Although "soul music" originated in the United States, over the past decade, the genre has failed to make much headway in mainstream radio outlets. How ironic, then, that one of America's greatest previous exports is now being imported by a small cadre of young British chanteuses. Of these women, Adele is the most promising.
The British press has hailed Adele as the "new Amy Winehouse." And while remarkably flattering, such an edict can be distracting, because Adele's music stands well on its own. As a matter of fact, the proof is in the pudding: her debut album, 19, opened at the top of the UK Albums Chart — attaining platinum sales status — and she became the first recipient of the BRIT Awards Critics' Choice honor.
As part of an international surge reminiscent of previous British invasions, Adele made her American debut on June 10, 2008. Upon review of 19, Adele managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview reflecting on life, Etta James and "heartbroken soul."
Perez Hilton and Kanye West have been very vocal in their love of your music. Is there a particular endorsement that surprised you?
Kanye West was huge for me. I adore him. I think it was in an interview in the UK when I found out, right at the height of the album coming out in England. This guy just told me. I didn't believe him. I thought he was trying to get me all excited by it and then turn around and go "No, I'm only joking. He doesn't really." But Kanye West is like an absolute superstar, and it doesn't serve him at all by picking me out as a random white girl from England. So yeah, that was amazing. And Beyoncé, as well, because I've been a fan of hers since I was 11. It's amazing when anyone goes out of their way to support you when they get nothing out of it. It's always unexpected when people do that.
In December 2007, you were announced to become the first recipient of the Critics' Choice prize, a BRIT Award given to promising, up-and-coming talent. How does it feel to be the cover girl for that?
When I found out I won it, I was confused because I didn't know about the new BRIT Award. I'm always up-to-date on the awards and I had no idea about it. At that time, I hadn't done anything. I hadn't even released my first single. I felt a little bit cheated winning an award before anything – winning an award on expectation rather than having a great year and then being awarded for having such a good year. But when the album came out, I didn't think it'd go to #1. And when it got to #1, by the time I was picking up the award and had such an amazing four months – it felt all right to win it. It felt good and I was a little less embarrassed.
2008 has been a very busy year for you, and success has bombarded you these past couple of months. You have won a lot of awards, and now you're back in America touring. How have you coped with all of the attention?
Everything is happening so fast that I haven't really had the chance to absorb anything. I take one day at a time, really. I think it'd be a bit silly if I get carried away because of everything that's happened. I'm enjoying it. Sometimes it's a bit difficult, but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else at all.
A lot of singers feel that they need to have a glamorous look when they make their American debut. You, on the other hand, have a down-to-earth vibe, which resists subscription to pre-defined molds. What industrial pressures have you faced along the way?
I didn't make music to become a sex symbol. I make music to inspire people and make a good record and be part of the music industry. To me, the image isn't part of music. Music is in your ears, not on your eyes. So, no, I never felt pressured. I knew people would ask me – especially here with the whole Hollywood thing – if I felt pressure to lose weight. I don't think it is important. I think it used to be more important, and I think there are aspects of it now where people will talk about what you look like, not what you're doing. I made a record. I don't want to be on the front cover of Playboy. I want to be on the front cover of Rolling Stone with my clothes on.
You have often described your music as "heartbroken soul." What's the spin on that?
19 is a breakup record. It's more pop than anything – more popular in commercial than contemporary – but the album is actually from my soul. It took a lot from me to write the album. Instead of going off and asking people to write songs for me, I kind of put my head down and tried my hardest to admit things to myself and to put it into songs. It's a heartbroken soul – it's a breakup record from the very bottom of my soul, as cheesy as that sounds.
When writing your songs, is there a particular process you undertake?
It varies. Sometimes I force myself and wake up and say "Today, I'm going to write songs." That never happens. If I try and make myself, nothing ever comes. Sometimes I come up with the melody first, or a lyric or a phrase or a chord. But it's usually at, like, 4:00 in the morning when I get up to use the toilet or get a glass of water that an idea comes and I have to sit down to pursue it.
Since a lot of your songs are about heartache and pain and your reaction to them. What particular song do you find hard to sing live, one that brings back a lot of emotion?
"Melt My Heart To Stone." I wrote that song straight off a breakup with this boy who the album's about. I still find that difficult to sing sometimes.
