In the space of two years, London singer Adele went from being a buzzy singer-songwriter on a small indie label to a globally-recognized vocalist, netting a Grammy for Best New Artist and sharing a stage with Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis at the 2008 revival of VH1's Divas Live series. And though Adele could be considered, in the loosest possible way, a diva, there is something more direct and honest and cutting about her music. The lyrics on 19 felt like diary entries, short stories delivered with maximum emotion.
As its title implies, 21 is a more adult record than its predecessor. Focused on the disintegration of what Adele describes as, "my first grown-up, totally consumed, all-or-nothing" relationship, the record moves from the dark, stormy "Rolling in the Deep" to the wrenching resignation of "Someone Like You," where she encounters her boyfriend years down the line and attempts to put on a brave face. Sonically she stretches as well, working with a small battery of producers (among them Rick Rubin, Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth) to create songs that nod at everything from gospel to blues to good old fashioned torch songs. It's a brave, raw, emotional record — one that deepens and expands all of the best aspects of its predecessor.
eMusic's J. Edward Keyes caught up with Adele during her whirlwind promotional campaign leading up to 21's release to get the stories behind 21's songs of heartache.
On finding out her life had changed overnight:
When I got SNL, this American institution — to be given the opportunity to be a musical guest on that, I was like "Whoa!" And then that particular episode also had Alec Baldwin and Sarah Palin and Tina Fey — it ended up being massive. I could feel it, it was so electric. I was like "If I manage to do this well, I could really catapult my career here!" I flew home straight after, and by the time I landed, my album was #1 on iTunes.
On following up an international chart-topper:
Before I started writing for the record, the prospect of trying to follow up 19 was really daunting, and I was really concerned about what I was going to write about. It's pretty surreal thing to do — to be a singer and be successful. I was worried that I wasn't going to have anything to write about. But, then, I also hadn't yet met my now ex-boyfriend — who I ended up writing the entire record about.
I think that this record is much more relatable than even my first. Sometimes I try not to write about myself as much, or as in-depth as I do, but then I thought, "Eh, why not?" If it makes me a better writer, why avoid it. I don't talk to my exes — which is why they're exes — but I'd imagine he's heard some of the songs by now. It's a bit unavoidable in the UK.
On the virtues of collaboration:
The first record, about 85-90 percent of it I wrote on my own, and it was very stripped back and acoustic. In terms of musicianship I'm personally very limited, because I haven't developed too much past where I was on my first record. I'm limited in terms of production, too — I know what I want, but I can't make the computer do it! So I find that working with different producers brings out different sides of me, and enables me to do lots of different things. Paul Epworth, who I did "Rolling in the Deep" with, he makes me so feisty. He really eggs me on and makes me get angry. Where Dan Wilson just makes me into an emotional wreck. I can be very throwaway with my material — if I haven't finished it within an hour, I throw it away. When I work with other people, they tend to catch it and make me fix it and rework it. It can be lonely writing a record on your own! At least you get to hang out with people when you collaborate.
"Rolling in the Deep"
I think this song represents me more than any other song that I've every written. I think a lot of people think I'm very serious and very somber and overthink everything. And I'm not — I'm very much a 21-, 22-year-old girl — I'm very sarcastic and very cheeky. And loud! I'm very boisterous. When I met lots of fans, they're always like "I can't link you with the person on 19." So I felt it was important to have more songs on this record that were more representative of me as a person. It's also a perfect way to sum up the record, this song: I'm not a doormat anymore, which is how I was on 19. I think "Rolling in the Deep" is like, "Oh my God, she's not messing around anymore — she's angry!" The phrase "rolling in the deep" is a bit of British slang — it means having someone who always has your back, so no matter what situation you're in, you're going to be safe. It's like "roll deep." So that's what I meant by that — "We could have had it all, rolling in the deep." But there's some water imagery in there too — the night before I finished the song I watched The Perfect Storm — you know, with George Clooney and Marky Mark? And you know the end, where Marky Mark floats up to the top of the sea, and he's going to die and he's just sitting there talking? It's very weird, but I found comfort, that idea — being in the middle of the ocean and almost having it all, but you're gonna die anyway.
"Rumor Has It"
That song is literally about rumors. People, especially in England, think it's about tabloids — it's not. It's about — I met up with my girlfriends for lunch and they were like, "Oh, we heard you were dating so and so," and I was like, "Who? I've never even heard of that person." To have to set the record straight with my own friends was a bit mortifying. It was like, one minute I'm supposedly doing this, the next minute I'm supposedly doing that — it's complete sarcasm. With this song, I was so hungover when we recorded it — it was the day after the Grammys — so I couldn't really sing, and I certainly couldn't sing anything that went up high. So I was like, "Can we do something that's a bit moody, but isn't a ballad?" So we had a blank canvas and we were just throwing things at it. I think I also wanted to write a song with Ryan that didn't sound like a song that he or I would write — it was a bit of a conniving thing. I wasn't even mentally present for that writing session because I was so hungover, but it's turned out to be one of my favorite songs on the record.
"One and Only"
This is about someone who, whenever something goes wrong, I always go back to. He's someone who, the minute we actually get together, it's going to be forever. And that petrifies me. The idea was that I'm daring him, but I'm daring me as well, because I know I'm not ready to settle down yet. I'm definitely gonna end up with him, I just know it, but do I really want to settle down at 22? How boring is that? I'd be an old spinster as well. How awful! [laughs].
"Someone Like You"
With this relationship, since it was my first grown-up, totally consumed, all-or-nothing, I'm-gonna-die-if-I'm-not-with-him relationship, letting go was the hardest thing I had to do. I had to write a song where I was admitting how upset I was. In most of the other songs, I'm being a bitch: "I'm gonna be fine, your life's gonna suck." For this one, I thought "I need to tell myself how hard it's been, and how hard it may always be." When I wrote it, I was fine, but as soon as I finished it, I cried my eyes out. I wasn't as bitter and uptight and philosophical as I had been. Writing songs is the only way I can tell myself stuff. I'm not honest with myself and I don't tell other people what's wrong with me. The only way I know how to do it is to write songs.
"He Won't Go"
The first verse was about me and my ex, but I couldn't finish it. Then I met a few friends who are a couple, and they were like my only normal friends at the time who I didn't already know forever and who didn't work with me or work in the industry. They were really like my saviors. About three or four weeks after we'd been hanging out every day, I found out that he was about to go into rehab for heroin addiction. And I'd had no idea. There was a drug overdose death in my family when I was young, and I always thought a drug addict was a really scabby person from a really bad background. And here's this guy, the nicest guy, my friend… The song is about how love conquers all — she defied her family, she became a shadow of herself while she was in rehab. And when he came out — I've never been so moved by anything in my life.