It was April 2010, in an American recording studio, and Adele was telling me about the making of her new album, and of her fears. “I’m quite anal about this record,” the British singer said of the follow-up to her 2008 debut, 19. “It’s my second one, and I want it to do well – I don’t want people to think I’m a one-hit wonder…”
She needn’t have worried. It’s less than two years on, but Adele is Queen of the Brits. Even in the highly unlikely event that, at this week’s ceremony, she doesn’t win any of the three awards for which she’s nominated, her performance is the most anticipated and the global success of her second album, the unstoppable 21, is the triumph story of British music in the past 12 months.
As well as dominating the UK sales charts, last year, 21 was the bestselling album in the US. So far it has sold a staggering 17 million copies. In a seven-day period at the end of January alone, it was bought by 160,000 people in America. At last week’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Adele was nominated in six categories (she won two in 2009).
In the UK and the US, long-standing chart records tumbled throughout 2011 as 21 and its singles (Someone like You, Rolling in the Deep, Set Fire to the Rain) hogged the number one slot week after week, often simultaneously and sometimes for a second or third run.
Forgive the sentiment – when you listen to 21, you can’t help but both collapse and soar in emotional reveries – but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more talented, less affected person. Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, now 23, has an eye-wateringly extraordinary voice but an ear-tinglingly ordinary outlook.
I first met her when she was promoting her debut album and then spent time with her while she was recording 21. Reading back over the transcripts of our interviews, I’m reminded that megastars don’t come any more real, or any funnier.
On recording a BBC session with Paul Weller in December 2008 (the first time I met her): “It’s nice to know there’s another musician that’s quite common. I’m not the only one!” On meeting David Letterman: “He’s really obsessed with smells, and he knew what perfume I was wearing – Miss Dior Cherie. That’s not pervy, that’s quite amazing.”
On singing on the now-legendary October 2008 edition of Saturday Night Live, which featured both Tina Fey doing her Sarah Palin impersonation and the then vice-presidential hopeful herself: “Obviously everyone got really excited. I didn’t. I think she’s a t**t.”
But the Alaskan politico’s appearance on that programme helped Adele: the show’s 17 million viewers (its best ratings since 1994) propelled 19 to the top of the iTunes chart the following day, a 500 per cent sales increase.
By our second meeting, in spring 2010, Adele’s profile in America was decent but by no means stellar. As she sat in the back garden of a Malibu hippy hideaway under blistering Californian sunshine, a fast freeway hour from LA and with the Pacific lapping onto the beach below, Adele was feeling far from home.
“It’s a little bit quiet for my liking,” sniffed the singer, born in Tottenham, north London, to a teenage mum (her biological father was “never in the picture”) and raised in West Norwood, south London. She was swaddled in her customary black clothes and puffing on a Marlboro Light. Taking in the semi-tropical foliage and the chirping birdlife, she admitted that she could see why everyone loves it.
“But I’d rather come and stay here when I’m 60 and have been working my arse off for 40 years. But it’s good,” she added with a wicked grin, “’cause if I was in Santa Monica or Hollywood I’d be drunk every night and then wouldn’t really pay attention in the studio.”
The “studio” was Shangri-La, designed and built for Bob Dylan and the Band nearly two decades before Adele was born. Dylan’s old tour-bus, a silver 70s dream-machine, sits at the back of the garden, its interior now given over to a music-editing suite. She had been there for two weeks working on the follow-up to 19 (named after her age when she started recording it).
Having signed a record deal shortly after leaving the Brit School in 2006, her second release, Chasing Pavements, went to number two in the singles charts in January 2008. She won the inaugural Critics’ Choice gong at the Brit Awards the same year; by June 2009, 19 had sold over two million copies.
Two weeks into the recording process, Adele had worked on 16 songs that told “a story, about meeting the love of your life and being perfect for each other, but not at that moment in time”. Among the ones that she thought were keepers were a ballad called Take It All, a “proper blues” number called Rumour Has It and the “bluesy disco” of Rolling in the Deep.
There was also a “really great” ballad she’d written with American hit-maker Ryan Tedder, but Adele thought that “we should give it to Leona Lewis. Bleeding Love is one of my favourite songs ever.”
I asked her if she had a name for the album at that stage. Under that fierce sun, paler-than-pale Adele screwed up her face. She was tempted to call it 21.
“I do think 21 is a very relevant age, much more so than 19. It’s a proper adult age. I feel like I’ve become a fully fledged adult turning 21, with all the things that have happened in my career and my personal life.” She shrugged, stubbing out her ciggie, “Although I’m quite bored of that age thing already.”
The rest, as they say, is her story. Released in January 2011, Adele’s second album – which she did end up calling 21 – became the defining sound of last year. Thankfully, her big-hearted generosity stopped short of gifting Leona Lewis that song – it was Turning Tables, a peach of a piano ballad on an album that crackles with emotion and radio-melting tunes.
Brit Awards 2011
It was at last year’s Brit Awards that 21’s world-beating ride really began. Her spellbinding performance of Someone like You rocket-powered sales on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I honestly believe,” says James Corden, host of last year’s Brits, “that in that performance not only did her career change a little bit, but more than that, I think the Brits changed a little bit. Because it went from this drunken bun fight in a barn to something else. You could have heard a pin drop afterwards, then it broke into this rapturous applause, and everyone was on their feet, and it was amazing. And you think, that’s what the Brits are: the night should be a celebration of the best that British music has.”
But despite her success, Adele isn’t rushing back to the studio. For one thing, she’s been “silent” for the past three months after throat surgery to remove a benign polyp and when last asked about a follow-up she said, “I’m really looking forward to some time to do nothing. I imagine I’ll be 25 or 26 by the time my next record comes out, as I haven’t even thought about my third record yet.”
For another, she has a new boyfriend and is seemingly in love again and happiness, unlike heartache, isn’t as inspiring. Not that the heartache caused by the demise of that 18-month love (“the most important relationship I’ve ever had,” she confided in Malibu) was the only inspiration behind 21.
“I tell you what else I did to help me start writing songs,” Adele admitted in the studio at the beginning of her incredible journey to success and fame. “I got a dog. I got a dog so I wouldn’t be lonely and just going waaaah, wailing, then passing out!” she laughed.
She promptly whipped out her iPhone to show me a photograph of said pooch. It was a dachshund, and it was wearing a headscarf, “like someone from Corrie!” she guffawed.
His original name was Aaron Lennon, after the Tottenham Hotspur winger. But “Aaron!” she felt, was too harsh a name to shout in a busy city park. So she renamed him Louis Armstrong. “He’s got wrinkly paws and Louis had very lined fingers.”
So this crinkly hound was her muse for 21? “Totally,” beamed Adele.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 14 February 2012.