Adele ation starts here

Universally tipped for stardom in the coming year, Adele has a mouth on her and she’s not afraid to use it.

Adele Adkins is dumb-founded. She’s just heard that a tabloid hack knows she was sick out of a car window on her way home from watching the Spice Girls reunion gig. The 19-year-old soul singer may already have won a Brit Award, recorded with the super-cool producer Mark Ronson, and sung live on television for both Jools Holland and Jonathan Ross, but she’s hardly being pursued at high speed by paparazzi just yet. And though she was given the tickets by the Spice Girls’ US agent, who is trying to woo her, her debut album doesn’t even reach the shops until the end of January.

She still lives with her mum, so this sort of attention is new and weird, not to mention funny. “How the hell does he know that I puked?” Adele ponders. “Because you told him,” comes her amused press officer’s reply.

Adele’s big gob has been the making of her, musically, and it won’t be long before it’s getting her into all sorts of delicious trouble. She is loose-lipped and loud, and, when she is live on stage, a huge billowing sail of a voice comes forth, even though her audience banter is giggly and chaotic, as befits her tender years.

But when she gets into her stride, it’s her performing confidence that oozes. Lyrics about useless bisexual boyfriends, hopeless teenage infatuation and pride in her hometown are tempered with a bluesy swagger and the same half-swallowed, half-soaring enunciation that Amy Winehouse copied from old soul records. (They both studied music at the BRIT School of Performing Arts, though Adele was several years younger.)

Also like Winehouse, Adele is making her mark while still in her teens — her impact on the London live circuit was such that a Jools Holland producer saw her play and booked her for the show before she had released any records. She is signed to the taste-making record label XL, having been taken on tour by her friend, champion and now label-mate Jack Peñate, whom she credits with “creating the buzz” around her — she had only four songs to her name at the time.

Indeed, so widely tipped is Adele to be the one to watch in 2008 that a new Brit Award seems to have been invented especially for her. The Critics’ Choice prize won’t be officially presented until early 2008, by which time her album, 19, might well be the soundtrack to easy Sunday mornings across the land.

She is part of the London singer-songwriter scene, but 19 owes more to 1980s vocalists such as Alison Moyet than to Adele’s troubadour contemporaries. It’s a languorous record, a slow-burner rather than an instant hit.

“My album’s quite sad and I was thinking the other day how I’m actually really happy at the moment,” she explains, “but when I’m happy I ain’t got time to write songs. That’s only when I’m sitting at home going [cue thespian voice]: ‘Oh, I’m so depressed.‘ I love drama. I go looking for it sometimes.”

She is big and brassy, and talks so fast that her words trip over each other, while her hands flap around in high-camp fashion, as if her wrists were merely hinges.

And that big gob does screaming too, as her fellow passengers recently discovered on a flight back from Los Angeles. “Over the Atlantic there was all this turbulence, the plane was shaking and I just stayed watching my film. But then the air hostesses had to put their belts on — and that’s when I started screaming. In economy. There was a five-year-old boy sitting next to me laughing at me ‘cos I thought I was going to die. Very embarrassing. So the air hostess gave me wine until I passed out.” She cackles. “I hate flying anyway, that’s one thing I’m dreading doing more of. You’re not supposed to be in the f***ing air! That’s why we have gravity!”

Adele started life in Tottenham, in North London, which she loved because she had loads of cousins around her. She lived with her mum, who had Adele in her teens. Adele’s dad was never part of the picture. Then she moved to Brighton when she was 9 because her mum wanted to get into arty things such as furniture-making, but Adele didn’t like it “because the people seemed really pretentious and posh, and there were no black people there. I was used to being the only white kid in my class in Tottenham”.

Then her mum met Adele’s future stepdad and they moved again, when she was 11, to South London, where they have stayed ever since. Adele wants out, though. “West Norwood is trapped in 1994, it’s awful! Me and my mum and our flat-mate live above a shop next to a garage — it caught fire a couple of months ago. An actual massive petrol station with four big tanks! Luckily our flat was okay but the communal hallway was all black. I can’t wait to get out.”

It will be a strain leaving her mum, though; they are best friends. They stay in every Friday night to watch Jools Holland’s show, missing it only when they’re abroad, so when Adele appeared on it, the pair of them were in tears. “When my mum came backstage to see me I couldn’t even open my mouth. I think she was worried I was gonna fall off my chair or faint or just f*** it up somehow.” She didn’t though, and they now enjoy watching the show again on YouTube.

