australia. It’s so weird to come all this way to do shows and have them sell out. It’s ridiculous and amazing how many people want to talk to me.”
Adele admits she’s the kind of person who feels incomplete without a relationship, but for now, she’s burying her sorrows in between performances with soda and Cheetos… and refuses to obsess over her weight, either.
“I love food and hate exercise,” she laughs. “I don’t have time to work out. Go buy my record; then I’ll be able to lose weight. I actually don’t care. I don’t want to be on the cover of Playboy or Vogue. I want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone or Q. I’m not a trend-setter… I’m a singer. I never want to be known for anything else. I’d rather weigh a ton and make an amazing album then look like Nicole Richie and do a s*** album. My aim in life is never to be skinny.”
Don’t expect Adele to fall into the trap of living the blues to sing them, though.
“With this album, I had to be feeling quite sorry for myself to be creative,” she says. “When I tried to write about fictional stuff, made-up stories or other people’s problems, I couldn’t do it. But who knows? My second album might be really happy.”
All you need to know about Adele can be learned from her live performances, accompanied by just a piano or an acoustic guitar, with a one-of-a-kind voice that conveys a rainbow of emotions, from sorrow to triumph, longing to sensuality, solitude to solidarity, a blues-soul hybrid steeped in the past, yet fully alive in the moment.
“I get really scared right before I go on-stage, but as soon as I’m there, I love it,” she says. “I feel more at ease performing then when I’m walking down the street. I love entertaining people. It’s a huge deal that people pay their hard-earned money, no matter how much or little, to spend an hour of their day to come and watch me. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”
Remember the name: Adele. After listening to her debut album 19, you won’t forget the voice.