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Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008
The gobbiest girl in London, innit?
By SYLVIA PATTERSON
Adele cringes: "I can't believe I did a peace sign on TV — like Ringo Starr!"
In a tiny backstage dressing room at the Roundhouse venue in north London, the 19-year-old singer re-enacts her hippy faux pas — two fingers raised in a V — and cackles like a Cockney barmaid.
Tonight, at the TV-recorded launch party for this month's Brit Awards, she sang her intoxicating, soul-pop, soon-to-be-classic single, "Chasing Pavements," responded to the applause with a peace sign and mouthed the words, "That was awful."
She was, in fact, spellbinding, if initially nervous, finally unfurling a billowing voice so vast, pure and deep-soul powerful it could turn the very tides; the kind of voice we used to hear before reality TV invented yodeling like Mariah as the pop kids' definition of singing.
At 19, Adele is a fully formed personality — exuberant, bawdy, disarmingly honest, effortlessly funny, gasping for "a fag," devoted to her beloved music. Dressed in a gray cotton smock, below her jaunty auburn bun she has the smoky green eyes of a cat. She writes beautiful, deeply melancholic music, too.
"No one really mentions my songs," she says, startled, perched on a plastic seat. "I think they just assume I haven't written them. I've written my whole album. I love love songs. But I love pop music as well: Girls Aloud, Kylie, the Spice Girls, East 17, Mika. I'm not that into credibility. I mean, of course I wanna be a credible artist but you gotta have a laugh, innit? I used to be obsessed like that, I was a real indie kid, but I'd secretly go home and listen to Celine Dion. She's got proper ballads!'
The previous year and the previous three weeks in particular have been a master class for Adele (and the rest of us) in the preposterous speed of ascent of the public profile of a 21st-century newcomer.
In November 2006, aged 18, she was signed in her home country to XL Recordings (home of The White Stripes, MIA, Dizzee Rascal, Peaches) on the strength of three songs, played pubs in north London to 10 people in early 2007, quietly toured all over Britain, had her TV debut on Jools Holland's BBC program with the acoustic stunner "Daydreamer" on June 8 (despite not yet having released a single), finally released the piano-led epic of her debut single "Hometown Glory" on Oct. 22 (a 7-inch single on fellow London troubadour Jack Pen~ate's Pacemaker label), appeared on another widely watched TV show, "Friday Night with Jonathan Ross," on Dec. 7, was chosen for the inaugural Critics Choice Brit Award for 2008 on Dec. 10, was unveiled as the BBC's Sound of 2008 poll winner on Jan. 4 and saw the brilliantly bizarre car-crash-themed video for "Chasing Pavements" uploaded onto Kanye West's personal blog on Jan. 9 with the caption: "This shit is dope!!!!!!!"
"I feel," she muses today, "like I'm being shoved down everyone's throat. My worst fear is my music won't connect with the public. Earlier this morning, because 'Chasing Pavements' went up for download last night, just being adventurous I scrolled down to the last 30 of the top 100 on iTunes to see if it was there. [Glumly] And it wasn't there. [Enormous grin] It was No. 12! And that was only 9 o'clock!' (The song would go all the way to No. 1 in the iTunes chart.)
In 2008, it's still all about the gobby young girls. After Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Kate Nash, the new wave has arrived and this time they're all called Amy. Pretty much.
There's Amy Macdonald, 20, the Scottish indie-folk minstrel whose debut album "This is the Life" knocked Radiohead's "In Rainbows" off the No. 1 album slot. There's Amy Studt, 21, sometime fallen teenage upstart returning as a goth-pop torch-singer with the startling "My Paper-Made Man." Then there's Amy Duffy, 22 (wisely known as Duffy), the Welsh, blonde, strikingly retro-chic Sienna Millar of pop, who all the indie boys fancy and who is widely perceived to be Adele's greatest rival.
"I think Duffy's wicked and I think there's room for everyone," declares Adele.
It's now two days after the Brits launch and Adele's punishing promotional schedule means we're talking in the back of a cab, speeding between her Observer photo-shoot and her PR's office in London's West End. Today she's wearing a glittering golden 1960s-style coat given to her by plus-size fashion titan Anna Scholtz. Her earrings, however, are from the supermarket chain Argos.