Adele wants to move to Brooklyn to write the next record — to see a new city, have a bit of space and get away from certain people, ” ‘cos if I stay here I’ll just go back to the same boy and write the same album again”. What will her mum do without her, though? “Well, it might worry her more if she was an older parent, but my mum’s still in her thirties, so I’m about to leave home and she’s still got her whole life ahead of her, really.”

She applied to the BRIT School for Performing Arts while she was unhappy at her comprehensive. “They didn’t really encourage me. They didn’t really encourage anybody. I knew I wanted to do music, but even when I was in Year 7 and wanted to be a heart surgeon they didn’t encourage that neither. It was just, ‘try and finish school and don’t get pregnant, ha, ha, ha’. But BRIT was so supportive.”

She stresses that it’s a free school and the entrance audition is really easy, unlike the Sylvia Young and Anna Scher stage schools, which her family could never have afforded. She’s amazed by how well the BRIT alumni are doing. There’s her friend Kate Nash, plus Luke Pritchard from the Kooks, Katie Melua and Imogen Heap, as well as Winehouse. “But some of the people there are atrocious, really bad.”

Are they all wannabe rock stars and indie bands? “No. They all wanna be f***ing soul singers! I’m all up for people who are in development, but not people who are in there for four years and start when they’re shit and leave when they’re even worse.”

Adele had grown up listening to everything from R&B to Aerosmith, but at the age of 13 she picked up a greatest-hits albums by Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, ” ‘cos it was two for a fiver in HMV, in a basket in [she adopts a comedy luvvie accent] the jazz section. I bought them and didn’t listen to them for ages, but now they’re my favourites.”

Happy to sing other people’s songs for years, Adele eventually concluded that she could write her own (“I realised I wanted to be a person who did it all myself”). So she sat down and wrote ‘Hometown Glory’.

She also set about learning how the music industry works, reading the industry bible Music Week and studying such things as the difference between a music-publishing company and a record label “because most artists haven’t got a clue. They get me to sign contracts now and it’s a big joke, it’s like: ‘Do you understand this long word written down here, Adele?’ And I’m like: ‘Yes, I do actually. It means you’re trying to rip me off.’ “

She has no interest in writing odes to her impoverished upbringing though. In fact she hates people such as Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers who goes on about his class. “It’s all: ‘Oh, I come from nothing.’ Shut up, man! It doesn’t matter. If you’re good, you get places, full stop. But I do get pissed off when people say my friends are apparently posh. Jack Peñate went to a public school on a scholarship, you know. You should see Jamie T’s house — it’s rank. And Kate Nash has never even spoken about her background. Just ‘cos she sings with an accent doesn’t mean she’s trying to say that she’s working class. Nobody likes a posh voice, do they?”

Adele thinks that the London singer-songwriter scene, ie, this year’s biggest musical news, is already dead. “People talk about the summer of 2007 — but it was all done in 2006. Nobody’s playing 40 capacity any more, it’s 200, and I suppose we’re rivals now, so the DIY angle is lost.”

She is loved in Paris, where she gigs frequently. The French are really buzzing about her. “Over there it’s now getting like it was here last month,” she says wistfully, her face lost in reminiscence about those innocent days when she first became famous. Three weeks ago.

And as for heroines — was there an inspirational figure in Adele’s childhood? “Yes! Zoe Ball. I used to watch Live and Kicking and love her. She wasn’t even beautiful, she was just brilliant. Real. When she got married and got out of that car in a wedding dress holding a bottle of Jack Daniels, that was it for me. That was how I wanted to be. And I was only little.”

Adele’s only worry is that she has already become what she wanted to be, and it may all stop now. The Brit award is great, “but also really weird — I just hope it doesn’t peak too soon. It’s encouraging that everything’s going so well, but obviously I haven’t actually released the record yet, so it’s all a bit ridiculous.”

Indeed, Adele has already sampled the delicious taste of stardom, on a video shoot in LA. “If I was walking in a straight line, people would walk round me. People fussing over me. Giving me my water in a bottle with a straw. I was like, I can do it myself. I’m not Mariah.”

Oh, but you must have been tempted to play the diva — are you quite sure you didn’t ask a passing minion to remove all the green M & Ms from your packet? She laughs and says that she did make one failed attempt at divadom. “I was sitting in the really high-up director’s chair and my cigarette fell. I’d been working for nine hours and I couldn’t be bothered to get it. So I said to my manager, “Ooh, can you get it?’ And he said: ‘F*** off, you get it.’ So I had to climb down. Literally.”

© Sophie HeawoodThe Times, 28 December 2007

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