… and Lily, and Kate: there’s a new star in town. Adele Adkins is only 19, but her voice has bewitched everyone from Jools Holland to Zane Lowe. She talks to Caroline Sullivan about roll-ups, the Sun and horrible boys.
VICES? ADELE Adkins is all for them. There can’t be many singers who embrace all the things that are bad for them more wholeheartedly than this one. Sitting at her kitchen table in south London, she could be one of those voluptuous Renoir ladies: languidly smoking with one hand, eating Garibaldi biscuits with the other and chatting about her love of food versus her distaste for exercise. “I read a comment on YouTube that I thought would upset me,” she says, “‘Test pilot for pies’ – but I’ve always been a size 14-16, and been fine with it. I would only lose weight if it affected my health or sex life, which it doesn’t.” Well, it works for her: even cocooned in knitted black layers, she exudes an old-fashioned, blossomy sensuality. But you never know, she adds, blithely: “I might lose a lot of weight if I’m pressurised.”
Chances are, she’ll be put to the test sooner rather than later, because much is expected of Adele (she goes by her first name for shows) in the next few months. Gifted with a startlingly rich voice, a bagful of soulful, self-written songs and the backing of XL Recordings (home to Radiohead, the White Stripes and Dizzee Rascal), she is the subject of a buzz that has been building since the beginning of the year. There are no sure things in the music industry, but those around her reckon that when her debut album, 19, is released in January, she’ll have a clear shot at the top tier of British pop vocalists.
“I would hope that by this time next year, she will have sold as many records as Amy [Winehouse], and I don’t see why she shouldn’t,” says Alison Howe, producer of Later With Jools Holland, who booked Adele for the show last June on the strength of a demo tape. She was one of the first singers to appear on Later without having a record out. “When we fall for somebody, we have to have them,” Howe says. “She’s a classic. She doesn’t fit anywhere; she just has a great voice.”
It is a remarkable voice, both for its smoky beauty, nurtured by listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James records when she was 12, and for the fact that it emanates from an English teenager. “I was into Korn, and I’d never even heard of Ella Fitzgerald – I only bought her album to be cool. But I was blown away by it, and when I was 13 I discovered I could hold the same notes as Eva Cassidy – I could control my voice. Then I started writing songs.”
When she appeared on Later, she was so nervous she kept her eyes wide open, rather than closing them as she normally does when singing. “They usually put you in the middle of the room, but for some reason they put me at the end, right in front of the audience, with Björk on my left, Paul McCartney on my right and my mum crying in front of me. I met them afterwards, and couldn’t stop crying.”
She sounds like what she is: a teenager who is ambivalent about the fact that her life now consists of early calls, video shoots and promotional work. Asked whether she is enjoying what one magazine article called “her last moments of freedom”, she bristles. “If I don’t like [success], I’ll walk away. You don’t have to lose your privacy. If you’re in control of your career, you won’t get followed. Just don’t go to celeb hangouts.”
She comes across as the quintessential London homegirl: loud, self-assured and street enough to blend in here in West Norwood, a generic slice of the capital a mile south of Brixton. She lives with her mother, who was a teenager herself when Adele was born, having upped sticks from Tottenham when she was small.
“I’m thinking of moving ‘cos it’s getting rough around here. I was going to get my own place when I got my advance, but I spent it on Burberry.” Burberry aside, having money has facilitated only one real lifestyle change so far: “I used to smoke rollies, but then I got the record deal and switched to Marlboro Lights.”
She has reverted to roll-ups for today, expertly constructing one as she speaks, then luxuriously inhaling. Still wearing makeup from an afternoon photo shoot, she looks like a 50s starlet – all cat’s eyes and glossy bouffant hair – and her confidence is daunting. “I am confident, I’m loud. To be in any art, you have to crave love – you want approval. I hate people who play on being shy and reserved.” Her composure briefly deserts her, though, when I read out a quote from the Daily Mail that describes her as “the best British jazz-soul singer to emerge since Amy Winehouse”. She laughs: “The Daily Mail? I’m in the posh papers! I read the Sun.”
Some of her self-belief must have been instilled by four years at the Brit School, the Croydon performing arts college that has become a finishing academy for a strand of mainstream-yet-singular pop singers (alumni include Winehouse, Kate Nash and Lynden David Hall). The “graduates” section of its website boasts: “Ex-music student Adele [has been] featured heavily in NME. Ironically, she is likened to both Kate Nash and Amy Winehouse.” But it’s not that ironic. The three are around the same age, and Nash is part of Adele’s extended social circle, which also includes Lily Allen and Jamie T (who released Adele’s single, ‘Hometown Glory’, on his own Pacemaker Records). Not unexpectedly, her connection to this hipster clique proved a boon when she decided to try her luck at singing professionally. It brought her to the attention of XL founder Richard Russell, who saw in her the perfect complement to two of XL’s other female artists: politicised rapper MIA and smutty art-rocker Peaches.
“The idea with XL has always been to work with people who are original, and Adele has this ability to connect. Everybody hears it as soon as they hear her – there’s something special about her voice,” Russell says. “Most of her songs are about being hurt, and she talks about it in a way that’s incredibly honest.”
To hear Adele tell it, hurt and heartbreak seek her out – at just 19, she has already dealt with several break-ups and a bisexual boyfriend (who inspired the song ‘Daydreamer’). “I love it when boys are horrible to me, when they turn up six hours late or don’t phone – I love the drama,” she says earnestly. In fact, she reckons she can’t write without “drama”. In February, she had a repertoire of just four tunes, and felt too blocked to come up with more. “I was almost ready to give up, ‘cos I just couldn’t write any songs, and then I got into a relationship and it was horrible. By June, I had 12 songs.” Now single again, she’s already fretting about finding inspiration for her next album. “I love boys – they’re my favourite thing in the world. If I don’t have a boyfriend, what will I write my next album about? I’ve either got to be heartbroken or carameled-up in love, and I’m not seeing anyone at the moment.”
She sounds very young as she says this – young enough to condense her thoughts into pithy little soundbites that brook no dissent. Here, for instance, are her feelings about feminism: “I haven’t been around feminism and I haven’t experienced sexism. People say, ‘The industry is so male-oriented,’ but I love boys.'” There’s no arguing with her – she knows what’s what, and that’s that. “Well, it makes you come across as a prick if you go on about something you don’t know about,” she adds. “If I knew about politics, I’d go on about it.”
But there’s also no denying the power of Adele’s voice, which turns people into staunch fans on contact. Radio 1’s Zane Lowe, who gave her a session last month, says he was “blown away” when he discovered her. “Her voice is a direct conduit between who she is and what we hear; there’s nothing that gets in the way.”
The Girl Most Likely to… in 2008, then? “She’s split the office,” says NME‘s James McMahon. “Some of them see her as being coffee-table, a bit bland. But I remember them saying that about Amy Winehouse two years ago.”
© Caroline Sullivan, The Guardian, 23 November 2007