x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Adele: down-to-earth, with an impressive voice

Releasing her second album, 21, Adele has remained unchanged by the success of the past couple of years.

The singer Adele Adkins longed to work with the producer Rick Rubin, and she got her chance on her album 21.
The singer Adele Adkins longed to work with the producer Rick Rubin, and she got her chance on her album 21.

Success has not changed Adele Adkins - or to put it better, Adele Adkins is not the sort to let success change her. Since the release of her debut album 19 in 2008, this plucky north London girl has chalked up some impressive statistics: two Grammys, for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, a sold-out headline show at the 18,000-capacity Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and a cool two million sales of 19.

Her peers have reacted to this sort of immediate success in extreme, sometimes troubling ways: note the very public unravelling of Amy Winehouse, who passed through the London fame academy the BRIT School a few years before Adkins graced its halls.

After seven long months touring the United States, though, Adkins had something more homely in mind for the wind-down.

"I moved back in with my mum, which has been lovely," she chatters, in a manner more befitting a brassy East End waitress than a platinum-selling soul queen. "It's nice to have a bit of normal communication that ain't work - you know, someone to make a cup of tea for. People catering for you all the time - it's weird, I don't like it. All that 'Would you like a straw?' Nah, you're OK."

Does it make you feel guilty?

"No! I think it's just that people are more demanding than I am." She laughs, struck for a moment by the absurdity of the diva mentality. "You know," she says, big eyes boggling, "I can get my own straw."

Adkins's broad London accent and blithe, down-to-earth exterior are at some remove from the big voice and turbulent emotions of her records, which have a heart and dynamic that echoes some of the great soul singers of the past. Her passion for singing was sparked by the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James - not your typical moody teenage fare, a fact that the young Adkins felt acutely. "I really loved alternative fashion - the hoodies, dog collars, buffalo boots," she laughs. "So I used to dress up like a Slipknot fan, and then after school I'd run home and listen to Eva Cassidy."

Still, Adkins says, her records - 19, and its new follow-up, 21 - are nothing if not autobiographical, born out of the cycle of infatuation and heartbreak. For a while, she says, she was worried she wouldn't be able to repeat the feat of 19. What if the songs just didn't come? "Because I'm so honest in my songs, and because they're about me, it's literally a waiting game," she says. "You've got to be totally open and clear."

But then, her relationship - with the boy she loved, the boy she even cancelled a string of US shows in 2008 to be with - fell to pieces and, in a writing session with the London songwriter Eg White, with whom she penned her second single, Chasing Pavements, inspiration struck. "It was slow going - I hadn't written a song in ages, and we spent a lot of time catching up. But then, right at the end, we came out with Take It All, and that was the first track to make the album."

From there, the rest of 21 began to come together - rootsier and bluesier than its predecessor, with songs such as Rolling in the Deep inspired by the gospel and country records she heard blasting from the tourbus as it made its way around the US. She also hooked up with a new collaborator in the shape of Rick Rubin - co-president of Adkins's US record company, Columbia, and producer for many of her favourite artists, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash. Their first meeting is captured for posterity. "It was in 2008, when I did Saturday Night Live," says Adkins. "The atmosphere was electric - Sarah Palin was in the studio, and I was so nervous about the performance because it's totally live; there's no five-second delay. I couldn't see his face, but I could just see that famous bob in the crowd - the same one you see in all the documentaries. You can't see it in my face, but you can see it in my eyes," she cackles.

Adkins dreamed of working with Rubin - "but you don't ask him, he asks you". Then, after her double Grammy haul, he called, and suggested they decamp to Malibu for a recording session. Adkins says she found the island "isolating", but there they set down four songs for the album, including one of the highlights, a sparse cover of The Cure's Love Song. "My mum is the biggest Cure fan. I get so homesick - I was really missing her, and was feeling quite emotionally torn apart from singing these songs. I was paranoid my voice was drying up. But they put me in the booth, recorded me all in one take, and it's the most stunning recording I've ever heard."

Ask her to pick her favourite song on the album, though, and she selects the closer, a heart-rending piano ballad called Someone Like You. Surprisingly mature for one still of tender years, it captures a complex, bittersweet emotion: Adkins's old boyfriend has a new girlfriend, while she is still alone - but in spite of it all, she is happy for them. "It's like stubbornly accepting that it's never going to happen," she says. "And being disappointed in myself, and in him, that we couldn't make it work."

But the real wrench is in the title - that she's not looking for someone new, but "someone like you".

"That's my biggest flaw," she nods. "My grandpa was the most amazing figure in my life, and I often look for the traits I love about him in other people. I know that I'm going to be like that with my next boyfriend, always comparing him to my ex - like, why can't you be more like him?" She laughs, at herself. "I know! I'm awful. It's totally unfair!"