As with Ella Fitzgerald, as with Billie Holiday, as with Dusty Springfield, as with Etta James, as with Lauryn Hill, Adele Adkins possesses a soulful voice which makes hairs stand on end with its melodious honesty. It’s a characteristic that revered singers share: the ability to make you understand their joys and troubles (but mostly troubles, admittedly).
In Adele’s case, the situation is no different. On her debut album 19, her tribulations largely concern a topic familiar to most late-teen females: the ex-boyfriend. Her timbre is mournful, mature, brash, and boisterous. It possesses all the attributes of a classical soul voice, yet Adele considers herself an autodidact, though she admits she had some help along the way. When State greets her, she’s applying make-up in the mirror without a stylist in sight. She is jaunty, immediately likeable and extremely confident, with a mischievous cackle that befits her singing voice.
Adele is an only child, born in Tottenham, North London but later moving south to Brixton. She harboured early aspirations of being a heart surgeon: ‘My grandpa died when I was 10 and I think in a childish way, I wanted to fix people, make people’s hearts better’. From there, she developed ambitions of being a tour manager, a fashion journalist, a photographer and even to get involved in A&R. Singing was the only thing she pursued with any vigour, her listening habits including a diet of Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child and a live Jill Scott album. She later ‘accidentally’ bought albums from Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald in a two-for-a-fiver deal, admitting she had no idea who they were: ‘I liked their hair on the front cover’.
With her early influences cemented, she started playing guitar and singing when she was 14. It was then she heard about the Brit School in Selhurst, Kent: a free independent, state funded vocational school specialising in performing arts and technology. The school has been knocking out famous graduates of late, such as Amy Winehouse, Luke Pritchard of The Kooks and Kate Nash, but is keen to stress that it’s no stage school or fame academy. When State asks Adele about her time there, she says it didn’t shape her music as such but helped her nurture her style of songwriting. ‘When I started, I wasn’t writing my own songs, but I was impersonating the singers I had been listening to up to that point. I hadn’t found my own voice. My voice just kind of appeared,’ she confesses.
And what an appearance it was. A sultry yet sorrowful instrument, it’s no surprise that the comparisons to Amy Winehouse were plentiful, especially as they both attended the Brit School. She does count Winehouse as an influence, yet not an inspiration, perhaps alluding to lessons learned from the recent public tabloid-fuelled meltdown of the troubled singer. She’s happy with the comparisons, however. ‘I’d rather be compared to Kate Nash or Amy Winehouse than someone like Joss Stone’, she says bitingly.
The first song she wrote was -Hometown Glory’, an ode to London, the city she loves so much. ‘I like it in the city when the air is so thick and opaque / I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts and shades / I like it in the city when two worlds collide / You get the people and the government/ Everybody taking different sides’. She was only 16 when she wrote the song. A wonderfully emotive piano-led tune, it was released as her first single in October 2007 on Jamie T’s label, Pacemaker, fulfilling a promise she made to him before signing to XL recordings.
Even before she had any releases, Adele garnered enough attention on the London live circuit for a producer to book her to appear on Jools Holland’s BBC Later show. She has been watching the show since she was four with her mum so they were both ecstatic that it was to be her debut TV appearance. ‘It was really hard work doing that, but in a good way,’ she admits. ‘Paul McCartney was on it and it was really difficult singing in front of him.’.
The plaudits have been growing exponentially since then. Firstly, Adele was the inaugural winner of the Brits Critics Choice Award in December: a new award bestowed upon an emerging British talent yet to release a debut album. The 19-year-old topped a list of new bands and artists tipped for success in 2008 picked by 1,000 music-industry associates and critics. Subsequently, she was top of the pile for the BBC’s annual Sound of 2008 poll. All before the album was even released. She’s not fazed by the expectations placed upon her, though. ‘It’s amazing and it’s lovely to get support from people in the industry, but it’s just people’s opinion. I don’t feel any pressure. I haven’t actually sold any records yet! If I sell a million records, I’ll be way up on my high horse. I’ll be a right little diva!’ she laughs.
Her debut album, 19, is an assured release which may just bring such acclaim. It begins with the sparse guitar-picked -Daydreamer’, led by Adele’s whopping voice. It’s the song she played solo on Jools Holland about her bisexual friend of the opposite sex and her infatuation with him around the time of her 18th birthday. Inevitably, it didn’t end with unicorns and rainbows. -Best For Last’ arrives in a similar vein, replacing the guitar with a double bass, lending the tune a jazzy feel. Then the song explodes into an understated polychromatic wonderland, with gospel-tinged backing vocals and hammered piano for the duration of the chorus. It’s a beautiful song but make no mistake, Adele is the star here.
Recent single -Chasing Pavements’ builds on that foundation, with sweeping string arrangements, while that voice is melancholic and reaching, perfectly accentuating the doomed nature of the relationship with the boy she is singing about. Much of the album is sombre, yet it’s far from depressing. This is arguably thanks to the simplicity of the arrangements, which is down to the way Adele writes the songs, showing them to her mum and then playing them live the same way. Most of the album was recorded with the highly sought-after producer Jim Abiss, whose previous credits include the phenomenal first Arctic Monkeys album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, as well as Ladytron’s Witching Hour and both Kasabian albums.
The even more in-demand Mark Ronson also got to turn knobs on one track, -Cold Shoulder’. His trademark retro style is all over the song. ‘I wrote that song on a Wurlitzer,’ Adele explains. ‘XL said it should stay, -just you and the Wurlitzer’. I decided it was a fast song so it needs a beat.’ She sought Ronson out after hearing his album Here Comes the Fuzz, a sort of hip-hop mixtape featuring Sean Paul, Q-Tip, Nate Dogg, Tweet and Mos Def. They hit it off immmediately and the track was born.
This precociousness perfectly illustrates how Adele has no problem fighting her corner or taking care of herself in a maledominated music industry. ‘All the girls complain about this [referring to Lily Allen and Kate Nash], I haven’t experienced any problems at all. I’m quite mouthy so if I don’t get my own way, I can be a stubborn little girl,’ she grins. It’s this obstinate attitude that will serve her well in the future, as she has firm ambitions in mind. ‘I want the album to do well here [Ireland], America, Japan, Europe. I want people to come and see me live because that’s where I started.’
Adele’s already thinking about the next album, for which she intends to fly the coop to live and write in Brooklyn. She’s not planning on sitting still, however, as she reveals her aspirations to write for other artists and maybe one day, get involved in A&R. ‘I’ve got loads of pop songs that I’d love [acts] like Pussycat Dolls to sing because I couldn’t get away with that! I want five girls dancing in their bikinis, which I would never do!’
Photography by Marcelo Biglia