At the 2008 Mercury Prize, given each year for the best British album, I met a young woman from Tottenham, north London, who changed my summer drinking habits for ever. A fledgeling UK pop R&B singer, her debut album had been shortlisted and, though she hadn’t won, she was throwing herself into the party with gusto. When I met her backstage, she clutched a cheap and cheerful cocktail, which, apparently, was big with Basque teenagers, who often mixed it at the beach in a plastic bag.
“It’s called a kalimotxo,” she told me gleefully. “A mixture of Coca-Cola and cheap red wine. It sounds disgusting but it’s great. Here, try some.” She was right. I loved it. Nowadays, you’ll always find me in the kitchen mixing a kalimotxo at parties. In much the same way as her drink was equal parts Coke and plonk, the young woman concerned struck me as fizzy sweetness mixed with something darker and richer. Moreover, the world was soon to be drunk on her.
I doubt if Adele Adkins (who sings and chats with Graham Norton on BBC1 tonight) will be mixing me another kalimotxo any time soon, now that she’s the world’s biggest pop star. It’s possible that some may disagree with this – Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Bono or Madonna – but the facts would seem to spell it out.
Her second album 21 (named for her age at recording, as was debut 19) has sold in excess of 30 million copies and topped the charts in more than 30 countries. It’s the biggest-selling British album of the 21st century, and is now shoulder to shoulder with the colossal rock and pop albums of an earlier era; Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, Sgt Pepper, of which only the Beatles’ album has sold more.
The tipping point in Adele’s journey from chirpy stage-schooler to global phenomenon was her appearance at the Brits in 2011. With minimal piano accompaniment she delivered a charged performance of Someone like You that brought the 02 Arena audience to their feet. The next day the song leapt 48 places to the top of the chart. Her performance that night embodied much of her appeal, got somehow to the core of what people see in her; vulnerability, defiance, a sense that here’s a girl living the same life and having the same feelings. She is proud of the fact that she looks, in her words, “like a real woman”.
That breakthrough moment now feels quite some time ago, however. Eighteen months ago, she teased an album titled 25 for later in 2014. That year came and went, along with stories that contributions had been solicited from, among others, Phil Collins and Damon Albarn. The latter said: “Adele asked me to work with her and I took the time out for her… I don’t know what is happening really. Will she use any of the stuff? I don’t think so. Let’s wait and see. The thing is, she’s very insecure. And she doesn’t need to be, she’s still so young.”
She replied testily: “It ended up being one of those ‘don’t meet your idol’ moments. It was sad and I regret hanging out with him. I’m the least insecure person I know.”
Maybe not insecure, but she retains a sense of unease about her chosen career – she calls it a hobby rather than “my life”. In a new interview with Rolling Stone she says: “People think I hate being famous. And I don’t. I’m really frightened of it. I think it’s really toxic and I think it’s really easy to be dragged into it.” She adds later, in reference to the success of her album 21: “I felt like I’d lost control of my life at one point. The bigger that your career gets, the smaller your life gets.”
Today she appears content in that life. She has what she describes as a “very serious relationship” with investment-banker-turned-philanthropist Simon Konecki (below), who’s the father of her three-year-old son, Angelo.
But there’s a lot riding on the new Adele album – and not just for Adele. The music business has been characterised these past few decades by a woeful lack of agility when embracing the new This, remember, is a business that initially responded to new technology like MP3s and the internet by trying to put its best customers in jail, hounding music-mad youngsters and threatening them with the law for illegal downloading. Had they put a tenth of this effort into developing legal download services like iTunes (which, of course, came from the computer sector), they might have saved a lot of money and jobs, some of them their own.
Adele with partner Simon Konecki
Because of this short-sightedness, and some bad luck, the business model of the music industry collapsed almost overnight at the turn of the last century. Al Doyle of Hot Chip said in a recent Radio 4 documentary that ten years into a career laden with hits and with a global fan base, he’s struggling to buy a one-bedroom flat in London. Had they formed just three or four years earlier, he’d have been “talking to you now from a golden bed”.
Most musicians are struggling now to get by, or at least to enjoy anything like the comfort even a second-tier 70s pop star would have had. The whole UK music business economy is now kept afloat by live shows and the occasional and increasingly rare high-profile release by a global brand; a Coldplay, an Ed Sheeran maybe, a Radiohead and, more than anything else, an Adele. The new Adele album is not just Christmas come early for the industry. It’s the next three Christmasses as well.
As I mentioned in my RT column last week, I watched Burt Bacharach at Glastonbury from a VIP area. Only afterwards I learnt that the young woman next to me who reminded me so much of Adele was, in fact, Adele. It was a fitting place for her to be. Adele is a star in the old showbiz tradition of Dame Shirley, Cilla and Aretha, an ordinary girl from an ordinary background with an extraordinary talent, a gift that has taken her into the world of Bond themes and Bacharach but who has remained, it seems, “someone like you”.