By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, who performs under only the first of her four names, has earned plenty of plaudits for 19, an album whose title corresponds to her age at the time of its release early last year. And, as a result, the disc earned the singer four Grammy nominations—two of which she won (Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the moody but exhilarating "Chasing Pavements"). Still, some reviewers have suggested that her songwriting isn't nearly as intriguing and fully developed as her voice, a rich, multifaceted instrument that makes her sound like a profound old soul.
Rather than take umbrage at this analysis, however, Adele does something unexpected: She concurs.
"I agree with that," she declares during a stopover in New York City, her words bursting out like elementary-schoolers fleeing class at the sound of the day's final bell. "I think I know my voice better than I know my writing skills so far. I think that's a good thing. I'm 20, and hopefully my progression as a songwriter and as a musician—as a guitar player and a bass player—will get better. And it's good to have progression as you write more albums. So I completely agree with that. I think it's constructive criticism."
As her comment implies, Adele comes off as extraordinarily self-possessed for someone in the first grips of fame. Sure, she's frequently compared to Amy Winehouse, another young British singer with a fondness for updating classic musical styles; in addition, Adele recorded the 19 track "Cold Shoulder" with Mark Ronson, whose savvy production touch is a key to Winehouse's success. But she refuses to be turned into a Winehouse-like caricature by the entertainment press in her native country.
"I was drinking a lot in the summer, so I was kind of asking for people to take pictures of me—because I was being an idiot and getting drunk," she allows. "Whereas now I don't drink anymore, I don't go out anymore. I just stay at home and watch films and get a take-away and play Rock Band."
Many public figures might resent being forced into a monastic existence by rabid reporters and persistent paparazzi—but if Adele feels that way deep down, she hides it well. She says she made the decision to cut back on clubbing because "I just saw photos of myself and quotes I didn't like," and she doesn't see the sacrifice as unfair. "I'd give up a lot more than drinking for what I'm doing," she maintains—and besides, staying out of the tabloids keeps the focus on her music. "I don't want to be known as a celebrity," she insists. "I want to be known as a singer."
After a childhood in which she idolized The Spice Girls and Take That, a cuddly British group that didn't make it especially big in the States, her influences eventually grew more sophisticated—she cites Etta James and Karen Dalton, among others. But she never fell out of love with cheesy radio fodder. She's the rare rising star to admit an addiction to talent contests like Pop Idol, the U.K. model for American Idol, and says she might have auditioned for the show had she not doubted the compliments she received for her singing.
Fortunately, though, Adele didn't need television to get noticed. She attended Croydon's BRIT School, a performing-arts facility with a growing reputation for producing noteworthy performers—Leona Lewis and Imogen Heap are fellow alums. The positive feedback she received there was echoed by visitors to her MySpace page, which she launched at age 16 in late 2004. By then, she'd begun to pen tunes, and not long thereafter, record companies came calling. A year later, Adele had inked a contract with XL Recordings. The album that resulted is filled with songs that chronicle an unpleasant breakup, and she readily enjoys the thought of her ex hearing the likes of "First Love" ("I need to taste a kiss from someone new") and "Tired" ("Fed up of biding your time/When I don't get nothing back").
"It's amazing," she admits, laughing. "He's working in a phone shop, and I'm sitting in a New York office right now, looking out at Manhattan. So I'm very happy."
And her songwriting? Well, that's only going to improve from here.