The first single off of 19 was "Chasing Pavements." What life events served as inspiration for the lyrics?
I had a fight in a club with the boy the album's about, and then I ran off down the street. It was really late – it was 6 in the morning. There was no one chasing me and I wasn't chasing anyone. I was just running away. I remember saying to myself, "What you're chasing is you're chasing an empty pavement." It's a metaphor. It's impossible to chase a pavement but I was chasing that pavement.
Do you find it challenging as a young artist to come in writing your own material instead of having others write it for you?
No. I really enjoyed writing those songs. It's important that I have a connection with my songs. I don't have a connection with other people's songs because it's not about me or my battle. I think you get a little respect for writing your own records. Usually, you come out with a debut that someone else has written and then you don't start writing your own tunes until your third or fourth album. I find it quite easy coming out and having written my own songs, rather than challenging.
When you attended school in Tottenham, you were the only white kid in your class. How did that experience shape your musical taste?
When I was growing up, I had a huge family and they're all music lovers – but not the top ten and stuff. We didn't know anything but popular music. I'm a huge fan of pop. Through my friend's mum is how I found out about Mary J. Blige, and the Fugees, and stuff like that. I guess without that, I probably wouldn't be into R&B that wasn't only in the charts.
You have a very distinct sound. How would you describe it?
I'll probably describe it as like an old soul voice – like an old person's voice in a young folk. It's the artists that I love. I love Etta James and I love Roberta Flack and Ella Fitzgerald. I adore them so much, that it's kind of in me now, in my voice. I taught myself how to sing by listening to them.
What is it about Etta that you love?
I believe her. There's no other artist or band that I believe as much as I do Etta James. She makes me feel like she's singing to me when I'm listening to her records. I hold my breath whenever I hear her. I think she's mind-blowing and she convinces me. I think it's really rare to be able to make one person feel like they're the one you're singing to. There's no other artist that I've ever heard that makes you feel like that.
Have any of your fans expressed that same connection with you? All the songs from your album you've written from your own personal experiences. Has anyone come up to you and expressed, "I've gone through that – thank you for it."?
One of the best things about being able to play live to people is you always go to meet them after the show, have a cigarette outside. When I was making my album, I wasn't thinking about the fact that people are going to hear it. It was just to get the boy off my chest and out of my head. To help me get over something and be able to help other people is the best thing ever.
Do you ever feel pressured by the "role model" label?
Sometimes. People come up to me and say they're so pleased that their daughters like me. But it's a bit worrying being a role model as well. There's really no pressure with it. I'm very myself all the time – kind of what you see is what you get.
You, along with Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and a host of others, are alumni of the BRIT School in Croydon. Why do think that school is able to produce so many stars?
The BRIT School is the best environment that nurtures you. My talent wouldn't have been nurtured if I hadn't gone there. It's just a great place to grow into your own. It's a complete coincidence that all of us have come out from the same school and done as well as we have. When I was there, there was absolutely no spotlight on the school. I think it was complete coincidence, but it's such a great place to be yourself and grow into your own.
As you continue to grow into your own, what lessons have you learned along the way?
When at home and with your friends and in the BRIT School – you're surrounded. You're a huge fish in a small pond, whereas when you leave and go out from your comfort, you're a goldfish in an ocean. That's the thing I learned. You need to know what you want to do. Up until I was 16, I was just singing Destiny's Child songs, hoping I'd be a singer. You have to know what you want to be and who you want to be and what you want to do. I didn't know that till I was about 18.
As a British artist, what do you find to be the biggest difference when marketing yourself to an American audience?
Well, obviously the US is a lot bigger and there is a little more work involved. There's politics: if you do one thing, you can't do another thing; you don't do this and you won't get that. That stuff doesn't exist in the UK. I guess because there are so many different kinds of markets in the US, you need to define your niche. I think that's probably it. You need to kind of have your own niche, whereas in the UK you can easily fit into any kind of niche.
With that in mind, what is your take on the third "British Invasion"? What hypnotic qualities do British women posses?
I think we've always done so well in the UK, that the US is interested. There are 5 or 6 of us, and we're all doing equally as well as each other – which I think was quite unexpected. We've all done stuff on our own and I think people are interested in that. I'm very proud to be a part of it. I'm very pleased to be riding the wave.
For more information on Adele, visit her official website.