Of all the gobby new girls, only Adele's bewitching singing voice has the enigmatic quality that causes tears of involuntary emotion to splash down your face in the way Eva Cassidy's did before her. And only Adele has been endorsed by Beyonce (they share the same PR outfit in Britain), who refers to her as "the new British singer." She's been called, elsewhere, "the new Amy Winehouse."
Her debut album, "19," is a break-up collection, melancholic and atmospheric and written about the end of her biggest relationship (he cheated on her; she chucked him). The lovelorn "Daydreamer," though, is about a different boy, a bisexual friend she'd fallen in love with and who said the same was happening to him, at her 18th birthday party. Then, just four hours later, he ran off with one of Adele's gay friends.
"Great!" she hollers, cockney indignation ricocheting throughout the cab. "I was, 'We're not even going out yet and you've cheated on me already!' So 'Daydreamer' is about everything I wanted him to be. The daydream of him."
Adele never shuts up. On the rare occasion she does, it's usually in the wake of a terrible fight with a boy and she finally retreats into silence. This is when she writes a song.
"I will sit in my room on my own for ages," she muses. "Because otherwise I am rude to people. I can't be around anyone, I have to be on my own. And I'll write. That's how that atmosphere [in the songs] gets created."
Adele's mum was "18 and a half" when Adele was born, on May 5, 1988, in Tottenham, north London. Her biological dad was "never in the picture," but Adele knows who he is, "a really big Welsh guy who works on the ships and stuff. It's fine, I don't feel like I'm missing anything."
Her Tottenham-born mum is an "arty" 38-year-old and freelance masseuse, furniture-maker and organizer for adult-learning activities who allowed Adele, aged 5, when she should've been in bed, to stand on the table at dinner parties and belt out "Dreams" by Gabrielle.
"She just thought," smiles Adele, "I was amazing." At school in Tottenham she was the only white kid in her class. "I stopped noticing after a while."
Aged 11, she moved with her mum and new stepdad to West Norwood in south London, where new friends introduced her to R&B via Destiny's Child, Faith Evans and P. Diddy, while she discovered, independently, Eva Cassidy, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, all of whom she could impersonate.
Never musically encouraged at her public school, at 14 Adele was accepted into the increasingly ubiquitous BRIT School in south London's Croydon, a free school for the performing arts that fostered Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, members of The Feeling and television music-talent show winner Leona Lewis. That year, 2003, saw every singer in the school, notes Adele, own Amy Winehouse's just-released "Frank" and sing it in the canteen. Most of what she was taught there was "behind the scenes"; how to use a recording studio, organize budgets, interpret legal contracts, and get the most out of the industry business bugle, Music Week.
"Adele is in the tradition of artists who know exactly what they want," says XL label boss Richard Russell of his latest charge. "She's incredibly focused and quick to tell you which of your ideas are rubbish." But Adele says she is "just like any other 19-year-old girl." She likes a drink, specifically red wine, "and my whole mouth goes red like I've been eating someone's arm." She's never taken an illegal drug in her life: "I've never done drugs and never will, I'm too scared. I don't even know any other drugs apart from Ecstasy and cocaine."
With a permanent sore throat, she'd like to quit the cigarettes.
"But I can't give up until this album campaign's over," she decides, "because your throat falls apart before you can rebuild it again." That's a good excuse.
"It's not an excuse!" she bawls, battering my arm. "It's a reason! All right, if we do an interview this time next year I bet I'll have stopped smoking! I bet, shake on it. [She shoots her hand out for a vigorous shake.] Cool!"
She contemplates her position as "the new Amy Winehouse."
"Everyone asks me if I think I'm gonna end up like Amy Winehouse," she snorts. "First of all, I don't know how she's ended up because no one does, I'm sorry. I might see her looking really sad on the front page, but I just put my iPod on and listen to (Winehouse's second album) 'Back to Black' and remember she's amazingly talented. I'm always like, 'Well, of course, I'm not (gonna end up like here),' but if Amy got, 'Are you gonna end up like Billie Holiday?' I'm sure she's say, 'No.' I don't think anyone asks for it. But you never know."
Unlike Winehouse, Adele doesn't feel the pressure to be tuning-fork thin.
"I'm just not bothered," she announces. "I'm not naive, I don't believe I need to look like that. I'm very confident. Even when I read people saying horrible stuff about my weight. Until I start not liking my own body, until it gets in the way of my health or stops me having a boyfriend then I don't care. I'm fine. Since I was a teenager I've been a size 14 or 16, sometimes 18. And it's never been an issue in any of the relationships I've had. None of my friends, girls, are obsessed with weight. In fact, it's more my boys, who are friends, they're like, 'I'm not gonna eat pasta.' And they're not even gay, they're straight! Trying to be skinny indie boys, yeah, but that's too skinny!"
Adele's generation is also the one which takes infinite glee in the brutal black art of cavalier global bitching, the very toxic glue which increasingly holds together the celebrity culture they've grown up in. Adele has no fear of it.
"Oh, I've seen 'I wish she would go and die' written about me, in forums and stuff," she says breezily. "Whatever. People love you, hate you, it's just opinions, like in normal life. I don't feel vulnerable at all. I've done that so many times myself. I'm just of that generation, I hate people as well! I've written on YouTube, 'I wish she'd f**king die.' You can comment on anything, everywhere."
Can you explain that impulse? Why your lot are quite so hardcore?
"Because it's just such an opportunity!" she roars. "If you don't like something you can bring 'em down! And it's anonymous, innit? Like, I hate saying to people, 'Can you just stop talking 'cos I really don't like you?' I can never say it [chuckling], so I take it out on people in the public eye! I love it! If I was a really nice person who didn't sometimes hate people I'd be like, when it comes to me [meekly]: 'Oh God, why are they saying that?' But I'm not bovvered 'cos I do the same thing."
She contemplates whether any other characteristics belong to her generation alone.
"I don't think any of us take anything too seriously, but we know when to take things seriously. And we don't dwell on things. A lot of young people are so in charge of things these days that I guess they don't get stressed out. 'Cos they're kind of running it all. D'youknowhatImean? Well that's how I feel. Like, in setting my life up, I've done it all on my own. With the Internet, MySpace and stuff. I got my record deal through that. And I'm not even a phenomenon on MySpace like Lily or Kate Nash; my career didn't start there. I've got [a comparatively lonely] 20,000 friends. I feel very independent. And I think a lot of late teens, early 20s do. And I think we're gonna look after the world in the way that the generation who are running it at the moment aren't. I'm probably just being 19 and optimistic, but because of the Internet, we have the belief and the ability. And I think that's what binds us together and sets us apart from older people at the moment. I can use a computer better than my stepdad and my stepdad builds Web sites . . ."
Adele's thinking about moving to New York. After the natural promotional life cycle of "19" ends, she wants "to live again. 'Cos it's not real life, this, sitting in a taxi all day, I can't put that in a song." She needs "an adventure, for new songs" and has friends there already, including Amy Winehouse's producer Mark Ronson, who has taken her to New York bars where she can not only drink illegally, but smoke illegally.
"Cool!" she cackles. "Mark is so funny, I always think he's about 24, but he's 32. He's old!" She leaps from the cab and stands outside her PR office, puffing a fag, contemplating where the canyon-sized melancholy in the sound of her music might come from.
"I don't have a hole in my soul," she chirps, puffing away. "I'm not insecure in any way. What I think it is, is, I'm really awful at saying how I feel. When it comes to, like, 'I love you,' or 'Mum, you're really pissing me off,' or to a friend, 'Look, I don't like us being friends any more,' I can never say it. I hate confrontation. So I've always written it down. Even when I was little. If I had an argument with Mum, I'd write down how she made me feel. I prefer people to write it down in a message or text or e-mail. When I broke up with my boyfriend I did it by text. 'Babe, I can't do it no more.' I can't believe I just told you that. And now I write it in songs. That's what it is."
She knows exactly what she'll be doing aged 30. "Oh I've got everything planned," she grins. "I wanna be settling down by then. And writing pop songs for other people. I've already got 10 songs The Pussycat Dolls could sing. But obviously I'm not gonna get in a bikini! So at 30 I'll have my first baby, be married, have a really nice three-story family house with a little picket fence and be writing songs for pop tarts."
Adele's debut album "19" is out in Japan on March 5 on Beggars Japan. She plays with Jack Pen~ate on Feb. 10 at Shibuya Duo Music Exchange and on Feb. 11 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka. Both shows start at 6 p.m. Tickets are ¥5,500. For the Tokyo show, call Creativeman at (03) 3462-6969; for Osaka, call the venue at (06) 6281-8181.